Years Active: 1965 – 1976
Career Stats: 804 games, 30.6 MPG
16.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.8 APG, 46.3% FG, 81.4% FT
Playoff Stats: 83 games, 27.2 MPG
13.1 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.1 APG, 44.9% FG, 75.1% FT
Accolades: 3x All-Star (1969 – ’71), NBA Champion (1975)
Jeff Mullins reminds me of a cat. His moves on the basketball floor, if transferred to written words, would be classified as poetry. He is never bad. Only good and better.
One of the finest college players in the country while at Duke and a member of the 1964 Olympic team, the 6’4″ Jeff Mullins was perhaps the most coveted guard entering the ’64 draft. The St. Louis Hawks pounced on him with the 5th pick, ahead of such luminaries as Willis Reed, Wali Jones, Jerry Sloan, and Mel Counts.
However, that lofty draft position belied the Hawks’ ultimate utilization of Mullins. The team was bursting with veterans and player-coach Richie Guerin elected to let Jeff ride the pine. He played a grand total of 88 games during two seasons with Saint Louis while scoring just 5.3 points in 12 minutes per game. Frustrated with his lack of playing time, Mullins informed owner Ben Kerner of his intention to quit if not allowed to play more.
Fortunately, it never came to that. With the expansion Chicago Bulls joining the league for the 1966-67 season, Mullins was left unprotected in the expansion draft by the Hawks. Chicago plucked the swingman, but then sent him packing west to the San Francisco Warriors in a trade for outstanding point guard Guy Rodgers. The Hawks would come to rue their handling of Mullins.
Arriving in San Francisco, Mullins was finally given a legitimate opportunity to showcase his skills, albeit as a 6th man. Laden with talent (Nate Thurmond, Rick Barry, Tom Meschery, Al Attles), new Warriors coach Bill Sharman relished a fast-paced team that was predicated on wiping the boards clean and instantly chugging the other way for easy baskets. Thurmond handled the rebounds (21 per game) as 7 Warriors finished the season averaging double figures in scoring, including Rick Barry’s astounding 35.6.
Mullins, as the first man off the bench, averaged 13 points and 5 rebounds in his first season with the Warriors and was obviously thrilled with the change of scenario and role:
St. Louis was more a pattern ball club and I can’t handle the ball that well. I’m better on a fast break where I can gamble more and don’t have the smaller guards hounding me.
[The Warriors'] style was more suited to me. Coach Bill Sharman taught me to move without the ball to get open for shots. I’m not required to be an all-around guard. I’ve gotten to the point where I like to come off the bench. I go in now with a purpose and know what I’m doing. I’m supposed to give the club a lift, heat things up.
Jeff was right about heating things up. In the opening round of the playoffs, the Warriors swept the Los Angeles Lakers and then defeated the St. Louis Hawks in a 7-game throwdown in the Western Division Finals. The Game 7 in Saint Louis was marred by egg throwing fans, but Barry went off for 41 points and Mullins sank a clutch shot to tie the game at 98-98 and then hit all 6 of his free throws down the stretch to help secure a 112 -107 win.
Although the Warriors would lose to the juggernaut 68-win Sixers in the finals (including blowing a 12-point lead late in the 3rd quarter of the 6th and final game), the future looked bright. The nucleus of Thurmond, Barry and Mullins were all 25 years old or younger. However, it wouldn’t be until 1975 that Mullins returned to the finals.
Rick Barry bolted for the ABA’s Oakland Oaks to play for his father-in-law, coach Bruce Hale. A byzantine legal battle too long to detail here erupted between the two leagues and Barry. The bottom line: his departure opened up a revolving door of attempted 3rd wheels to pair with Mullins and Thurmond, including Cazzie Russell, Jerry Lucas and Rudy LaRusso. All excellent players, but none of them truly meshed on the Warriors.
Individually, Mullins blossomed in Barry’s absence becoming the team’s go-to scorer. For the next 7 seasons, Mullins would average at least 16 PPG, including a 4-year streak of 20+ PPG. Mullins got to these averages with a dazzling array of quirky off-balance and lean-in shots. His playmaking even improved as he became more of an all-around player. During this same 7-season stretch, Mullins averaged at least 4 assists per game, peaking at 5.9 in 1972.
During the Barry interregnum, the Warriors made the playoffs all but one of the 5 seasons, but were always eventually bounced by the West-Chamberlain-Baylor Lakers or the Kareem-Oscar-Dandridge Bucks. Mullins’s finest postseason came in 1968 when he averaged 25 points on a blistering 52% shooting to go with 4.5 rebounds and 5 assists. In particular, the annihilation of his erstwhile team, the Hawks, was astonishing:
Mullins scored 35 poins Friday night including a banked jump shot with six seconds left to give San Francisco a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series with the Hawks on a 108-107 triumph…
[Mullins] has now scored 130 points in the four playoff games against his former teammates for an average of 32.5 points a game.
In 1973, Barry finally rejoined the Warriors and the team finally won its first series since Mullins’ demolition derby of the Hawks in ’68 by knocking off the Bucks in 6 games, but then fell to the Lakers in 5 games in the conference finals. Despite a 44-38 record the Warriors missed out on the playoffs in 1974, but came back strong in 1975.
Although Thurmond had been traded to Chicago that offseason, the Warriors still packed a punch with the likes of Jamaal Wilkes, Charles Johnson, Butch Beard and Clifford Ray. Outlasting the Bulls in a ferocious 7- game conference finals (winning the 7th game 83-79), the 48-win Warriors easily dispatched the 60-win Washington Bullets in a 4 game sweep to win the NBA title.
Mullins had come full circle during that championship season. Once again he took up residence as the team’s 6th man averaging 8 points in 17 minutes. Clearly he wasn’t as spry as he used to be and 1975 would be his last full season. Mullins only managed 23 games the next year before retiring.
Mullins’s career is a strange dichotomy of “what-if potential” and good fortune. It’s quite evident that he flourished playing alongside Rick Barry and one can only wonder how much resonance the careers of Thurmond, Barry and Mullins lost due to the ABA adventure. They easily could have challenged the pre-eminent West powers, Milwaukee and Los Angeles. Thurmond could have handled Wilt and Kareem, while Barry and Mullins would match up with West-Baylor (and later Goodrich) and Oscar-Dandridge. But that’s wishful thinking.
The reality is that Mullins was lucky to “toil” in San Francisco after being mothballed for two years in St. Louis. And in the end, he still strung together 3 straight all-star appearances and contributed to a championship team. He ranks 3rd in games played, 5th in minutes and assists, and 6th in points all-time for the Warriors.Â His career may not have attained all its possible highs, but in the end you can’t complain with how it turned out