EDITOR’S NOTE: This week, Mike Prada of SB Nation is doing a big breakdown of the best teams in NBA history to never win a title. Today, he reveals “the flameout region” of his bracket, which includes the 1976-77 Los Angeles Lakers, who were swept in the Western Conference Finals by the Portland Trail Blazers.
Even for a franchise that defines itself by how many championship banners it has hung in the rafters, there should be no shame in simply losing to a better team. That’s exactly what happened to the 1976-77 Lakers, who lost to a team of destiny in the Portland Trail Blazers, who — led by Bill Walton, healthy and at the peak of his powers — won their first and only championship in franchise history that season.
But these Lakers were supposed to be better than a lost-to-history also-ran. Even though Magic Johnson wouldn’t join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to create “Showtime” until three seasons later, this team was still 53-29, the best record in the league. Abdul-Jabbar won MVP that season and helped the Lakers to the fifth-best offense and 10th-best defense in the league that year. Under first-year head coach Jerry West, the Lakers looked like they’d have a chance at at their first title since West played for the team.
Still, despite all those accomplishments, there were signs that this wasn’t the Lakers team meant to go all the way. That they might, as Prada’s bracket describes, “flame out.” For one thing, outside of their worse record, the Blazers had better offensive and defensive efficiency against a tougher schedule than the Lakers played and were overall just playing incredible basketball around their second-year star big man.
The Lakers also — outside of Abdul-Jabbar — didn’t exactly boast a ton of household names that history remembers fondly. Lucius Allen and Cazzie Russell were their two next-best scorers after Kareem, and while I acknowledge that as someone born in 1991 I may be underrating this roster, after some research I really think it’s more of a testament to Abdul-Jabbar’s greatness that they were as good as they were.
The signs that this Lakers team might have been a bit of forum blue and fool’s gold continued in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs (the Lakers had a bye in the first because of their league-best record), when Abdul-Jabbar needed to average nearly 40 points and 20 rebounds per game just to get the Lakers past the Golden State Warriors in an unexpectedly difficult seven-game series.
Maybe fatigue from that series played a part in how things would ultimately go, because the Lakers ran directly into a buzzsaw in the next round. It wasn’t that the Blazers walloped the Lakers. They didn’t, only winning the first game of the series by more than single digits. After that, the Lakers were right there in each one, losing by 2, 5, and 4 points in the next three games, respectively.
But a sweep doesn’t happen to a team that is nearly evenly matched, and without Abdul-Jabbar able to keep up his level from the prior series against Walton and the Blazers’ frontcourt — averaging “just” 30.3 points and 16 rebounds over the four games — the Lakers fell short.
Unlike Walton, Abdul-Jabbar didn’t get help from his teammates when it mattered most, either because they weren’t as good, or he couldn’t elevate them in the same way. The Lakers’ next leading scorer after Abdul-Jabbar that series was Russell, who averaged 16 for the sweep. Meanwhile, Walton and teammate Lionel Hollins each dished 5.8 assists per game, and Walton (19.3 points per game) was third on the well-balanced Blazers in scoring in the series behind Hollins (21.8) and the late Maurice Lucas (23).
The Lakers were a one-man show all season, and it was a great one, but Walton had an ensemble. In the end, it was a recipe for a Lakers flameout.
Los Angeles wouldn’t win a title until Johnson showed up three seasons later, and this was the season they blew Abdul-Jabbar’s best chance to win one on his own. It was the best record any of his Lakers teams had pre-Magic, and the furthest any of those teams went.
Interestingly enough, the team that beat this Lakers roster ultimately ended up having plenty of fingerprints on the franchise’s future. Walton’s son and Lucas’ namesake, Luke Walton, would go on to play for and coach the team. Hollins is now one of their top assistant coaches.
Those Lakers, meanwhile, are mostly lost to history and anonymity in the team’s already stuffed lore. Abdul-Jabbar is remembered, but much more for the Showtime teams that actually won. The rest of his teammates from this season aren’t really talked about. For a franchise that has always solely defined itself by winning, this is strangely fitting, even if in this case it’s the other side writing the definitions.