Lakers Countdown: At #6…

J.M. Poulard —  August 23, 2012

As we continue to rank the Los Angeles Lakers title teams, we take a look today at not only a great unit that won a championship, but one that shall forever be immortalized throughout Lakers and NBA history as the team gave the path to one of the National Basketball Association’s most iconic figures: Magic Johnson.

Without further ado, clocking in the sixth spot in our countdown…

The 1979-80 Los Angeles Lakers

As the story goes, Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in the 1979 NCAA title game and it propelled him to an incredible NBA career in which he was great from day one.

The story is often recited as such but that isn’t an entirely accurate depiction of reality.

Indeed, Johnson joined the Los Angeles Lakers as a rookie in the 1979-80 season but he wasn’t seen as a savior or even as the team’s de facto point guard. Indeed, many wondered if he could actually play the position given his 6’9’’ frame and the requirements that went along with the position. In addition, the Lakers already had a great player in Norm Nixon playing the position for the team and he was more experienced at doing so in the professional ranks than the former Spartan.

Opposing coaches and general managers thought that Magic Johnson would be better suited to play forward and they weren’t entirely wrong given the star in the making’s gifts as a basketball player.

But the team instead chose to have him play in the backcourt with Norm Nixon with both players sharing point guard duties, although their relationship would often be tested during the course of the season as both players felt as though they could play the position best and thus did not require to share responsibilities. Mind you, by season’s end, they would realize that complemented each other perfectly.

Far be it for a team to face just one difficult situation in an 82-game campaign, the Lakers lost head coach Jack McKinney to a bicycle accident 14 games into the season. Assistant coach Paul Westhead was thus promoted to interim head coach and the task of directing the team fell square on his shoulders.

Westhead had two great ball handlers in Nixon and Johnson and thus favored the transition game much like McKinney but also deployed lineups in which Magic Johnson played at forward (small or power) given his rebounding prowess — he was the team’s second leading rebounder that season with 7.7 rebounds per game — and that allowed the Lakers to play Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper in the backcourt.

With Westhead pulling the strings, the Los Angeles Lakers finished the regular season with a 60-22 record. They sported the best offensive efficiency in the league during the 1979-80 season as well as the ninth best defensive efficiency.

Although the team was statistically dominant given their record and efficiency numbers, one could have expected them to flex their muscles a little more during the regular season.

At no point did the 1979-80 Lakers have a double-digit win streak during the course of the season, instead settling for multiple five and six-game winning streaks with their longest one of the season extending itself to seven games. Mind you, it’s worth pointing out that the two best teams in the Western Conference other than the Lakers were the Phoenix Suns and Seattle Supersonics, which happened to be divisional foes that the purple and gold played a combined 12 times in the regular season.

The Lakers finished with a plus-5.9 average scoring margin during the regular season and faced off against the two best teams in the conference in the playoffs.

In the first round, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Phoenix Suns in the first three games of the series by a combined 15 points. Perhaps sensing they had the series won, the top seed in the west was blown out in Game 4 by 26 points; and then came back to win Game 5 at home.

The following series would have the Lakers face off against the Seattle Supersonics, who would steal home court advantage with a narrow 108-107 victory in Game 1, thanks in large part to Fred Brown and Gus Williams combining for 62 points. Just when it looked as though the Lakers might be in trouble, they reeled off four games in a row to propel themselves to the NBA Finals with the Philadelphia 76ers (59-23) their opponent to be.

It would prove to be an exciting championship round as both teams split the first four games, setting up an all too important Game 5 at the Forum.

Game 5 would go back and forth as Philadelphia and Los Angeles would trade back the lead, but the Lakers would gain some sort of control on the contest in the third quarter but would lose Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to a left ankle injury. The team would stay afloat just long enough to buy the six-time league MVP time to come back early in the fourth quarter to close out the game with 14 points in the period to complete his 40-point masterpiece and give his unit a 3-2 series advantage.

The victory came at a huge price, as Abdul-Jabbar would not be able to travel to Philadelphia for Game 6. Instead it was suggested he remain at home and get rest and treatment with the hope that he would be able to suit up for Game 7.

As good as that plan sounded — having Kareem play in Game 7 was seen as the best case scenario since few expected the Lakers to actually win Game 6 — Magic Johnson had better ideas. The promising guard had already proved to many that he could play at a high level in the NBA with his playmaking and scoring, as evidenced by his 18 points per game, 7.7 rebounds per game and 7.3 assists per game on 53 percent field goal shooting that season; but few truly knew just how special he really was.

On May 14th, 1980, Magic Johnson started at center for the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the title round and submitted arguably the greatest performance in NBA Finals history. Johnson became a legend on that night by doing everything humanly possible on a basketball court. In fact, the only things Magic failed to accomplish was dance with the cheerleaders, provide color commentary and direct the halftime show. Other than that, Magic rebounded, scored, set up teammates, directed traffic, got out in transition and gave the team the boost it needed with its leading scorer injured.

Magic Johnson submitted 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals and helped the Lakers clinch the world title on this fateful night in Philadelphia. Jamaal Wilkes also poured in 37 points but the night belonged to the rookie, basically setting up the remainder of the decade for him.

His performance would earn him the NBA Finals MVP, although the award rightfully belonged to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The 1980 Lakers would close out the postseason with a 12-4 playoff record and a plus-4.3 average scoring margin in the playoffs. The sixth spot is perfect ranking for this team given its historical significance for both the league and the franchise but one could argue that the team was great but not legendary in terms of its accomplishments and what it did on the court.

Indeed, the story in itself is fantastic, but the team falls short of the top five.

Now the really good stuff is on its way…

J.M. Poulard

Posts

39 responses to Lakers Countdown: At #6…

  1. As I stated with the 2000 team, I think this group should be higher in that extra credit should be given for breaking a long drought and starting a new era. Game 6 is one of the best, if not “the best” individual performances of all time. The Laker-Sixer duals could be the peak of sheer talent in the NBA.

  2. Wow only #6? I can’t wait to see your top 5. This team was my #1.

  3. I loved watching Norm Nixon – I was about15 when we traded him, and I’d been patterning my jumper after his just-slightly-fallaway-suddenly-elevate-on-a-dime technique (well, _trying to_ in my own little white boy fashion anyway :-)

    This championship was also the fresh force of power after the dismal mid-late 70s Lakers – they had good records, but so many dispiriting holes. For example, I used to think it tragi-comic that our “power” forward was a punchless, non-rebounding blonde guy named…Don Ford (thus my nom-de-FB&G).

    Magic, Chones and the rest swept in a new power that obviously stuck around awhile…

  4. Wow, indeed! The image in that Game 6 of Magic jumping and getting the opening tip off is burned into my memory.

    I love all the really great writing in these FB&G summer series. This one has me on the edge of my seat just reading the recaps of those old teams. And Emile’s article the other day so funny and informative.

    Now let’s see about getting another ring!

  5. Hey Don (#3), Kermit wasn’t so punchless, just ask Rudy T…Poor soul, he got roughed up by the Lakes twice in his career.

  6. Poor Kermit, a good guy (and a then-promising PF talent), ruined by that punch. Yes, it was a bad thing and its results were horrible, no dispute there at all. But he was not known as a bad guy, was working hard on his game (Newell, Big Man Camps, etc.) and was showing some real rebounding/defense skills. The whole episode was just awful.
    (But I was talking about Don Ford, not Kermit.)

  7. Happy b-day Kobe!

  8. This squad also had to deal with the suspension of Spencer Haywood during The Finals.

    Didn’t seem to bother ‘em too much …

  9. I still remember the first game of that season, vs. the Knicks. Magic passed to Kareem for a game-winning sky hook at the buzzer. What a harbinger of things to come!

  10. What stood out to me most about that game 6 finale wasn’t the fact that we didn’t have ‘Cap'; nor was it Magic’s excellent play (and his phenomenal stat line). It was Jamaal Wilkes dropping, probably, the quietest 37 pts in the history of a close-out championship game. He scored so effortlessly. Whether finishing on the break or knocking down 1 of his unorthodox (to say the least) jumpers, he definitely lived up to his nickname because he was Smooth as ‘SILK’ …

  11. 10) Tra,
    IIRC, he also had 10+ rebounds in that game.

  12. Wilkes always had an understated game. This game seemed to epitomize his career being overlooked by a flashier performance.

    I’m sure Magic “danced” with some cheerleaders that night, we just didn’t see it.

    I would have loved to have seen this team run the triangle. It would have been beautiful half court execution.

  13. If you haven’t done so yet, do yourself a favor and go to Lakers.com and look at the thing of beauty known as our starting 5.
    Happy Birthday Kobe: You are only 34. You have at least 4 more years left for that 20 year career !

  14. exhelo

    That game was actually against the SD Clippers–I live in SD. Was a little tyke then but saw that game with my dad.

  15. @ 11, Ex:

    True indeed. So silent that even his boards in the clincher was overlooked by myself (and I’m sure plenty others).

  16. Interesting thing about Magic is that time has treated him much better than Larry Bird. Being a Laker fan i always thought he was better of the two, he just affected more aspects of the game. And if you ask most bball fans now who was the better player of the two, most would say Magic. However for most of the 80’s it was almost universally accepted in the “national” (northeast) press that bird was the better player.
    It wasn’t until the late 80’s that Magic finally started to get his due. So to me this is a vindication of what every laker fan already knew.

  17. Thanks for the great word reply of a fabulous season and playoffs Darious. My dad and i were in the top section at the Forum for one of the Seattle victories and it was awesome. Magic’s performance in Philly remains my alltime Laker memory. I remember shouting do you believe this to my dad, againa and again after the final buzzer.
    I miss the Fabulous Forum. Chick Hearn that year was also at the top of his game. Dr J was stunned that last game.

  18. Tra is right. Wilkes was lights out that night but we don’t remember it.

  19. I don’t believe that Hollinger ranked Magic’s series clinching, rookie, 42/15/7 performance behind Jordan’s flu game. Jordan was 37/7/7. Magic played every position on the floor..as a ROOKIE!

    Greatest performance in finals history.

  20. rr,
    Thanks for the correction; for some reason I always remembered it being the Knicks.

  21. Snowmass Dave,
    Just an FYI, I didn’t write this one. J.M. Poulard did.

  22. ARE YOU GUYS KIDDING ME?! I’m with Laker-Soldier (in his previous post from countdown #7) no way any Kobe championship team should be above Magic’s teams or the 1972 team. Damn it’s not even close.

  23. I was around for all the LA Laker championships. All the teams had drama and all the teams had issues. It is just that as they recede in our memory they start to go black or white and we forget the shades of color.

    The 80’s teams all have some differences among themselves and we now sort of lump them all together and paint them with a white brush. This white brush is not yet covering Kobe and Shaq because they are too recent. That is my criticism with trying to pick the greatest. To youngsters the 80’s is a myth and to oldsters it is a cherished memory. No way to compete with a cherished memory.

  24. Craig, great comment as usual.

    Looking at the list so far I think I can guess the top two. Number one has to be 1985. That was the year the Lakers finally beat the green midgets. The second spot has to go to 1972. It was the team’s first title in Los Angeles. Plus, it included the 33 game win streak and a then record 69-13 season mark.

  25. Lakers Soldier,

    The 2000-01 Lakers beat four 50 win teams on their way to the title. Their record in beating those teams was 15-1. That was absolute domination of some excellent basketball teams. The Blazers, Kings, and Spurs were all loaded with talent that year.

    I understand the tendency is to believe everything “older” is automatically better. But in reality that is not always the case. The 2001 Lakers (at least for the playoffs) were one the most fearsome teams in league history.

  26. All of the rankings are pretty subjective, so anyone claiming they’re absolutely correct should probably do well to remember that.

    Also, making multiple comments in a row to make a point isn’t necessary. If you read the commenting guidelines, we actually ask that you don’t. Thanks.

  27. Are you kidding me!!!! This is without a doubt the second best Laker title behind beating Boston at home. Wow!!!! Too many youngsters voting on the subject? Are we becoming Silver Screen and Roll?

  28. Jamal Wilkes 20 ft jumper was proclaimed by the great C Hearn a 20 ft layup. That’s how accurate Jamal Wilkes shot from that range.

    Magic sitting in the captain’s seat on the flight to Philadelphia then telling Jim Chones that he would jump center were actions that defined how confident Magic Earvin Johnson was in his game. He played the most awe inspiring game in the finals by a rookie to this date.

    This team’s championship will always be no. 1 to me predicated upon one…Magic.

  29. I gotta believe that #1 goes to the Shaq-Kobe Lakers that went 16-1 in the playoffs but we’ll see.

  30. Of course Magic was great. But why might some have thought him inferior to Bird?
    — couldn’t shoot: until later in his career (when he developed a set that was a true 3 pt threat), Magic wasn’t much of a shooter, and had no jumper to speak of.
    — weak D: good steals #s, but a partic great defender. (Nor was Bird admittedly)
    — not white(?): not my pet issue, but prossibly a factor … Along with the “E Coast Media Bias” thing
    — clutch shooting: Bird hit those “big shots”. Magic did later on in his career (plus ye ol’ famous gamewinning Baby Skyhook), but didn’t really hit big clutch shots – not his specialty.

  31. so, the ones left are

    85
    87
    72
    01
    88

    right?

  32. Ya, 01, baby!

  33. Hi guys,

    I asked this question in the comments to the D-Howard offense article, but never got any feedback. If anyone could help open my eyes, then I wouldn’t be surprised to find them on this site, so here goes:

    FT% is obviously a major ting, especially at the end of games. But I have never understood why you would fould someone to put him in a situation that results in a scoring percent above 50%. That is still a lot better than your average shot on FG-attempts.

    So unless you are in the clutch, and the opponent needs at least 2 points, then how can it be effective to “hold your opponent to a scoringpercent of 58.8%” (Howard’s career FT-average)?

    You are still racking up fouls that might send Kobe and Nash the line later, might prevent you own bigs from playing max-minutes, preventing your own team from running the break on a miss, and giving the opponent very solid production without breaking a sweat.

    Of course sending Bynum to the line is better than Howard, but it is still pretty nice to get Howard there…

    Please enlighten me

  34. We don’t remember Wilkes’s because of Magic’s play. Everyone’s eyes was fixated on Magic. Every rebound he snagged, assists he dishes, and drive to the basket whether to score or pass was so tantalizing.

    To think that he was just a rookie was unimaginable in a closeout game of a championship series.

  35. @ 39

    The reason you foul at the end of games – even though it puts that player in a scoring position – is because it eliminates the ability of the other team using up precious seconds on the clock that your team needs in order to score.

    Imagine this scenario:

    4th quarter, Lakers – 100, Blazers 95; 3:00 left (so that the other team can still intentionally foul the player without the ball) on the clock. Lakers Ball.

    The Blazers have essentially 2 options if they are still trying to win the game:

    (1) Immediately foul the Lakers worst FT shooter (Dwight), and rely on the probability that he makes about 1/2 FT’s . . . resulting in the Blazers being down 6 points with about 3:00 left on the clock.

    or

    (2) Play defense, trying to force a Laker turnover or miss, and losing a precious 24 seconds they could have on the offensive end to try and score again.

    (2) become the worst case scenario if the Lakers manage to score AND run down the clock, and as a result would put the Blazers down 3 possessions (a 2 point score puts them down 7, a 3 pointer – 8) with around 2:35 left in the game.

    [Side Note: (2) is also the best case scenario if the Lakers turn the ball over immediately, because they didn't score and it would be relatively easier for the Blazers to score off that turnover.]

    If the Blazers don’t get a stop or a turnover then (1) is the more preferable option: Dwight “likely” only hits 1 FT and there is still 3:00 left. Then the Blazers are in a much better predicament – they have more time left AND they are only down 2 possessions (6 points).

    And since the Blazers would be unable to score until its their turn – i.e. they force a turnover, or regain possession after a missed shot or made shot – it is in their best interest to try to maximize the number of possessions they can get on the offensive end by fouling immediately.

    The reason it isn’t done much earlier in the game – say with 7 minutes left – is because their is more time to force turnovers/change momentum, and the good players only have a limited number of fouls that they can give.

  36. TheDane,
    First, there is no single answer as to why to foul. Cdog posits the normal basketball strategy, but there are also other situations.
    – For example, both Shaq and Dwight aren’t really good clutch shooters so you may want to foul them when the pressure is greatest – toward the end of the game.
    – A coach also may be watching the game and see that a player is having a hard time shooting and decide not to foul him because he doesn’t want the player to get any shooting rhythm.
    – If the other team has one or two clutch shooters it may be a better play to foul a Shaq/Dwight, rather than let the ball get to the clutch shooter(s).

    As I said, there is no perfect answer because the decision depends on the game situation and strategy. That is one of the problems I have with using statistics to prove a point. I would rather use statistics to support a previously defined point.

  37. The Dane,
    It would be interesting to see a statistical analysis of that – I would not be surprised if it turned out that it actually isn’t better to foul in those situations. Most coaches aren’t willing to go counter to “accepted practices” even if there is logic on their side, presumably because of the second guessing that occurs if it doesn’t work out.

  38. The Dane,
    I agree on the statistical take you’ve presented. Even if you’re a 50% FT shooter, you’re likely to produce 1 point per possession — that’s not a great number, but it would produce an offensive efficiency of 100 which would be better than several teams produced last year over the course of the season (including the Celtics).

    However, there is an argument to be made about disrupting the rhythm of the game via the hack-a-(whoever) strategy. When an offensive team has it going and their sets are clicking, strategically mucking up the game via fouling can be effective. These past playoffs, when the Spurs played OKC the Thunder employed hack-a-Splitter and that slowed down the pace of the game and disrupted the Spurs’ flow on O. The Spurs ultimately won the game but even Popovich admitted that it “may have” helped the Thunder get back into the game after being down big.

    That said, I’d rather rely on playing straight up defense than fouling, simply due to the fact that getting a stop means zero points whereas a trip to the foul line will likely lead to at least one.