Thirty years the Portland Trail Blazers won the only championship in franchise history. The Blazers defeat of the Philadelphia 76ers – led by Dr. J – is considered one of the greatest upsets in NBA Finals history.
Eric Neel at ESPN wrote a column entitled “Blaze of Glory” which detailed this championship team. This column begins with the following sentence:
The 1976-77 world champion Portland Trail Blazers were a miracle, born, like Gaia, spontaneously, from nowhere, from utter chaos.
Neel goes on to add…
At the end of their seventh season, the Trail Blazers miraculously hoisted the NBA championship trophy. Their Finals MVP center basked in the love of devoted fans. Their players were universally hailed as artists of the selfless passing game. And their new head coach was the toast of the basketball world.
Later Neel notes…
The team had stars in Walton and Lucas, but it didn’t revolve around them. Ball movement and balance were the coins of the realm. “Everything was about blending,” Hollins recalls. “Give it up, get it back, give and go. It was basketball in its purest form. The guy who was open got the ball.” There were egos, no doubt, but the squad was young (the youngest team to ever win an NBA title; Davis was just 21 years old, Hollins and Gross were 23, and Walton and Lucas were 24) and moldable — “We were unselfish by nature, and we completely bought in to coach Ramsay’s system and passing game,” Davis says — and they saw the rewards of their unselfish style almost instantly.
Let me summarize the story being told. The Blazers won the NBA title because of their ability to blend as a team. The Blazers were unselfish, and supposedly, their opponent’s were less so. And due to the magic of teamwork and unselfishness, Portland was able to host a championship parade.
It’s a great story. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it fully captures reality.
The Efficiency Differential Story
As I noted a few days ago, the Blazers should not have been thought of as underdogs against the 76ers. Consider the efficiency differential of the 68 teams to participate in the NBA Finals since 1974. Portland ranks 43rd on this list, with a differential of 5.0. The 76ers ranked 56th, with a mark of 3.5. To put the Sixers from 1977 in perspective, the Cavaliers of 2007 rank 53rd on this list. When we consider efficiency differential we see that Portland was indeed the better team that year and the 76ers were actually one of the worst teams to ever reach the NBA Finals.
The Wins Produced Story
Okay, that story I have already told. Now I want to go from efficiency differential to the evaluation of individual players. This step is taken via Wins Produced, a metric of player productivity based on a team’s offensive and defensive efficiency.
The efficiency measures are based on scoring and possessions. From these measures we learn that a player can produce wins by scoring — like Dr. J. – or by securing possession of the ball. People have no trouble identifying the wins production of scorers. Scorers grab your attention when you are watching a basketball game. In fact, as is often noted in this forum, inefficient scorers – like Allen Iverson — often fool people into thinking that they are creating wins, when in fact they are not.
What is harder to see is the contribution of non-scorers. Players who rebound, create steals, and avoid turnovers also create wins. But these actions do not get as much attention from fans or the media (or decision-makers in the NBA).
The importance of turnovers complicates our study of the 1977 Finals. The 1976-77 season was the last season where turnovers were not tracked for individual players. Fortunately, the Blazers and 76ers both returned very much the same cast in 1977-78 when turnovers were tracked. Hence we can go back to that season to see which players were responsible for the success of their respective teams.
The 76ers in 1977-78
Let’s start with the 76ers. In 1976-77 the 76ers won 50 regular season games. The next season this team led the Eastern Conference with 55 wins.
As the above table notes, this team was indeed led by Dr. J. Julius Erving produced 12.3 wins in 77-78 and his Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] stood at 0.244. Such productivity this past season would have ranked 25th in the league with respect to wins production. His production per 48 minutes compares favorably to both LeBron James and Kobe Bryant (two players who ranked a bit higher in wins production because they played more minutes).
Dr. J not only led this team in Wins Produced, but also in scoring. Erving averaged more than 20 points per game in his NBA career, and the 1976-77 and 1977-78 seasons were no exceptions. But he was not alone as a scorer. George McGinnis also averaged twenty points per game these two seasons. Additionally, Doug Collins and World B. Free were capable of adding points to the scoreboard, giving the 76ers a variety of options on the offensive end.
When we look at Wins Produced we see that McGinnis was not only a scorer, but also a producer of wins. In contrast, Collins and Free were each below average players. This did not prevent Collins from playing in four All-Star games or Free from averaging more than 20 points per game in his career. Nevertheless, neither Collins nor Free helped the 76ers win very many games in 1977-78.
The Blazers in 1977-78
Okay, enough on the 76ers. What do we see when we look at the Blazers?
The leader of the Blazers was William Theodore Walton III. Before getting to Bill Walton’s prodigious production of wins, let’s focus on the scorers for a moment. Portland was led in scoring by three players: Maurice Lucas, Lionel Hollins, and Walton. None of these three players finished with a career scoring average that exceeded 15 points per game. In other words, the Blazers entered the Finals without a single prolific scorer, while the 76ers had several. Given the focus on scoring, it’s no wonder the Blazers were thought of as underdogs.
Still, what matters is wins, not scoring. And when it comes to wins, the Blazers had Walton. Walton produced 19.8 wins in 1977-78. He did this in only 58 games and 1,929 minutes. His WP48 of 0.492 would have easily led the NBA in 2006-07.
To see Walton’s value, consider that the Blazers started the 1977-78 campaign with a record of 50-10. The team finished 58-24. In other words, after 60 games this team was on pace to win 68 games. Walton was on pace to produce 28 victories. But after Walton was injured, a team that was on pace to be one of the greatest in NBA history only managed to win 8 out of 22 contests.
Now Walton was not a one man team. Bob Gross, Tom Owens, Dave Twardzik, Lloyd Neal, and Lucas were all above average (Hollins was not). Still, without Walton this team was not nearly the same, which is exactly what Wins Produced would predict.
If we assume Walton turned the ball over at the same pace in 76-77 as he did in 77-78, we can estimate that his Win Score per minute the championship year was 0.449. In 1977-78 his Win Score per minute was 0.445. In other words, Walton was the same player in both 1976-77 and 1977-78. And that same player was one of the most dominating players in NBA history.
Is it Teamwork?
So what lesson do we learn from this examination? The Blazers might have thought that teamwork and coaching was the key to their lone NBA title. The data, though, suggests that the key was Bill Walton. The Blazers had Walton, the most productive player on the court in the 1977 Finals. The 76ers had flashier players, but no one who could match the production of Walton. Consequently it was not a surprise that the Blazers won.
Walton was hurt in 1978, and missed the 1978-79 season and most of the next. In fact, he only played 259 more regular season games before calling it a career in 1987. When we look at Walton’s Win Score per-minute, we see that he was never quite the same player after 1978. Yes, he was still a key reason why the Celtics were able to win a title in 1986 (their last as a franchise), but he was never quite as dominant.
For two years, though, Walton was a dominant NBA center. And his special magic allowed the Blazers to take a title. After Walton left the coaching of Jack Ramsey remained. Many of the same players stayed on for awhile also. And I am sure this coach and these players still talked about teamwork and unselfishness. But without the productivity of Walton, this team could no longer dominate the NBA.
The San Antonio Spurs are about to win their fourth title. In an article in The New York Times exploring the “secret” to this team’s success is the following sentence:
Of course, whenever the subject of the Spurs’ eight-year run of success is raised, Buford and Coach Gregg Popovich invariably boil it down to two words: Tim Duncan.
Like the Spurs, the success of the Blazers can be boiled down to two words. And these two words are not “team chemistry” or “unselfish play.” The two words are “Bill Walton.” When the Blazers had Walton — and Walton was at the top of his game — the Blazers got to be one the top teams in the league. When Walton left, so did the ability to challenge for a title.
At least it did until the team added a new set of productive players. But that story will have to wait for another day.