This weekend I listened to Bill Simmons interview Lou Adler, a long-time Lakers season ticket holder. They cover a lot of ground and at one point they talk about Kareem going down in the 1979-1980 finals. This was a devastating injury. Kareem was the best player in the league and was averaging 32 points and 12 rebounds in the playoffs. The Lakers were up 3-2 going into game 6 in Philadelphia, and would now have to rely on a young team to finish the series.
Magic Johnson had just won the NCAA national championship a year before in Michigan State, and here he was at 20 years old, stepping onto the biggest stage in professional sports. He put up 45 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and dished out 7 assists. The Lakers beat Julius Erving and the 76ers in what remains one of the all-time great performances the world has ever seen.
I didn’t start watching basketball until the 90s, so I had never seen this game before. Thanks to YouTube, I was able to watch it commercial free. I came away thinking that the current Cavaliers would have swept those Lakers or the 76ers. I don’t think any of the games would have been within single digits. Back then, they were playing a different game.
Many of the things that worked in 1980 still apply today. Find the open man, take care of the ball, and box out. But comparing LeBron to Magic on an absolute basis just doesn’t make sense. You can’t compare players across different eras without taking into consideration the game that they were playing. I’ll tie this concept to investing later in the week, but this post will be strictly basketball.
In the 1979-1980 season, the average weight for the 76ers was 199 pounds (202 for the Lakers). Nobody outside of Daryl Dawkins on the entire court weighed more than 220. Today, the average height is more than 2 inches taller, but the weight difference is a mile wide. The average Cavalier weighs 224 pounds. The Lakers were string beans in comparison.
Their starting 5 played basically the whole game, with Magic, who weighed 215 pounds, notching 47 minutes (Magic would be 230-250 if he played today). The other four starters were Michael Cooper and Norm Nixon, who each weighed 170 pounds, Jamaal Wilkes who weighed 190, and Jim Chones, the muscle, coming in at 220. LeBron would have destroyed them, and so would his teammates.
A few things stood out while watching this game. First of all, it was very quiet in the arena, there wasn’t any music. Also, I’m pretty sure the game wasn’t on live TV because it kept saying “videotaped earlier”. The players bodies, as I just went over, look nothing like the players today. With advances in medicine and technology, and the business of professional sports, things are just different.*
Outside shooting left a lot to be desired. The Lakers were 0-2 from 3, the 76ers were 0-6. But it wasn’t just the three-point shot that was missing, I saw more bricks in this game than I ever remember seeing in the modern NBA. To be fair, it was just one game, but my god there were a lot of awful shots.
As far as the game itself goes, the lakers won by 16 despite allowing Philly to shoot .528% from the field. The difference in the game came down to free throws. The Lakers were 33-35 (Magic was 14-14), the 76ers were 13-22. Dr. J was just 1-4. I annotated the highlights below if you want to see what I’m talking about .
13:55- Acrobatic move from Dr. J.
14:20- Nice driving lefty layup from Magic
19:20- Baseline dunk from Dr. J.
20:00- Old school hook-shot from Magic.
22:40- Oh my god, brick not even close
23:55- Henry Bibby wide open, barely grazed the rim
30:30- Magic beautiful pass
31:10- Everybody is in the paint. It’s a different game.
36:05- At the end of the first half magic took a 60 foot hook shot that almost went in.
The game was tied at half. What stood out was the awful shooting, and a lot of really bad turnovers (there were 35 total in the game)
The game is different, but the principles remain unchanged. At halftime rick Barry says “Basketball likes most sports is a game that requires execution, and usually the team that wins makes the fewest mistakes.” Also, his toupee is pretty amazing.
40:30- This is incredible. Brent Musburger literally calls Kareem during halftime. Musburger holds the phone up to the mic, you cannot hear a single word Kareem says. Not one.
45:40- Oh my god Lionel Hollins what are you doing?
45:45- What a pass by Magic.
46:45- Lakers go up 6, Philly takes a timeout, Musburger says “And now for the first time you can hear a familiar greeting in Philadelphia, some booing.” Some things never change.
47:55- Dr. J. Wide open at the elbow. Brick.
48:35- Cooper jump shot brick.
49:05- Cheeks jump shot doesn’t hit the rim
The 76ers didn’t score for the first 3.5 minutes of the third quarter. Lakers went on a 14-0 run.
52:35- Nixon bricks a jumper off the back of the rim. From the free throw line!
I don’t think anybody made a single shot outside of 18 feet
58:10- Norm Nixon, a 6’2 point guard (2x all-star) is dribbling right to left with his right hand. You would never see this today.
1:01.38- Julius was a beautiful athlete
1:04- Magic beautiful and 1
Lakers lead by 10 after 3. Dominant quarter for Magic and Wilkes (who was 8 for 11)
1:12:35- One handed baseline dunk for Dr. J. 76ers pull to within 6.
1:13:40- Daryl Dawkins clotheslines and almost kills Michael Cooper. Musburger said it looks like he might be convulsing. They put smelling salt underneath his nose. It was a two shot foul, no flagrant. He mad both free throws (players didn’t come to give high fives back then in between foul shots)
1:17- Running jumper from Dr. J brings the 76ers to within 4 with 8 minutes left.
1:19- 76ers cut it to 2
1:22- Okay, this is some possession. Julius dumps it down to sixth man Bobby Jones (first player to win sixth man award) who passes it to the elbow to Caldwell Jones, who just stands there looking for someone, anyone to come and get the ball. They end up getting a good look from Steve Mix who missed it.
1:22:50 Wilkes and one. Silences the crowd. Puts the Lakers up 7 with 4 minutes to go.
1:25:00 Dr. J with an awful pass that was intercepted and then thrown down low to Magic who got fouled (by Dr. J) and made the bucket. A five point swing that effectively ends the game.
You can watch the whole game below. It’s awesome.
And below is the box score from basketball reference.
*In 1985, Kareem $1.5 million in 1985, or $3.5 million in today’s dollars. On the 29-53 2018 New York Knicks, there are five players most people have never heard of making more than $3.5 million (Lance Thomas, Courtney Lee, Ron Baker, Kyle O’Quinn, Frank Ntilikina).