The Short Life and Fast Times of Blazermania

 The 1976-77 Portland Trailblazers

NBA history is replete with almost “great” teams and “would-be” dynasties.  But none sticks out quite like the 1977 Portland Trailblazers and their trademark “Blazermania”.  They had it all, and just as quickly lost it all.

The late 70s Blazers, along with the strangely skittish “Early Dr. J” Philadelphia 76ers of the same period, were really the only super teams between the time of the NBA-ABA Merger and the rookie season of Magic Johnson.  The two teams should have dominated that Era.  Yet between the two they won only one NBA championship, and that was Portland’s 1976-77 World Championship. 

Portland, of course, was the better team.  But it famously burned out like a Roman Candle for one main reason:  the skittish health of superstar center Bill Walton.

Win Chart: the 1976-77 Portland Trailblazers

Win Chart: the 1977-78 Portland Trailblazers

Walton’s flirtation with Monster Greatness

The Blazers won the ’77 title behind spectacular production from a few sources, but mainly from their spectacular center, Bill Walton.  To my mind, Walton at his best rivaled Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as the greatest center of all time.  He combined the playmaking, rebounding, and shotblocking skills of Russell with the high percentage offensive game of Chamberlain.  He really had a chance to be something special.  But he could not keep himself healthy.  He was extremely brittle.

But as you can see from the Win Charts above, prior to suffering the famous foot injury that basically ended his prime, Bill Walton was putting up win numbers that were better than those put up by Jordan, Jabbar, LeBron, Kobe, Shaq… basically everyone I’ve studied with the exception of Russell and Chamberlain. 

But, unlike the aforementioned others, Walton never produced really great “Win Contribution Index” numbers, or sky-high Win Credits, because he couldn’t stay on the court.  But when he was on the court in the late 70s, he dominated.

In 1976-77, Walton’s MWS48 was an unreal +6.04.  That means he was outproducing his contemporary centers by so much that he was generating over one and a half wins for Portland in every 240 minutes of courttime.

1977-78:  Fast Start followed by Disaster

Win Chart: 10 Most Valuable NBA Players — 1977-78

The very next season, 1977-78, Walton started fast once again.  But, once again, he could not sustain.  As chronicled in the outstanding book “The Breaks of the Game” written by the late David Halberstam, Bill Walton broke his foot that season, attempted to use pain killers to play on that broken foot (allegedly after being encouraged to do so by the Blazer medical staff), and he did irrepairable damage to his career as a result. 

But despite playing far fewer minutes, Walton nearly bested Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the best Win Contribution of any NBA player that season.  Walton did win the NBA MVP that season, but WCI shows Kareem was probably a bit more valuable. 

The Walton Gang:  Gone too soon

But that was it for the Walton era in Portland, and that was it for the glory that was Blazermania.  One and three quarters seasons of dominance and a trail of bitterness, malpractice suits, and “what might have beens?” was all that was left in Portland after they lost Bill Walton. 

As for Bill Walton, his career would see a brief resurrection and return to the summit with the 1985-86 Boston Celtics (which resurrection would once again be derailed by injury the next season).

As for the Blazers, it would take them over a decade to recover and get back to the NBA Finals, and they’ve been a generally successful franchise since then (with the exception of the legendary “Jailblazers”).  But they still must wonder what they might have had if Bill Walton could have stayed healthy.

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One Response to “The Short Life and Fast Times of Blazermania”

  1. Chicago Tim Says:

    You say Walton (pre-injury), Russell, and Chamberlain put up the highest win numbers of anyone you have studied. Does that mean you think they are the greatest of all time (G.O.A.T.)? Or would you hesitate to compare eras and simply say that they were farther above their peers than other candidates for G.O.A.T. (Jordan, Magic, James) were above their peers? Or would you says something else entirely if asked to pick the G.O.A.T.?

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