Over the next three weekends, we’re going to take a look at all eight victims of Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers as the team from Tinseltown made eight NBA Finals and won five championships, starting with the 1980 Seattle SuperSonics.
After all, the 1970s were so wide open that the West sent six different teams to the Finals between 1973 and 1978, and the 1990s were similarly up in the air as Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls defeated five different opponents to get their six rings and another two teams came out of the West to play teams other than the Bulls in the Finals.
Yet only two teams in the entire decade of the 1980s went to the NBA Finals out of the West, namely the Lakers and the 1981 and ’86 Houston Rockets.
But Magic and friends played just about everyone on their way to the Finals. In nine Western Conference Finals over ten years, they played the Sonics twice (1980 and ’87), the Spurs twice (1982 and ’83), the Suns twice (1984 and ’89), the Nuggets (’85), the Mavericks (’88), and the one team to beat them, the Rockets in 1986.
Had the Lakers not been there to play gatekeeper, the 1980s could’ve been as wide-open as the decade before and the one after. It wouldn’t be until the 2000s that power once again consolidated with the Lakers, Spurs, Warriors, and Mavericks going to all but one of the 21 NBA Finals between 2000 and 2020 (the 2012 Thunder were the lone exception.)
So that’s what we’re going to look at. Were any of these Western Conference bridesmaids good enough that if the Lakers hadn’t been in the way, they might’ve stamped their names on history?
Or were they all a bunch of chumps in a top-heavy conference who probably would’ve been stomped into the dirt by the Celtics, Pistons, and 76ers (speaking of top-heavy, the East was just as tightly locked down, but that’s a story for another day)?
Let’s start at the top with Magic’s rookie year.
The Passing of the Torch
Seattle came into the WCF looking to not just knock the Lakers out of the playoffs for the third straight year—they’d done so in the first round in 1978 and the conference semis in ’79—but to defend their 1979 NBA championship.
The Sonics had made each of the last two title rounds, in fact, first losing to the Bullets in 1978 before getting revenge the following year.
Seattle went 56-26 in 1980, actually improving by four wins over their 1979 record. Their backcourt of Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson was as good as it had been in the championship year.
And while their defense dropped to third in the league after being the league’s best, their offense was improved significantly from 14th out of 22 to eighth out of 23. That ’79 Sonics team was one of the worst offenses ever to win a championship, in fact.
But all of this just put an exclamation point on the idea that Seattle had stepped into a power vacuum and won a title that no team was strong enough to grab from them. Portland had lost Bill Walton to an injury in ’78 that cost them a title that was theirs for the taking. The Lakers weren’t ready yet in ’79 because Magic was still in college.
And nobody quite realized it, but the Sonics were about to fall off a cliff. They’d go 34-48 in 1981 and wouldn’t be a true force—we’ll talk about the crazy fluke year in ’87 later in this series, but never mind that—until Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp showed up in the 1990s.
Seattle won Game 1 on the road in Inglewood 108-107. The Lakers then won the series in five games, all decided by single digits but none decided by a single possession the way the first one was.
After closing out Seattle at home in Game 5, the Lakers went on to beat the 76ers in the Finals.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar just went full beast mode in this series, averaging 30.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, while Jack Sikma was a complete non-factor for Seattle, bullied relentlessly by Kareem and with the Seattle backcourt having no answer for Magic and Norm Nixon combining for 44 and 40 assists respectively over the five games.
The Lakers simply bamboozled Seattle’s defense, showing that the title was less a case of a dominant franchise in the making and more a case of a team being in the right place at the right time.
Could They Have Won the Finals?
If Seattle had played Philadelphia in the 1980 Finals, it’s fair to say Julius Erving and friends would’ve mopped the floor with them. Dr. J could have eaten John Johnson‘s lunch in that small forward matchup, and Caldwell Jones and Darryl Dawkins would’ve taken the low post away the same way Kareem did.
Throw in Maurice Cheeks being better than anyone Seattle had in their backcourt at the time—DJ’s best years were ahead of him in Boston—and take away that insane Game 6 that Magic had in the 1980 Finals to singlehandedly close out that series, and you’ve got a recipe for Philadelphia having an even better year than the one the city actually had in sports.
As it stands, the World Series-winning Phillies were the only team in the city to actually win the big prize, with the Flyers losing the 1980 Stanley Cup Finals, the Sixers losing to Magic and the Lakers, and the Eagles losing Super Bowl XV in January of ’81.
If only they’d gotten the Sonics instead.
NEXT: The 1982 Spurs. The Iceman Cometh.
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