“For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.”
John Greenleaf Whittier
In the 2016 Playoffs, many fans focused on the injury to Steph Curry’s knee and discussed what might have been, acting as if Steph Curry injury was the one and only time an all-time great team was derailed by injury. The 2015- 2016 Golden State Warriors aren’t the only Finals contender that was side tracked by a star’s injury on their way to a higher perch among the all-time pantheon of great NBA teams: The 1977-78 Portland Trail Blazers and the 1972-73 Boston Celtics were two all-time great teams struck down by injury to their best players Bill Walton and John Havlicek .
This will be the first in a series of articles which will attempt to bring new life to the rich history of NBA teams and players that many fans might not be aware of or appreciate.
Portland Trailblazers 1977-1978
Like this year’s Golden State Warriors, the Portland Trailblazers were the defending champions going into the ’77-’78 season. The previous season, the Blazers beat an ‘unbeatable’ Philadelphia 76ers team that included NBA greats Julius Erving (Dr. J), George McGinnis, World B. Free, Doug Collins, Daryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones. The 76ers went up 2-0 on the Blazers in the Finals, provoking a 4 game surge to a Portland championship. Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Johnny Davis, Lionel Hollins and Bobby Gross – the Blazers were young, supremely talented, and looked to be a dynasty in the making – led by one of the all-time great coaches in Dr. Jack Ramsey.
Many feel the 1977-1978 team was even better than their 1976-1977 counterparts. The Blazers roared out of the gate that season, led by Bill Walton, an incredible fast-break offense, lightning quick guards, and the enforcer with a soft shooting touch – Maurice Lucas.
The Blazers had THREE FIRST TEAM ALL-NBA DEFENDERS (Walton, Hollins and Lucas), and went on a 50-10 tear before Bill Walton went down with a broken foot. Sadly this was the last the basketball world really ever saw of “Prime Bill Walton”.
The team sputtered to a 8-14 finish without Bill Walton, who was named league MVP despite missing the last 22 games. Despite the setback, the Blazers still had the best record in the conference by 10 full games – unfortunately, without their superstar big man, the Blazers fell in a 6 game Semi-Finals series to the eventual Western Conference Champion Seattle Supersonics.
Boston Celtics 1972-1973
Did you know that the best record for a Celtics team (68-14) was not a Bill Russell led team, nor the fabled 1986 Celtics?
The 1972-1973 Boston Celtics were led by league MVP Dave Cowens and All-NBA First Team guard John Havlicek. Tom Heinsohn coached the 2 Hall-of-Famers, along with other greats, in Paul Silas and Jo-Jo White to a dominant 68 win regular season. At this point in NBA history, the record for most wins in a regular season was 69 – even now, their ’72-’73 run ranks 5th in all-time best regular season records, putting in perspective how historically powerful this team was.
The Celtics played the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Semi-finals, winning 4-2. Next up was the New York Knicks, led by Walt Frazier, who, along with Dave DeBusscher, was a certified first-team All-NBA defender. The Knicks had just dispatched a strong Baltimore Bullets team with two all-time great post players, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unsel.
Riding a 30 point performance from Jo Jo White, the Celtics won game one in a blowout: 134-108. The Knicks came right back with a vengeance, evening up the series in a 129-96 massacre of the Celtics. In Game 3, Havlicek scores 29 in a losing effort; but, more importantly, he tears his shoulder muscle and is forced to
miss Game 4, which the Knicks won handily. For Games 5 and 6, Havlicek came off the bench, but was limited to less 9 points in the second outing. In a decisive Game 7, Havlicek only scored 4 points and could barely pass the ball. The Knicks won, and went on to win their second championship 4-1 over the Lakers.
What Might Have Been
Sadly, both the Celtics and Blazers are often left out of the conversation around all-time great teams, on account of their unfortunate key injuries. Now, they are among the forgotten “It Might Have Been” teams. The Celtics went on to win another championship with a similar roster, including perhaps the greatest NBA Championship game in NBA history – the triple over time thriller against Phoenix. The Blazers, however, were a sad tale after this fateful season: Bill Walton ended up suing the Blazers medical staff and was traded to the Clippers, never again reaching the same level of greatness he briefly touched in that lost ’77-’78 season.