(Originally posted on thestartingfive.net on Nov. 17, 2011)
Math is the study of quantity, space, structure and change to find some eternal truth. Often, the research to solve a mathematical problem takes years, decades or centuries. The 1976-77 Philadelphia 76ers were just one classical experiment along with others including the 1996-97 Houston Rockets, 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers, 2007-08 Boston Celtics and 2010-11 Miami Heat.
The experiment is more like a hoop hypothesis that stipulates that a “dream team” of talent can transform into a champion. The answer lies in the ability of five men to mesh on a court 94 feet long by sharing one ball. But execution is the key. At its best, the rock flows like milk and honey but at its worst becomes a stagnant struggle among crack heads over that last hit.
Despite or maybe because of all the fanfare with the acquisition of Julius Erving, the question emerged as to how this new variable would interact with the team. George McGinnis was coming off the previous season as the top scoring threat at 23.0 ppg. Not only would Erving’s arrival potentially have a negative psychic impact tread on McGinnis’ role as the unfettered leader but his presence would challenge basketball fundamentals and the laws of physics that no two objects can share the same space at the same time.
You see, Doc, unlike most small forwards, played inside out. His jump shot was effective but not his strength and he would blow by any defender from the wing. But a lot of his offense was generated in the paint and around the rim infringing upon McGinnis’ area reserved for power forwards.
The proposition had a problematic certainty. Marvin Gaye once sang about it when he crooned there’s only three things that’s for sho’; taxes, death and trouble.
However, with the 76ers there was little time to ponder as Doc signed just a mere two days before the first game. He may have met his teammates for the first time at the shoot-around of the season opener. But perhaps entering that game, the thought was that it was Erving’s good fortune that the opponent was an old familiar ABA foe in the San Antonio Spurs The Spurs were led by George “Ice Man” Gervin, a former teammate of Erving’s from their first pro team, the Virginia Squires. (Interestingly, Ice Man began his career with Erving and finished in Chicago with Michael Jordan).
But the 76ers lost to the Spurs and their next game as well. And after eight games, the 76ers were a mediocre 4-4. The quiet whispers that Doc was a product of a weaker ABA became increasingly noisy chit chatter. His season scoring average would dip from 29.3 to 21.6 ppg. The bigger issue was that he seemed unsure of his surroundings and his teammate whereabouts on the floor. He often would get caught leaping into midair with the ball with no shot opportunity or teammate to pass to.
Doug Collins, a great perimeter shooter evidenced by his .518 field goal percentage, however, was losing shot attempts. The two point guards, Henry Bibby and Lloyd Free were shoot first point guards. Caldwell Jones’ dynamic offensive skills shown in the ABA were stifled. While Darryl Dawkins in his second year out of high school seemed to check-in with two personals as he was constantly in foul trouble.
Yet, with McGinnis scoring at a 21.4 per game clip right behind scoring leader Erving, the 76ers managed to win 50 games to lead the Eastern Conference. After a bye, the 76ers faced the defending champs Boston Celtics. The 76ers dropped the opening game and had to eke out an 83-77 win in Game 7. In the conference finals, they handled the Houston Rockets in six games to advance to the Finals.
Awaiting was the just seven-year old expansion team Portland Trail Blazers coached by former 76ers coach Jack Ramsay (1968-72). In the Western Conference Finals, the upstart Blazers swept Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Los Angeles Lakers who had finished the season with league best 53 wins. The Blazers were led by UCLA legend Bill Walton, a brilliant but brittle player.
Facing such an unheralded team, Philadelphians assumed the championship was its destiny. The opening seconds of Game 1 on the 76ers home court at the Spectrum only reassured the Philly fandom. The 76ers executed the perfect opening jump ball that looked like a quick turn of a 6-4-3 double play that resulted in a Doc slam. The 76ers went on to wrap up that game 107-101. And the 76ers came back three nights later to smash the Blazers 107-89.
However, the series turned for the worst for the 76ers despite that win. Late in the game with the outcome determined Dawkins and Blazers forward Bobby Gross got entangled over a rebound. Heated words were exchanged that prompted a Dawkins’ left hook in Gross’ direction. However, he hit teammate Collins. Nonetheless, Maurice Lucas, the Blazers tough enforcer stepped in and popped Dawkins in the back of the head sending him sprawling but not deterred.
Then, well, why don’t you just see for yourself.
After the brawl, the two teams seem to go in different direction. The Blazers seemed ultra- motivated while the 76ers lack aggressiveness. In Portland, Games 3 and 4 Dawkins was invisible and Lucas shut down McGinnis with both games being Blazers’ routs. Back in Philadelphia for Game 5, the 76ers came up short again 110-104.
The 76ers courageously fought the almost inevitable in Game 6. McGinnis had one of his best games and Doc poured in 40 points but the bitter end was McGinnis’ one-hand short jumper bouncing off the front of the rim that would have forced overtime.
There is no science to the aftermath. It’s mostly picking up the pieces and moving on. But the team came back for the 1977-78 season steadfast almost intact with a marketing campaign of “We owe you one.” However, the first fallout of the aftermath was felt six games into that season.
With a record of 2-4, the Shue was dropped. Head Coach Gene Shue was replaced on the bench by former 76ers all-time great player Billy Cunningham. The 76ers won more games with a 53-23 record but lost to eventual champions Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The team would proceed over the next several years to deliver on that promissory note of a title with personnel moves big and small. The team made a major move in trading McGinnis to the Denver Nuggets for defensive specialist Bobby Jones. And that same year saw the arrival of point guard Maurice Cheeks, the Chicago native drafted out of tiny West Texas State.
That was also the end of Lloyd Free in Philly who would be reborn as World B. Free. A year later, Joe Bryant would be gone as well and who sometime later was rumored to have reflected with braggadocios announcing that it seemed that the 76ers didn’t want a Magic Johnson type around there.
Injuries (Collins), free agency (Dawkins), and trades (Jones) transformed the team over the next few years. And after losing two more times in the Finals to the Lakers (‘80, ‘82) all but Doc would be gone from the 1976-77 team. History reveals that Moses Malone was the missing piece along with Andrew Toney, “The Boston Strangler,” that pushed the fo’-fo’-fo’ 76ers pass the Lakers to win the 1983 NBA Finals but that 1976-77 will never be forgotten.