Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Are the 1980s Lakers underrrated?

The NBA narrative for the 1980s is well-known: it was Magic v. Bird, Lakers v. Celtics, a golden age of basketball in which these two superstars invigorated the NBA and made basketball an aesthetic team game.

That narrative is, mostly, accurate. During the playing days of Bird and Magic, the Lakers and Celtics went to a combined 14 NBA Finals and won a combined 8 titles. However, that narrative also implies a sort of equality between the two players, and the two teams. I think it is fair to imply equality between Magic and Bird; for all sorts of reasons, I wouldn't try to edge one over the other in an argument for all-time greatness.

But equality between the teams?

The Celtics went to 5 NBA Finals and won 3 championships. That's a healthy amount of success, especially when the Celtics not only had to deal with the Lakers in the Finals, but had to pass the Sixers first and then the Pistons just to get to the Finals.

During Magic Johnson's reign, the Lakers went to 9 NBA Finals and won 5 championships. In a period of 9 years, they went to 7 NBA Finals and won those 5 titles. And in the three times the Lakers and Celtics met in the Finals in the 1980s, the Lakers won twice.

The Lakers' 80s success was almost twice as good as the Celtics' success. By any standard, the Lakers were the Dynasty of the 1980s. And yet, the narrative of Magic v. Bird for the 1980s persists. I just feel that this narrative doesn't give sufficient appreciation to the success of the Lakers.

The NFL equivalent could be the Cowboys and Steelers in the 1970s. From 70-79, the Cowboys and Steelers went to 9 Super Bowls and won 6. But the grand narrative of the 70s in the NFL is the Steel Curtain's domination. This is fair: the Steelers won twice as many championships as the Cowboys in this era (4 to 2) and twice beat the Cowboys in the Super Bowl (granted, in Super Bowl X the Steelers should have been losing to the Vikings, but Drew Pearson pushed off of Nate Wright, and alas, my beloved Purple still remain without a title).

The Lakers should be recognized as the dominant team of the 1980s; instead, we have written a narrative that gives the Celtics equality with them. Those Celtics are no slouches and deserve respect. But the Lakers won 5 titles. They had one of the greatest guard-center combos in history. They had numerous very good players who thrived together (do any of the kids even know who Jamaal Wilkes is?). The Lakers are the Dynasty of the 80s.

and I think Kareem himself is underrated historically, but that's an argument for a different post.

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