1976-1977 Season Recap
1976 was a monumental year not only in Portland but also for the entire NBA. It saw the departure of the Indiana Pacers, New York Nets, San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets from the ABA and into the newly reformed 22 team NBA.
The 1976-77 Trailblazers also went through somewhat of a re-tooling. Head Coach Lenny Wilkens left the Blazers sideline after only a two-year stint and was replaced by Jack Ramsey formerly of the Buffalo Braves (who would later become the Los Angeles Clippers). Ramsay installed a system that centered on having a well-balanced team that would excel at rebounding and running the fast break.
Coach Ramsey had success at every level he coached. Six out of the past eight years in the NBA he had guided his team into the playoffs. He had been the most respected of college coaches, leading St. Joe's teams to a 234-72 record over 11 seasons. In more than 20 seasons as an NBA coach, he would pile up 864 regular-season wins.
One of Coach Ramsey’s main reasons for coming to Portland was the “big redhead” in the middle. Bill Walton had been plagued by injuries his first two years with the Trail Blazers. But when healthy he had been averaging 14.7 points and 13.0 rebounds per game. His ability to dominate a game from the center position on the defensive end with his shot blocking and rebounding; and on the offensive side with his impeccable passing was what attracted Jack Ramsey to Portland.
The dispersal of ABA players had been particularly beneficial to Portland. General manager Harvey Glickman and Coach Jack Ramsey felt that the Trail Blazers were just one or two players away from winning a title. They saw the opportunity to beef up their frontline along side Bill Walton. So they pulled the trigger on a trade that sent guard Geoff Petrie to Atlanta for the No. 2 selection in the ABA dispersal draft.
With that choice they selected Maurice Lucas, who had played with the Kentucky Colonels. At 6-foot-9 and a thick 215 pounds, Lucas had the reputation of being somewhat of an enforcer in the paint, but Lucas wasn’t a purely one-dimensional player. He would go onto to have one of his finest offensive seasons as a professional and lead the Blazers in scoring with 20.2 points per game average. Along with Walton, they would form the best frontcourt combination in the game.
The rest of the team was comprised of consummate role players, who complemented Walton and Lucas perfectly. Coming over with Lucas from the ABA was point guard Dave Twardzik, who had played four seasons with the Virginia Squires. His tricky ball handling and amazing control in the air impressed Ramsey enough to name him a starter.
Rounding out the Blazers starting line-up was the 6’6” small forward Bob Gross and 6’3” off guard Lionel Hollins, both second-year players out of Long Beach St. and Arizona State respectively. Gross was the team leader in free-throw percentage. Hollins was the Blazers team leader in assists, steals and was the team’s third leading scorer averaging nearly 15 points per game in 1976-77.
The Blazers bench was the spark plug that helped to get Coach Ramsey’s fast paced offense going. Larry Steele was a player that Coach Ramsey called upon to put the defensive lockdown on a hot opposing player. His steals and hustle plays got many fast breaks going.
Johnny Davis and Robin Jones, rookies, brought speed and size to the Blazers high-octane offense. Davis’ contributions in the playoffs, especially after Twardzik sprained his ankle in the Denver series, were integral to the Blazers championship run.
Herm Gilliam’s veteran leadership and Lloyd Neal’s ability to defend players much taller than he, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Lanier, made him a fan favorite and allowed Walton and Lucas to focus more on the offensive end.
The team was very strong through the first half of the season. Walton and Lucas represented Portland in the 1977 NBA All-Star Game, although Walton missed the game with an injury. But the long campaign eventually took its toll, and the Blazers faltered in February and March, tottering to a 10-16 record during those two months. They turned it around at the right time, however, with a 5-0 mark in April that catapulted them back into the playoff picture.