Not since Wilt Chamberlain’s exploits in the early 1960s had the NBA seen individual scoring brilliance like it saw in the 1986-87 season.
Michael Jordan, who had missed most of the previous season with a broken foot, had signaled what was to come when he had returned to score 63 points against the Boston Celtics in a 1986 first-round game. Now fully healthy, Jordan tore through the league with a vengeance, scoring 3,041 points for a 37.1 ppg average and marking the first time a player had eclipsed the 3,000-point mark since Wilt Chamberlain in 1963.
Jordan had 37 games of 40 or more points and had eight 50-point games during the season. During late November and early December, he scored 40 or more points in nine straight games, six of which were during a West road swing.
Aside from Jordan, the player who had been asked to do the biggest job for his team was Magic Johnson. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar approached 40, Lakers coach Pat Riley had asked Magic to take on more of the scoring load, in addition to running the team. Johnson responded by averaging a career-best 23.9 points, while still leading the league in assists with a 12.2 average. The Lakers won 65 games during the regular season and devastated the competition in the West, going 11-1 in the West playoffs on the way to a showdown with Boston.
The Celtics won 59 games, but what had been a deep bench was decimated by injuries to Bill Walton and Scott Wedman. As a result, Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson each played more than 37 minutes per game, and Danny Ainge played 35. Boston showed a bit of fatigue as it was extended to seven games by both Milwaukee and Detroit before advancing to The Finals for the fourth straight year.
With the Lakers up 2-1, Game 4 of the series came down to one of the most memorable plays in NBA history.
With the Lakers trailing 106-104, Abdul-Jabbar was fouled, made the first and missed the second. But the rebound was batted out of bounds and ruled Lakers ball. Johnson took an inbounds pass on the left side, drove into the key and was met by McHale, Bird and Parish. Magic lofted a hook shot over Boston’s tall trio and when the shot found net, the Lakers led by one. With two seconds left after a timeout, Bird somehow got open for a baseline jumper, but the shot rimmed out.
“You expect to lose on a sky-hook,” Bird said later. “You don’t expect it to be from Magic.”
The Lakers would go on to win the series in six games, capturing their fourth NBA title in the 1980s.
The NBA, a 23-team league since the Dallas Mavericks began play in the 1980-81 season, announced in April, 1987 that it would add franchises in Charlotte and Miami in 1988 and Orlando and Minnesota in 1989, expanding to 27 teams for the 1989-90 season.
Some other notable moments from 1986-87: Len Bias, the No. 2 overall pick by the Celtics in the 1986 Draft, died two days later from a cocaine overdose in his dorm room at Maryland. It sent shockwaves throughout the league about the dangers of drug use. At the All-Star Game played at Seattle’s Kingdome, the highest-scoring midseason classic in league history took place as the East beat the West 154-149.
Eastern Conference first round
Boston defeated Chicago (3-0)
Milwaukee defeated Philadelphia (3-2)
Detroit defeated Washington (3-0)
Atlanta defeated Indiana (3-1)
Western Conference first round
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Denver (3-0)
Golden State defeated Utah (3-2)
Houston defeated Portland (3-1)
Seattle defeated Dallas (3-1)
Eastern Conference semifinals
Detroit defeated Atlanta (4-1)
Boston defeated Philadelphia (4-3)
Western Conference semifinals
Seattle defeated Houston (4-2)
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Golden State (4-1)
Eastern Conference finals
Boston defeated Detroit (4-3)
Western Conference finals
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Seattle (4-0)
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Boston (4-2)
Points — Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls (37.1)
Assists — Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers (12.2)
Rebounds — Charles Barkley, Philadelphia 76ers (14.6)
Steals — Alvin Robertson, San Antonio Spurs (3.21)
Blocks — Mark Eaton, Utah Jazz (4.06)
FG % — Kevin McHale, Boston Celtics (60.4)
FT % — Larry Bird, Boston Celtics (91.0)
3PT % — Kiki Vandeweghe, Denver Nuggets (48.1)
Most Valuable Player — Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers
Rookie of the Year — Chuck Person, Indiana Pacers
Defensive Player of the Year — Michael Cooper, L.A. Lakers
Most Improved Player — Dale Ellis, Seattle Sonics
Sixth Man of the Year — Ricky Pierce, Milwaukee Bucks
Coach of the Year — Mike Schuler, Portland Trail Blazers
All-Star Game MVP — Tom Chambers, Seattle Sonics
Finals MVP — Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers