What If? Re-drafting the 1977 NBA Draft
Looking at past NBA drafts is a tricky task because, of course, we have the benefit of hindsight. Case in point: Kevin Durant should have been drafted first overall in 2007, but no one blinked when Portland picked Greg Oden over KD that year.
So let’s go back to 1977. The Portland Trailblazers are on top of the world and Blazermania is running wild in the Pacific Northwest. The Lakers finished ahead of Portland in the regular season and have the reigning league MVP in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In the east, Philly lost in the Finals, but clearly have the most exciting team in the league, with ‘Dr. J’ Julius Erving leading the charge. Big men are in high demand; this is still an era where every team was looking for the dominant center that could lead them to a title.
Milwaukee is in a great place, holding three of the top eleven picks after receiving first round picks from Buffalo and Cleveland for Swen Nater and Elmore Smith. So instead of a top ten, here’s the top eleven:
MIL: Kent Benson, C (Indiana)
KCK: Otis Birdsong, G (Houston)
MIL: Marques Johnson, F (UCLA)
WAS: Greg Ballard, F (Oregon)
PHO: Walter Davis, G/F (North Carolina)
LAL: Kenny Carr, F (NC State)
NYN: Bernard King, F (Tennessee)
SEA: Jack Sikma, F/C (Illinois Wesleyan)
DEN: Tom LaGarde, F/C (North Carolina)
NYK: Ray Williams, G (Minnesota)
MIL: Ernie Grunfeld, F (Tennessee)
And here is how a redraft might look:
1 – Milwaukee Bucks select Jack Sikma
Milwaukee’s best player is Bob Dandridge, an All-Star small forward who’d averaged around between 18 and 21 points per game for six straight seasons. Since three of the best players in this draft played the same position as Dandridge, the Bucks go for a big man. In 1977 they drafted Kent Benson, who had helped lead Indiana to its undefeated NCAA title a year earlier. But they chose the wrong white Midwestern center – Jack Sikma should have been the pick here if they really wanted to go with a big man. Sikma was a very good, if not elite, NBA player who made seven All-Star teams and averaged better than fifteen points and almost ten rebounds per game over his fourteen-year career.
2 – Kansas City Kings select Marques Johnson
The Kings need help on the wings. Scott Wedman and Ron Boone are solid starters, but there was a reason Kansas City went with a big guard in the original draft. Instead of Otis Birdsong, though, the Kings take Marques Johnson – a strong, powerful forward who could probably play beside Wedman and Boone for short stretches and would, from day one, be the team’s go-to scorer.
3 – Milwaukee Bucks select Walter Davis
With their big man sewn up, the Bucks can go for best available player. Without Marques Johnson on the board, Walter Davis would be a perfect complement to Bob Dandridge and Jack Sikma -- all three are good outside shooters capable of driving the ball to the basket. Davis was a six-time All-Star who averaged almost twenty points per game over his long career. Side note: Selecting Davis would give the Bucks two players (Dandridge and Davis) nicknamed “Greyhound.”
4 – Washington Bullets select Cedric Maxwell
Greg Ballard was a good choice. Ok, so he was arguably the fifth-best small forward in the draft, but he definitely didn’t have the baggage of Davis or King. For a team in title contention, the more talented King just doesn’t make as much sense here as Cornbread, who showed in 1981 (when he was the Finals MVP) that he could be a really important piece on a good team.
5 – Phoenix Suns select Bernard King
Little more than a year earlier, the Suns were in the NBA Finals. But the Sunderella Suns had a rough season in 1976-77, finishing 34-48. Paul Westphal and Alvan Adams are two fantastic building blocks, so the Suns can afford to look for help on the wing. In 1977, they drafted Walter Davis. But with Davis gone, they can’t pass on Bernard King who, despite the trouble in college which followed him into the NBA, is one of the most talented offensive players of his generation.
6 – Los Angeles Lakers select Greg Ballard
The Lakers can afford the luxury of taking the best available player, coming off a season in which they finished with the best record in basketball. They have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar manning the middle and solid role players in Lucius Allen, Cazzie Russell, Don Chaney, and Kermit Washington. Like many of these teams, the Lakers could use an upgrade on the wing (Cazzie is 32), and so they go with Ballard, a very good offensive player who could take some of the scoring load off Kareem. Norm Nixon, their other first round pick that year, would also make sense if they want some depth in the backcourt.
7 – New York Nets select Tree Rollins
Tiny Archibald is coming back from a season-ending knee injury and would be dealt a few months after this draft to Buffalo. With his status questionable, the Nets might consider a guard like Otis Birdsong, Norm Nixon, or Ray Williams. But they desperately needed size inside too. So the choice is Tree Rollins, an excellent defensive center (two-time All-Defense selection) who played for 18 seasons and still ranks in the top ten for career blocked shots. Maybe not a sexy pick, but Tree would have rooted an already solid defense in New York.
8 – Seattle SuperSonics select Robert Reid
Bill Russell has been open about telling people he’s probably not coming back to coach the Sonics (spoiler: he leaves). So this is a team in transition. The strength of the Sonics is their guard rotation (Slick Watts, ‘Downtown’ Freddie Brown, and Dennis Johnson) along with Marvin Webster, just acquired in a trade with Denver. There are better players on the board than Robert Reid, but adding a point forward (Del Harris claims he coined the term to describe Reid in Houston) would give them wing help and allow Brown and Johnson to play off the ball on offense. In fact, John Johnson played a very similar role in leading the Sonics to the 1979 NBA title, so this might accelerate that process.
9 – Denver Nuggets select Norm Nixon
Denver is ecstatic a top point guard fell to them at #9. The trio of David Thompson, Dan Issel, and Bobby Jones is excellent on offense and defense, perfect for Coach Larry Brown’s up-tempo attack. They recently traded for Brian Taylor, giving them a veteran point guard upgrade over Fatty Taylor and Mack Calvin, but Nixon is too good to pass up here. And when Taylor holds out mid-season, the Nuggets can go to the flashy rookie.
10 – New York Knicks select Ray Williams
A great debate among New York Knicks fans is how the team would have progressed had management been willing to pay Ray Williams after the 1981 season. Instead, they let him walk. He joined the Nets, which not only cost the Knicks the production of Williams, but it also damaged Micheal Ray Richardson’s fragile psyche and a promising team collapsed. So while you could make an argument for Otis Birdsong or James Edwards here, the pick has to be Ray.
11 – Milwaukee Bucks select Otis Birdsong
James Edwards might be the best available player, but the Bucks don’t need Buddha after drafting Sikma first. So instead they round out their draft by taking Birdsong, a four-time All-Star and career 20.9 ppg scorer. Advanced stats don’t care for Birdsong (11th in career value over replacement player in this class, 12th in box score plus-minus, and 11th in win shares per 48), but the Bird could flat-out score the basketball, especially from the mid-range. With Jack Sikma, Walter Davis, Otis Birdsong, and Bobby Dandridge on the squad, these Bucks would put up points in bunches.
So there you have it. The 1977 Draft didn’t have the superstar power of some other years, but there was a lot of talent here. Sikma at number one might ruffle some feathers…what do you think?
Adam Criblez is the author of the upcoming book Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA.
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