The 1986 Boston Celtics and 1987 Los Angeles Lakers are two of the best NBA teams in the league’s history.
The Celtics had Larry Bird as their centerpiece and posted a record of 67-15, including an NBA record 40 wins at home. In the playoffs, the team went 15-3 en route to winning the championship.
The Lakers team had Magic Johnson as its focal point, sported a record of 65-17 and also went 15-3 in the playoffs along the way to winning a title.
So which team would win in a seven-game series?
In order to assess the winner, each position will be broken down since most often an NBA series is won by matchups that are exploited. Secondly, to give neither team the home-court advantage, assume the series would be played on a neutral court.
Center: Robert Parish vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
The battles between Robert Parish and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the playoffs are legendary in NBA history. In his prime, Kareem would have destroyed Parish in this matchup, but we are talking about 1987 Kareem, who was 40 years old.
Nevertheless, Kareem still had his clutch sky hook shot that was still very accurate, and unblockable. Parish had a high-arching jumper that was also difficult to block, but ultimately Kareem’s extra veteran tricks would get the better of Parish.
Power Forward: Kevin McHale vs. A.C. Green
While A.C. Green was a good role player for the Lakers, there was little he could do to slow down Kevin McHale, one of the best power forwards of all time. Against Green, McHale would be almost unstoppable from the low post.
Small Forward: Larry Bird vs. James Worthy
In most matchups, James Worthy would win in a battle of small forwards. But we’re talking about Larry Bird—one of the top legends in the NBA and my pick for the best small forward of all time. Although Bird would struggle to slow down Worthy, Larry would still find a way to get his numbers—which were drastically superior to Worthy’s. There’s no question that Bird would have more of an impact in the series.
Shooting Guard: Danny Ainge vs. Byron Scott
With both Danny Ainge and Byron Scott, one has two great shooters and players who were instrumental to their team’s success. While Ainge was known for his blue-collar work ethic, Scott was all about finesse and efficiency. In fact, Scott was just as essential to Showtime’s success as James Worthy was. As the superior scorer and shooter, Scott would win this matchup.
Point Guard: Dennis Johnson vs. Magic Johnson
The Battle of the Johnsons! The late Dennis Johnson was perhaps quite underrated in his day. Although he never got the same attention as Magic, Dennis was a superb defender and a decent scorer. His playmaking and ball-handling skills were important factors that led to the Celtics’ success. But in the end, there’s little chance he would win a matchup with the greatest point guard of all time.
Bench: Bill Walton, Scott Wedman and Jerry Sichting vs. Michael Cooper, Kurt Rambis and Mychal Thompson
These two benches would actually both make some major contributions to help their teams' chances.
Bill Walton in 1986 was the Sixth Man of the Year Award winner. At 7.6 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game, his averages did not reflect his true impact on the game. Walton provided an extra big man for the Celtics who was good at just about every facet of the game. The only issue with Walton is that his knees were creaky and he had major injuries throughout his career. Even in 1986, Walton only played about 19 minutes per game.
While Walton could help the Celtics in the middle, Scott Wedman and Jerry Sichting could help back up the forward and guard positions respectively. Wedman still was an efficient scorer and Sichting could add run the point to back up Johnson.
The Lakers bench would be led by Defensive Player of the Year Michael Cooper and along with James Worthy, Cooper usually did a decent job guarding Bird. In addition, he also did a decent job in running the point guard backing up Magic Johnson.
Kurt Rambis was an energy guy off the bench whose impact went far beyond his stats, similar to Walton’s case. Rambis’ forte was defense and rebounding.
Mychal Thompson was another valuable frontcourt addition. In the 1987 finals against Boston, he did a masterful job defending Kevin McHale, holding him to about six points per game fewer than his regular-season average. While slowing McHale down, Thompson also added about 10 to 12 points off the bench.
In reviewing the position-by-position analysis, the Lakers hold the advantage in four out of six areas. The Lakers backcourt of Scott and Johnson would hold a strong advantage over the Celtics. While Boston would hold the advantage at forward, Thompson and Cooper would help L.A. to slow down the Celtics. Finally, expect Abdul-Jabbar to get the better of Parish, as he usually did when they faced each other in the playoffs.
Overall, the series would be highly entertaining and some games would be close throughout. But in the end, the Lakers would win in six games.