Los Angeles Lakers: Building the Best All-Time Starting Lineup
The Los Angeles Lakers are one of the most successful franchises in all of professional sports. Over the course of their storied history, they've been to the Finals 31 times and have walked away as the champion 16 times.
A franchise doesn't have that much success without a slew of amazing players spread out over decades.
So, when building an all-time starting five from a group of players that includes some of the best the league has ever seen, the process can be a bit tricky.
Do you include the best players regardless of position? Do you skew more heavily towards the number of championships they won or should their stats speak for themselves? Does longevity matter most or should the quality of their play at their peaks be the deciding factor?
With so many variables to consider, I tried to take everything into account before crafting a group of players that are the best.
What follows is a list of the best five players to ever play for the Lakers, but in the form of a starting lineup. The positions they played within the construct of their respective teams matter, but so does their versatility to perform multiple tasks on the court to help their team win.
Every single player that makes up this starting five could play both ends of the floor, make their teammates better, and impact a game like few have done before or since.
These players not only represent the best the Lakers have to offer, but some of the best players to ever play in the NBA.
Let's get to it...
Point Guard: Magic Johnson
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Considering Magic Johnson is the greatest point guard that has ever played basketball, he is the obvious starting point guard for the Lakers all-time team.
Magic's combined size, quickness, unreal court vision, charisma, and off the charts basketball IQ took hold of the league for an entire decade and never wavered in his dominance.
In leading his team to 9 NBA Finals' appearances and five championships, Magic earned three league MVP awards, three Finals MVP awards, and two All-Star MVP Awards.
From 1982 through 1991, Johnson was first team All-NBA nine consecutive years. He also ranked either first or second in assists per game in every year of his career, save his rookie season.
Forget the accomplishments for a moment, though. What matters most here is the exquisite way in which Magic controlled the game as the ultimate floor general.
The Showtime Lakers were built on Magic's ability to play a full court game better than any other player.
Magic was known for being able to rebound amongst the league's best big men and then orchestrate a fast break to get his team easy baskets. Countless times he'd pull the ball down in middle of the trees, push the ball ahead with the dribble, and then make retreating defenders look helpless as he looked one way and passed the other to a teammate filling the lane.
Equally frustrating for defenses was Magic's awareness to see the entire floor and throw the ball ahead to streaking teammates who would take these full court heaves and deposit them into the basket with ease.
Magic's brilliance went beyond the art of playing uptempo basketball, however.
Often times he'd slow the game down in order to punish opponents with a versatile half-court attack. Whether that meant post ups for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, quick hitting isolations for James Worthy, or spot up jumpers for shooters like Byron Scott, Jamaal Wilkes, Bob MacAdoo, or Michael Cooper, Magic understood how to take advantage of the players around him to maximize the results on any given possession.
Plus, Magic did more than organize an offense.
The 6'9" wizard was also a scoring force all on his own. He often terrorized undersized defenders in the low post with an array of moves that would make big men jealous. He could hit hook shots with either hand, drop step and finish over both shoulders, and worked the offensive glass for put backs like a power forward.
When teams would put larger defenders on him to try and slow down his interior play, Magic would then shift his attack back to the perimeter where he'd beat his man off the dribble or attack at angles that forced help defenders to rotate to the point where he would exploit them with another pin-point pass.
If Magic had one weakness, it was in guarding quicker point guards that he'd match up with. However, even in these situations he'd use his size advantage to disrupt passing angles, block shots from behind, and sag into the paint to be a "free safety" that could force steals. There's a reason why Magic averaged nearly two steals per game for his career and led the league in steals per game twice.
In the construct of this all-time starting five, all of Magic's best attributes would be on full display. He would push the ball for easy baskets when fast break chances presented themselves and then organize the offense and work as an alternative post option in the half court.
Defensively he could switch between multiple positions, but mostly guard other team's small or power forward where his size would come most in handy. This would also place him closer to the rim to give him more defensive rebounding opportunities that could be converted into open court plays.
Shooting Guard: Jerry West
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The man who's called the "Logo" is the perfect back-court mate for the "Magic Man".
Jerry West is an all-time Laker great whose accomplishments, even today, are awe inspiring.
Still the only player to ever win a Finals MVP award in a losing effort, West was a 14 time all-star, a ten time first team All-NBA performer, and a four time first team All-Defensive team member.
And while West only one a single championship as a player, he led his team to the Finals an astonishing nine times in his 14 year career and captained the 1972 championship team that won a record 33 games in a row.
As gaudy as those career accomplishments are, they only show the results, not what West did on the floor to earn them.
West was a supremely talented offensive player that really didn't have a weakness on that side of the floor.
He was a tremendous ball handler that could create shots for himself or his teammates with relative ease. His play-making was so great, he often moonlighted as a point guard and seven times ranked in the top ten in assists per game (including leading the league once).
But it was West's scoring that set him apart. His career 27.0 points per game average still ranks fifth all time in the NBA and is reflective of just how deadly a scorer he was. West could shoot with range beyond today's three point line and could effectively pull up to shoot his mid-range jumper going right or left.
When defenders would overplay his jump-shot he'd either find a way to still get it off or simply take his man deeper into the paint where he could finish with both hands around the basket, even with shot blockers there to deter him.
Defensively, West was simply a monster. He used his long arms and quick feet to pressure ball handlers into submission and wreak havoc in passing lanes. He had enough agility to help on post players and recover to his own man on the perimeter, while being smart enough to know when and how to leave his man without compromising the integrity of his team's defense.
On this all-time Lakers team, West would slide in naturally as a wing scorer and secondary ball handler next to Magic Johnson. On defense, he could guard the opposition's point guard or their dominant wing player and not be out of place checking either position.
Plus, as his "Mr. Clutch" nickname implies, he could also serve as the player who could take the last shot for his team or serve as the set up man should Magic not have the ball. All in all, there's no way West doesn't deserve to be on this team.
Small Forward: Kobe Bryant
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There's really no need to rattle off all of Kobe's career accomplishments, but here's a few just to ensure everyone understands why this team would be incomplete without him:
Through 16 seasons with the Lakers, Kobe is the franchise's all time leading scorer. He's been a key contributor on seven NBA Finals teams, five NBA championship teams, has been Finals MVP two times and league MVP once.
Kobe's also been named to the first or second All-NBA team 12 times, the first or second All-Defensive team 12 times, made 14 all star teams (winning the MVP four times), and been in the top ten in points per game for 12 straight seasons (leading the league twice).
If there's a more deserving Laker to make this team, I can't name him.
The fact is that in order to get him and Jerry West on this team, I had to move Kobe to small forward. This isn't that big a stretch, though.
While Kobe's natural position is shooting guard, he's actually, in modern terms, a do it all wing player.
Kobe possesses an all court game that lends itself to playing either wing position. He has the size to defend shooting guards or small forwards and has the offensive repertoire to square off with any wing defender.
Over the years, it hasn't been a stretch to see Kobe guarded by some of the game's best wing defenders (who also happen to play small forward).
Go back and watch film to see how often LeBron has guarded Kobe. Or how often a prime Ron Artest was pulled off whatever small forward the Lakers employed so he could match up with Kobe. In the 2011-12 playoffs, the OKC Thunder often put Kevin Durant on Kobe down the stretch of games to put a bigger defender on him.
When the roles have been reversed, the same has been true. In going back to the 2008 Finals, Kobe spent ample time chasing Paul Pierce around the wing. Other examples include Kobe guarding everyone from the likes of Grant Hill, to LeBron, to Caron Butler, to Durant, to Carmelo Anthony.
Beyond the positional questions, the fact remains that Kobe simply belongs on this team due to the strength of his game.
Kobe's a natural scorer with an ability to light up the scoreboard from any spot on the floor. He has range beyond the three point line, can hit from mid-range, has the ability to get to the basket and finish in traffic, and possesses one of the best post up games for any player at any position.
He also has underrated court vision, is an excellent positional rebounder, and has the handle to create shots for himself or teammates from multiple spots on the floor.
On an all-time Laker team, Kobe could easily serve as the team's leading scorer or be a fantastic fill in the blanks player that does what the team needs of him. If you look back to Kobe's performances from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, you'd find a player willing to play off the ball for long stretches, but then prove capable of taking over offensively when his team needed him.
Filling the same role for this team would be easy for the man nicknamed "Mamba".
Power Forward: Elgin Baylor
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There may not be a more forgotten great Laker than Elgin Baylor.
Yes, his #22 hangs in the rafters. And, yes, he gets recognition when fans get past names like Magic, Kobe, West, and Kareem.
But, when it comes right down to it, Elgin Baylor is the greatest forward the Lakers have ever had, and it's not even that close.
Over a career that only spanned 12 meaningful seasons (in his 13th and 14th campaigns, Baylor played in a total of 11 games) and hampered by injuries, Baylor was All-NBA first team ten times. He was named an all-star 11 times, including his rookie campaign where he was named the MVP of the contest. And while he never won a championship (he retired nine games into the Lakers 1972-73 championship season) he played in eight Finals as a member of the Lakers.
Nicknamed the "Godfather of hang-time," Baylor was an innovator from the moment he stepped on an NBA court. His athleticism was simply a generation ahead of his contemporaries.
His work off the dribble was fantastic. He could get to the rim and finish with either hand, stop and pull up for a mid-range jumper, or simply lose his man completely before setting up a teammate of his own. At a time when most players were still playing a ground-bound game, Baylor floated above his defender and flipped shots into the basket.
Baylor was also a tremendous positional rebounder. Eight times Baylor ranked in the top ten in rebounds per game and once grabbed an incredible 19.8 boards per game for an entire season. Baylor used his tremendous leaping ability and exquisite timing to clean backboards and then race the other way for transition chances.
And while Baylor will forever be remembered as a scorer, his ability to create scoring opportunities for his teammates should not be forgotten. Six times he finished in the top ten in the league in assists per game, often setting up his teammates for easy baskets after drawing a great deal of defensive attention.
In an all-time Laker team starting five, Elgin would likely be the fifth best player but deserves a place on the team regardless.
His offensive versatility would serve him well on the fast break and as an outlet in the half court for spot up mid range jumpers. If a set ever broke down and he had the ball, he'd have few issues creating a shot for himself or a teammate.
Defensively, he could slide between the wing and post depending on the match up. And while he would be giving up a lot of size to many modern day forwards, he'd still be a force to contend with on the backboards using his timing and athletic ability.
Center: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not only the greatest center in Lakers' history, but may be the greatest in the history of the NBA.
No player combined the longevity, peak performance, and consistently high production that Jabbar did in his stellar career.
In a career that spanned two decades, Kareem won six league MVP awards and two Finals MVP awards (14 years apart!), was named first or second team All-NBA 15 times, was named first or second team All-Defense 11 times, and made 19 all-star teams. Kareem is also the NBA's all-time leading scorer while ranking fourth in total rebounds and third in total blocked shots. Not to mention, from a team standpoint, Kareem played in nine NBA Finals while walking home with six championships.
If there's a player with a more accomplished NBA career, I've yet to find him.
If there's one thing Kareem will be remembered for, however, it's the deadliest weapon in all of basketball: the sky hook.
Over the years, Kareem essentially perfected an unblockable shot that he could take and make from distances of up to 18 feet. He'd swing left, shoot right and bury opponents with a flick of his wrist.
Beyond the range he had with the hook, what made the shot even more difficult to defend was that Kareem developed great counter moves to his best weapon. If players would start to overplay him to his right side, Kareem would simply drop step to his left and either put up a short jumper or finish with a lay-in or hook from the other direction.
But his footwork was so precise and his timing so good, none of that really mattered in the end. He'd simply keep firing off hook shots as opponents seemed resigned to the fact that once he caught the ball, they'd be subjected to seeing the shot go up and (mostly) in.
Despite his reputation on offense, Kareem was far from a one dimensional player.
Though slight of frame, Kareem knew how to protect the paint by challenging and altering shots. Players that recklessly drove the lane would often find Kareem lurking, ready to block their shot once it was taken, or deter them from taking it entirely. And while his lack of girth made him susceptible to strong opponents (Moses Malone gave Kareem fits over his career), his length and timing proved a great equalizer when defending the post one on one.
On this team, Kareem would simply provide what he did his entire NBA career.
He'd be the anchor in the pivot on both ends of the floor, providing elite scoring from the post, and top shelf defense and rebounding in the paint. His deft passing would allow his teammates to still get ample touches and not allow defenses to crowd him consistently.
The athleticism he brought in his prime years would be a perfect complement to a team that wanted to run on offense, while also being very useful to a team that would need his back end coverage on defense. His ability to control the glass and guard any opponent's best post player would also aid an undersized starting group.