Kobe Bryant has been consistently great for so long that it’s hard to ignore his place in Los Angeles Lakers history. His sustained excellence is reason enough for him to enter the conversation of greatest Laker of all time.
The Lakers franchise is unlike any other in professional sports because of its prestige. It’s captured 16 world titles and inducted arguably the biggest names in the sport into the Hall of Fame.
It’s quite an impressive list. Consequently, that makes Bryant’s rank in Lakers history quite an accomplishment.
Mind you, before getting to the five-time world champion, a look at the history of those that came before him is in order.
George Mikan was the NBA’s first superstar. He was a big man with unparalleled skills that led the Minneapolis Lakers to five titles in six seasons. Although his NBA career only lasted six campaigns, he still dominated the sport by leading the league in scoring on two occasions and rebounding twice.
Players from the old guard are often dismissed and forgotten whenever lists are formed debating their greatness vis-a-vis other athletes. In the case of Mikan though, it’s completely warranted given the short length of his career.
Not too long after Mikan retired, Minneapolis was fortunate enough to select Elgin Baylor in the 1958 NBA draft. During his 14-year career with the Lakers, Baylor changed the way many watched and played the game of basketball.
He was the first player in league history to play above the rim. The Lakers moved to Los Angeles in his third season and eventually attracted a great following given their radio broadcasts and the multiple preseason games played against the Celtics in an effort to create a rivalry.
Baylor was enlisted in the army and thus missed a fair share of games going back-and-forth from the military base to the basketball team. Nonetheless, his patriotic commitments never got in the way of his production.
On three separate occasions, he averaged north of 30 points per game in the regular season, and he also led all scorers in playoff points per game four times. In addition, he had Dennis Rodman-like rebounding numbers.
Baylor’s career averages of 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds per game could mislead many into thinking he was a center when in fact the superstar was a small forward. His blend of scoring, rebounding and playmaking earned him 10 All-NBA first-team honors during his career.
Mind you, the numerous failures of the Lakers in the finals irreparably hurt his case when he is measured against other members of the franchise. The Lakers were defeated eight times in the title round with Baylor on the team, a fact that simply makes him somewhat forgotten in the franchise’s annals.
In contrast, Jerry West is one of the most beloved figures in Lakers history. Once upon a time, he was regarded as the greatest shooting guard the league had ever seen and even earned the nickname of Mr. Clutch for his great play late in ballgames.
West was a premier scorer, shooter and playmaker as evidenced by his career averages of 27 points and 6.7 assists per game on 47.4 percent field-goal shooting. Also, he was a terror defensively that often locked up opposing guards.
His exceptional two-way play made him a permanent fixture on both the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams.
West was such an exceptional performer that he earned the 1968-69 NBA Finals MVP despite the fact the Lakers lost the series. He remains to this day the only player on the runner-up team to win the award.
And yet, one cannot avoid the fact that this Hall of Fame guard participated in nine finals and came out victorious once. This isn’t to suggest that he does not deserve the acclaim he has received throughout his career, but rather to illustrate the differences between Baylor and him.
His 14-year career with the Purple and Gold is still one of the best stretches of any player to wear a Lakers jersey.
Wilt Chamberlain included.
Indeed, the big man was an incredibly dominating force during his five seasons with the Lakers, but that’s just it: He only suited up for a half-decade in the uniform.
It’s worth noting that Chamberlain was still a terrific scorer and punishing rebounder in his final seasons in the league. Also, he helped the Lakers win 33 games in a row and a world title during the 1971-72 season.
He averaged 23.2 points and 19.4 rebounds per game during the finals that season, which resulted in him winning the 1971-72 NBA Finals MVP award.
But again, his longevity as a Laker hurts his candidacy as far as being the greatest Laker ever. Gail Goodrich (nine seasons with the team) and Shaquille O’Neal (eight seasons) share the same fate on this front despite their terrific credentials.
O’Neal’s prime is still viewed as the most dominant stretch of basketball in league history. It happens to coincide with the Lakers’ three-peat championship run where he won three finals MVP trophies.
Bryant was O’Neal’s sidekick during those title celebrations, although he did eventually graduate and become his partner more so than simply his wingman.
Bryant was instrumental to those three titles given his playmaking throughout games as well as his clutch scoring.
The defensive game plan devised by opponents to stop the Lakers became infinitely more complex as the superstar guard turned himself into one of the most lethal scoring options in the league.
Even after O’Neal’s departure in the summer of 2004, Bryant was simply unstoppable despite being surrounded with lesser talent.
After a few postseason first-round failures, the Lakers upgraded their roster and Bryant steered the team to three consecutive finals from 2007-08 to 2009-10. Bryant’s playmaking and scoring proved invaluable during the stretch as the Lakers won back-to-back titles.
That period of time is arguably the greatest run of individual and collective achievement for Bryant. He collected an MVP trophy as well as two finals MVP awards.
His collection of hardware coupled with his elevated role after O’Neal’s exit enhance his stature and the myth surrounding him. Thus, complementary Hall of Fame Lakers such as James Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes and Bob McAdoo are not on the same level as Bryant.
In addition, his longevity gives him a remarkable grip on the franchise in comparison to his predecessors. Have a look at his statistical career achievements and where they rank in Lakers history:
- 31,617 points (most in franchise history)
- 1,239 games played (most in franchise history)
- 45,390 minutes played (most in franchise history)
- 11,024 field goals made (most in franchise history)
- 24,301 field goals attempted (most in franchise history)
- 1,637 three-point field goals made (most in franchise history)
- 4,879 three-point field goals attempted (most in franchise history)
- 7,932 free throws made (most in franchise history)
- 9,468 free throws attempted (most in franchise history)
- 1,430 offensive rebounds (seventh in franchise history)
- 5,145 defensive rebounds (second in franchise history)
- 6,575 total rebounds (third in franchise history)
- 5,887 assists (third in franchise history)
- 1,828 steals (most in franchise history)
- 619 blocks (seventh in franchise history)
The Lakers’ record books predominantly feature Bryant’s name at the top given his incredible play during his 17-year career with the franchise. He has been simply sensational from the moment he became a regular contributor on the team.
Hence, he is in a class with a very few players when it comes to athletes eligible for the title of “greatest Laker of all time.”
Bryant’s victory in the 2010 finals against the Celtics tied him with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in terms of championships won with the Purple and Gold.
Johnson is the standard by which all point guards are measured. In terms of all-around brilliance, it’s possible no one was ever better than the man who earned the name of Magic.
The 6’8’’ guard simply did it all. He snatched rebounds off the glass, ran the length of the court and fed teammates streaking to the hoop. In the half court, he directed the offense beautifully and dissected defenses like a coach running a basketball clinic.
Johnson was also a sensational scoring option with very few weaknesses. His length coupled with his ambidextrous game made him a terror in the low post where he converted hook shots fairly easily.
He got to his spots with great regularity and destroyed defenses that double-teamed him.
More importantly though, Johnson’s teams won and looked great in the process. During 13 seasons in the league, the superstar point guard participated in nine finals matchups.
Johnson turned basketball into an entertaining form of competition. His teams got out in transition and dunked the ball as often as possible. He gave the team extra flair by executing exquisite no-look passes to teammates for scores.
With Johnson at the helm, the Lakers were simply known as "Showtime" during the 1980s. On four separate instances, he led the league in assists per game all the while putting up enough points to force defenses to account for him.
His superb play coupled with his amazing playoff performances resulted in him winning three NBA MVP trophies as well as three finals MVP awards.
Johnson is one of the greatest Lakers of all time and also one of the five greatest players ever by most accounts. His dominance of opponents, team success and command of the sport are simply unmatched save for perhaps a handful of other players.
One of those other players is one of his former teammates and the greatest scoring option ever: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The big man’s time with the Milwaukee Bucks could lead one to wonder whether he actually played long enough with the Lakers to be considered as the greatest player in franchise history.
And the answer is simple: yes. Abdul-Jabbar played 20 seasons in the NBA and 14 of those were spent with the Purple and Gold.
His name figures prominently in the Lakers’ record books given his consistent play during his entire career. Abdul-Jabbar was productive from the very moment he joined the franchise up to the point when he retired at age 41.
Listed at 7’2’’, he was simply unstoppable on offense. Where Johnson was the catalyst for the Lakers' highlights and transition plays, the center was perhaps the most boring and yet effective option of them all.
In the half court, the Lakers more often than not called Abdul-Jabbar’s number, and he delivered. Considering he is the league’s all-time leading scorer as well as the proud owner of a career 55.9 percent field-goal percentage, it’s safe to say he is the surest two points the league has ever seen.
On top of his scoring prowess, Abdul-Jabbar was a great rebounder in his early days with the Lakers and also a stud rim protector. His production on this front as well as his minutes declined toward his mid-30s, but the numbers he put up at the time would probably still earn him an All-NBA selection in today’s game.
Indeed, from ages 34 to 41, the center averaged 19.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game on 56.6 percent shooting from the field, per Basketball-Reference. Oh and he collected a finals MVP during this run.
Again, he was doing this in the twilight of his career.
For the sake of perspective, only 34 players have averaged such numbers or more for their entire careers. In other words, his decline as a Laker is superior to the prime of most players.
In his time with the Lakers, the big man was an unstoppable scorer that punished interior defenders into submission. His skyhook shot is perhaps the most famous shot in basketball history and has never been duplicated.
Abdul-Jabbar was blessed with skill, grace and touch around the basket. Putting the ball in the rim was never a glamorous or difficult proposition for the Lakers center, just an efficient one.
His greatness earned him three MVP awards, a finals MVP and numerous selections to the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams as a Laker (including his Milwaukee days, he has six MVPs and two finals MVP trophies).
Because of his lack of flair during his playing days, Abdul-Jabbar is easily the most forgotten great player ever. But his credentials speak for themselves and elevate him at the top in the pantheon of Lakers.
Bryant is unquestionably the face of the organization and the name that most in his era will associate with the franchise, but he is not the best Laker of them all.
Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar have better cases for that title. Then again, approaching the throne of two of the five best players ever can hardly be looked at as a failure for Bryant.
J.M. Poulard is a featured columnist and can be found on Twitter under the handle name @ShyneIV.