L.A. Lakers: Kobe Bryant and the 10 Best Ever Draft Picks
If it’s any consolation to Lakers fans, Dirk Nowitzki, JJ Barea, Jason Terry and the Mavericks bench absolutely shredded the Oklahoma City Thunder last night in the first game of their Western Conference Finals series. Kobe Bryant and the greatest Laker draft picks of all-time would have had a tough time trying to defend the Mavs in this one.
It’s hard to win multiple titles in the NBA when you’re used to winning multiple titles, something the Lakers have done 16 times in their history. After three-straight years of making it to the NBA Finals, the drain of the long season, with 77 playoff games over that period of time, seemed to wear down the Lakers and they limped out of the playoffs after a second-round beat down by the high-flying Mavericks.
A new chapter has begun for the purple and gold. It’s time to leave the past behind, hire a new head coach, and try filling in the necessary pieces to get the Lakers back to where they and their fans feel most comfortable—the NBA Finals.
How to actually accomplish that feat is up to management and the current crop of players on the roster. Will Mitch Kupchak “blow up” the team as former Lakers great Magic Johnson has advocated? Outside of Kobe Bryant, no one should feel safe—including Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and Ron Artest.
Will any of the four draft picks the Lakers possess in the second round of this year’s draft turn out to be a diamond in the proverbial rough? Or will the team come up with a blockbuster trade that brings a superstar such as Dwight Howard or Chris Paul to Southern California?
The Lakers have built superior clubs over the years through all of these methods. When they’ve had high draft picks, which is not often, the Lakers have taken some of the greatest talent the league has ever seen and developed championship teams around them.
Take a look at the Lakers' top 10 draft picks of all-time and tell me if you think there’s any sort of pattern or method to the team’s madness. When your franchise is able to hang 16 banners that all say world champion on them, you must be doing something right.
10. Jim Cleamons, 1971, Ohio State Guard, 13th Pick
When the Lakers drafted this 6'3" guard from Ohio State in 1971, they felt they were getting a quick, smart point guard who could help the team win more championships in the ensuing years. Little did they know his greatest impact on the team would come almost 30 years later.
Cleamons was a rookie during the 1971-72 season and ended up playing very little for this championship Lakers team. L.A. was loaded with talent already when the season began and the team went on a record-setting tear that included 33-straight wins during the regular season. That team included Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, Jim McMillan and Happy Hairston.
Cleamons scored a grand total of 98 points for the Lakers that season and was traded the following year to the Cleveland Cavaliers where he got an opportunity to start and averaged between 10-12 points over the next several years.
Why put Cleamons on the Lakers list for top 10 draft picks? Because he never forgot his NBA roots and, some 30 years later, Cleamons returned to the team as an assistant coach to Phil Jackson and helped nurse teams in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009 and 2010 to championships.
Jim Cleamons has five world championship rings, all with the Lakers. That's impressive.
9. Jim McMillian, 1970, Columbia, 13th Pick
When the great Elgin Baylor went down with an injury early in the 1971-72 season, second-year small forward Jim McMillian stepped into the spot and the team immediately went on its record-breaking 33-game winning streak.
The 13th player taken by the Lakers in the 1971 draft, McMillian chose Los Angeles over the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association which also had picked the former Columbia standout in their own draft.
During that memorable championship season, McMillian averaged 18.8 points per game in 38 minutes, grabbed 6.5 rebounds and had 2.6 assists, while shooting 48 percent from the field. He was an integral part of the Lakers world title and, for that, McMillian goes into the books as one of the team's top picks.
The following season, 1972-73, McMillian enjoyed an even better campaign. He averaged 18.9 points in 36 minutes per game and made 85 percent of his free throws.
McMillian was traded the following year to the Buffalo Braves but he had already left his mark in Los Angeles.
8. A.C. Green, 1985, Oregon State, 23rd Pick
In his eight seasons as a Los Angeles Laker, A.C. Green missed just three games. He was the iron man of the team, a rough and tough power forward whose presence in the paint helped the Lakers win two world championships (1986-87 and 1987-88).
The 6'9", 225-pound former Oregon State star was the 23rd pick in the 1985 draft by the Lakers, and it didn't take him long to forge a presence. While mild mannered off the court, Green could be very tough on it—by his second season, he had shown most of the basketball world that he would not be intimidated.
During those two championship seasons, Green averaged 10.8 and 11.4 points respectively, and brought down 7.8 and 8.7 rebounds per game. For the following years in a Lakers uniform, A.C. Green averaged 13.3, 12.9, 9.1, 13.6, and 12.8 points per game; the model of consistency.
7. Norm Nixon, 1977, Duquesne, 22nd Pick
For six seasons beginning in 1977, Norm Nixon was the model of consistency for the Lakers, both on and off the court.
Nixon averaged 34 minutes and 13.7 points per game in his rookie year with the team and between 17.1-17.6 points per game for the next four years.
Nixon played on two world championship teams for the Lakers, both culminating in 4-2 series wins over the 76ers to win the title. Those victories came in 1979-80 and 1981-82 and with teammate Magic Johnson at his side in the backcourt.
Nixon ranked in the top five in assists in seven seasons as a pro. He later was traded by the Lakers to the San Diego Clippers where, in 1983-84, he led the NBA in total assists with 914.
By that time, Nixon had already stolen the hearts of Lakers fans everywhere. He later returned when his career ended and has been a pre and post-game color analyst for the team's telecasts in FOX.
6. Elgin Baylor, 1958, Seattle, 1st Pick
Elgin Baylor was a human highlight film before there were human highlight films. If he'd been born about 20 years later, there would be sneakers and t-shirts named after him.
Baylor was drafted No. 1 by the Minneapolis Lakers in 1958 and his career in the NBA took off immediately. He was a All-NBA first-team selection for the first 10 of 11 years that he played in the league.
Baylor could do things with a basketball that left his teammates and the opposition in awe.
"He was one of the most spectacular shooters the game has ever known," Baylor's longtime teammate Jerry West told HOOP magazine in 1992. "I hear people talking about forwards today and I haven't seen many that can compare with him."
Baylor never won a title with the Lakers, having retired in 1971 just one season before the team would capture its first title since moving to L.A. from Minneapolis in 1960. But Baylor did leave an indelible mark on the Lakers landscape. He averaged 27.4 points per game during his 14-year career and was an All-Star 11 times.
5. Derek Fisher, 1996, Arkansas Little Rock, 24th Pick
There undoubtedly will be doubters when it comes to the career impact of Derek Fisher. There will also be plenty of you who will think I've gone off the deep end by selecting D-Fish as one of the top draft picks in Lakers history.
If you were to just look at his statistics during the regular season, you might think the Lakers made a big mistake in drafting the 6'1" Fisher in 1996; the same year that brought them another top-flight rookie who also would make his mark in a Lakers uniform (more on him later).
Fisher should have a photo of himself in the dictionary next to the word "intangible" because that's what he has brought to the Lakers organization on and off the court since he came into the league 15 years ago.
If you only judge talent on statistics, then Derek Fisher won't even make the team. The critics have chastised him for years, saying he can't guard anyone, that he has a horrible looking shot and that he just doesn't score much.
For those in the know, Derek Fisher is the consummate professional. The intangibles start with this: five championship rings. And it's no coincidence either.
Fisher has made so many big, game-changing shots in his career with the Lakers, that it's impossible to remember them all. He could have retired the minute after making that miracle shot against the Spurs in the 2004 Conference Semifinals. His two huge three-pointers against the Orlando Magic in Game 4 of the 2009 Finals helped cement a victory and a 3-1 series lead for L.A., which then went on to win their 15th title with a Game 5 win in Orlando.
There were more, including a giant three-point shot in Game 7 of the Lakers-Celtics showdown last summer that propelled the team to an emotional, come-from-behind win and their 16th championship.
The bottom line with Derek Fisher is that he's a champion—his Laker teams have won big games and big titles with him as their starting point guard.
4. Jerry West, 1960, West Virginia, 2nd Pick
They call him the "logo."
Jerry West was drafted in 1960 by the Minneapolis Lakers, one year before the team moved out to Los Angeles. West will always be remembered for his exploits as one of the most tremendous scoring machines in the history of the game.
An NBA champion in 1972, West is also one of the only players in league history to win the NBA Finals Series MVP when his team lost. That was in 1969 against the Boston Celtics and West was just that good.
West was the third player to reach 25,000 points after Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. His teams reached the Finals nine times and he was an All-Star every year of his brilliant career.
Jerry West retired with the highest scoring average for a playoff series. He also was known for his incredible shot-making ability.
West hit what was the most famous buzzer-beater of all-time: a 60-footer that tied Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals against the New York Knicks. L.A. went on to lose that game, but West certainly helped set the standard for excellence that's been a part of his makeup for as long as he played and held general manager positions around the league.
3. James Worthy, 1982, North Carolina, 1st Pick
How can anyone argue with perfection? That's pretty much what "Big Game James" was during the course of an illustrious career.
The No. 1 draft pick of the Lakers and the league in 1982, Worthy more than lived up to his name by giving the team just what it needed to complete its roster of Showtime stars that also included Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon.
Worthy was a seven-time All-Star and played on three NBA Championship teams with the Lakers. He averaged close to 18 points per game for his career and won a NBA Finals MVP award as well.
Worthy also averaged 21.1 points per game in the playoffs. Four times his average for a season was 20-plus points and he shot 52 percent for his career, 54 percent career for the playoffs.
2. Kobe Bean Bryant, 1996, Lower Merion HS, 13th Pick
This may go down in sports history as the steal of the century. The Lakers gladly traded starting center Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets just prior to the draft that summer, in exchange for the 13th pick.
Management hesitated for about a nano second and then selected Kobe Bryant with the pick. He was 17 years old at the time, untested and supposedly not as good as 12 other guys taken before him in the draft.
Those who went before Bryant on that draft day included some pretty special names—Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, and Ray Allen. They also included the likes of Kerry Kittles, Samaki Walker, Erick Dampier, Todd Fuller, and Vitaly Potapenko by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Who?
Fifteen years later, Bryant sits at home in Southern California with five championship rings and countless other riches the game has provided him with.
Bryant averaged 35 PPG in 2005. For his career, Bryant's numbers are 25.3 PPG , 5.3 RPG, 4.7 assists and 1.5 SPG.
Bryant scored 81 points against Toronto in 2006; second most in league history behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100. The Lakers would not be sitting with all this hardware today were it not for Bryant.
1. Earvin "Magic" Johnson, 1979, Michigan State, 1st Pick
This one was easy. No player in Lakers history changed the fortunes of his franchise as much as Earvin "Magic" Johnson did when the team drafted him No. 1 overall in 1979.
A five-time NBA champion, Johnson wasted little time upon his arrival in L.A. in 1979. He took an aging, half-court veteran team and proceeded to change them into a youthful, high spirited, exciting club that later became known as "Showtime."
Under Johnson's leadership, the Lakers won titles in 1980, '82, '85, '87 and '88. He was a 12-time All-Star and two-time league MVP.
Johnson has the career record for highest assists-per-game average—11.2. He led the NBA with 3.43 steals per game (1980-81) and 2.67 steals per game (1981-82). And, Johnson won the NBA crown in his rookie season, 1980.
Johnson took the Lakers into the modern era and into the future. The Showtime Lakers were all about fast breaks, tremendous defense and winning, winning, winning.
Players like Magic Johnson come along once in a generation. The current team is not going to get itself another Magic this June when their second-round picks are announced.
But, with the nucleus of players returning in the fall, and a drafted player or two, this crop of Lakers may just have enough to hoist that 17th banner come 2012.