Los Angeles Lakers: Ranking Their 10 Greatest Players

Darrell HorwitzSenior Writer IISeptember 14, 2011

Los Angeles Lakers: Ranking Their 10 Greatest Players

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    When you think of basketball teams and great players, I don't think anybody matches up to the Los Angeles Lakers for the talent level of players who have played for them.

    Another team that comes to mind is the Boston Celtics, but I think they had better teams over the years than individual players, other than an obvious few who were standouts.They may have won more championships than the Lakers, but their greatest players don't quite match up.

    Looking at the Lakers, you see names like Wilt, Magic, Kareem, Shaq and Kobe. When you can identify someone by either a first name or a nickname, you know they are among the elites to ever play the game.

    It's a lot harder ranking the players than picking them. I think the group I selected are unquestionably the "10 Greatest Lakers" ever.

    Some may question my choices. There is not much to argue about when you look at those I selected, but the rankings will probably cause a lot of debate among Laker fans and basketball fans in general.

    These are my choices. I'm wondering if you are going to agree with me.

10: George Mikan

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    George Mikan was the dominant big man in the first half century of basketball, changing the game in the course of his career. His presence caused the league to widen the lane to try to keep him from dominating in the paint.

    I'm only going to include his numbers from the time the league was called the NBA, and his numbers were dominating. He averaged 23.1 points and 13.4 rebounds per game.

    He won three scoring titles, and was a member of the first four NBA All-Star teams.

    In 1959 he was immortalized as a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

    He was also selected as one of the 50 greatest players of all time in 1996.

    He was an awkward 6'10" player that Coach Ray Meyer at Depaul drilled and drilled until he turned him into a basketball player.

    With coke-bottle glasses, he had a studious look, but on the basketball court, with a hook shot that he could shoot with either hand, he dominated.

    However, his career shooting percentage said something else. At .401 for a big man in a small man's game at the time, it's not very impressive.

    Whether he could have played in today's game or not is debatable, but the odds are he wouldn't have had a Hall of Fame career if he could make a roster.

    But he was a dominant player in his time, and it was as a Laker, even if it was while playing in Minneapolis.

9: Gale Goodrich

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    Gale Goodrich was a key member of the Lakers in the early seventies, teaming with Jerry West to form one of the greatest back-courts of all time.

    He started out with L.A., but went to Phoenix in the expansion draft before coming back to the Lakers. He was a different player his second time around, and was one of the main reasons the Lakers became a dominant team.

    After returning to the club, he averaged 17.5, 25.9, 23.9, 25.3, 22.6, and 19.5.

    An excellent outside shooter, and a very good free throw shooter, he was constantly in motion on the court, and guarding him was like running in a marathon.

    Goodrich was a four time All-Star with the Lakers, and was their leading scorer, averaging 25.0 points a game for the 1971-72 championship team that won 33 straight games. At the time, that team had the best record in the history of the league at 69-13.

    Goodrich was probably an underrated player, and not as appreciated as much as he should have been during his career, but he was by the Lakers, who retired his jersey.

8: James Worthy

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    James Worthy was the first pick in the 1982 NBA draft and fit right in the "Showtime" lineup, adding a great piece in the open court for a team that liked to run every chance it got.

    But that wasn't all he had. He had a lightning-quick spin move along with a devastating turnaround jump shot.

    While a great player, he always had to play second fiddle. At North Carolina, that player was Michael Jordan. In L.A, he took a back seat to both Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

    He averaged 17.6 points a game in a 12 year career on .521 shooting, all with the Lakers. Those numbers climbed to 21.1 in the playoffs, and helped earn him the nickname, "Big Game James."

    In 1985, he averaged 21.5 points on .622 shooting. In the finals against the Boston Celtics, he raised it to 23.7, leading the Lakers to another championship.

    He was very consistent. In a seven year stretch, he averaged between 19-21 points a game.

    Worthy was a seven time All-Star and three time NBA champion.

    He ended up fifth in Lakers' team history in scoring, finishing with 16,320 points.

    Worthy was one of only seven Lakers to have his jersey retired, and was named one of the top 50 NBA players of all time in 1996.

    He was elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.

7: Elgin Baylor

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    Elgin Baylor was the first of the acrobatic, high-fliers to play the game of basketball. Fans who later grew to appreciate players like Connie Hawkins, Dr. J. and Michael Jordan should know that this is the player who preceded them.

    Baylor came out of Seattle U. to a downward-spiraling, last place Lakers team and took them to the NBA finals before losing to the Boston Celtics in his rookie season.

    He won Rookie of the Year honors in 1958-59, averaging 24.9 points and 15.0 rebounds a game, but he was just getting started.

    In his next four years, he averaged 29.6 and 16.4 rebounds, 34.8 with 19.8 rebounds, 38.3 and 18.6, and 34.0 with 14.3 caroms.

    In his 14 seasons with the Lakers, he helped them make it to the finals seven times, but unfortunately never took home a ring. He retired early in the record-setting 1971-72 championship season. 

    In the 1960-61 season, he scored a then NBA record 71 points against the New York Knicks and added 25 rebounds for good measure.

    He later scored a record 61 points in an NBA finals game against the Boston Celtics during the 1961-62 playoffs. He added 22 rebounds in the game. That record still stands.

    He suffered a knee injury in the 1965 playoffs and never averaged over 30 points a game in a season again.

    Baylor finished with a career average of 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds a game.

    He was an 11 time All-Star, and was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1977.

    He played in a less-athletic era and was a freak for his time, so whether he could have put up numbers like he did in later years is debatable, but what's not debatable is that he was one of the Laker's all-time greats.

    His jersey was also retired by the Lakers, and he was another Laker who was voted one of the fifty greatest players of all time in 1996.

6: Wilt Chamberlain

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    Wilt was a tough one because I really wanted to rank him higher, but I'm doing this based on his time with the Lakers and not in the league. Since he only played five years with L.A., I feel this is the right spot for him, though I did make a last minute switch with another Laker center.

    He came to the Lakers in a trade from the Philadelphia 76er's on July 9, 1968 for Archie Clark, Jerry Chambers and Darrall Imhoff.

    He owns the all-time record for points in a game with 100 against the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962. He shot 36-63 from the field, and 28-32 from the charity stripe. Fortunately he was hot that day considering his career free throw percentage was .511.

    Wilt finished with career marks of 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds a game, though his numbers were not quite as potent with the Lakers.

    His high was 27.3, and he added 18.4 rebounds in his only season with them that he didn't lead the league in that category. He averaged only 13.2 points in his final season in 1972-73, but did pull down 18.6 boards.

    The "Stilt" was a key member of the team that had a record 33-game-winning in the 1971-72 season. They won 69 games and the NBA title.

    He was a 13 time All-Star, along with being selected each of his five seasons with Los Angeles.

    He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979, and was selected as one of the 50 greatest players to ever play the game in 1996.

    Though he was a terrific player, he never got his due because of his size, and the fact that he won only two titles during his career. Unlike his contemporary Bill Russell of the Celtics, he was not viewed as a winner.

    Another distinction he achieved was never fouling out of a game, which is incredible considering how aggressively he played.

    Nobody liked Goliath, though women apparently did, to the tune of 20,000 plus according to Wilt's estimate, so he scored almost as well off the court as on.

5: Shaquille O'Neal

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    Shaquille O'Neal yearned for the bright lights of Hollywood, so he left the Orlando Magic and came to the Lakers when he became a free agent. He followed in the long line of great NBA centers who didn't start their career with L.A.

    Teaming with Kobe Bryant, Shaq centered three consecutive championship teams, 1999-2000, 2000-01 and 2001-02. He was voted the NBA Finals MVP each of those seasons.

    He was a dominant player in the league, and possibly the hardest to officiate. Teams developed the Hack-a-Shaq to try to slow him down in the post, and put him on the free throw line where he was a career .527 shooter.

    You didn't want to let him shoot from the field, where his percentage jumped to .582. He led the league in field goal percentage 10 times, six with the Lakers.

    When he lowered his shoulder and drove a defender back, it could have been viewed as an offensive foul, but that was his game, and it was officiated accordingly.

    Shaq was a 15 time All-Star, including seven with L.A. in only eight years. He was injured part of the season he didn't make it.

    He finished with career averages of 23.7 points and 10.9 rebounds a game.

    He topped that with the Lakers though, ranging from 21.0 in his last season with 11.2 rebounds, to 28.1 in his second year with the team along with 11.3 caroms. He generally averaged closer to the latter than the former.

    After a dispute with Kobe Bryant, he was traded to Miami for multiple players and draft picks, including Lamar Odom and Caron Butler. He teamed with Dwyane Wade, where he won another championship in 2006.

    He was known for always having a smile on his face and his playful personality, except when interacting with Kobe.

4: Kobe Bryant

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    Kobe Bryant was acquired by the Los Angles Lakers in a draft-day trade with the Charlotte Hornets in 1996 for veteran center Vlade Divac. He was the 13th selection in the draft out of high school, and the son of former NBA baller Joe "Jellybean" Bryant.

    The rest is history as Bryant has become an NBA and Laker legend, and one of the greatest players in the game, but just fourth on my list of all-time Laker greats.

    He sports five championship rings, and is unquestionably the leader of the team, especially since he won a battle against former teammate Shaquille O'Neal for supremacy of the Lakers.

    Going into the current season, he brings career averages of 25.3 points in the regular season, and 25.4 in the playoffs. He is a 13 time All-Star and a regular on the All-Defensive Team.

    He won his one-and-only league MVP in the 2007-08 season, and was NBA Finals MVP in both the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons.

    He also had the second highest scoring game in NBA history when he went off for 81 points against the Toronto Raptors in 2006.

    Despite all of those accomplishments, he has also been the center of controversy, including a rape accusation in Colorado that went away with a payoff to the alleged victim. The charge may have disappeared, but it hurt his reputation quite a bit at the time, though now it almost seems forgotten.

    What is not forgotten is the Lakers not making the playoffs in 2004 after O'Neal left the team with Kobe in charge. Without the big man in the middle, he was not quite so dominating anymore, and the team was in the throes of mediocrity, winning only 34 games. It was the first time in over a decade they failed to make the playoffs.

    Phil Jackson was also no longer coaching them that year. In a book he wrote documenting the 2003-04 season, he called Kobe "uncoachable."

    They made the playoffs the next year with a 45-37 record, but lost to Phoenix in the first round after blowing a 3-1 lead.

    Not until another big man came into the fold with the "steal" of Pau Gasol from Memphis did the Lakers return to prominence. They won back-to-back titles in 2008-09 and 2009-10, but were swept out of the playoffs last year in an embarrassing series against the Dallas Mavericks.

    He also switched his number from 24 to 8 at the start of the 2006-07 season. The question is which number will be retired when he finally hangs up his jersey.

    What's not in question is that he was one of the greatest players in team history, but he was not in the top three in my book.

3: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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    It's hard to imagine the NBA's all-time leading scorer only ranked third on this list, but I'm basing it on his time with the Lakers, and this is where he belongs.

    He didn't win anything until Magic Johnson came to the Lakers. And while a dominant player, he never averaged 30 points a game with LA.

    He changed the game while playing at UCLA. The NCAA outlawed the dunk strictly because of his presence, so he developed the most dominating shot in the history of basketball—the "sky-hook."

    The shot had never been seen before or since he played. While the hook shot was prevalent with big men before he played, nobody took it to the level that he did. Once he got the ball in his preferred spot, it was unstoppable.

    He was a 19 time All-Star, including 13 with the Lakers. Six times he was the MVP of the league, three of those with the Lakers. He was also the 1984-85 Finals MVP.

    Jabbar was a member of five championship teams for LA, but none until Magic Johnson joined the team.

    He averaged 27.7 points in his first year with them, and led the league with 16.9 rebounds and 4.1 blocks a game. That was his best statistical year with the team. His rebound and scoring numbers stayed fairly steady for the next six years, averaging close to 25 points along with double-digit rebounds every year.

    He still remained consistent for another five years or so, averaging in the low 20's, though his rebound totals started to drop dramatically.

    While he was a great player, he was not a beloved player. Most likely it was the attitude he exhibited throughout his career. He was not very friendly, neither to the fans or the press. He often appeared sullen.

    He tried to change late in his career, and had a farewell tour his final season in the league in 1988-89, but it was too little too late.

    Because of how he was perceived, he never received the coaching opportunity he had hoped for. He helped out periodically with the Lakers and other teams, but was overlooked for any full time gigs.

    He also dabbled with an acting career, having his most famous part in the movie "Airplane," where he played co-pilot Roger Murdock, and denied being Abdul-Jabbar when asked by a young boy on the flight. He exhibited more humor in that role than he did his entire career.

    He ended his career as the NBA's all-time leading scorer, finishing with 38,387 points.

    He was named one of the 50 greatest players of all time in 1989, and his No. 33 jersey hangs from the rafters in the Staples Center.

2: Magic Johnson

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    His given name was Earvin Johnson Jr, but the name everybody knows him by is Magic. He was known for his electrifying smile that lit up the room.

    He came to the Lakers when they won the coin flip with the Chicago Bulls for the No. 1 pick in the 1979 NBA draft. It was where he was destined to be, because he was "Showtime," and this was where dreams were made.

    Magic took the Lakers from a talented team without a leader to the team of the 80's in the NBA, reaching the finals nine times from 1979-80 to 1990-91. They won five championships in that era.

    Magic was nothing but a winner with LA. During his tenure with the team, they never won less than 54 games if you don't count his comeback in 1995. They averaged almost 60 wins per season at 59.33.

    He was a three time league MVP and 12 time All-Star. He was the finals MVP in his rookie season, where he took over for an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and played the center position, scoring 42 points and gathering 15 rebounds, along with seven assists and three steals in leading the team to the championship.

    He was the only rookie in the history of the league to win the award. It was one of three finals MVP's in his career

    His career totals were 19.5 points, along with 11.2 assists and 7.2 rebounds a game. His assist average is still the best in the history of the league.

    Magic was voted one of the 50 greatest players ever in 1996, and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2002. He was also a member of the original "Dream Team" in 1992, though he didn't play much due to problems with his knee.

    He retired abruptly on November 7, 1991 after he tested positive for the HIV virus. Even getting hit with that fearful disease, he kept his smile and positive attitude and gave hope to others suffering from the same illness.

    He's still going strong and has been a positive force in the community, starting a chain of movie theatres and other businesses in distressed areas of Los Angeles.

    Magic is right at the top of the list of greatest Lakers of all time, which is quite an achievement. He just falls short of the guy I think tops that vaunted list.

1: Jerry West

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    And the winner is: The NBA "logo," Jerry West, also known as "Zeke from Cabin Creek," and "Mr. Clutch," which was a well-deserved moniker.

    Where do I begin?

    He played 14 seasons in the league and was an All-Star each one. He was named All-NBA first team 10 times and second team twice. He was also first-team All-Defense four times, and second team once.

    If that doesn't impress you, it's only because the league didn't recognize that distinction until he was 32 years old in 1969. He received the honor each year until he retired in 1974.

    His career numbers were 27.0 points a game, along with 6.7 assists and 5.8 rebounds. That's fourth in league history of retired players.

    Still not impressed?

    That was before the advent of the three-point shot in the NBA. If they had it when he played, he might have finished his career as the league's all-time leading scorer. His two-pointers were often from beyond the current three-point line.

    The nickname Mr. Clutch was because when you needed him most, he came through. His 29.1 career playoff average is second to only Michael Jordan. Only the best of the best elevate their game in the playoffs, when you're playing the league's elite competition.

    His Laker teams made it to the NBA Finals nine times in his career, though he won only one title, in 1972, when the Lakers had a 33 game winning streak.

    In 1969 he became the only player in league history to win the Finals MVP award while playing on the losing team. He averaged 30.9 in the playoffs that year, but elevated his game against the Boston Celtics in the finals, including scoring 53 points the first game and 41 the second, both Laker victories.

    He pulled his hamstring later in the series, but still managed a triple-double in the final game, scoring 42 points along with 13 rebounds and 12 assists in a 108-106 loss.

    He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1980, and was voted one of the 50 greatest players ever in 1996. He also was selected by ESPN in 2008 as the third greatest shooting guard of all time.

    Are you still questioning my selection of West as the greatest Laker ever?

    To use a basketball vernacular, let me make it a slam-dunk for you.

    West became the Lakers' general manager in 1982. During his reign, they won seven championships, five in the eighties, along with victories in 2000 and 2001. They completed the three-peat in 2002. He left the team before that season to run the Memphis Grizzlies, but you can give him credit for that one too.

    He orchestrated the trade that brought them Kobe Bryant for Vlade Divac, along with signing Shaquille O'Neal to take his place. The piesta resistance was bringing in former Bulls coach Phil Jackson to complete the puzzle, and make the Lakers matter again.

    You could also give him credit for the two championships the Lakers won in 2009 and 2010, because they would never have won those championships without Bryant and Jackson.

    Counting the rings he was responsible for between his playing days and running the organization, the number comes to 11 by my definition.

    If you add it up, he had the most impact on the Laker organization of anybody ever associated with the team.

    Are you still questioning me?