LA Lakers: Ranking Each of the Team's Greatest Franchise Players
Is it just me, or have this summer’s headlines been all about contentious debates?
Whether it’s been about raising the debt ceiling so that our government doesn’t default or wondering if the players and owners in the NBA can decide on just how to carve up the billions of dollars in revenues they seem to enjoy on our behalf, the fact remains that cooler heads have not prevailed, and those debates rage on.
So let’s try something else: Namely, let’s debate who the top 10 players in Los Angeles Lakers franchise history are.
It may get just as heated as the conversation that’s attempting to solve this country’s current financial crisis—but it’s far less threatening to our nation’s well-being and may actually be a lot more fun.
This is one of those columns that often gets your blood boiling, causing your hair (what’s left of it) to stand on end. Basketball fans that follow the Lakers with a passion are very opinionated as to which players rank as the best to ever wear the Purple and Gold.
In the 50 years since moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, the Lakers have produced enough memorable moments and world championships to last a lifetime.
I’ll say that it’s not easy to come up with a top 10 because so many great players have come through Los Angeles that you could easily make a case for an elite group of 20 who catapulted this storied franchise above the rafters where the team’s 16 world championships are draped.
So let’s have at it. I’ll tell you, and then you can tell me if I’m right or just blowing purple and gold smoke.
10. Gail Goodrich, Guard
Gail Goodrich, a good "little man" who did big things as a Laker
Elgin Baylor called Gail Goodrich “Stumpy” because of his small stature (6’1”, 170 pounds).
But in 1972, the two were teammates as the Lakers rode Stumpy’s great shooting on what was arguably the greatest Lakers team in franchise history.
Goodrich led the Lakers in scoring as the team won a franchise-record 33 straight games en route to a 69-13 overall record. He averaged a career-best 25.9 points and 4.5 assists per game, including 23.8 points during the postseason.
Goodrich went on to lead the Lakers in scoring for the next four seasons as he teamed with Hall of Fame guard Jerry West to form one of the league's most formidable backcourts. He improved his assist average to about 5.5 per game over those ensuing three seasons and was named a league All-Star a total of five times.
What made Goodrich extra special around Los Angeles is that he not only grew up there but also attended and starred for the UCLA Bruins, where, in 1965, he scored 42 points in the NCAA championship win over Michigan that cemented his legacy in Westwood.
When Goodrich left the Lakers as a free agent in 1976 to sign with New Orleans, the league required that Los Angeles receive compensation for losing a veteran player.
That compensation turned out to be a No. 1 draft pick in 1979, and with it, the Lakers picked a young kid with a big smile from Michigan State as their top choice. It turned out pretty well for the Lakers and one Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
9. Derek Fisher, Guard
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
This pick most surely will cause controversy, but there is absolutely no way you cannot call Derek Fisher one of the Lakers' elite players in team history. It's simply all there in black and white, purple and gold.
The man knows how to win.
D-Fish would be eligible for the award given to the player who got the very most out of the talent he was given. His play is not consistently stellar or of All-Star caliber, but Derek Fisher has a knack for making the big play in the biggest game at just the right moment.
There's a reason why Fisher has five NBA championship rings. It starts with his leadership and an ability to know when it's time to take charge in a game. He's done it over and over again in his illustrious career, and Kobe Bryant, one of his closest friends on and off the court, will argue that if it weren't for Fisher, the team and Bryant would not own as many titles as it does.
Fisher has been to the postseason 14 of the 16 seasons he's played in the league. His averages and percentages always increase in the playoffs, and those special moments are forever etched in the memories of Lakers fans everywhere.
All you need to say to a Lakers fan is ".4," and they instantly recognize it as Fisher's catch, turn, shoot and score over the outstretched arms of San Antonio's Manu Ginobili in the team's dramatic 2004 playoff win against the Spurs that helped lead them to the NBA Finals.
Fisher also made two dramatic three-pointers against Orlando in the 2009 finals that led to a Lakers win in overtime and another title.
His skills as a player may have been suspect at times—but never his heart or his determination. Derek Fisher deserves to have his jersey retired when his Laker days are over.
8. Elgin Baylor, Small Forward
Elgin Baylor revolutionized the game with moves never seen before
Before Michael and before Dr. J, there was Elgin.
Younger fans might associate Elgin Baylor with being the former longtime general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers. Indeed, that is the same guy—only one was an executive for a basketball team that couldn’t stop tripping over itself, while the other is considered one of the first true artists of the hardwood, an acrobatic magician who revolutionized the game with his high-flying skills and sheer dominance at the forward position.
For sheer athletic ability, Elgin Baylor probably deserves to be in the top three of all-time Lakers greats. His career in the NBA (1958-72) was statistically one of the greatest ever: 27.4 points, 4.3 assists and 13.5 rebounds per game, 78 percent shooting from the free-throw line and 43 percent from the field.
As a rookie, Baylor averaged 25 points and 15 rebounds in leading the Lakers to the finals.
The following year, the 6'5" swingman scored 71 points in a single game against the Wilt Chamberlain-led San Francisco Warriors, and in his third year, Baylor went off for 34.8 points and 19.8 rebounds per game.
The following year, his fourth in the league, should be a lesson in the artistry of the game: Playing only on weekends and not practicing (Baylor was in the Army Reserves), Elgin averaged 38 points, 19 rebounds and five assists per game while traveling to wherever the Lakers were playing, oftentimes stopping three or four times en route to his destination.
Baylor never won a title in the NBA. Sadly, the year that Los Angeles finally won (1971-72) its first championship since relocating to California from Minnesota was the year Baylor retired just nine games into the regular season.
Still, this athletic marvel who paved the way for so many of today's greats should be remembered as one of the finest to ever lace up a pair of high tops.
In a brilliant tribute titled "Elgin took the game to new heights," writer Bill Simmons (Page 2 of ESPN The Magazine) wrote, "Watching Elgin dismantle his 'peers' is like watching the scene in Back to the Future when Marty McFly starts cranking his electric guitar solo as everyone else stares at him in disbelief. ... You rarely hear Elgin mentioned with the big boys anymore. Unless you're talking to an NBA fan over the age of 50. Then they defend Elgin and berate you for not realizing how unbelievable he was.”
Elgin Baylor was special—those who watched or read about him know that he literally was ahead of his time.
7. James Worthy, Small Forward
Big Game James Worthy - Top 10 Moments
He was "Big Game James," and that's all you needed to know.
He was "worthy" of the nickname—he was James Worthy, and his steady, dominating, slashing style of speed and power was a cornerstone piece of the Lakers teams known as Showtime.
Worthy played from 1982-1994, all with the Lakers. The 6'9", 225-pound forward was a No. 1 draft pick out of North Carolina, and from the moment he put on the purple and gold, you knew this was going to be a special player. You just didn't know how special.
Playing alongside Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Worthy helped form a nucleus that, under coach Pat Riley, would come to dominate the NBA for a number of years.
Worthy's abilities to move the ball up the court, make great passes (for six straight years he averaged between 3.4 and 4.7 assists per game) and intimidate on defense (averaged five to six rebounds and at least one steal per game) only added to his repertoire of brilliant offensive moves that would make Julius Erving proud.
For his career, Worthy averaged 17.6 points per game on 52 percent shooting. In nine playoff seasons, those averages shot up to 21.1 PPG and 54 percent from the field. He was voted Most Valuable Player of the 1988 finals as the Lakers won to repeat as NBA champions.
In that series, Worthy averaged 22 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. He had 28 points and nine rebounds in Game 6 and a triple-double of 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in Game 7.
James Worthy entered the NBA Hall of Fame in 2003.
6. Wilt Chamberlain, Center
When Wilt Chamberlain came into the NBA in 1959, the league was primarily a methodical, slow-moving game played by relatively short white players with little jumping ability. For the 7'1", 275-pound Chamberlain, who possessed speed, agility and amazingly soft hands for such a big man, it must have seemed like a dream come true.
Chamberlain defined the expression "dominant center." You would think the statistics that would most stand out for the native of Philadelphia would be his career scoring average of 30.1 points per game or his 22.9 rebounds per contest.
What's even more incredible is that over a 14-year career, first with Philadelphia and then with the Lakers, Chamberlain averaged 45.8 minutes per game. He virtually played nearly every minute of every game he suited up for. Those sorts of minutes are simply unheard of today—NBA superstars rarely go above 35 minutes in today's game.
The Big Dipper (a nickname given to him by friends who saw him dip his head when he walked through a doorway) is the only NBA player to score 100 points in a single game, March 2, 1962 against the New York Knicks. He once pulled down 55 rebounds in a single game and won his first title in 1967 as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Chamberlain played in Los Angeles from 1968-73, a relatively brief five seasons. He made his mark as a Laker, taking the team to a world championship in 1971-72 and playing alongside the great Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Gail Goodrich.
Still, Chamberlain's scoring averages with the Lakers (16, 23, 17, 13, 11) came on the downside of a long, illustrious career. His contribution to the legacy of the Lakers was in finally bringing a championship atmosphere to Los Angeles after so many years of playing second fiddle to the Boston Celtics.
Chamberlain performed at a higher level and for longer with other teams (San Francisco and Philadelphia), but he retired as a member of the Lakers and stayed in the city for the rest of his life.
5. Jerry West, Guard
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
For many fans, the name Jerry West is synonymous with Lakers basketball.
With 25,192 points for his career, West is the Lakers' second all-time leading scorer and carries the distinction of being the only player from a losing team to win the finals MVP.
West lost in the finals eight times, but no one in Los Angeles thinks of him as a loser. In fact, it's the one title he did win in 1971-72, and the poise and leadership he displayed during his 14-year career, all as a Laker, that fans truly cherish.
West's career started and ended as a Los Angeles Laker (1960-74). He averaged 27 points and 6.7 assists per game during that time, once leading the league in the latter category with 9.7 during the team's championship season of 1971-72. West also had 11 straight seasons where he hit on over 80 percent of his free throws—no small feat in itself.
West four times had a season-scoring average that exceeded 30 points per game. He played in the era before the three-point line and scoring came into vogue—yet he still hit on a more than respectable 47.4 percent from the field for his career.
There are many who would consider Jerry West to be the most storied of all Lakers. Aside from a brilliant career as a player, West was just as formidable as an executive. His ability as general manager helped bring Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, James Worthy and Phil Jackson to Los Angeles.
What West had trouble with as a player—winning championships—he later dispelled as a GM. Jerry West was a winner in every sense of the word.
4. Shaquille O'Neal, Center
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The Big Diesel played 18 seasons in the NBA, eight of them as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Los Angeles has been blessed with outstanding centers (Chamberlain, George Mikan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), but none of them possessed all of the skills that O'Neal had. He was big, quick, strong and extremely coordinated around the basket.
In his first 14 seasons (six with Orlando, eight with Los Angeles), Shaq averaged more than 20 points every year. His best year with L.A. was the 1999-00 season, when he averaged 29.7 points, 3.8 assists and 13.6 rebounds per game—all career bests and enough to win him the league's MVP award.
O'Neal is one of only three players to win the All-Star game MVP, finals MVP and league MVP in the same year (2000). The other two were Willis Reed (1970) and Michael Jordan (1996 and 1998).
O'Neal averaged 58 percent shooting from the field for his career with the only real blemish being his poor free-throw shooting (52.7 percent).
Most importantly, O'Neal led the Lakers to three consecutive world championships in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
His 5,248 points as a member of the Lakers ranks him fourth. Had he and Kobe Bryant not had a falling-out that led to his eventual trade to Miami, O'Neal would surely have racked up a number of other records and trophies.
Still, his legend in L.A. is secure.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Center
No other great Los Angeles Laker was as regal, fluid, dominant and aloof as one Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Quiet and somewhat introverted, the "Captain" proved to all during an illustrious 20-year career (14 with the Lakers) that he was unquestionably the greatest center to ever play the game.
You just cannot argue with these accomplishments: the league's all-time leading scorer (38,387 points), six NBA championships, six league MVP awards, 19 All-Star selections, twice NBA Finals MVP, 10-time All-NBA First Team and five-time All-NBA Defensive First Team.
Abdul-Jabbar joined the Lakers in a trade with Milwaukee in 1975. His longevity—he was 42 when he finished his career in 1989—is a remarkable accomplishment in itself.
Under Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers won titles in 1980, '82, '85, '87 and '88. His shooting percentage of 56 percent for his career was a testament to Abdul-Jabbar's soft outside touch—something not seen before from a man his size (7'2").
The fans of Los Angeles have always been supportive of Abdul-Jabbar, though it's appeared at times that management might not have been. He's been a special assistant to the team for a number of years, most recently acting as tutor for center Andrew Bynum.
Abdul-Jabbar recently told ESPN.com that he felt "slighted" because the Lakers have not yet honored him with a statue outside of Staples Center as they have Jerry West and Magic Johnson.
He said in a statement, "I am highly offended by the total lack of acknowledgement of my contribution to Laker success. I guess being the linchpin for five world championships is not considered significant enough in terms of being part of Laker history."
It's a shame that "Cap" feels that way, and the Lakers later said that the next basketball statue outside the arena would be of Abdul-Jabbar.
2. Kobe Bryant, Guard
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
It's really a toss-up here between first and second rankings for top franchise player in Lakers history. It's basically about two fantastic athletes who have changed the game with their leadership, on-court abilities and a passion for the game that sometimes seemed otherworldly.
Let's start here with Kobe Bean Bryant, now a cagey veteran of 15 seasons who continues to play at a level that finds him among the league's top four or five players at the age of 33.
Bryant is coming off a season in which his scoring average of 25.3 points per game matched that for his entire career. His 4.7 assists and 5.1 rebounds were almost identical to his career stats, as was his shooting of 45 percent.
What matters most to Kobe is winning championships. Like the player ranked just a nose above him, Bryant has five, and with three years remaining on his Lakers contract, he's absolutely itching for more. Because the Lakers faltered badly in the playoffs, Bryant counts this past season as a "wasted year," a definite disappointment.
There will always be supporters and detractors of No. 24, but the results and highlight reels speak volumes about a dedicated superstar who has matured with age and, like a fine wine, gotten better as a result. He may be on the downside of an amazing career, but about 98 percent of the NBA would take that downside all the way to the bank.
We could talk about the career stats and the fact that Kobe is the team's all-time leading scorer with 26,874 points. His 5,280 career playoff points are only 707 behind Michael Jordan (5,987) for the most in NBA history.
What's most impressive about Bryant, however, is his work ethic and dedication to the game. He's a walking billboard for playing with and through pain.
If his career had to end today (and it won't), Kobe Bryant has already secured his place among the top two Lakers of all time. There simply will not be another.
1. Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Guard
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images
He was the right player at the right time in the right place.
Earvin "Magic" Johnson burst upon the Lakers scene fresh from winning the NCAA championship for Michigan State in 1979. It was the Lakers' good fortune to have the No. 1 pick that year—the result of losing Gail Goodrich to free agency several years earlier.
Johnson made an immediate impact upon a Lakers franchise that already had the league's top center in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but little else. Who can ever forget Johnson hugging Abdul-Jabbar after Cap's skyhook beat the San Diego Clippers at the buzzer in Magic's first professional game? Abdul-Jabbar quickly reminded Johnson there still were 81 games to play in the season, but the tone for what was to come had been set.
If nothing else, Magic Johnson changed the tone of Lakers basketball with his drive, passion, precise passing and enthusiasm for winning. It was all about "winning time."
Johnson could shoot with the best in the NBA—his career shooting percentage of 52 percent is among the best in league history for a guard. He averaged 19.5 points and 7.3 rebounds playing the guard position.
But what most fans of the game remember about Johnson was his ability as a passer.
This writer has never seen anyone who comes close to Johnson—someone check to see if there are eyes behind his head. Magic averaged 11.2 assists per game during his 13 years in the league, including one year when he went for just over 13 per contest. It was all about winning for the Magic Man.
He could do it all, including his memorable performance in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals against Philadelphia, when the 6'9" Johnson subbed for an injured Abdul-Jabbar and singlehandedly took his Lakers to the title with an astounding performance: 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists.
The performance earned the 20-year-old rookie the NBA Finals MVP. How do you top a performance like that? You don't.
That's one of many reasons why Magic Johnson's statue sits proudly out in front of Staples Center. His play and passion for the game marked him as the best of the best in Lakers lore.