Magic Johnson is universally referred to as the greatest Laker of all time. He is remembered for leading the Showtime Lakers to championship glory during an era in which basketball was at its apex.
Current Laker Kobe Bryant has helped Los Angeles regain its championship dominance, and in many ways has passed the immortal Johnson.
Kobe and Magic brought different things to the table. Johnson is the best passer in league history, averaging 11.2 assists per game over the course of his career. Johnson led the Lakers through his ability to set up teammates in both the half-court offense and the fast-break offense.
Magic also brought great versatility to the court. He stood 6'9" tall and could play any position from point guard to center.
Most notably, Magic was forced to play center during his rookie season in the decisive Game 7 of the 1980 NBA Finals. Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar suffered an injury in the previous game, and Magic was able to step in for him and dominate, recording 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists, as the Lakers won their first title of the Magic era.
Kobe brings sensational scoring ability and tremendous defensive ability. Bryant has averaged 25.3 points per game during his career, good for 10th all time. Bryant combines his athleticism and ability to take the ball to the rim with a sensational mid-range game that has become lethal in recent years.
Bryant’s defensive ability is often ignored. Eleven times Bryant has made the league’s All-NBA defensive team, including nine first-team selections. Kobe always takes on the task of covering the opposing team’s premier scorer, and throughout his career has been more than up to the task.
I’ll give Johnson a slight edge if you compare his passing ability to Kobe’s scoring ability because Johnson ranks first all time in assists per game, while Kobe ranks 10th all time in points per game. However, Kobe’s defensive ability is light years better than Magic’s.
Johnson was for the most part a defensive liability. Quick guards routinely were able to fly by Magic, and forwards and centers pounded him in the paint. Unlike Kobe, Magic always matched up against the opposing team’s worst offensive player, an attempt to hide his defensive deficiencies.
When debating Kobe’s greatness, the fact that he won his first three championships with Shaquille O’Neal is always brought up.
On the other hand, Magic played with a player who had an even better career than Shaq. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a top-five all-time player who is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Kareem was on the Lakers for all five of Johnson’s championships, and although during the last couple his skills had diminished, he still possessed his patented sky hook, which even in his waning years was unstoppable.
Magic not only played with Kareem, he also played with another Hall of Famer in James Worthy. Nicknamed "Big Game James," Worthy was a tremendous clutch performer for the Lakers who made seven all-star teams and was the most valuable player of the '88 finals. Who was the third-best player on the Shaq and Kobe Lakers? Robert Horry? Derek Fisher?
Bryant has won his last two championships without Shaq or any other future Hall of Famer; a feat that Johnson was not able to accomplish. Bryant still has time to win another championship, and if he does, there will be no question who the greatest Laker is. Even if he is unable to capture another title, I believe Kobe is the superior player.