Being the first pick of a team's current draft is a big deal. But when you are the first pick of a "new" franchise, more weight is thrust upon your shoulders to carry that team and help create a "new" history.
In 1960, the Minneapolis Lakers relocated, became the Los Angeles Lakers and drafted Jerry West in the first round. West would come to form the second half of the duo known as "Mr. Outside / Mr. Inside." The other half of that duo is Elgin Baylor, and fittingly, the fourth-greatest Laker in the team's history.
Although both would lead the Lakers to seven NBA finals, they could never bring Los Angeles the championship. It wasn't until the 1971-72 season that West won his first championship; ironically, it was the year Baylor retired.
Today West is best known as being the guy on the NBA logo. The league could not have selected a better person. Not only was he an NBA Champion, but he was a 10-time All-NBA first team selection, a 14-time All-Star and is the only player in NBA history to be selected Finals MVP while playing for the losing team.
These are astounding accomplishments for any franchise, and for the Los Angeles Lakers, these accolades make Jerry West the third-greatest Laker in franchise history.
The top two players are so similar in their accomplishments that they need to be looked at together.
One player is still playing for the Lakers. The other retired in his prime. Both players have won five NBA titles. The two players left at the top of the ladder are Kobe Bryant and Ervin Magic Johnson.
These are not only the two greatest players in Lakers franchise history, but they are two of the best in NBA history. In 2007 ESPN rated Magic Johnson as the best point guard in NBA History and he is the current leader in NBA history in assists per game average (11.2). Bryant has been named to the first team of the 2000's decade.
Their individual accolades would take up another two articles all on their own, but looking at a glance it's easy to see the close comparison: Johnson has five NBA titles, three Finals MVPs, three NBA league MVPs, twelve All-Star appearances and two All-Star MVPs. In similar fashion, Bryant has five NBA titles, two Finals MVPs, one NBA league MVP, 13 All-Star appearances and four All-Star game MVP's.
Because their accomplishments are comparable, with Johnson having a small edge (especially when all their awards are compared), those numbers are not what separates the two.
They both came to teams as youngsters with a dominating center already there. Shaquille O'Neal was the Laker's big man when Bryant was drafted out of high school, and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar was established as the league's best center when Johnson joined the team as the draft's first overall selection.
It took some time for Bryant to become accustomed to the NBA as he came to the league right out of high school. He struggled for a few years with his game and his teammates until Phil Jackson became head coach.
Johnson, on the other hand, had an immediate impact. Although Abdul-Jabaar was already a Laker, the team had missed the playoffs in the previous season. In his rookie year, Johnson lead the Lakers to the finals against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Not only did he establish himself as the new leader of the team, but in the Finals, when Abdul-Jabaar went down with an ankle injury, Johnson started the game at center and played center, forward and point guard throughout the game. He scored 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, handed out six assists and stole the ball twice on his way to winning the Finals MVP, all in his rookie season.
Some may argue that their immediate impact is an unfair comparison because Kobe came straight from high school and Johnson was fresh off an NCAA championship season at Michigan state. True, but it's also a key reason why their impacts were so different.
Bryant didn't really come into his own until the Lakers second championship of the Shaq-Kobe dynasty, and their partnership came to a bitter end as the two could no longer co-exist, when Shaquille O'Neal was eventually traded in the midst of what many consider to be a dynasty that was just reaching its potential.
Bryant's career has been longer and has allowed him to reach his full potential as an NBA superstar. Although Johnson's Lakers ruled the '80s and were still atop the Western conference in the beginning of the '90s when he retired, he didn't retire because his skills were declining (in fact he was still the best point guard in the game), but because he contracted HIV, which at the time was assumed to be a death sentence.
Johnson has outlived his expectancy and made a brief attempt at a comeback in 1996 but didn't finish the season. Although the Bull's were the team of the '90s, who's to say that Johnson's Lakers would not have faced the Bulls in more Finals appearances and maybe won one or two. Johnson's individual accolades and numbers would've greatly increased, but the rest is pure speculation.
All this is to say that Kobe Bryant will go down as the second-greatest Laker of all time while Magic is the greatest. Kobe learned a lot later about how to co-exist with players, bringing out the best of his teammates while being the leader of the team.
Magic, on the other hand, had that ability in his DNA. Johnson will go down in history as the most unique player ever. There have been other tall players with some good skills to play the point guard position, but Magic was a point guard who happened to become tall (6'9"), and that is why he was a pure point guard and such a great all-around player.
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