Building the Perfect Starting 5 with LA Lakers' All-Timers
The making of “best” lists is a dangerous proposition. It invites disagreement—especially given the number of great players who have donned the Los Angeles Lakers’ purple and gold.
You can sometimes broker an agreement by talking face-to-face with friends and fellow fans. But to commit such thoughts to a type-pad and send them out into cyberspace?
It’s simply courting disaster. But we all have our favorite players as well as opinions that have been formed over a lifetime of watching and sometimes playing a game we love. And sports fans are nothing if not opinionated.
Deciding on an all-time starting five is especially tricky due to the simplest of truths—a lot of the true greats played the same position. Do you choose Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Shaquille O’Neal at the center position? And is the choice made on an opinion of individual greatness or how somebody worked within a team structure?
There are also those who will switch players out of position in order to put the best of the best into some unlikely alignment. Not here. The players on this list will be considered at the positions that they played the majority of their careers at.
Center: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was listed at 7’2”, but he seemed a lot taller than that.
I can still remember the first time I saw him—my dad called me downstairs to watch some guy who was playing with the Milwaukee Bucks. I was just a kid and had no clue as to the nuances of basketball, but what I saw left an indelible imprint—the memory is in black and white because that’s the kind of TV we had at the time.
He was impossibly long and languid, moving effortlessly, gum-popping and playing a kind of style you just didn’t see much in centers of that era. And even then he was rocking the sky-hook.
Later, I would see him in living color with the Lakers, and his style had evolved as he aged—more structured and more fundamentally powerful. He was arguably the best player in the game in his prime, let alone the best center for an all-time Lakers’ starting five.
In 1980, John Papanek wrote an article for Sports Illustrated entitled “A Different Drummer.” In it, he describes a particular game between the Lakers and the Houston Rockets. Jabbar wasn’t at the Forum—he was home, suffering from an intense migraine. Yet, halfway through the game, the giant arrived, making his way to the bench:
Abdul-Jabbar entered the game immediately and swatted five Rocket shots out of the air. He rebounded ferociously, passed with elan and hit six of the seven shots he took, two of them “sky hooks” over Moses Malone, who a year earlier had seemed ready to end Abdul-Jabbar’s 10-year reign as the most dominant player in the sport. Of course the Lakers won. The score was 110-102.
“I knew it was too good to be true,” moaned Houston Coach Del Harris. “Bringing in Kareem is like wheeling out nuclear weapons.”
The Lakers great was still at the midpoint of his career when that article was written. He would go on to score more points than anyone else in basketball before he was finished—38,387, and that’s not counting playoffs. Add six NBA titles and six MVP awards and a lot of other accolades.
There’s no way he doesn’t make this list.
Power forward: Kurt Rambis
Let the groans and arguments begin—Kurt Rambis was hardly a superstar.
The guy with the taped-together Clark Kent glasses never averaged double figures in rebounds and only once scored more than 10 points per game—and that was with the Chicago Bulls.
So what on earth catapults him into this lofty Lakers list?
Because we’re talking about a starting lineup that has to play both ends of the floor. You can’t just have five lead guitars soloing at the same time. You need teamwork, and you also need someone to do the heavy lifting and dirty work in the trenches.
A case can be made for A.C. Green, who was mentored by Rambis and ultimately took over his role with the Lakers. But both served a similar utilitarian function, so what exactly is the argument? That Green put up more points?
Or what about sticking Pau Gasol into this lineup?
But then ask yourself, as sublimely talented as Gasol was and still is, could you see him hurtling after loose balls like Superman?
Rambis was all-out sweat and hustle. He was crashing the boards and crashing into the floor. He was only 6’8”, but he played a lot bigger than that.
He gets the nod here because every starting five needs at least one role player. Rambis was the glue guy, the voice of defensive conscience, and if Pat Riley was okay with him in the lineup, then that’s a pretty solid vote of confidence.
The lunch-bucket power forward earned four rings as a player and a few more as an assistant coach under Phil Jackson.
Small forward: James Worthy
James Worthy was often something of a third wheel behind Kareem and Magic for the Showtime Lakers. That didn’t make him any less than what he was—a supremely gifted 6’9” forward who could be counted on to step up big when the spotlight was on.
“Big Game James” earned his nickname through clutch play during the postseason as well as other critical junctures. He had great speed, played both ends of the floor and was one of the best finishers in the game—regularly jamming it home one-handed while swooping full-speed through the air.
The Lakers' No. 1 draft pick in 1982, Worthy played extended minutes off the bench in his rookie season and was a starter until his 12th and final year in the league. He was a Laker for his entire career.
He wasn’t an outside sharpshooter like Byron Scott or Michael Cooper, but that wasn’t his game. Worthy had great ball-handling skills for his size, could post-up, create off the dribble or catch-and-finish on the fly. He was also a solid rebounder and shot-blocker.
Worthy was a three-time NBA champion, a seven-time All-Star and the Finals MVP in 1988, where he laid down a triple-double against the Detroit Pistons in Game 7 with 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists.
He’s also a Hall of Famer and our small forward for the all-time starting team.
Shooting guard: Kobe Bryant
To watch Kobe Bryant over the past 18 years has been to watch the impossible.
This past season, another impossibility happened—Bryant played in only six games due to a knee injury, which came on the heels of a ruptured Achilles tendon.
For once he wasn’t able to do what he has done so many times before, shrugging off wounds that would have stopped most others. Yet that can’t change what he has meant to the game—the sheer brilliance, intensity and single-minded purpose to be the best.
The comparison that has dogged him throughout his career is the never-ceasing Kobe versus Michael conversation. Bryant has invited it, of course, drawing heavily from the repertoire of his idol. In an interview with Ahmad Rashad for NBA TV last October, Jordan talked about where Bryant is at this late stage of his career in comparison with LeBron James:
In terms of dominance of the game of basketball at this stage, it’s LeBron. Championship-wise, Kobe Bryant. He wants it so bad, he’s willing to go to the extreme. Guarding a guy, guarding point guards at the age of 34, playing 38 minutes, 40 minutes—that’s ludicrous. I think this is what he’s battling with. It is what it is. He’s cursed as much as I am. If you had to pick between the two, that would be a tough choice. But five beats one.
Are we counting awards and honors now?
Five championships, a two-time Finals MVP, one league MVP, a 16-time All-Star, nine-time member of the All-Defensive First Team, two Olympic gold medals and the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer.
Unrelenting, uncompromising and still possessing his signature footwork and pump-fakery, Bryant will be coming back this season, looking to turn back the hands of time.
Point guard: Magic Johnson
It is difficult to adequately describe what it was like to live in Los Angeles and watch Earvin “Magic” Johnson play during his prime. He had a unique energy, and there was a palpable and special connection to residents of the city.
Whether it was going to games at the Forum or, more often, watching on TV, there would usually be a conversation afterward that would go something like: “Did you see Magic last night?” Followed by nodding heads and a few words of wonderment.
At 6’9”, Johnson most often functioned as an improbably tall point guard, running the offense and doling out passes to teammates like some crazy, charismatic delivery system.
He also had a nice shooting stroke, incredible athleticism and played hard at both ends of the court. He could be counted on for a double-double most nights and also racked up 79 triple-doubles over the course of his career—second only to Jason Kidd.
In 1991, Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times wrote about the difficulty that future generations would face trying to reconstruct what made Johnson special:
Magic's giveaway is his record of 9,921 assists. Magic comes to score more than the other team, not the other guy. Magic doesn't care who makes the basket so long as the team does. You look in the win column, not the points column to assess his contribution. As with all good magicians, there's more to his play than meets the eye.
Johnson played a uniquely versatile style that transcended typical positioning well before small-ball enthusiasts would embrace positionless basketball as something new. He could play all five spots and seemed deceptively casual at times, until somebody tried to guard him.
And of course, his passing skills were completely off the charts—no-look, behind-the-back and once even laying on his back and somehow delivering the perfect bounce-pass to Kurt Rambis for the easy dunk.
Johnson was a five-time NBA champion, earning three Finals MVP awards. He was also the league’s Most Valuable Player three times, a 12-time All-Star and two-time All-Star MVP. He was one of the most complete players to ever play the game.
It was simply Magic doing what Magic did, and his complete game of basketball makes him the best starting point guard for the Lakers.
Sixth man: Jerry West
All starting lineups need a sixth man. Jerry West never played that role—he averaged 39.2 minutes per game for his NBA career and was often there from start to finish, perhaps taking a short breather here or there.
The Logo was one of the most brilliant scorers the league has ever seen—a combo guard who typically ran the point but would also shift over to the 2-slot. Possessed of an extraordinary court vision, West could do it all—averaging 27 points, 6.7 assists and a fairly remarkable 5.8 rebounds for a guy who stood 6’2” and weighed just 175 pounds.
So why is he not in the starting five? Simply put, over the course of time, the Lakers have suffered from a wealth of riches at certain positions.
But can you imagine making a few minor tweaks to the game at some point in the first quarter—subbing Rambis out, shifting Worthy, Bryant and Johnson up a notch and adding West at the point? This would be Mike D’Antoni’s dream team.
Mr. Clutch was one of the great ones and has continued making his mark as one of the league’s legendary executives, including a little thing called trading Vlade Divac for Kobe Bryant.
Somehow, basketball seems to be a cyclical game of connect-the-dots.