Metrics 101: Best Players in NBA History to Wear a Los Angeles Lakers Uniform
Heading into the 2018 offseason, 417 different players had worn a Los Angeles Lakers uniform—or a Minneapolis one prior to the franchise's location change in 1960—for at least one minute.
But with one announcement, LeBron James shuffled everything up by agreeing to join the Purple and Gold on a four-year, $153.3 million deal.
James won't be the only player adding to that three-digit tally in 2018-19. Including draft picks, undrafted free agents and offseason signings that have already come to pass, Isaac Bonga, JaVale McGee, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Moritz Wagner, Travis Wear and others could all swell the ranks.
Spoiler alert: They aren't going to make these rankings. James is.
If you're thinking this is just another excuse to highlight the four-time MVP's remarkable legacy by placing him above a litany of Hall-of-Fame talents....well, you're right! We aren't worried about what these men have done only while wearing Lakers threads, but rather throughout the entirety of their careers. Therefore, James isn't the least bit disadvantaged as we try to figure out whether he's the best player ever to grace this historic franchise with his talents.
To do so objectively, we're turning to the numbers.
For all 417 present and former Lakers, as well as the four offseason additions who have already logged time in the NBA, we pulled scores in five different overarching metrics: NBA Math's career total points added, career player efficiency rating, career win shares, career win shares per 48 minutes and a modified version of average game score (such that all rebounds count the same since early-NBA stats don't differentiate between offensive and defensive boards). These blend together looks at volume and efficiency to reward both those who excelled over shorter careers and those who maintained their status for longer periods.
To standardize between five metrics that operate on drastically different scales, we found the z-scores in each category and summed them to find a player's total score. Those cumulative z-scores are all that matter for these rankings, and you can see the results at the top of each slide next to the player's name.
10. George Mikan: 11.06 Career Score
Years With Lakers: 1949-54, 1956
Lakers Per-Game Stats: 23.1 points, 13.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists
Career Per-Game Stats: 23.1 points, 13.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists
Evaluating George Mikan's career is always a difficult task because of the era in which he played—an era he dominated so thoroughly that the NBA widened the lane to make stopping him a more realistic proposition.
How much do we have to discredit the superiority of his numbers? How do we handle the dearth of statistical information from a career that came so early we don't even know how many rebounds he grabbed during his first two seasons?
No easy answers exist, but it has to matter that he dominated his peers so thoroughly. Mikan led the league in scoring during each of his first three professional seasons, earned two rebounding crowns and led the Minneapolis Lakers to five titles in his seven go-rounds.
Imagine what he might've done with a longer career, since he's seriously disadvantaged in our volume categories. The big man only played until he was 29, then briefly retired for a year before officially calling it quits after his age-31 season. If he'd had the luxury of operating with the marvels of modern medicine and playing far more than only seven campaigns, the numbers he compiled might've been downright astounding.
Even still, Mikan has to be included among the all-time greats in this franchise's history, especially because he never suited up for another organization. He was the original GOAT, paving the way for the overwhelming nature of the bigs who followed in his oversized footsteps.
Honorable Mentions: Adrian Dantley (10.394), Elgin Baylor (10.309), Dwight Howard (9.885), Larry Nance (8.05), Gary Payton (7.749), Steve Nash (7.62), Clyde Lovellette (7.535), Eddie Jones (7.53), Vlade Divac (7.447), Horace Grant (6.584)
9. Pau Gasol: 11.564
- Pau Gasol: 18.2
- Kobe Bryant: 17.4
- Lamar Odom: 9.5
- Trevor Ariza: 8.3
- Derek Fisher: 7.2
- Pau Gasol: 15.3
- Kobe Bryant: 13.0
- Andrew Bynum: 9.5
- Lamar Odom: 9.4
- Metta World Peace: 6.4
Years With Lakers: 2008-14
Lakers Per-Game Stats: 17.7 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.4 blocks
Career Per-Game Stats: 17.4 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.6 blocks
Never forget how important Pau Gasol was to the title-winning Lakers teams of the new millennium.
Though Kobe Bryant enjoyed the reputation boost associated with leading a championship charge as the unquestioned face of a franchise, Gasol submitted phenomenal performances time and again. Without his scoring out of the frontcourt, his remarkable passing from the blocks and his underrated contributions on defense—note: this didn't remain true in his post-prime years—the Lakers wouldn't have added to their ever-growing ring collection.
Are we saying Gasol was definitively superior to Bryant during the back-to-back championships? Of course not. Win shares are ultimately a flawed metric that only capture a portion of the overall picture.
But at the very least, Gasol needs more historical credit.
8. Kobe Bryant: 14.017
Years With Lakers: 1997-2016
Lakers Per-Game Stats: 25.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.5 blocks
Career Per-Game Stats: 25.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.5 blocks
Please don't take this placement as an unforgivable slight against Kobe Bryant.
Not only is he positioned a tier above Pau Gasol and far closer to rising above our No. 7 finisher, but the Lakers' collection of historical talents is overwhelming. Everyone above him is a first-ballot Hall of Famer (or will be when eligible), and six of the men ranked higher are maintstays in top 10s of all-time rankings. This isn't a snub, especially because Bryant's legacy has always risen above what the pure numbers might otherwise indicate.
Bryant deserves the mythologized status he enjoyed throughout his prime and post-prime years, best represented by either his unshakable determination when knocking down a pair of free-throw attempts after rupturing his Achilles or going out with a 60-spot in his final showing. He was a remarkable competitor who refused to cede an inch on any given night, and that helped him earn a literal handful of rings and innumerable individual accolades.
Do we focus on the feats of athleticism that allowed him to posterize countless opponents during his younger years? The 81-point outing against the Toronto Raptors? The miraculous playoff performances in which he kept getting buckets in spite of relentless defensive attention? The choices are seemingly infinite for a player who willed his way into GOAT conversations, despite numbers not quite justifying that inclusion.
And therein lies the problem. The metrics don't allow him to rise above the remaining figures featured here. Among the nearly 500 players analyzed for these rankings, he ranks No. 9 in PER, No. 6 in win shares, No. 14 in win shares per 48 minutes, No. 7 in TPA and No. 8 in modified game score.
This placement isn't an insult. It's just reality when the methodology remains wholly objective and doesn't allow anecdotal observations to color the analysis.
7. Jerry West: 14.845
Years With Lakers: 1961-74
Lakers Per-Game Stats: 27.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 2.6 steals, 0.7 blocks
Career Per-Game Stats: 27.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 2.6 steals, 0.7 blocks
Should we diminish Jerry West's legacy because he only won a single ring despite spending his entire career with this storied franchise?
Doing so would be a disservice to a player who continuously excelled in postseason play but always came up short against the stacked Boston Celtics and an era that featured other superteams like the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/Oscar Robertson Milwaukee Bucks. Pair him with even more talent, and the championships likely pile up. After all, he was unstoppable as an individual.
Throughout West's playoff career, he averaged a whopping 29.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.3 assists while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 80.5 percent from the stripe. On four separate occasions, he paced the entire postseason field in scoring, including when he averaged 40.6 points in 1965. In three additional postseasons, he recorded more assists per game than any other player.
West was excellent in the regular season, but he was downright miraculous during the league's second season—lack of jewelry be damned.
And that's without the benefit of a three-point arc to build upon his jump-shooting habits. Who knows how much higher he might've risen if he had been granted that coveted extra point when firing away from well outside the painted area, as he was frequently known to do.
6. Karl Malone: 16.745
Years With Lakers: 2004
Lakers Per-Game Stats: 13.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.5 blocks
Career Per-Game Stats: 25.0 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.8 blocks
Karl Malone's spot here is predicated more on extreme volume than per-game production that measures up against the other legends populating the top 10, and that's shown by his rankings among all historical Lakers in three different categories:
- Win Shares: No. 3
- Win Shares per 48 Minutes: No. 8
- Modified Game Score: No. 24
Obviously, those are still impressive finishes.
But Malone's legacy is more about playing at a high level for 19 seasons than the astronomic level of his peak years—justifiable MVP award in 1997 notwithstanding. Whether he was a young power forward overwhelming opponents with his combination of physicality and skill or savvily dictating the flow of action in his later years, he was a pick-and-roll legend capable of thriving on both ends of the floor for the better part of two decades.
Seventy-two different players in NBA history have averaged at least 20 points, eight rebounds and three assists during a qualified season. Malone consistently exceeded those cut-offs, making the club on 11 different occasions. Our No. 2 finisher was the lone player to top that total with a dozen such appearances, while Charles Barkley (11) and Larry Bird (10) were the only other two legends to finish in double digits.
Fortunately for the Mailman, we aren't concerned by his lack of qualified seasons in a Lakers uniform. He only spent the final year of his career in Tinseltown, pursuing the ring that always eluded him, but we're worried about entire careers rather than contributions to this Los Angeles franchise.
5. Magic Johnson: 16.923
Years With Lakers: 1980-91, 1996
Lakers Per-Game Stats: 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.4 blocks
Career Per-Game Stats: 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.4 blocks
Were these rankings determined by contributions to the franchise in question, Magic Johnson may well rise to the top. Among the members of our top five, he's the only one who spent the entirety of his career wearing a purple-and-gold uniform, and his efforts for the Showtime Lakers sparked the rise of a dynastic force that helped revitalize the concept of Lakers exceptionalism.
Throughout Lakers history, only Kobe Bryant, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elgin Baylor scored more points than Johnson, which isn't a shabby spot for a player who was never known as a score-first contributor. How about his No. 4 standing in total rebounds despite lining up as an oversized point guard? Johnson also trails only Bryant in steals, and he sits at No. 14 in blocks even while spending so much time playing perimeter defense.
But as you might expect from a player who did so much of his damage as a wizardrous distributor, Johnson's placement on the assists leaderboard might cause your jaw to hit the floor.
That the Hall of Fame point guard ranks No. 1 shouldn't come a surprise. That's a lock to end all locks. How about the fact that the gap between himself and Bryant (3,835 dimes) is more than all but four players (Johnson, Bryant, West and Norm Nixon) in Lakers history have recorded? Better still: The chasm between Johnson and Bryant would rank No. 128 in the all-time assist rankings, irrespective of the franchise for which those feeds were recorded.
Only the relative brevity of his career holds Johnson back from even more impressive standing.
4. Shaquille O'Neal: 16.947
Years With Lakers: 1997-2004
Lakers Per-Game Stats: 27.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 2.5 blocks
Career Per-Game Stats: 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 2.3 blocks
Though Shaquille O'Neal thrived with the Orlando Magic, won a championship alongside Dwyane Wade while wearing a Miami Heat uniform and suited up for a bunch of other organizations, the pinnacle of his career came with the Los Angeles Lakers.
During the 1999-00 season, he averaged a staggering 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.5 steals and 3.0 blocks while shooting 57.4 percent from the field to lead the league in both scoring and shooting percentage. As if that wasn't enough, he led the championship charge by posting 30.7 points, 15.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.6 steals and 2.4 blocks per playoff game.
According to NBA Math's GOAT rankings, that campaign by O'Neal was the single most impressive one by a center in league history, as well as one of the 10 best by players at any position. He was that special, mixing together physicality and finesse to a degree never before or again seen in the Association. Whether he was dropping in touch shots or overpowering smaller defenders, he ensured no one had even the slightest chance of corralling him.
Maybe O'Neal couldn't replicate those exploits at other stages of his career, but he was a force to be reckoned with even when he was lollygagging during the regular season and working himself into peak shape for the inevitable playoff run. He entered the NBA as a slim 20-year-old back in 1992, and he didn't stop making an impact for nearly two decades, even contributing in smaller roles for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics before calling it quits.
On a per-season basis, Magic Johnson was his superior. But this type of longstanding excellence can't be discounted.
3. Wilt Chamberlain: 21.74
Years With Lakers: 1969-73
Lakers Per-Game Stats: 17.7 points, 19.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists
Career Per-Game Stats: 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists
Plenty about Wilt Chamberlain should leave you with a proper sense of awe, but the dizzying diversity of his talents has always impressed me most.
His foremost accomplishment might always be the 100-point outing that remains an untouchable record to this day, though I still have some qualms with the manner in which it was achieved. No one will forget that he averaged more than 50 points per game for the Philadelphia Warriors in 1961-62, or that he somehow had the endurance necessary to log over 48 minutes per contest that season while appearing in all 80 games and shouldering so many responsibilities. His athleticism is legendary, whether referring to his collegiate days as a track star, his weight-lifting sessions with Arnold Schwarzenegger or his shot-blocking prowess on the hardwood.
And yet, it might be even more noteworthy that a man with seven scoring titles and 11 rebounding championships (including ones earned in his first and last seasons) paced the Association in total assists during the 1967-68 season. Sure, he was hunting some out at the expense of open shots, but he still showed off remarkable distributing vision not typically found in 7-footers so physically dominant.
Chamberlain could simply do everything, and that didn't change during his time with the Lakers at the end of his career. Though he was no longer the same unstoppable interior force, he managed to provide across-the-board contributions and spark plenty of deep playoff runs—one of which resulted in the second championship of his career.
We're hanging with the big boys now, as the gap between Chamberlain and our No. 1 finisher is about four times smaller than the separation between O'Neal and Chamberlain. With this Hall of Famer, we've truly entered the top tier.
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 22.258
Years With Lakers: 1976-89
Lakers Per-Game Stats: 22.1 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.5 blocks
Career Per-Game Stats: 24.6 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.6 blocks
Allow us to take a novel approach to showing the ridiculous longevity Kareem Abdul-Jabbar displayed during an NBA career that stretched from his age-22 season after a dominant UCLA tenure until he retired following an All-Star appearance as a 41-year-old.
Let's remove the first six years of his NBA life from the equation, essentially eliminating everything he ever did for the Milwaukee Bucks. That rids his resume of a championship, three MVP trophies, two scoring titles and a plethora of other accomplishments, leaving only his work for the Los Angeles Lakers.
And look at where he'd still rank in each of the following career box-score statistics:
- Points: No. 25 between Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley
- Rebounds: No. 36 between Otis Thorpe and Zach Randolph
- Assists: No. 141 between Latrell Sprewell and Elgin Baylor
- Steals: No. 173 between Dell Curry and Dwight Howard
- Blocks: No. 8 between Shaquille O'Neal and Tree Rollins
Now, some advanced metrics:
- PER: No. 20 between Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson
- Win Shares: No. 20 between Jerry West and Magic Johnson
- Win Shares per 48 Minutes: No. 20 between Larry Bird and Yao Ming
- Box Plus/Minus: No. 13 tied with Karl Malone
- Value Over Replacement Player: No. 16 between Kobe Bryant and Scottie Pippen
Even without the best portion of his career included, Abdul-Jabbar would still almost unquestionably be a top-20 figure in NBA history.
With a sky-hook no one could stop, a desire to keep churning out remarkable seasons well after Father Time should've slowed him down and one of the most complete resumes in NBA history, Abdul-Jabbar is arguably the most overlooked GOAT candidate we've ever seen. He belongs in the thick of the conversation, right alongside Michael Jordan and the No. 1 player in these rankings.
1. LeBron James: 22.966
Years With Lakers: 2018-TBD
Lakers Per-Game Stats: N/A
Career Per-Game Stats: 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.8 blocks
LeBron James has yet to put on a Lakers uniform. The only pictures that exist of him wearing purple-and-gold threads are of the photoshopped variety. He's recorded zero statistics for the franchise in question, leaving him behind Darius Johnson-Odom, Jawann Oldham, Shea Seals, John Pilch, Adam Morrison, McCoy Ingram and so many other forgettable roster-fillers throughout the organization's lengthy history.
And yet, he's already the best player to which the Lakers have ever had access. Considering the 25 Hall of Famers (more when modern standouts such as Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard gain eligibility), 137 All-Stars and 18 honored jerseys in the annals, that's saying quite a lot.
I've already gone into detail about how James is the best player in NBA history, even if he might never surpass Michael Jordan for the title of greatest of all time. We aren't going to rehash that here, so much as reiterate that so many different numbers have worked in his favor throughout his illustrious career. You can see that from the score listed above, which pushes him marginally ahead of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain as he somehow continues putting together fantastic seasons.
And that's why the Lakers should be especially excited, even as they surround James with a strange collection of veteran talents—perhaps indicating they're more focused on the 2019 offseason than the 2018-19 season. He's showing no signs of inevitable decline even while entering his age-34 season. In fact, NBA Math's GOAT rankings explain that James' 2017-18 campaign (including the postseason excellence) was the No. 3 season in league history and better than any year submitted by any other player.
James won't ever be the best Laker in franchise history. He won't spend a large enough portion of his legendary career wearing the right uniform.
But he's already the best player who's ever suited up for the Lakers.