These have been halcyon days for the Los Angeles Lakers: making the NBA finals in 2008, winning it all in 2009 and being among the top contenders this coming season. There have been various polls to choose the Greatest Laker Of All Time and Kobe Bryant’s overtaking Jerry West for most points( career) has only heightened interest in the subject. Here are the results of two such polls:
ESPN ( 9500 + responses ) L A Times ( 1151 responses)
1. Magic Johnson 1. Magic Johnson
2. Jerry West 2. Jerry West
3. Kobe Bryant 3. Kareem Abdul- Jabbar
4. Elgin Baylor 4. Kobe Bryant
5. Kareem Abdul- Jabbar 5. Elgin Baylor
6. Wilt Chamberlain 6. Wilt Chamberlain
7. Shaquille O’Neal 7. James Worthy
8. James Worthy 8. Shaquille O’ Neal
9. Pau Gasol 9. Gail Goodrich
10. Gail Goodrich 10. Michael Cooper
An interesting sidelight is that over one hundred of those responding to the L.A. Times poll did not include Kobe Bryant in their Top Ten choices at all .This is indicative of the strong feelings that Kobe arouses in fans– they either love him or they hate him.
The Lakers have a storied history and the roll-call of Laker starss is very long. Here is a partial list of Laker greats who did not make the Top Ten in either poll : Bob McAdoo, Happy Hairston, Robert Horry, Spencer Haywood, Kurt Rambis, Norm Nixon, Byron Scott, Pat Riley, Jamaal Wilkes, Walt Hazzard, A.C. Green, Kermit Washington, George Mikan, Adrian Dantley, Derek Fisher and Rudy Larussa.
Given the plethora of outstanding players who have donned Laker colors over the years , there is surprising agreement between the two lists . Nine of the players figure on both the lists. One of the polls specified that no player could be considered who had not played at least three years for the Lakers. This explains why Pau Gasol figures on only one of the lists.Had it not been for this stipulation, there might have been the same ten players on both lists .
Such close agreement is surprising considering that the criteria for evaluating a player’s greatness are extremely subjective and considering that these players were on court in markedly different eras. For instance , when West and Baylor were starring for the Lakers, there was no three point shot. Since West was such a deadly shooter from long range , it is likely that had the 3 pt FG been part of the game then, he would have accumulated an additional 5,000 points during his career . Had that been the case Kobe might still be chasing his records. There are a number of other factors which diffrentiate today’s game from that of earlier eras : zone defenses, the ban on handchecking , the liberal definition of assists today, the expansion of the NBA and the consequent dilution of talent etc. There is simply no way to compare players from different eras.
One criteria that most fans and sportswriters use to judge greatness is the number of championship rings that a player has. This would be laughable if it were not so blatantly unfair. Winning a championship is a team effort ; it cannot and should not be used as a yardstick for individual excellence. Many great players never had an adequate supporting cast and thus never won even a single ring. Others had the misfortune to play at the same time as some truly dominant teams. Jerry West and Elgin Baylor took the Lakers to the NBA Finals year in and year out only to lose to Bill Russell’s Celtics. That should not detract from their greatness.
This is MY list of the Top Ten Lakers of All Time :
1. Magic Johnson
2. Jerry West
3. Kobe Bryant
4. Elgin Baylor
5. Kareem Abdul Jabbar
6. Wilt Chamberlain
7. Shaquille O’Neal
8. James Worthy
9. Gail Goodrich
10 Michael Cooper
It closely resembles the L.A Times list. Pau Gasol may eventually crack the Top Ten , but not yet when he has only two and a half seasons as a Laker. The reason I chose Magic as the Greatest Laker of all time is not just because of his numbers ( great as they are) but because 1) he was a team player who made the others around him great and 2) because of his effervescent nature and his love of the game which made it a truly magical experience for us spectators. I can never forget the sixth game of the 1980 NBA finals when Magic gave what I think is the greatest ever single game performance by any one ( and that includes Michael Jordan).The Lakers were leading 3-2 when they headed to Philly to face Julius Erving and the 76ers . However, they were without their center , Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who was back in L.A nursing an ankle injury. In his absence , Magic Johnson normally the point guard jumped center against Darryl Dawkins and led the Lakers to an improbable series clinching victory. His stat line that night read 42 points , 15 rebounds , 7 assists, 3 steals and 1 block . And he was only a rookie ! The thing about Magic was that he sacrificed his individual aspirations for the good of the team, something which Kobe does only occasionally.
Great as Magic was, Jerry West was almost his equal in my estimation . If one were to add in his contributions as the Laker GM ( trading for Shaq, trading Norm Nixon to San Diego even up for Byron Scott, drafting Kobe Bryant and James Worthy and … I could go on and on ) I might have to put him in first place. But that wouldn’t be fair , which is why I have him in second place. I am a fan of Kobe but no matter how many rings he wins before he calls it a day, he can never leapfrog over those two. Not in my book.