Anyone remember the Detroit Gems? Outside of the 19 players who donned their uniform for their one season in the old National Basketball League in 1946-47, it’s likely no one else does. The Gems went 4-40 in their first season and owner Maury Winston sold the franchise to Minnesota investors Ben Berger and Morris Chalfen, moved the team to Minneapolis and rechristened it the Lakers.
With an entirely new cast of players, the Lakers won the NBL title in 1947-48, their only season in the league, and jumped to the Basketball Association of America for the 1948-49 season, where they again won the title behind the first great big man in pro basketball, George Mikan. In 1949-50, the two leagues merged and the Lakers again won the title—the only franchise to win championships in three different leagues in three straight years.
The Lakers would win three more consecutive titles with Mikan at center from 1952-54 before fading back to the pack. They made one more run to the finals in 1959 after a 33-39 regular season, but lost to the first of the Boston Celtics’ eight straight title teams.
The problem was that after Mikan’s retirement, the fans stopped coming to games in Minneapolis. In 1957, the team was very nearly sold to interests who wanted to relocate the franchise to Kansas City, but businessman Bob Short led a group that bought the team and kept it in Minnesota, at least for awhile.
The fans still didn’t come back, not even after the arrival of Elgin Baylor as a rookie in 1958, and Short contemplated moving the team to Chicago and San Francisco before settling on Los Angeles, moving the team lock, stock and nickname to L.A. for the 1960-61 season.
After moving to Los Angeles, the Lakers went to the NBA Finals seven times between 1962-70, losing six times to the Celtics and once to the New York Knicks. But in 1971-72, the Lakers won a then-record 69 games, including a streak of 33 straight that is still the NBA standard, and won their first title since relocating to Southern California.
The Lakers returned to dominance with the arrival of rookie Magic Johnson in 1979, winning five titles in the 1980s (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-88) and put together a streak of three championships behind Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant from 2000-02 and winning two more titles with Bryant as the face of the franchise in 2009-10.
In all, the Lakers have 16 championships since joining the BAA in 1948, second in NBA history behind the Celtics’ 17, and they have been a remarkably consistent franchise. In 65 seasons in the BAA/NBA, the Lakers have only failed to make the playoffs five times and only once in consecutive seasons (1958, 1975-76, 1994, 2005). No team has appeared more often in the Finals than the Lakers, who have been there 31 times.
So who are the best players by position in the history of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise?
NOTE: Players must have appeared in 250 regular-season games with the franchise to be considered for this list.
Small Forward: Elgin Baylor (1958-72)
The Minneapolis Lakers took Elgin Baylor with the first overall selection in the 1958 NBA Draft after he led Seattle University to the Final Four that spring and he became one of the top players in the history of the league.
Baylor was an 11-time All-Star and Rookie of the Year in 1959. He was named to 10 All-NBA teams, every one of them a first-team nod and he had the NBA’s best player efficiency rating in 1960-61. The one missing piece on his resume was a championship—he retired from the Lakers in November 1971 because of nagging knee problems and they went on to win the title that spring.
In 14 seasons with the Lakers, Baylor averaged 27.4 points, 13.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game.
Baylor is the all-time leading rebounder in franchise history with 11,463 and is also fourth with 23,149 points, seventh with 3,650 assists and tied for eighth with 846 games. His 27.4 points per game is the highest average in franchise history and he is also second with 13.5 rebounds per game and ninth with 4.3 assists per game.
Here are some of Baylor’s career highlights:
After retirement Baylor coached the New Orleans Jazz for parts of four seasons (1974-75 and 1976-77 through 1978-79), compiling a record of 86-135, and served as general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers from 1986-2008, earning Executive of the Year honors in 2006. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1977.
Power Forward: Vern Mikkelsen (1949-59)
Vern Mikkelsen went to the Minneapolis Lakers in the 1949 BAA Draft as a territorial selection after a solid career at tiny Hamline University in nearby St. Paul. The pick worked out better than the Lakers could have hoped.
Mikkelsen went on to be a six-time All-Star and was a member of four All-NBA teams as well as playing for four title winners in Minneapolis. He had the most win shares per 48 minutes in the NBA in 1951-52.
In 10 years with the Lakers, Mikkelsen averaged 14.4 points and 9.4 rebounds per game.
Mikkelsen is seventh in franchise history with 5,940 rebounds. He also still holds the NBA record, having fouled out of 127 games in his durable career, as he played in 798 of a possible 800 games, including the postseason.
Mikkelsen retired after the 1958-59 season and returned to pro basketball in 1967 as general manager of the Minnesota Muskies in the new American Basketball Association. But when the team moved to Miami for the 1968-69 season, Mikkelsen stayed in Minnesota and became general manager of the relocated Minnesota Pipers, who had won the first ABA title while playing in Pittsburgh. Mikkelsen also briefly coached the Pipers that season, going 6-6 in a 12-game stint as interim coach. Again the team was on the move and again Mikkelsen stayed behind, as the team returned to Pittsburgh for the 1969-70 season. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995.
Center: Shaquille O’Neal (1996-2004)
When Shaquille O’Neal hit the free-agency market in the summer of 1996, the Los Angeles Lakers made sure he would be the next in the Lakers’ long lineage of great centers. Despite dealing with nagging injuries during his eight years in Los Angeles, O’Neal didn’t disappoint, helping the team to four NBA Finals and three championships.
O’Neal was a seven-time All-Star as a Laker and was MVP of the league in 1999-2000. He was also NBA Finals MVP for each of L.A.’s three championships from 2000-02. He made the All-NBA team in each of his eight seasons with the Lakers, including six first-team selections and was a three-time All-Defensive team pick. He led the NBA in scoring average in 1999-2000 and six times in field-goal percentage, while posting the highest PER in the league five straight seasons from 1997-98 through 2001-02.
As a Laker, O’Neal averaged 27 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.5 blocked shots per game.
O’Neal is second in franchise history with 1,278 blocked shots and is also sixth with 6,090 rebounds and seventh with 13,895 points. He is second with his 27.0 points per game, 2.5 blocks per game and 57.5 field-goal percentage and is also fifth with 11.8 rebounds per game. In advanced statistics, O’Neal’s 28.9 PER is the highest ever for a Laker. He also holds the franchise single-season record with 336 offensive rebounds and a 30.6 PER in 1999-2000.
Here is a video that details the impact O’Neal had with the Lakers:
Originally drafted No. 1 overall by the Orlando Magic in 1992, O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat in July 2004 for Caron Butler, Brian Grant, Lamar Odom, a 2006 first-round pick and a 2007 second-round selection. He later played for the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics. He won a title with the Heat in 2006 and retired after the 2010-11 season. He currently works as a studio analyst for TNT’s NBA coverage.
Shooting Guard: Kobe Bryant (1996-present)
The Lakers wound up with a franchise icon when they traded Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets in July 1996 for the rights to the 13th overall pick in that year’s draft, high-schooler Kobe Bryant.
All Bryant has done since coming to the Lakers is help them to five championships, become a 15-time All-Star, the MVP of the league in 2007-08, a two-time NBA Finals MVP and he shares the record with four All-Star Game MVP awards. He is also a 15-time All-NBA selection, with nine first-team nods, and he has been named to the All-Defensive team 12 times. He led the NBA in scoring average twice and in total points four times.
In 17 seasons with the Lakers, Bryant has averaged 25.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game.
He is the Lakers’ all-time leader with 31,617 points, 1,828 steals, 1,637 3-pointers and 1,239 games played and is also third with 6,575 rebounds and 5,887 assists and seventh with 619 blocked shots. He is fourth in franchise history with 25.5 points per game, seventh with 4.8 assists per game and eighth with a 83.8 free-throw percenrage and 1.5 steals per game. In advances metrics, Bryant’s 31.8 usage percentage is the highest in team history and he is the franchise’s all-time leader with 173.3 win shares. He holds single-season franchise marks with 2,832 points, 35.4 points per game, 518 3-point attempts and a 38.7 usage percentage in 2005-06.
Bryant has the second-highest scoring game in NBA history, an 81-point effort against the Toronto Raptors in 2006, but here is some video of his 61-point game against the New York Knicks in 2009:
Bryant is signed through the 2013-14 season and will be attempting to come back from a torn Achilles’ tendon he sustained in the final week of the 2012-13 regular season.
Point Guard: Magic Johnson (1979-91, 1996)
Part of the compensation the Lakers received from the New Orleans Jazz in August 1976 for the Jazz signing free-agent Gail Goodrich was a first-round pick in the 1979 NBA Draft. The pick turned into Michigan State All-American Magic Johnson and the rest, as they say, is history.
Johnson was a 12-time All-Star and a three-time NBA MVP and NBA Finals MVP who also won two All-Star Game MVP awards, including a memorable performance in the 1992 midseason classic in Orlando after not having played a game all season following his premature retirement at age 32 because of HIV. He was part of five championship teams with the Lakers and was a 10-time All-NBA selection, with nine of those being on the first team. He led the NBA in assists per game four times and is the league’s career leader at 11.2 per game. He also led the league in steals per game twice and free-throw percentage once.
In parts of 13 seasons with the Lakers, Johnson averaged 19.5 points, 11.2 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game.
He is the Lakers’ all-time leader with 10,141 assists and also ranks second with 1,724 steals, fourth with 6,559 rebounds, fifth with 17,707 points and sixth with 906 games played. His 11.2 assists per game is also the best in franchise history and he is also second with 1.9 steals per game, sixth with an 84.8 free-throw percentage and eighth with 19.5 points per game and a 52.0 field-goal percentage. His 61.0 true shooting percentage is the highest in Laker history, as is his 40.9 assist percentage. He also holds single-season team records with 989 assists and a 49.3 assist percentage in 1990-91, a 126.1 offensive rating in 1989-90, 91.1 percent free-throw shooting in 1998-89, 13.1 assists per game in 1983-84, 208 steals in 1981-82 and 3.4 steals per game in 1980-81.
One of Johnson’s most iconic games came early in his career, a 42-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist performance against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals that clinched the Lakers’ first title in eight years:
Johnson retired in November 1991 after the HIV diagnosis, but returned briefly in January 1996, retiring for good that May. He also served as the Lakers’ coach for 16 games at the end of the 1993-94 season, going 5-11. Johnson currently serves as an NBA studio analyst for ESPN and has built a very successful business empire, Magic Johnson Enterprises, and he is also a minority owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers after holding a minority share in the Lakers for 16 years before selling in 2010. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.