Los Angeles Lakers: Best Players By Position Of The Modern Era

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Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant teamed up for three NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers. Are they among the best at their positions for the Lakers in the modern era?

Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant teamed up for three NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers. Are they among the best at their positions for the Lakers in the modern era?

Editor’s Note: The modern era of the NBA is generally accepted to have begun with the 1979-80 season, the advent of the 3-point line in the NBA. The lists to follow—one for each of the NBA’s 30 teams—will only consider seasons since 1979-80. We continue the series today with the best of the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Los Angeles Lakers have been remarkably consistent, from their days in the old National Basketball League when the team was located in Minneapolis through the most recent decade.

In their 66 seasons in the Basketball Association of America and its successor, the NBA, the Lakers have made the playoffs a whopping 60 times and appeared in the Finals on 31 occasions.

They are the only franchise in league history to appear in the Finals at least once in every decade of the league’s existence (1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s).

The Minneapolis Lakers didn’t begin their existence, however, in Minneapolis and they weren’t called the Lakers.

No, instead the NBA’s most consistently successful franchise traces its origins to a team called the Detroit Gems in the NBL—a squad that won just four of 44 games in its only season before moving to Minneapolis in 1947.

How complete was the makeover from the 1946-47 Gems to the 1947-48 Lakers? No one who appeared in a game for Detroit in 1946-47 played for Minneapolis the following season.

But what Minneapolis did add in 1947 was DePaul All-American George Mikan, the first in a long line of dominant centers the Lakers have called their own. Mikan helped lead the Lakers to a 43-17 record and an NBL title before the team jumped to the BAA in 1948, where they won back-to-back championships in 1949 and 1950 and then became the first team in NBA history to win three in a row, turning the trick in 1952, 1953 and 1954.

The Lakers wouldn’t win another title until 1972, with aging stars Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West teaming up losing eight times in the NBA Finals—seven to the Boston Celtics and once to the New York Knicks.

More titles came in the 1980s, with the team’s next great big man—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—teaming with Magic Johnson to win championships in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988.

With Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant teaming up, the Lakers won three straight championships from 2000 through 2002 and then Bryant teamed with Pau Gasol for two more championships in 2009 and 2010.

Phil Jackson, who did two tours as Lakers coach—the first from 1999-2004 and then again from 2005-11—is the franchise’s winningest coach with 610 victories and he is tied for the franchise lead with John Kundla, who coached the team twice as well (1948-57, 1958-59), with five championships.

Pat Riley won 533 games as Lakers coach and took down four titles, while Bill Sharman and Paul Westhead also led L.A. to championships.

The team has had only 10 personnel decision-makers in its history, just two of those in the last 32 years. Jerry West called the shots from June 1982 through August 2000 and his successor, Mitch Kupchak, has been on the job ever since.

The guys calling the shots in the front office have come up big a number of times, drafting franchise all-time greats such as Elgin Baylor and West, trading for big men Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain, signing O’Neal as a free agent and finding some luck along the way, as well.

The Lakers landed the No. 1 overall pick in the 1979 draft thanks to the New Orleans Jazz, who traded their first round pick in 1979 to the Lakers as part of the compensation package for signing guard Gail Goodrich as a free agent in August 1976.

Three years later, the Lakers were picking No. 1 overall once again. This time it was because the Cleveland Cavaliers had traded their 1982 No. 1 pick along with guard Butch Lee to the Lakers for Don Ford and a 1980 first-rounder who turned out to be the immortal Chad Kinch, he of the 41-game NBA career.

That pick turned out to be eventual Hall of Famer James Worthy.

And here are the best players, by position, for the Los Angeles Lakers in the modern era, beginning in 1979-80. Players had to have played 200 games for the franchise and averaged 25 minutes per game.

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Tags: Featured James Worthy Kobe Bryant Lamar Odom Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson Popular Shaquille O'neal

  • wangkon936

    Were’s big shot Rob?

    • Phil Watson

      Listed under the power forwards who weren’t chosen.

      • wangkon936

        Balderdash! I would pick Big Shot Rob over Lamar Odom any day.

        • Phil Watson

          Odom had a 17.1 PER as a Laker, on averages of 13.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 35.1 minutes per game.

          Horry had a 13.5 PER as a Laker (remember that 15 is what an average player would post), on averages of 6.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.0 block in 25.4 minutes per game.

          So my question would be …. really???

  • Wilford

    Dude, you must be smoking something because the best center the Lakers had in modern era is KAREEM ABDUL JABBAR….bar none. I can go along with you on everybody else but center! Kareem has 5 titles to Shaq’s 3, Kareem’s all-time scoring title has yet to be surpassed!

    • Phil Watson

      Kareem’s best individual years with the Lakers were prior to 1979-80 though. For that period, the comparison really isn’t that close (particularly since I don’t tend to count team championships as an individual badge of honor).

      Kareem (1979-89): 21.7 PER, 20.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.8 APG, 2.0 BPG, .572/.056/.743

      Shaq (1996-04): 28.9 PER, 27.0 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 3.1 APG, 2.5 BPG, .575/.000/.533

      It’s really not even close. Now, if I were including the first four years of Kareem’s Laker career, yes, but for the portion covered in this time period, no. And that’s no disrespect; Kareem is an all-time top 10 player.

      • Joe Kidd

        In my opinion, PER constitutes a fraudulent metric and an utter fallacy, especially in how it misapplies team pace factors to individual performance (the relationship between the the two is not linear and can actually be inverted), thus tending to unfairly favor more recent players who have played at slower paces. Cases in point: according to PER, Chris Paul is a superior point guard to Magic Johnson, and Terrell Brandon in 1996 was a better point guard than Magic Johnson in 1986.

        That said, I think that you’re on safe ground in this comparison, Mr. Watson. While Abdul-Jabbar was the more admirable player in his commitment to conditioning and in his longevity (kind of like Tim Duncan nowadays), O’Neal in the late 1990s and early 2000s was certainly a more dominant and prolific center than Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980s. The difference in scoring and rebounding averages pretty much says it all.

        • Phil Watson

          PER is a tool, like many other stats, and it can be useful in context. But it illustrates a common problem with retro-dating newer statistical measures and that is that today’s pace was sort of the baseline for the measurement. You’re right; it does have the effect of misrepresenting players from earlier generations when the game was played at a faster pace.

  • aj1111

    Who ever said the so-called modern NBA begins in 79-80? That cleverly eliminates Abdul Jabbar’s early years with the Lakers. I think most people would take 3 MVP’s, 5 championships, and 6-7 1st team all nba over 1 MVP, 3 championships, and the 8 first teams all NBA’s especially since it is the collapse of the center position that allowed Shaq to continue winning that award through his decline.

    • Phil Watson

      1979-80 is the season the NBA implemented the 3-point line, generally accepted by most basketball historians as the start of the “modern era.” I didn’t arbitrarily make that up and it certainly wasn’t done to “cleverly” eliminate Abdul-Jabbar — I’ve done this same treatment with seven other teams and will continue with the rest of the league throughout the offseason.

      Last year, I did a similar series that was all-inclusive and, not surprisingly, Kareem was the top center for both the Lakers and Bucks. As for the other players you named, I grew up watching them all at various stages of their careers.

      The decision to choose 1979-80 had nothing to do with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kyle Macy, Jim Spanarkel or any other player who was a rookie that season. It was the addition of the 3-point line, an addition that changed the way the game is played.

      • Joe Kidd

        Of course, teams hardly used the three-point line during the first few seasons that it existed.

        That said, your rationale is fair and honest.

        • Phil Watson

          They didn’t use it much as a scoring weapon, but it rapidly became the baseline for how offenses spaced themselves. That’s why moving the 3-point line in the way it was done in the mid-90s was so poorly thought out. In the quest to make for more scoring, the NBA in essence compacted the space in which those offenses were operating.

          • Joe Kidd

            I agree about the effects of shortening the three-point line; it served to further cram the half-court. In the eighties (and into the nineties), teams looked to spring shooters (and occupy defenders) primarily off down-screens and movement, and those shooters would usually curl or catch-and-shoot inside the arc. Thus the court often resembled a rugby scrum, with sometimes as many as nine players in the paint at a given moment. The biggest difference in the game these days is how much more space there happens to be, hence maximizing the pick-and-roll. But I guess that the three-point line changed the “baseline” for where a guard would look to initiate or orchestrate the offense and feed the post. Therefore, as you indicated, when the NBA shortened the three-point line, guards would initiate or orchestrate the offense from a slightly shallower point and court congestion did not improve.