The Los Angeles Lakers are the most popular and recognized franchise in NBA history. No, they don’t own the most championships (that title belongs to the Boston Celtics), but if you went around the world, chances are, you would find more Lakers fans than anything else. It’s why there’s often an argument over all time Lakers lists and the like. Oddly enough, whenever discussing the greatest Lakers, or the best Lakers or the Lakers best players ever, you’re often also discussing the best players in NBA history.
And there is a reason for that.
The Lakers are a historic organization, having won 16 championships and having had some of the greatest players in the history of the game walk through their doors.
But who are the greatest Lakers of all time?
Here is a top-five list of the best Lakers ever, which wasn’t exactly an easy task, as listing out the Lakers best players ever is rather difficult. Nevertheless, here’s the five greatest Lakers players in franchise history.
5. Jerry West
Jerry West played 14 seasons in the NBA, and he was named an All-Star literally every year. That is insane, and every one of those campaigns came with the Lakers.
There is a reason why west is the logo.
Yes, he only won one championship during his NBA tenure mainly due to the presence of the Bill Russell-led Celtics, but there is no doubting just how phenomenal of a player West was.
He owns career averages of 27 points, 6.7 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game, making 47.4 percent of his shots and 81.4 percent of his free throws.
West was also James Harden-like in his ability to get to the charity stripe, as he averaged 9.4 free-throw attempts per game for his career and logged over 10 a night five times.
The West Virginia native was also known for elevating his game when the stakes were highest, earning him the nickname “Mr. Clutch.” For example, during the 1965 playoffs, West averaged 40.6 points per game.
West lacks the overall accolades of the other players on this list, but he was a monster.
4. Shaquille O’Neal
You know you have an embarrassment of riches when Shaquille O’Neal is fourth on your all time Lakers list.
In terms of dominance, I’m not sure there was ever a bigger force than O’Neal. You can make an argument for Wilt Chamberlain, but then eras have to be taken into account.
At his peak, Shaq was unstoppable and was probably the most freakish athlete to ever play the game. He was 7-foot-1 and likely in the neighborhood of 350 pounds, and yet, he was able to run the floor like a guard.
Teams threw everything they could at O’Neal. Double teams. Triple teams. It didn’t matter.
He had lightning-quick reflexes, as his over-the-shoulder baseline spin was one of the most devastating moves the game has ever seen. He was also an immovable object on both ends of the floor, and what he lacked in pick-and-roll defense he made up for in being a colossal rim protector. As a matter of fact, the NBA instituted the defensive three seconds rule largely because of Shaq.
O’Neal spent eight seasons in Los Angeles, pairing with Kobe Bryant to lead the Lakers to a three-peat between 2000 and 2002, a feat that has not been accomplished since.
He made it to four NBA Finals with the Lakers overall before being traded to the Miami Heat during the summer of 2005.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
There are many (myself included) who list Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the second-best player of all-time behind Michael Jordan.
However, some of Abdul-Jabbar’s best years came with the Milwaukee Bucks, where he won his first championship in 1971 before winning five more with the Lakers.
The fact that Kareem did not play his entire career in LA is why he is not higher on this list, because my goodness: prime Abdul-Jabbar was quite the force.
He was a nearly unguardable big man who employed the most unblockable shot in basketball history in the sky hook. He was a terrific passer. He cleaned the glass like nobody’s business. He was a terrific defender.
Not only that, but Abdul-Jabbar was a solid free-throw shooter, particularly for a center.
Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson comprised one of the best duos in NBA history, and James Worthy helped make them a deadly big three that dominated basketball in the ’80s.
2. Magic Johnson
This one was tough, because part of me wanted to put Johnson in the top spot, but his shortened career and defensive deficiencies prevented him from being No. 1.
But hey, being the second-best Laker of all-time is still one heck of an honor.
Magic was the reason behind the Showtime Lakers that won five championships in the ’80s. He was one of the best passers in league history and could run the fast break like no other. And no, he wasn’t a great perimeter shooter, but that didn’t stop him from making 52 percent of his shots for his career, as well as 84.8 percent of his free throws.
Johnson boasts lifetime averages of 19.5 points, 11.2 assists, 7.2 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game, which is an absolutely ridiculous stat line. He also raised his game when it mattered most and won three Finals MVPs to go along with his three regular-season MVP awards.
Magic’s consistency was also admirable, as he averaged double doubles (easily, I might add) in nine straight seasons between ’83 and ’91 and probably would have continued to do so had it not been for his HIV diagnosis that knocked him out of basketball.
Many have Johnson on their top-five of all-time lists, and it’s easy to see why.
1. Kobe Bryant
The late Kobe Bryant.
Bryant spent his entire 20-year career with the Lakers, winning five championships and making 18 All-Star appearances.
Yes, Bryant was frequently criticized for being an inefficient chucker by many, but come on now: even the most fervent Kobe detractors can’t deny how much of a dominant force he was.
Bryant posted 25 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in his career, winning a pair of scoring titles and laying claim to one of the greatest performances in the history of the game when he poured in 81 points during a win over the Toronto Raptors back in January 2006.
Perhaps most importantly, Bryant’s impact on the game will be felt for generations.
While Shaq may have spearheaded the Lakers’ three-peat in the early 2000s, Kobe was the club’s most popular player. I’m not sure there has ever been a more dedicated fanbase to an individual player than Kobe Bryant fans.
But let’s not let that take away from his brilliance on the court.
Not only was he one of the most fearsome scorers in league history, but he was also one heck of a defender in his prime. Plus, for as much of a ball hog as he may have been at times, he was a superb passer.
Bryant leads a long list of greatest Lakers, and it’s hard to see that ever changing.