LOS ANGELES -- The All-Star-studded tradition of the Los Angeles Lakers makes the franchise arguably the most renowned in NBA history, and it’s a legacy still growing with Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard on the Western Conference starting lineup this Sunday.
While looking forward to the All-Star game in Houston, this break in the regular season merits a look back at the best to ever don purple and gold. Which Laker players, past and present, would form the ultimate Western Conference All-Star starting lineup? It’s not an easy task, as there are only five positions and far more Hall of Famers to choose from.
We put the burden on seven judges – Lakers legend James Worthy, play-by-play analyst Stu Lantz, former NBA coach Dave Miller, current Lakers Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, and Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, who has covered the Lakers for nearly a decade.
Each judge chose his starting five and the all-time Lakers All-Star team was assembled by votes:
1. Magic Johnson, the only Laker to get a vote from all seven judges, is our point guard.
A Laker his entire professional career from 1979 to 1991 and 1996, Magic’s repertoire includes five NBA championships, three NBA MVP awards, three Finals MVPs and 12 All-Star appearances. He was also on the U.S. “Dream Team” that won the Olympic gold medal in 1992.
James Worthy picked Magic as his point guard “because he enhances everyone around him.” Coach Miller went a step further in saying he is the greatest point guard to ever play the game. “I have never seen as good a leader on and off the court!” he said. “He was the star of Showtime.”
The L.A. Times’ Bresnahan said the 6-foot-9 Laker was “one of the best passers ever to play the game” and could post up anybody. “And who could ever forget his junior sky hook that won Game 4 of the 1987 Finals?” he added. “It might be the most important shot in Lakers history.”
Steve Nash, who as a teenager watched Magic play, admitted: “That’s the way I want to be in my life. Magic Johnson – a true Lakers legend.”
“Magic is self-explanatory,” said Stu Lantz, and Dwight Howard added: “Magic is Magic.”
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who got a vote from all but one judge, is the center.
Kareem’s resume includes six NBA championships, all but one as a Laker. He’s also a six-time NBA MVP and a two-time Finals MVP. His 19 All-Star appearances remain a record and on top of all of that, he’s the NBA’s leading career scorer with 38,387 points.
“You start with the greatest all-around center to play the game, the all-time scorer in history,” said Lantz. “Pretty no-brainer.”
Kareem “perfected an unstoppable offensive weapon” known as the ‘sky hook,’ Miller said. Worthy added the move was “poetry in motion” and that Abdul-Jabbar dominated the game from the position in countless categories. Aside from perfecting that hardest-to-defend and hardest-to-perfect shot, Kareem “gave the Showtime Lakers the only thing they lacked – a legitimate post presence,” Bresnahan said.
“When you combine the NBA, NCAA and high school, Jabbar is hands down the greatest basketball player ever.” Miller said.
3. Kobe Bryant was the only current Laker to make the cut, and tying with another Laker at five votes, takes one of the forward spots.
The ‘Black Mamba’ has spent all 17 years of his NBA career with the Lakers, starting in 1996. His laundry list of accomplishments includes a championship three-peat from 2000 to 2002 and back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. He won Finals MVP during the two-peat and NBA MVP in 2008. Bryant’s 15th All-Star game this weekend puts him second in the list of most appearances along with a couple others. Recently, he became the fifth and youngest player in NBA history to reach 30,000 points.
Bryant was Bresnahan’s no-brainer for the team. “He once scored 81 points in a game. Enough said. Well, then you add his five championship rings, never-quit attitude and a scoring touch that has only improved with age,” he explained. Miller agreed. “He’s the ultimate competitor that does not love to win, plain and simple, he HATES to lose!”
“Greatest” came up a lot. “He’s one of the all-time greatest to every play,” Lantz said. “The greatest Laker off-guard to ever wear the purple and gold,” Miller said. Worthy, who voted for Bryant in part because of his accomplishments at such a young age and dominance as a player, said: “If he wins another championship, he could be considered the greatest player,” period.
4. Jerry West tied Bryant with five votes and takes the shooting guard position.
West dedicated his career to the Lakers not only as a player from 1960 to 1974, but also as a coach from 1976 to 1979. He won the championship in 1972, Finals MVP in 1969 and played in 14 All-Star games, winning the All-Star game MVP in 1972.
Lantz called West “one of the greatest ever.”
His nicknames include “Mr. Clutch,” epitomized by his buzzer-beating, 60-foot shot from half court that tied Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals against the New York Knicks. “Priceless,” Bresnahan said. “Even if the NBA never officially admits it, he's the guy they chose for the logo,” Bresnahan added. “That's reason enough for him to be on this team.”
5. Elgin Baylor claims the last spot at forward, with four votes from judges.
A player with the Lakers since the Minneapolis days, Baylor never won a championship but had great success from 1958 to 1971. He made 11 All-Star game appearances and won All-Star MVP in 1959. The NBA also named Baylor Rookie of the Year in 1959 and his jersey is one of eight that the team has retired.
Lantz and Miller spoke of Baylor through the late Chick Hearn. The legendary Lakers announcer came up with “Hangtime” because Baylor “seemed to stay in the air longer than everyone else,” Lantz said. Hearn told Miller’s friend, former Laker Mychal Thompson, that Baylor was the greatest player he had ever seen – a spectacular scorer who could finish against anyone.
“Big hands with a delicate touch allowed him to put up great numbers,” Miller said. “He was a trend setter for guys that played above the rim and at his size was a great rebounder as well.” Worthy also called Baylor a trend setter and said “he changed the game with his style.”
Lantz compared Baylor to the Hall of Famer Julius Erving: “He was like Dr. J before Dr. J was around.”
THE RUNNER-UP TEAM
As amazing as the all-time Lakers All-Stars are, their talent is by no means unparalleled by that of their own teammates in history.
Worthy said his picks could be a first team, but “you could come up with another Laker great team that could fare well against the first team.” His second team would include Shaquille O’Neal, Jamal Wilkes, West, himself and another big man like Pau Gasol.
In the spirit of exhibition, here are the runner-ups, by vote:
James Worthy (2 votes): Known as “Big Game James,” he won three NBA championship in a Lakers uniform from 1982 to 1994 and NBA Finals MVP in 1988. He made seven All-Star appearances.
Worthy left himself off his starting five, but Miller, his fellow commentator on TV had a vote for him and great things to say. “No player in the history of the NBA ever raised his game in the playoffs more than “Big Game” James Worthy … He was the go-to guy on a team with two of the greatest NBA players ever in Magic and Kareem,” Miller said. He was also “the perfect wingman” for the Showtime Lakers because of his razor sharp focus to finish and “never led the NBA in scoring but he did lead it in one of the most important categories regarding championships, unselfishness!” Miller said.
“There's a reason he earned the nickname ‘Big Game James,’” Bresnahan said. “It had everything to do with how he rose to the occasion when the stakes were high.”
Shaquille O’Neal (2 votes): Shaq formed the powerhouse in the paint and along with Bryant led the Lakers to their three-peat starting in 2000, and went on to win a fourth NBA championship. He tied Bryant at 15 All-Star appearances, won NBA Finals MVP each year of the three-peat, and NBA MVP in 2000.
Though they weren’t best of friends back in the day, Bryant picked Shaq to be on his all-time All-Star starting lineup, and another current Laker, Nash, also voted for him. Shaq also got honorable mentions from Worthy and Lantz.
Wilt Chamberlain (1 vote): Wilt is the only player in NBA history to score 100 points in a single game, and although it was with the Philadelphia Warriors, he made enormous contributions ending his career with the Lakers from 1968 to 1973, including one of his two championships.
“Wilt is my favorite player,” said Dwight Howard. Chamberlain got honorable mentions from Worthy, Nash and Lantz.
Bob McAdoo (1 vote): The versatile center and power forward only played with the Lakers from 1981 to 1985, but won both of his NBA championships during that time. He earned NBA MVP in 1975 and made five All-Star appearances.
“He was a prolific scorer, unstoppable with his size,” said Worthy, who chose him to be his power forward.
Jamaal Wilkes (1 vote): A four-time NBA champion who played for the Lakers from 1977 to 1985, Wilkes recently had his jersey retired at the Staples Center, and many said it was long overdue.
He got a vote from Howard and an honorable mention from Worthy.
Dwight Howard (1 vote): The new Laker this season picked himself. The center won NBA Defensive Player of the Year from 2009 to 2011 and is making his seventh All-Star appearance, first with the Lakers.
The judges’ picks (in order stated):
James Worthy: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Bob McAdoo, Elgin Baylor, Kobe Bryant
Dave Miller: Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Elgin Baylor, James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Mike Bresnahan: Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, James Worthy
Stu Lantz: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Jerry West
Steve Nash: Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal
Dwight Howard: Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Dwight Howard, Jamaal Wilkes
Kobe Bryant: Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal
(Kobe wouldn’t include himself? “No,” he said. “I’ll coach.”)
You can follow Jessica Kwong on Twitter at @JessicaGKwong.