Who does not love a great all-time team with a little twist? Truly the only classic with a twist better might be a peanut butter and jelly with some potato chips in it. So what is the twist here you might be asking? An all-time team for the modern era has many facets and we are taking them all into consideration. This will not simply be a list of the greatest Lakers. We are considering position. We are considering fit. Most importantly of all we are considering the individual year for the player.
For roster construction some players were selected for roles outside of their normal position. The guiding principle for selection was less of a “did they play this position” and more of a “could they play this position”. We did select a full starting lineup, a bench mob, and as the modern game allows 3 more additional spots and a pair of two way contracts. Without further ado let’s begin.
Point Guard – 1979-80 Magic Johnson
With nearly limitless talent in the Lakers’ deep pool, you need a floor runner who not only will keep everyone involved but who will also bring the joy. Upon winning his first NBA game rookie Magic Johnson ran and jumped into Kareem’s arms just to be told something along the lines of “young buck we have a lot more of these to go.” Magic gets better as his career goes on but that joy combined with the poise to start at center in the Finals is exactly what this team needs from a personality stand point.
Shooting Guard – 1965-66 Jerry West
For as deep of a history as the Lakers have, they are surprisingly short on true gunners especially in the 3-point shooting department. Current Lakers roster aside Steve Nash, Marc Gasol and Vladimir Radmanovic are by the percentages the best three-point shooters in laker history and that simply will not do. Jerry West was a master of the pull up shot off the dribble. In 1965-66 he hit 47.3% of all his field goals at a time where the league average was 43.3%. Without tracking data, it is hard to know where exactly the majority of these shots came from but the eye test heavily suggests the mid-range with a good number sprinkling out to the three-point line. Playing in a modern offense where he gets catch and shoot opportunities that field goal percentage is only going to climb. The second great thing West did was get to the line. Jerry attempted 12.4 free throws per game during the 65-66 regular season. With the Modern Whistle he could live there.
Small Forward – 2008-09 Kobe Bryant
Picking the right Kobe is incredibly easy. Naturally young Kobe has a ton of flare but you don’t want airballs against Utah or butting heads with other stars. Solo Kobe also known as 81 points Kobe still needed to learn how to work with others first. Old Zen Kobe was great for media quotes but certainly not his most vibrant self. No the right answer is 08-09 Kobe. Coming off the Redeem Team and a Finals loss to the Celtics no other versions of Kobe Bryant balance the hunger to win, dedication to defense and a humility to work with teammates. This also being one of Kobe’s better three-point shooting seasons does not hurt either.
Power Forward – 1996-97 Shaquille O’Neal
Is this Shaq’s best season as a Laker? Absolutely not. However, it is his most athletic. Pulling O’Neal into the modern game means he will be the strongest player in the league regardless of which of his seasons we select. You can just ask Chris Dudley about that. With the increased pace in the modern game this Lakers squad needs someone who can run. The Shaq of 97-98 is the freight train Pelicans fans can only dream of Zion becoming. Imagine the sheer chaos opposing defenses would have to scramble through if Magic had Kobe and West spacing to the wings then a trailing Shaquille O’Neal. As an added bonus this year Shaq said he does not want to lose any more. In the Western Conference Finals all the Lakers put their hands in for one more send off but a quippy Nick Van-Exel would shout “Cancun” instead of the Lakers’ normal motto. Shaq saw to it Nick did not return the next year.
Center – 1978-79 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
In many ways 78-79 was one of Kareem’s worst seasons. He finished 4th in MVP voting, had his lowest scoring per 36 minutes prior to turning 39, and was the recipient of a gentleman’s sweep in the second round. What makes this the right season for the modern game is Kareem anchored a defense like Rudy Gobert then fired outlet passes like Nikola Jokic. If this team is going to play the speed game, then you need a big who protects the rim (Kareem averaged 4.1 blocks per game) secure the boards (12.8 rebounds per game) and dish it out to streaking cutters (5.4 assists per game). The one thing this variant of Abdul-Jabbar needed was teammates.
Point Guard – 2019-20 LeBron James
LeBron gives the all-time Lakers team so much flexibility. It may be a bit of a stretch to call LeBron a point guard but all roster shenanigans included he did play 57% of his minutes at the point guard position in the 2019-20 season. The fact that this was his championship year also makes this a no brainer selection for him. It would have been nice if this was a better shooting season for James as the bench is lacking shooter. To make up for their poor shooting his passing skills will be key.
Shooting Guard – 1971-72 Gail Goodrich
In 1972 when Los Angeles won its first title it is easy to forget about their leading scorer in the Finals. That’s right on a team with Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, good old Gail Goodrich averaged just over 25 points per game leading both teams. To put Goodrich’s game in a modern context, think of a pre injury Boston Isaiah Thomas crossed with a Reggie Miller who got to play along much better teammates. Goodrich had ball handling abilities to create and score for himself as he showed later in his lakers tenure but instead he received the benefit of being able to space for West and Wilt. Like with West Goodrich’s three-point shooting is an unknown due to playing prior to the line’s existence but there a lot of highlights of him hitting from the corner.
Small Forward – 1960-61 Elgin Baylor
Picking the right Elgin Baylor season is as easy as looking at his nicknames. Would you rather have a guy nicknamed “Rabbit” due to his leaping ability or a guy known as “Aches and Pains” because of how many injuries he had gone through? Prior to the many knee surgeries, Baylor could glide through the air, maneuver around the best defenders in the league and if you doubled, he was considered an outstanding passer. Back when the term basketeer was common place Baylor was declared the most complete player in the game. Baylor on the fast break would become the mold for Magic Johnson. In 1961 Elgin Baylor set the Lakers single game scoring record with 71 points against
Power Forward – 2019-20 Anthony Davis
It is a bad time for brow right now. Does he struggle to create for himself? Yes. Is his offensive versatility overrated? Yes. However, about a year and a half ago Davis was the darling of the NBA. After Jimmy Butler drops 40 in the Finals who picks him up? Davis. Defensively there are few players in the history of this league who could do what Davis does. As a switchable five in 2020 Davis defend Nikola Jokic, Dame Lillard, James Harden and Jimmy Butler at different points during this layoff run.
Center – 2009-10 Pau Gasol
There are multiple advanced stats which point to Pau Gasol as the primary reason the Lakers won in 2010. Instead of reciting them I will make one very simple case. In game 7 Pau Gasol out rebounded Kevin Garnett 18 to 3. He took a play whose entire identity was all out effort and in the close out game limited him to 3 rebounds. Combine that with his high post passing and you have a gutty determined player who has the cerebral passing to run a high post Princeton offense around him. It is a shame Gasol only began converting 3s after his Laker tenure. Imagine him being able to spot of above the break when trailing a possession. However, the Spaniard did offer a fair amount of spacing hitting 48.4% of his shots between 16 feet and the three-point line.
Small Forward – 1949-50 Jim Pollard
There cannot be an all-time Lakers list without some of the Minneapolis guys. If you were looking for Mikan keep scrolling. Kim Pollard, the Kangaroo Kid would be a much better fit in today’s game. He was known for speed, leaping ability and hitting corner jumpers. Mikan was easily the great player of the 50 years of 1900 but at the New York times put it Pollard was the “best all-around performer in the game.” In today’s game running an offense through a forward is way more common. Pollard next to Magic, LeBron and Baylor would be completely interchangeable passing and cutting on a break.
Small Forward – 1987-88 James Worthy
This deep on an all-time roster James Worthy is a perfect fit. For being a small forward Worthy had a wildly efficient game. Maybe it was because half his attempts were being set up on the break by Magic or the other half were posts ups with Kareem distracting the defense on the other block. That aside, teams need a guys who are not afraid and who make the most of every opportunity. In Game 7 of the 1998 finals Worthy put up a 36 point, 16 rebound 10 assist triple double while shooting 15-22 from the field.
Small Forward 1980-81 Jamaal Wilkes
There may be nothing more important in the modern game than a two-way big wing. Jamaal “Silk” Wilkes on top of receiving MVP votes in 81 was one of the better defensive forwards. Wilkes could get in the pacing lanes or strip elite forwards like Dr J then quickly turn defense into offense. In the half court game Wilkes was dangerous in the mid game with a quick off the dribble pull up.
Two Way Contracts
Center – 1949-50 George Mikan
It does not feel great leaving the franchise founding father out to dry. Making matters worse is the most common misconception about Mikan is dead wrong. Most modern fans looks at Mikan and consider him a plodding big man from the stall ball era. Mikan retiring soon after the invention of the shot clock reinforces this narrative but it could not be further from the truth. From the 50-51 season to the 53-54 season (the first four seasons we have pace statistics for) the Lakers pushed the tempo. They averaged almost 11 more possessions per game than league average. Mikan was a large part of that. Unlike Big Ed Sadowski, Mikan was mobile. He set a new expectation that big men could run and be graceful. Hopefully on this hypothetical two-way deal Mikan can learn some modern technics. Then he joins the main roster as a mobile big man
Shooting Guard – 1997-98 Eddie Jones
For the last spot there are lots of great options from Lakerdom. This roster is already very forward and big heavy so it is hard to look at Wilt Chamberlain, Vern Mikkleson or Dwight Howard. Guards like Norm Nixon, Hot Rod Hundley or Michael Cooper could be options but in the spirit of two we felt it was more appropriate to go for a what could have been. In 1997-98 Eddie Jones was the starting 2 guard for the Lakers. He finished the year second in win shares and scoring for the Lakers while knocking down 38.9% of threes He would be moved the following year to open up space for Kobe Bryant. In a more modern offense he and Bryant could have coexisted.
Center – 1971-72 Wilt Chamberlain
The most common misconception about Lakers’ history is the belief that the Chamberlain Russell rivalry is that it was a Lakers Celtics rivalry. The Lakers and the Celtics faced off in 7 Finals but Wilt was only with the franchise in 1 of those seasons. That season, 1969, Wilt and head coach Butch van Breda Kolff butted heads to the point where Butch decided to play the final 5 minutes of Game 7 without Chamberlain. Most of his legendary myth making had already occurred prior joining the Lakers. Wilt’s signature moment for the Lakers is playing the 72 Finals with two broken hands. That of course did not stop him from dunking and letting out a scream instantly recognized by anyone who has done something great despite great personal pain.