Although each achievement was exceptional, such feats are not allowed to stand on their own. Not in sports. When records are set, there is a larger discussion – is that player the greatest of all-time in that sport or for that franchise? And if not, it is absolutely mandatory that we know exactly where he is ranked.
And we must hear from everybody.
A few years ago, I decided to approach it a different way and now seems a good time to update that exercise. A fun project for any franchise – but the Lakers and Celtics in particular – is to take the NBA awards structure and apply it to each team.
It is when you do that and compare it to other teams that you realize, again, how dominant the two franchises have been. The NBA has had 65 champions. Thirty-three of those titles have been won by the Celtics or Lakers. The reason is because they have had the best front office, best coaches and best players.
At the end of each season, the NBA names a first ,second and third team, and recognizes the most valuable player, best defensive player, coach, most improved, etc. So I’m going to apply that structure to the Celtics and Lakers and, of course, let the debate begin. Or continue.
I do feel compelled to point out to “NBA expert” Tim Legler that the Lakers were a franchise before they began playing in Los Angeles. That apparently escaped Legler last week when he was selecting his all-time top five Lakers from a list of 10 that did not include George Mikan, merely voted the greatest player of the first half of the 20th century by The Associated Press.
You cannot do a history of the Lakers without including the Minneapolis years (1948-1960). If you do, you eliminate five titles and instead of a 17-16 lead in titles by the Celtics, it becomes 17-11. And what Laker fan wants that?
The NBA officially includes the Minneapolis years in Lakers history. What Legler may not know is that the Lakers franchise originally started when a group of businessmen purchased the Detroit Gems franchise from the National Basketball League in 1947 and moved it to Minneapolis. Those Detroit years are not a part of NBA history because the league does not recognize the NBL history.
But the league does recognize Lakers history, just as it recognizes Pistons records from Fort Wayne, Golden State records from Philadelphia, 76ers records from Syracuse and Kings records from Kansas City, Omaha, Cincinnati and Rochester.
And the league has the right to determine its official history. Legler does not.
OK. I’ll relax. Got that out of the way.
So now, we attack the project and here’s how deep the franchises are: Wilt Chamberlain is not on the all-franchise first, second or third team for the Lakers.
And yes, you hear rumblings from the grave.
But the facts are: Wilt came to the Lakers at age 32 and played five seasons. In four of those years, he had the lowest scoring averages of his 15-year career and in the fifth year, he played only 12 games because of injury.
And even though he led the NBA in rebounds four times during that five-year span, the 419 total games he played was less than the top three Lakers centers.
But please, no Wilt hate mail. He is one of my five favorite players in NBA history. I met him and talked to him. I can make a case for him being the greatest center ever. But in Laker lore, he has tough competition.
The criteria used for these all-time Lakers and Celtics teams is the same used by the NBA in voting for annual awards. Three teams of five players each are selected, and positions cannot be changed. Each team consists of two forwards, two guards and a center.
The ballot, please:
ALL-TIME LAKERS TEAM
C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1975-89)
F: Elgin Baylor (1958-72)
F: James Worthy (1982-94)
G: Magic Johnson (1979-91, 1995)
G: Kobe Bryant (1996-present)
Comment: OK, everyone obsesses about whether Kobe is better than or equal to Michael Jordan. Forget that. Here is the pertinent point. He’s better than Jerry West. No doubt. The logo. Unbelievable greatness. Is that good enough?
C: Shaquille O’Neal (1996-2004)
F: Jamaal Wilkes (1977-85)
F: Vern Mikkelsen (1949-59)
G: Jerry West (1960-74)
G: Gail Goodrich (1965-68, 1970-76)
Comment: Shaq was the most dominant player of his generation and was the key player on three Lakers championship teams.
C: George Mikan (1947-56)
F: Jim Pollard (1948-55)
F: Michael Cooper (1978-90)
G: Slater Martin (1949-56)
G: Byron Scott (1983-93, 1996)
Comment: Mikan led the Lakers to five titles in a six-year stretch but, realistically, he wasn’t as physically dominant as Shaq. And Shaq played against much better competition. The 6-4 Pollard, by the way, is reputedly the first guy to have dunked from the foul line, although he did it in practice. (Tim, look it up).
Most Valuable Player: Magic Johnson
Abdul-Jabbar arrived four years before Magic was drafted and during that span, the Lakers never made the Finals and, in fact, lost once in the first round and did not even make the playoffs one year. In Magic’s first season, the Lakers of that era won their first of five titles. Kareem and Kobe Bryant are runners up.
Greatest Coach: Phil Jackson and Pat Riley (tie)
OK, Phil has the lead in titles five to four, but he never had to get past Bird, McHale, etc. Riley built the original Showtime franchise and Phil’s triangle was a work of art. Jackson probably deserves a slight edge, but I think of both coaches equally.
Greatest Rookie: Magic Johnson
Remember Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals? Abdul-Jabbar nursing an injured ankle in Los Angeles, Magic moving to center, then going out and scoring 42 points with 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals? Maybe the greatest single game performance in NBA Finals history, and it came from a 20-year-old rookie.
Greatest Defensive Player: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
If the general public overlooked this part of his game, the competition did not. Blocked shots were not an official NBA stat until Abdul-Jabbar’s fifth year in the league, and he still ranks third in NBA history. At his peak, Abdul-Jabbar was a shutdown defender in the paint.
Most Improved Player: Kobe Bryant
Bryant entered the league as a skinny 17-year-old high school player with tantalizing potential. Credit Jerry West for trading a first-class center in Vlade Divac to Charlotte for Bryant – the 13th pick in the draft. His development was quick, steady and spectacular and many of us believe he still is the best player in the league.
Sixth Man Award: Michael Cooper
Remember those epic struggles with Larry Bird? A case could be made for Cooper as the best defensive player, but since he started only 94 of 873 career games, he fits perfectly here. He is one of the few players who came off the bench and made a difference in a game because of his defense.
C: Bill Russell (1956-69)
F: Larry Bird (1979-92)
F: Kevin McHale (1980-93)
G: Bob Cousy (1950-63)
G: Sam Jones (1957-69)
Comment: Russell obviously made a lot of good players great and great players better. But no one should forget that Sam Jones has 10 rings, one less that Russell. Colleague Chris Bernucca touched upon the Jones vs. Paul Pierce debate in his Sunday column. Jones was to Russell what Scottie Pippen was to Michael.
C: Dave Cowens (1970-80)
F: John Havlicek (1962-78)
F: Paul Pierce (1998-present)
G: Dennis Johnson (1983-90)
G: Bill Sharman (1951-61)
Comment: Highest compliment I can pay Paul Pierce. He’s a second team forward with John Havlicek.
C: Robert Parish (1980-94)
F: Tom Heinsohn (1956-65)
F: Tom “Satch” Sanders (1960-73)
G: Jo Jo White (1969-79)
G: Frank Ramsey (1954-64)
Comment: Hall of Famer Satch Sanders was Michael Cooper before Michael Cooper. And it should be noted that Kevin Garnett is at least in the discussion for third team, but he’s been in Boston only five years.
Most Valuable Player: Bill Russell
He played 13 years, and 11 of those ended with him winning a championship. His last championship team roster was completely different than his first. He is simply the greatest winner in NBA history.
Greatest Coach: Red Auerbach
He not only was a great coach, he also was perhaps the greatest executive in league history. He acquired Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, among others, with brilliant personnel moves. As the head coach, he won eight consecutive championships.
Greatest Defensive Player:
He dominated with his athleticism and was the most efficient shot blocker in history. Rather than swatting shots into the third row of seats, he would block it towards a teammate, which often resulted in an easy fast break.
Greatest Rookie: Larry Bird
In 1978-79, the Celtics were 29-53. The next year, the rookie Bird led Boston to a record of 61-21. And that was the year before Kevin McHale and Robert Parish arrived. The 32-game turnaround was solely because of Bird.
Most Improved Player: Don Nelson
A third-round pick by the Chicago Zephyrs in 1962, Nelson was traded to the Lakers and played two years in L.A. before being waived. Boston signed him and he went on to play 11 years and was on five championship teams.
Sixth Man Award: Frank Ramsey
It only makes sense to give this to the original sixth man. Auerbach decided he needed a boost off the bench and Ramsey was the first player in history to do that. He did it so well that he made the Hall of Fame.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.