The retired jerseys hanging from the rafters of Staples Center tell the story. The Los Angeles Lakers, via smart drafts, savvy trades, and free agency wins have managed to acquire more superstars than any other NBA franchise.
While the Lakers do have advantages over many franchises like great weather and the second biggest market in the nation, the reason so many NBA superstars want to play for them is the legendary history they’ve built. Lakers’ exceptionalism is why superstars like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis all wanted to play for the Lakers as much as the lure of sunshine and the glitter of Hollywood.
While there are always honest differences of opinion as to which NBA players were superstars, there’s no question the Lakers have had the most superstars. My personal list classifies eleven Lakers players as superstars. The list starts with George Mikan and includes Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis.
Since LeBron James and Anthony Davis are still playing, their jerseys are not yet retired. I also did not include Gail Goodrich or Jamaal Wilkes, two legendary Lakers with retired jerseys whom I did not classify as superstars. You can divide the Lakers superstars into five distinct eras: the Mikan era, the Baylor, West, and Chamberlain era, the Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, and Worthy era, the Bryant and O’Neal era, and the James and Davis era.
So journey with me to see how the Lakers were able to acquire these eleven superstars and how they contributed to the franchise winning sixteen NBA championships with the possibility of winning more titles in the future.
1. The George Mikan (Draft) Era.
The story begins back in 1947 when Ben Berger and Morris Chalfen bought the disbanded Detroit Gems and moved them to Minneapolis. While the Gems had no players under contract, they had the top pick in the NBL draft. That’s when the Lakers’ acquisition of superstars began as they used that pick for future Hall of Fame center George Mikan, who became the first on the long list of legendary superstars who would wear a Lakers’ jersey.
After playing in and winning the NBL championship in 1948, Mikan and the Lakers joined the BAA , which ultimately merged with the NBL and became the NBA, and won the first of their sixteen NBA championships in 1949. Mikan then led the Lakers to their second NBA championship in 1950 and three more titles from 1952 through 1954 to create the NBA’s first dynasty and bring the total number of purple and gold NBA championships to five.
The NBA game was in its infancy during the George Mikan era. There were no big television contracts and players were paid so little they had day jobs. After the Lakers lost a game 19–18, the NBA introduced the shot clock. Mikan was the prototype for NBA centers for several decades, leading the league in scoring six straight years and helping win five of the Lakers’ sixteen championships. Yet his jersey still does not hang in Staples Center.
While the Lakers include the five titles won in Minneapolis in their sixteen championships, they only hung one banner in Staples to commemorate the five Minneapolis titles and one banner to honor five Minneapolis players.
2. The Baylor (Draft), West (Draft), and Chamberlain (Trade) Era.
Injuries forced George Mikan to retire in 1954 and the Lakers floundered over the next four years, only making the playoffs once, falling to last place in the league only to be fortuitously awarded the top pick in 1958 draft. Once again, the Lakers struck superstar gold, picking Elgin Baylor, who won NBA Rookie of the Year and led the Lakers to the NBA Finals, where they suffered the first of a long litany of losses to the hated Boston Celtics.
After struggling the next two years, new Lakers’ owner Bob Short moved the Lakers to Los Angeles in 1960 where they struck superstar gold in the NBA draft for the third time, choosing Jerry West with the second pick. Over the next ten years, the superstar duo of Elgin Baylor and Jerry West led the Lakers to the NBA Finals seven times, only to lose every time, including six times to Bill Russell and their nemesis Boston Celtics.
Frustrated by not being able to beat the Celtics, then owner Jack Kent Cooke made the first of what would be a recurring series of blockbuster trades for superstar centers to transform Lakers teams into championship contenders. Before the 1969 season, Cooke traded for a disgruntled Wilt Chamberlain, who’d beaten the Celtics and led the 76ers to their first NBA championship in 1967 and basically forced Philadelphia to trade him to the Lakers.
The combination of West, Baylor, and Chamberlain would lead the Lakers to the best record in the league and make them the odds-on favorites to win the 1969 NBA championship, only once again to lose Game 7 to the Celtics. Lakers fans will never forget the tipped ball as the shot clock expired going straight to the Celtic’s Don Nelson, whose 15 foot jumper kicked high off the back rim 6 feet straight in the air before dropping down through the net.
The second year of the West, Baylor, and Chamberlain superstar trio also ended with a devastating loss as the Lakers lost to the Knicks in the 1970 Finals in one of the most dramatic games in the entire history of the NBA. This was the series where Jerry West sank at 63 foot shot at the buzzer to send Game 3 into overtime and become the first player on the losing team to win NBA Finals MVP before an inured Willis Reed saved the Knicks.
After Baylor retired nine games into the season, the 1972 Lakers set a record for the longest winning streak in NBA history at thirty-three games and then beat the Knicks for their first championship in Los Angeles and sixth overall. It was a season of revenge and redemption for the Lakers and their two superstars as the beleaguered Wilt Chamberlain led the league in field goal percentage and rebounds and frustrated Jerry West led the NBA in assists.
I remember listening to Chick Hearn on the radio during the thirty-three game winning streak like it was yesterday. Wilt Chamberlain had been my favorite NBA player and the reason I had finally become a Lakers fan.
3. The Abdul-Jabbar (Trade), Johnson (Draft), and Worthy (Draft) Era.
After losing to the Knicks in the Finals in 1973, Wilt Chamberlain retired and Jerry West did the same the following year, leaving the Los Angeles Lakers without a superstar to continue their quest for NBA championships. But once again a familiar story Lakers’ fans had heard before and would hear again emerged as superstar center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar announced he wanted the Milwaukee Bucks to trade him to the Los Angeles Lakers.
While the Lakers’ 1975 trade for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar gave the franchise their fourth legitimate superstar, they were not able to win a championship and Jack Kent Cooke eventually sold the team to Dr. Jerry Buss in 1979. Much like when Ben Berger and Morris Chalfen bought the Detroit Gems in 1947, Dr. Buss took over a team that fortuitously owned the top pick in the 1979 NBA draft, which the Lakers used to pick Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson.
The rest you could say is history as the Showtime Lakers picked up a third superstar in James Worthy via a trade for the top pick in the 1982 draft and won five more NBA championship in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, and 1988. The legendary battles between Magic Johnson and Lakers and Larry Bird and the Celtics in the 80’s were likely responsible for saving a failing NBA and transforming it into the juggernaut professional sport it is today.
With a legacy of seven superstars and eleven NBA championship under their belt, the Los Angeles Lakers’ next twelve years was the franchise’s longest drought as they struggled to find a new superstar and failed to win a title. After Magic and Byron went down with hamstring injuries and the Lakers lost to the Pistons in the 1989 Finals, Kareem retired. Then in 1991, Magic announced he had the HIV virus and the Michael Jordan era began.
The Showtime Lakers with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy won the hearts and souls of casual Southern California basketball fans and transformed them into diehard lifelong Lakers fans.
4. The Bryant (Trade) and O’Neal (Free Agency) Era.
The seeds for the Lakers resurrection from the turmoils of the 90’s were planted in 1996 when general manager Jerry West orchestrated one of the best offseasons in NBA history by acquiring the Lakers’ next superstar duo. First, West traded center Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for 17-year old Kobe Bryant and then followed that by signing free agent All-Star center Shaquille O’Neal to restock the Lakers with a new duo of superstars.
It took Jerry West three years to build an elite roster around Kobe and Shaq and hire the right head coach in Phil Jackson before the Lakers were ready to be champions and win three straight NBA titles in 2000, 2001, and 2002. Jackson’s hiring proved to be the catalyst needed to get Bryant and O’Neal to set aside their personal rivalry and conflicts and merge their talents to play the dominant basketball needed to be able to accomplish a threepeat.
The Lakers would struggle the next few years, losing to the Spurs in the West Finals in 2003 and then to the Pistons in the 2004 Finals, after which the Lakers basically imploded. The Kobe and Shaq feud blew up completely. Phil Jackson left as head coach and was replaced with Rudy Tomjanovich. Shaquille O’Neal demanded and was traded to the Miami Heat. And Kobe Bryant signed with the Lakers after almost signing with the Clippers.
The Shaq trade was a crushing blow for Lakers fans who had been forced to take sides because of the feud and felt betrayed by Shaq demanding the trade. This was the first time in history the Lakers traded away a superstar. Fortunately, Kobe Bryant was not done winning championships. After going into solo scoring mode for five years, including a memorable 81-point performance against the Toronto Raptors, help was finally on the way.
After budding star center Andrew Bynum went down with a major injury, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol in February 2008 that resuscitated the Lakers hopes. With Phil Jackson back as head coach and Kobe Bryant enjoying an MVP season, the Lakers once again made the Finals, only to lose again to the Boston Celtics, this time with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen.
But Lakers championship time had returned. With a towering front court of Gasol and Bynum and Kobe Bryant playing the best basketball of his career, the Lakers bounced back to win the NBA championship in 2009 and 2010. The most remarkable thing about these Lakers’ championships was they were won with Kobe Bryant being the team’s only legitimate superstar. While Gasol and Bynum were great players, they were not superstars.
The five NBA championships won by Kobe Bryant are a testament to his greatness as a superstar. Winning three championships as #8 and then, after six years, two more championships as #24 may never be matched.
5. The James (Free Agency) and Davis (Trade) Era.
Nine superstars and sixteen championships later and after another six year title hiatus , the Los Angeles Lakers have reloaded their roster with 35-year old superstar LeBron James and 26-year old superstar Anthony Davis. Unfortunately, the Lakers’ pursuit of their seventeenth championship is currently on hold and may be derailed due to the current suspension of the 2020 NBA season because of the Coronavirus pandemic in America.
Despite an MVP caliber season by LeBron James and a potential DPOY season by Anthony Davis, the Lakers find themselves unable to control their future after sweeping their main two competitors the last weekend of play. Now sitting atop most of the major NBA power rankings, the Lakers are hoping the government will be able to get the pandemic under control so the NBA will resume the season and they’ll be able to win another title.
The problem for the Lakers is the ticking clock on how long 35-year old LeBron James can continue to hold Father Time abey and the looming free agency this summer of Anthony Davis, whom they traded for last summer. The Lakers had counted on winning the NBA championship this summer to convince Anthony Davis to re-sign with the team. While that likely will still happen, the Lakers know their championship window is slowly closing.
That’s why a lost season is the last thing the Lakers want to endure but the situation is now completely out of their hands. The best they can hope for now is for the suspended season to resume after a couple of month’s delay. Unfortunately for the Lakers, any advantage they might have had before the season was suspended will likely be wiped out by a two month’s delay and resuming the season and the playoffs will likely be a brand new ball game.
Right now, the Lakers would gladly take that as the outcome. There’s not a better superstar duo in the league than LeBron James and Anthony Davis and the Lakers would like nothing better than a chance to prove that.
So what’s the final tally for how the Lakers acquired their eleven superstars? Five were acquired via the NBA draft: George Mikan, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, and James Worthy. Four were obtained via trades: Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, and Anthony Davis. Two were signed via free agency: Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James. Over 73 years, the Lakers’ eleven superstars won sixteen NBA championships.
But the Lakers are not done winning NBA championships or acquiring superstar players. They’re already eyeing potential replacements for 35-year old LeBron James with their sights on the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo. That may turn out to be a long shot, especially with the future of this season and next almost impossible to predict because of the current Coronavirus pandemic but history tells us it would be foolish to count out the Lakers.
One thing that’s been proven year after year is winning championships in the NBA requires a roster with at least one and preferably two superstars. Acquiring superstars is clearly an art the Los Angeles Lakers have mastered.
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