The Los Angeles Lakers are arguably the most successful franchise in NBA history, winning 16 championships and along the way featuring many of the game’s greatest players of ever.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the leading scorer in league history, Magic Johnson is almost universally considered the greatest point guard ever, and Kobe Bryant is a worldwide icon who still mentors the game’s current players who avidly seek his advice.
Over the years, there were other members of the purple and gold who contributed to the team’s glorious past whose reputations have faded with the passage of time. Some were stars in their day, others were part of supporting casts who were instrumental in the Lakers winning titles.
Here is a list of five key Lakers players who are too often overlooked today and deserve better.
No. 5: A.C. Green
Green was drafted by the Lakers with the 23rd pick in the 1985 draft after a stellar college career at Oregon State. He was an immediate contributor, averaging nearly 20 minutes per game as a rookie before becoming a starter in his second season.
Green’s teammates respected his ability as a player who did all the little things needed to secure a win. He was a key player for the Lakers during the final years of the ‘Showtime’ era, making four NBA Finals appearances and winning championships in 1987 and 1988.
Green was known as the “iron man.” It is hard to imagine by today’s standards, where players sit out to rest or if they have a minor ailment, but in the course of his lengthy career, Green played in 1192 consecutive games and missed only three games total in 15 seasons.
In 1993, Green left to play elsewhere but returned to the Lakers for the 1999-2000 season. He started all 82 games, winning another championship with Shaq and Kobe.
Green was never flashy, and today many young fans will not recognize his name. But for those who played with and against him, they uniformly praise Green for his character and for his big-time effort on the court.
No. 4: Derek Fisher
In recent years, Derek Fisher has found himself in a couple of controversial situations. This has caused some to forget just how important Fisher was during this last great Lakers era, being a major contributor on five championship teams.
Kobe Bryant proved he could win titles without Shaquille O’Neal, but he never won one without D-Fish and Kobe even refers to Fisher as his favorite teammate of all time. Considering they were both drafted by the Lakers in 1996, and Fisher was one of the few teammates not afraid to talk back to Kobe, it makes sense that they had a great relationship.
Fisher was not the biggest, quickest, or most athletic, but he had a knack for playing his best when the game was on the line and doing whatever it took to win.
Whether it was his clutch shots in Game 4 of the 2009 NBA Finals, his memorable and-1 layup to clinch Game 3 of the 2010 Finals, or the famous ‘0.4’ shot against the Spurs in 2004, Fisher’s Lakers career is littered with clutch shots and moments.
Unfortunately, when fans think of him today, the off-court issues tend to come up more often than they should. That is a shame as his time with the Lakers is worth remembering.
No. 3: Michael Cooper
The Showtime Lakers were a flashy bunch that were known for their fast-paced offensive style. What is often forgotten is that they were also one of the league’s best defensive teams and Michael Cooper was the man who spearheaded that.
Cooper was not just the team’s best defender, he was arguably the best defender in the NBA for several years in the 1980s. He always guarded the other team’s best player, and Larry Bird called him the best defender he ever faced.
Cooper made eight straight NBA All-Defensive Teams between 1981 and 1988 with five of those being first team selections. Additionally he won Defensive Player of the Year in 1987.
He was a solid three point shooter who could also run the floor with the best of them. With Magic Johnson leading the break, it was often Worthy on one side and Cooper on the other. Fans loved his high-flying game, often chanting “Coooop” after a big play.
Cooper will never receive the credit that is heaped upon his more famous teammates, but he finished his career as one of the team’s all-time leaders in three point percentage, games played, minutes, steals, blocks, assists, rebounding, and free throw percentage. Cooper was an unsung hero who fans today sometimes overlook.
No. 2: Wilt Chamberlain
He once scored 100 points in a game, averaged over 50 points a game for an entire season, and 40 points a game another season, the only player to ever achieve either feat. No player in NBA history ever averaged 30 points and 20 rebounds in a season except for Wilt Chamberlain, and he did it seven times.
Chamberlain played the last five years of his career with the Lakers, where his game transitioned into more of a playmaker and defender. He shot over 60 percent for his career with the purple and gold, played an average of 43.7 minutes a game, averaged 19.2 rebounds, and holds the franchise record with 42 rebounds in a game. In his day, the 7’1,” 275 pound Chamberlain was a true giant.
Chamberlain was larger than life on and off the court, yet, with the passage of time, memories of him, particularly with the Lakers, have faded. He passed away years ago at a young age so many fans today do not know him.
Of course the Lakers have such a history of centers so with legendary bigs like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal, it can be easy to overlook Chamberlain whose best years were played elsewhere. Still, without him, the Lakers would never have won that first NBA title in 1972, a legendary team that won a record 33 games in a row.
Lakers fans today overlook the man known as Wilt-the-Stilt, but his jersey hangs in the rafters of the Staples Center for a reason and he should always be included in the discussion of the greatest players of all time.
No. 1: Elgin Baylor
The franchise leader in career scoring average, at 27.4 points per game, is not Kobe Bryant. The player who grabbed the most rebounds for his Lakers career, 11,463, is not Wilt, Kareem, or Shaq.
Elgin Baylor, who retired 45 years ago, still owns both records in addition to holding the league record for most points scored in an NBA finals game, 61. He once scored 71 points which was a franchise record that stood for decades until Bryant had his famous 81 point performance.
When he burst onto the NBA landscape in 1959, not only did he win Rookie of the Year, he took a Lakers team that had finished last the season before, to the NBA Finals. Then-Lakers owner Bob Short credited Baylor’s skill and popularity with saving a Lakers franchise that had been on the brink of bankruptcy.
Baylor once averaged 19.8 rebounds per game for an entire season. Only five other players in NBA history ever averaged more, and all towered over the 6’5” Baylor.
During the 1962 season Baylor got called into active duty for the US Army Reserves and was only able to play on a weekend pass. Without being able to practice during the week, Baylor still averaged a ridiculous 38.3 points and 18.6 rebounds in 48 games.
He is often called the greatest NBA player in history to never win a title as he played in seven championship series alongside Jerry West but they could not defeat the hated Boston Celtics.
Despite chronic knee problems that finally forced him to retire, he was an 11 time All-Star and 10 time First Team All-NBA selection. He was the most exciting player of his era, a charismatic high flyer before there was Dr. J, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or anyone else.
Baylor is remembered today but dispassionately, and his stature has been diminished due in large part to his long time spent as General Manager of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Some now refer to him as “Robin” to Jerry West’s “Batman,” but for NBA fans of that era, they know that Baylor was no one’s “Robin.” However, Baylor retired a few games into the 1971-72 season while West went on to win that elusive title on a fabled team, and that colored their respective futures.
Today, West is remembered reverently while Baylor is hardly remembered at all. That is not the way it was when they played together, however, and that is not the way it is in the hearts of older fans who saw them play. Baylor may have been the best player to never win a title, but he was also one of the best players to ever play the game, period.