Lakers Countdown: At #1…

J.M. Poulard —  September 6, 2012

As evidenced by our Lakers title team countdown, the franchise has seen its fair share of terrific teams as well as some magical seasons that its fans will be hard pressed to forget. Indeed, since moving to Los Angeles, the franchise has captured the NBA title eleven times and the FB&G panel voted in order to rank these teams and find out which one was truly the greatest Los Angeles Lakers team of all time.

Before we delve into the team that made it to the top spot, here’s a chance for some of you to review the previous teams if you missed the start of our countdown:

11. The 2001-02 Lakers

10. The 2008-09 Lakers

9. The 2009-10 Lakers

8. The 1999-00 Lakers

7. The 1981-82 Lakers

6. The 1979-80 Lakers

5. The 1987-88 Lakers

4. The 1984-85 Lakers

3. The 2000-01 Lakers

2. The 1971-72 Lakers

And without further ado, as voted by the FB&G panel, the greatest Los Angeles Lakers team of all time…

The 1986-87 Lakers

In June 1985, the Lakers finally conquered their demons and defeated the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals and won the title, finally getting some redemption after losing at their hands the season prior with the championship hanging in the balance.

With the ghosts of the past no longer an issue, many wondered if the Lakers could repeat and win the title once again at the conclusion of the 1985-86 season.

Instead, the Los Angeles Lakers faltered in the first round of the 1986 playoffs against the Houston Rockets while the Boston Celtics won the world championship and earned the title of best basketball team ever.

Although, other teams still enter the discussion, such as the ’71 Bucks, ’72 Lakers and the ’96 Bulls to name a few, many still believe today that the ’86 Celtics are the greatest professional basketball team ever assembled.

Given that Magic Johnson has stated on the record that he measured himself against Larry Bird, the idea that the former Sycamore and his teammates could earn such praise must have annoyed him.

Coincidentally enough, at the end of the Lakers 1986 playoff run, Pat Riley came to the conclusion that it was time to turn the team over to his superstar guard.

The Lakers had always been Showtime under Riles, but the first option had always been Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Mind you, things needed to change for the betterment of the team.

With Abdul-Jabbar now 39 years old, it was important to save his legs during the regular season, but it was also incredibly hard to ignore that Magic Johnson was a stud scorer waiting for his chance to show off his skills and James Worthy’s offensive repertoire had to be showcased more given how effective it was. And just for good measure, the Lakers also had a solid shooting guard in Byron Scott that knew what to do with the ball when it went his way.

The NBA’s all-time leading scorer wasn’t being forgotten, he was simply going down a few notches in terms of the team’s pecking order. Make no mistake though, he was still an integral part to the team’s success.

The Lakers in the Showtime era had always been a great offense, but the transition to a more Magic oriented offense combined with the improvement of their wing players made them an offensive juggernaut. They beat teams in transition, in the half-court, in the paint, from 3-point range, from midrange and from the post. There was nothing that defenses could do to stop or limit the damage; the best teams could do was hope to stay close by putting up enough points.

The 1986-87 Lakers boasted the best offensive efficiency in the league and used it to manufacture a couple of modest win streaks. Indeed, they opened up the season with nine victories in a row, then closed out December and opened up January with an eight-game stretch without a loss and then went on a 10-game win streak in early March and then got another one started at the end of the month going well into April that would last 11 games.

The Lakers had a fantastic offense, but they also possessed the seventh best defensive efficiency in the league, which made an explosive combination for opponents.

The Lakers had the athletes to aggressively defend on the perimeter but they also had tough interior defenders in A.C. Green, Kurt Rambis and Mychal Thompson to help out their wing players and also limit the productivity of opposing big men. And just for good measure, the team had a terrific combination of veterans and old players, thus they had the ability to apply full-court pressure and also employ a terrific half-court zone trap that often flummoxed opponents.

Put it all of that together, and the purple and gold finished the regular season by winning 21 out their final 24 games on their way to a 65-17 record (tops in the league) and an average scoring margin of plus-9.3; spearheaded by league MVP Magic Johnson.

As good as the regular season performance was, the title of best team ever had to be earned during the postseason.

Los Angeles opened the playoffs against the Denver Nuggets (37-45) and completely took them apart in three games. In a series that the Nuggets probably hope all footage has been destroyed, the Lakers’ lowest scoring output in the series was 128 points in Game 1 and furthermore, Pat Riley’s team outscored Denver by an average of 27.3 points per game during the series. Needless to say, the Nuggets never had a chance.

In the second round, the Lakers faced off against the Golden State Warriors (42-40) and took them out rather easily in five games. Their lone defeat against the Dubs (Game 4) came as product of a historical scoring burst that is now simply referred to as the Sleepy Floyd game. Floyd torched L.A. for 39 second half points, with 29 of those coming in the fourth quarter while being guarded by the Defensive Player of the Year in Michael Cooper. Read that sentence again, the Lakers lost a game in which a player put up almost 30 points in one quarter against the best defensive player in the NBA; let’s just say the odds of that one happening ever again are pretty slim.

Nonetheless, the Lakers “regrouped” in Game 5, and defeated the Warriors by double digits. Not too coincidentally, their average scoring margin during the series was a healthy plus-10.6.

The victory against GSW set up a Western Conference Finals against the Seattle Supersonics (39-43) that ended up being another cakewalk for the Lakers. They swept the Sonics and won every game by an average of 11.3 points to punch their ticket for a finals dance with the Boston Celtics (59-23).

The Los Angeles Lakers opened the NBA Finals at the Forum by winning the first two games by an average of 16 points. The series then shifted over to Boston for Game 3 where the Celtics capitalized on the brilliant efforts of Larry Bird (30 points, 12 rebounds), Kevin McHale (21 points, 10 rebounds) and Dennis Johnson (26 points, seven rebounds) on their way to a six-point win.

With L.A. leading the series 2-1, Game 4 became a pivotal contest given that a Lakers victory would give them a stranglehold on the NBA Finals.

With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Byron Scott struggling from the field in the fourth game of the NBA Finals, Magic Johnson once again shifted into scorer mode and gave the Celtics nightmares by scoring 29 points on 12-for-20 shooting. The superstar guard was unstoppable as usual but he provided the exclamation point on this night by hitting the game winning hook shot over the outstretched arms of Kevin McHale. Johnson’s final scoring play of the game would lead many to dub this particular contest as the Junior Skyhook game (if you click on the link, scroll to the bottom of the page to get the play-by-play of the final 2:09 minutes of the game).

With a chokehold on the series, the Lakers lost Game 5 at the Garden but flew back to Los Angeles and defeated the Celtics in Game 6 to clinch the championship.

Magic Johnson was named the NBA Finals MVP on the strength of his 26.6 points per game, 13 assists per game, 8 rebounds per game and 2.3 steals per game on 54.1 percent field goal shooting in six finals games.

The ’87 Lakers finished their run with a 15-3 playoff record as well as a plus-11.4 average scoring margin during the postseason. The regular season performance combined with the postseason play makes them unquestionably the best Lakers title since moving to Los Angeles.

Nonetheless, one can’t help but take notice of their Western Conference opponents; and how mediocre they were. Indeed, their toughest conference foe by virtue of record was the Golden State Warriors and they only won 42 games that season; and thus the Lakers’ record in the west can on the surface seem like fool’s gold.

But once we factor in the point differential, it paints a different picture.

We can’t fault the ’87 Lakers for playing awful opponents during the playoffs, but we can fault them for not taking care of business. And the truth is, they did. During their run in the Western Conference playoffs, the Lakers averaged 123 points per game, and had an impressive average scoring margin of plus-14.8.

In addition, Riley’s troops won postseason games against conference opponents by 16.8 points, which is what one would expect a dominant team to do at the expense of teams with inferior talent.

And just for good measure, their four wins against the Celtics in the NBA Finals came by an average of 11.5 points. Thus, they may have faced a string of weak teams heading into the championship round, but they dismantled those teams and then managed to defeat a team that many had viewed the previous season as the greatest of all time in six games with each victory coming on average by double digits.

Although it’s debatable if the ’87 Lakers belong in the conversation of greatest teams of all time — and they probably do — given their superb play, the FB&G panel unanimously voted this unit as the greatest Los Angeles Lakers team ever.

And it’s now obvious why.

J.M. Poulard

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16 responses to Lakers Countdown: At #1…

  1. Those are some gaudy numbers…

  2. This was my choice for #1 as well. The ’87 Lakers were just a machine.

    For those of you who missed seeing this squad in real time, there are a few things I’d like to add:

    1. Magic and Worthy were at their absolute peak.
    2. Kareem could still really play; he destroyed Robert Parish in the final game of the season.
    3. If you think the Gasol trade was theft, the Mychal Thompson trade was an even bigger fleecing. The Lakers got him midseason for Frank Brickowski and Peter Gudmunsson.
    4. Byron and AC were fantastic.
    5. Michael Cooper was also at his peak. If you never got to see Coop play, you just can’t imagine how valuable he was. He played point guard, shooting guard, and small forward, drilled 3 pointers, ran and finished the break, and made life miserable for the opponents’ best players at the 1, 2, or 3, up to and including Larry Bird.
    6. The roster featured four #1 overall picks (Kareem, Magic, Worthy, Thompson).
    7. People often forget how huge this team was. Their smallest rotation player was Scott (6’4″.) Their crunch time lineup had a 7’2″ center, a 6’11″ power forward, a 6’9″ small forward, a 6’6″ off guard, and a 6’9″ point guard.

    I’ll take that team against any team ever.

  3. J.M.: Nice write up. I do take exception to the mention of the 86 C’s as the best. I don’t care what “many believe”. We beat them in 85 and 87 so that must make us better than the best!
    The Magic hook shot ranks on my list as the greatest shot in NBA history. Game 4 of the 87 Finals was probably the greatest game in Laker history. I still think this list was slanted against the Kobe teams, however I agree with this team being #1.

  4. In the title clinching Game 6, Kareem surprised everyone by coming out with a clean shaven head. Although his hair had been receding for years, he had never completely shaved his head until then.

    The new look Kareem went on to carry the Lakers on offense en route to 32-points and a pair of momentum swinging skyhooks over Parish and McHale that buried the Celtics for good.

    Even though Kareem had relinquished his “go-to” status on the team to Magic, Worthy, et al, the “fist-up” was always called down the stretch when the Lakers needed a score.

    This series remains my favorite of all time because the Lakers clearly showed the league who the team of the decade was by upstaging the Celtics (even though they were hobbled and injured).

    That season, the Lakers were so dominant that Pat Riley challenged the team with his back-to-back promise during the championship celebration at the Forum. And we all know how that turned out as well…

  5. So … in the West playoffs they squared off against three lottery teams.

  6. My #1 would have been the 87-88 Lakers, but I accept the board’s choice, once those two teams were almost identical (well…Brickowisky was not there anymore…his name gave me chills…).

  7. “Instead, the Los Angeles Lakers faltered in the first round of the 1986 playoffs against the Houston Rockets………”

    that was in the western conference finals

  8. Jodial, you mean Pétur Guðmundsson.

    However, a lovely comment all the same.

  9. It’s apparent the there were teams with greater playoff runs aginst better teams but that team takes my vote for the Greatest team of all time.

    The NBA from the mid to late 80s had the greatest talent the league has ever seen together. Great teams and at the same time great draft classes in 84,85 86 with players that made their teams even better from day one unlike other draft classes before and especially after (90s to 2000s)

    So in my opinion the greatest team of all time has to come from that era and thats why for me the 86 Celtics and the 87 Lakers are the two main choices in that list.

    As for the 87 Lakers they were the best Lakers team in the 80s against the East with 18-4 record and they had for the 3rd straight year the same record against the West as 47-13. 87 Celtics had a great record against the West with 21-3 but they strgle in the East and went 38-20 minus 10 from their 86 championship.

    Lakers didn’t play in the playoffs against just lottery teams, they played teams that in 5 game series or 7 game series they won against teams that in regular season they were better. A team with the same kind of mentality were Don Nelsons Milwakee Bucks that had great RS record winning big against the West but in the playoffs the couldn’t sustain success.

    A big if for the 87 Lakers is what their RS record would be if Mychal Thompson was part of the team from the begining of the season. With him the Lakers were in 33 games 28-5 and 2 of the games were lost in the last 2 RS games when the Lakers played Magic and Kareem somewhat 20 minutes each in one game and the last not playing Kareem and losing with 6 points having clinched home court advantage long ago! So the 65 wins could be even more but it wasn’t neccesary. You can find teams that have gone full throttle and won. Of course those Lakers, ANY Lakers Champion except the 72 Lakers i would say, weren’t that type of teams.

    86 Celtics were great but not as versatile as the 87 Lakers.

    They had maybe the bigest depth in the frontcourt they were a great passing team but their depth was there to support the one way they were playing mainly. Smart half court game, and runing smart without any excssive passing to find easy baskets when the could.

    87 Lakers were equaly great at half court and they could outrun any team in the league something that was their trademark. Worthy Scott stepped up their games with Kareem still being a main scoring option on the half court game but not the force that once was and Green done what the Lakers needed since McAdoo was out. Having a PF that could shoot the ball and leave Kareem with ONE defender on the post. That was the main downgrade of the team in 86 against the Rockets and thats why in 87 the team was THAT MUCH good on the court.

    But the icing on the cake was Thompsons’ aquisition. Thompson could play C and PF. Could play half court and could run the likes of Parish and Waltons out of the gym. THAT guy was the difference for that team and thats why with Kareem aging even more they managed to win back-to-back titles and doing that having Riley’s guarantee looming over their heads.

    Thompson for me as a trade was one of the smartest moves that West made as a GM. In the summer of 1985, Bill Waltons manager was in talks with both Lakers and Celtics. Walton wanted to play for a contender and have a lesser role because of his injuries. West liked Bill as a player but he didn’t want someone with that many injuries on the team so he decided to wait for a better aquisition. He signed Lucas that year but the team didn;t do well with him so after a year he was out of the team. The mid season in 86-87 he traded for Thompson, a trade that combined with Worhtys Scotts and Greens improvements send the team to 3 straight Finals winning the two. Walton spoke with the Celtics in 85 and Auerbach and Bird thought it would be great to have Walton as a back up Center. Celtics had a healthy great season in 1986 and then Walton injured his legs again when he overtrained in the summer befor the 86-87 season. Celtics lost the Finals and Walton retired. So kudos to West for a great move.

    Sure in the history of the NBA there were better season runs than the 87′s Lakers run. But THAT team has my vote to be the winner on any match up against the great teams of all time in a best of 7 series.

  10. For me the 85 team will always be #1. Up until that series The Lakers had never beaten the Celtics in the finals. The Celtics had beaten the Lakers 8 straight times. And to beat them at the Boston Garden made it all the sweeter. The Celtics had never lost a finals series on their own floor. The 87 team was great no doubt about it. But the 85 team will always be special to me because of what they accomplished in that nasty nasty building called the Boston Garden!

  11. Dwight at the VMAs:
    http://tinyurl.com/9xk422k

    “Let’s see if it’s funny when Kobe don’t pass you the damn ball”

    HA HA HA!!

  12. Great recaps of all the great Laker C’ship teams. Brings back a lot of great memories. But I will always maintain that the best team I’ve ever seen was the ’88-’89 Lakers. Despite a so-so (for the Lakers) regular season record of 57-25, this team peaked at the right time and was primed to send Kareem off into retirement with what would have been his 7th title. Those Lakers ran through the Western playoffs like a runaway train and were the favorite to threepeat vs. Detroit until injuries wiped out their starting backcourt of Magic and Byron Scott. No way the Pistons beat a healthy Lakers’ team that year! That Laker team coasted during the regular season, but was ready for prime time. Shame that injury thwarted their run at the trophy.

  13. If I had to take a team with my life depending on it then the 86-87 team would be my choice for all time teams.

    IIRC, didn’t they blow out Sac 40-4 in a 1st quarter that resulted in Sac’s coach being fired.

    Absolutely an amazing team with the fabulous Golden Throat as their announcer.

  14. I have to put the 85 Lakers at the top. Kareem was still in his prime – the longest prime of a dominant player in league history. You have Kareem, Magic, Worthy, Wilkes, and McAdoo. All in the Hall of Fame. Plus 1985 saw the Lakers finally get the Celtics monkey off their back. So while stats give 87 the edge, I will stick up for ’85 because of the historic significance of finally vanquishing the Celtics and the greater dominance of core stars in ’85 than ’87. A core which arguably rates with and or exceeds any other in league history with two top five all-time players and three other hall of famers. Only the 1960′s Celtics offer a comparison on that score. but only Russell ranks with Kareem and Magic. And several Celtics hall of famers were really complementary players – Frank Ramsey, KC Jones who made it strictly on team success.

  15. mchale (boston’s 2nd/3rd best player) played the series with a broken foot. i agree with AJ, the 85 lakers were better