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.