Archives For laker History

The Other Guys

J.M. Poulard —  September 18, 2012

Professional sports are fun and yet so tricky given all of the never ending debates that stem from them. Indeed, arguments usually come in the form of “Kobe or Magic is better than so and so because…”and from there others chime in and add fuel to the fire by adding or simply refuting points with in depth analysis; or perhaps outlandish statements.

The juiciest ammunition that fans and media members alike love to use when comparing greats is the amount of championships won by the players being compared. It’s one way to go about hammering a point home, but not necessarily the best.

Why?

Because simply comparing the amount of titles between two great players from different eras or even perhaps the same completely trivializes the contributions of role players.

And make no mistake, they matter. If evidence is needed, think back to the 2012 NBA Finals, where players such as Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Mike Miller all played a huge part in the Heat winning the title.

Far too often, we throw a lot of praise and admiration at the feet of superstars and fail to recognize just how important the “other guys” are…

Until today.

The Forum Blue and Gold staff went back and looked at every role player in the history of the Lakers’ franchise and voted for all of them in order to rank the 10 best role players in the rich history of the franchise.

Mind you, before we could get to voting, it was important that we decide early on what we meant by role player. For instance, in the eyes of some, Pau Gasol and Jamal Wilkes could fit the description of one, while others might completely disagree. So we figured, anyone that could potentially make the list of top 20 Lakers ever had to absolutely be off the list of role players. So guys like Worthy, Goodrich, Gasol and the like had no shot of making our rankings.

With that idea firmly entrenched, we voted and came up with a list of 10 role players that we felt were the best at being just that during their time with Lakers franchise.

Before beginning the countdown, let’s quickly run through the players that almost made the cut and thus can be cited as being honorable mention: Mychal Thompson, Nick Van Exel, Metta World Peace, Glen Rice, Brian Shaw, Vlade Divac and Happy Hairston.

And thus our countdown begins…

10. A.C. Green

A.C. Green joined the Los Angeles Lakers as a rookie and played just a shade under 19 minutes per game and came off the bench to give the team some rebounding and frontcourt versatility. Indeed, the 6’9’’ power forward could run the floor, defend in open space as well as on the interior and finish around the basket when given opportunities.

It wasn’t long before Green was starting for the Lakers in his second season (1986-87 season) at power forward on the greatest Los Angeles Lakers team in franchise history. On a team with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper, it’s easy to take Green for granted but truthfully he was essential to the team’s success.

Green’s contributions may not have stood out given that they did not come in the form of scoring or gaudy rebounding figures, but his defense was a big part of what made the Lakers — an offensive juggernaut — a team capable of getting key stops and speed up the tempo to run the opponent off the floor.

The Oregon State product had quick feet for his size and thus could do two things that most modern NBA big men struggle to do today: defend pick-and-rolls by hedging or even switching onto smaller defenders and deter them from going to the basket; and defend areas of the court in a half-court trap.

Pat Riley employed a zone trap that he loved to use to force opposing teams to use all of the shot clock, but also to change the dynamic of the offense of his opponent given that some teams occasionally got excited and rushed their possessions and took low percentage shots or simply turned the ball over, which fed the Showtime fast break.

Consequently, whenever Kareem went to the bench, Riley loved to employ his zone trap with Green playing a prominent role in it given that he was an effective helper in the scheme, but also because he recovered and defended most positions should the trap get broken and players had to scatter back to defend whichever man was open.

With Green on board, the Lakers won two NBA titles and made three NBA Finals appearances in the Magic Johnson era.

After the superstar guard retired, Green eventually left the Lakers a couple of seasons later but then returned at age 36 for one final run with the purple and gold. During the 1999-00 season, the 6’9’’ big man split time with Robert Horry at the power forward position and defended arguably the deepest position in the Western Conference  — Chris Webber, Antonio McDyess, Rasheed Wallace, Tim Duncan, Karl Malone and Kevin Garnett all played at high level in the conference that season — and found ways to make it work.

A.C. Green was still a solid rebounder although he was less athletic and couldn’t cover as much ground defensively as he had done prior. Nonetheless, his contributions on defense as well as his ability to blend into the triple-post offense helped the Los Angeles Lakers win the first of many titles in the Shaquille O’Neal era.

Consider this: A.C. Green was part of championship teams with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson and then later on with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

And yet, perhaps the most impressive tidbit about the Oregon State product’s stint with the Lakers is that he only played nine seasons total with the franchise and yet shows up in the team’s record books because he suited up for almost every Lakers game. Indeed, in his time in L.A., he missed a total of three games. That’s it.

Consequently, he is 10th all time in franchise history in games played (735 games), 10th in steals (657 steals), eighth in total rebounds (5,632 total rebounds), sixth in defensive rebounds (3,543 defensive rebounds) and second in offensive rebounds (2,089 offensive rebounds).

A.C. Green never came close to being an NBA superstar, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead, he played his part as a defender and occasional offensive contributor and helped the Lakers win three titles because he helped complete the championship puzzle.

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.

Lakers Countdown: At #2…

J.M. Poulard —  September 2, 2012

One could argue that the Lakers are the NBA’s marquee franchise given their rich history, tradition, glamour, superstars as well as their multiple championships.

The Minneapolis Lakers may have been the league’s first ever dynasty, but even after moving to Los Angeles and seeing the roster change through the years, the franchise eventually bounced back and became a dynasty once again by the 1980s and also during the 2000s.

Mind you, there was once upon a time where many felt as though the Lakers were doomed to falter with the chips on the line despite their star studded roster given their multiple defeats in the NBA Finals.

Eventually, the idea that the franchise could be a perennial disappointment on the grandest stage would become almost ludicrous as the team would reach new heights all the while providing a brand of drama and excitement along the way that only perhaps the 2012 NBA champion Miami Heat could replicate.

However, before the Los Angeles Lakers could become a league powerhouse for years to come, they would need to secure their first title in the city of angels.

Clocking in at the second spot in the Los Angeles Lakers title teams…

The 1971-72 Lakers

During the 1971 playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers were soundly defeated by a Milwaukee Bucks (66-16) team that many argued was one of the best ever in the history of professional basketball. The Bucks were led by perhaps the best guard of his generation as well as the best weapon in the sport in Lewis Alcindor (who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

A Lakers team loaded with star power bowed out to the eventual champs and thus made changes in the off-season.

They hired former Celtics great Bill Sharman to coach the team with the hope that he could use his coaching experience — won the ABA title as a head coach in 1971 with the Utah Stars — coupled with his knowledge of the game from a players perspective — he helped the Boston Celtics win four championships — to get the Lakers to play up to their potential and finally claim the championship trophy.

Sharman made his mark very early with the team with the requests he made from his players. Jerry West would play point guard while Gail Goodrich would play without the ball. The adjustment made for a high scoring backcourt, but also a guard tandem that shared the wealth with their teammates. In addition, Wilt Chamberlain would now be asked to cede the scoring duties to his teammates and instead concentrate on defending, rebounding and getting the fast break going with his outlet passes.

The Big Dipper had the lowest scoring season of his career at that point, averaging 14.8 points per game. Sharman’s decision to make Chamberlain more of a defensive presence stemmed from his Celtics background, as he essentially asked Wilt to become the Western Conference’s version of Bill Russell, and he obliged by reducing his point totals and leading the league in rebounding and field goal percentage.

The head coach’s last order of business was to get Elgin Baylor to come off the bench and to promote Jim McMillian to the starting lineup to better complement the starters. Baylor instead chose to retire, since he felt he could no longer perform like he once had due to injury.

And just like, after pulling all the strings and setting things into motion, the Los Angeles Lakers went on a streak. A huge one.

On November 5th, 1971, the Lakers defeated the Baltimore Bullets 110-104. Bill Sharman’s team wouldn’t lose again until January 7th, 1972.

For those counting at home, the 1971-72 Lakers were undefeated for two whole months. The Lake Show managed to win an NBA record 33 games in a row, a record that still stands to this day. As impressive as the string of victories were, their dominance as a unit was reflected in how they defeated teams.

During the 33-game stretch, the Lakers defeated their opponents by 15.7 points, and only won six games by less than double digits. Think about that for moment, the 1971-72 Lakers were so good for two months that save for six games, every single outcome was a blowout or close to it.

Although the win streak ended at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks in January, the Lakers still managed a couple of other modest win streaks stretching out to four games (once), five games (once) and eight games (twice).

The regular season was one for the history books as the Los Angeles Lakers finished the regular season with an unprecedented 69-13 record, breaking the record of the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers that went 68-13 with Wilt Chamberlain manning the pivot for them.

In addition to their impressive regular season record, the Lakers led the league in scoring and sported an average scoring margin of plus-12.3 points.

It set the stage for the postseason where the Forum tenants faced off against the Chicago Bulls (57-25) who were for all intents and purposes outmatched. One would expect a 57-win team to be one of the best in the league, and yet they barely truly bothered the Lakers, falling at their hands in four games by an average of 10 points.

The Chicago sweep set up a rematch with the Milwaukee Bucks.

With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing some of the best basketball of his young career, the Bucks blew out the Lakers off their home court in Game 1 by 21 points. Jerry West and company bounced back and won the next two games and to take a 2-1 series lead; only to see Milwaukee even things up in Game 4 with a 26-point win.

The Lakers managed to go back to the Forum and won a pivotal Game 5 in a rout as Oscar Robertson struggled to play to his usual standards due to injury. With a chance to close out the series in Game 6, the Lakers did just that, winning by the narrowest of margins to secure a trip to the NBA Finals.

Surprisingly, the Bucks lost the series in six games despite outscoring the Lakers by 14 points thanks to a pair of blowout victories while the Lakers won Games 2, 3 and 6 by a total of eight points.

In order to secure their first title since moving to Los Angeles, the Lakers would need to take out the New York Knicks (48-34).

The NBA Finals initially had the same feel as the Western Conference Finals as the Knickerbockers blew out the Lakers in Game 1 in Los Angeles.

With Jerry West stuck in a woeful shooting slump, Sharman decided to go to the imposing Chamberlain who was still an ultra effective scorer.

With Wilt asserting himself on the block and patrolling the paint defensively, the Lakers won the next four games and secured the first and only title of Jerry West’s illustrious career. Chamberlain won the Finals MVP award thanks to impressive averages of 19.2 points per game and 23.2 rebounds per game on 60 percent field goal shooting in five games in the title round.

The ’72 Lakers were one of the most dominant teams the NBA has ever seen as evidenced by their record setting regular season that was punctuated with a championship at season’s end.

If there is one tiny blemish for this team, and really it’s nitpicking; but we have to mention their relatively low plus-3.2 average scoring margin for the playoffs. This is obviously a direct result of the blowout losses at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks (two such defeats) and New York Knicks (Game 1 of the NBA Finals); which happen to be their only defeats of the 1972 postseason run.

Sharman led his unit to a 12-3 playoff record as well as six double-digit playoff wins and overall record of 81-16 when we combine the regular season with the playoffs. The ’72 Lakers are both statistically and also according to the eye test one of the best teams in the history of basketball and come in second in our Los Angeles Lakers title teams countdown.

For a fairly long stretch, this team was the standard by which every Lakers championship team was measured up against and rightfully so…

Until another team dethroned them…

Lakers Countdown: At #3…

J.M. Poulard —  August 29, 2012

The NBA has seen its fair share of dominant guard and center tandems that managed to reach the mountaintop. Indeed, Oscar Robertson and Lew Alcindor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain and perhaps the most famous one, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were not only great pairings, but they made their teams great and helped them win championships.

Consequently, the idea of putting a do it all guard next to a dominant center has always made perfect basketball sense given what the players could for each other, although one group would lead many to question if their union would ever truly be harmonious.

Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant will forever be linked to one another given their accomplishments as well as their public disagreements. But make no mistake, they could at times complete each other as teammates like very few have done in the history of basketball.

Clocking in at the third spot in our Los Angeles Lakers title teams countdown…

The 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers

With Phil Jackson joining the franchise in 1999, many assumed that the Lakers would finally get a chance to fulfill their true potential and win a championship with Shaquille O’Neal leading the way.

And although the team faced some tough playoffs tests during the 2000 playoffs, they not only delivered, but they were good enough for the FB&G panel to vote them in as the eighth best L.A. Lakers title team.

Considering the purple and gold were armed with the most dominant player in the league and a superstar guard in the making, it only made sense to assume that these Lakers would become a dynasty.

However, they would have to do it the hard way.

Shaquille O’Neal showed up for training camp out of shape after celebrating his first title and the rest of the roster seemed to follow his lead as well. Kobe Bryant on the other hand not only showed up in shape, but he had improved his game both offensively and defensively.

With the big man playing himself into shape, Bryant sought to assert himself more on offense, somewhat at the expense of his teammates. O’Neal was not fond of the approach, figuring instead that he should be the first option on the team since the unit had won a title the season prior by using that formula.

Although the logic made sense, O’Neal was in and out of the lineup with minor injuries due to his poor conditioning while Bryant was playing with a chip on his shoulder, eager to prove to his teammates as well as the league that he was perhaps the best all around player in the NBA.

The perception out in the public was that the Diesel thought that the guard was selfish and that Kobe saw his teammate as fat and lazy.

Rumors started to come out that Bryant might get traded and the masses began to question which player was more important at this juncture to the franchise.

For all of the turmoil brewing around the team, they played well in stretches during the regular season and had a pair of five-game winning streaks as well as three different four-game winning streaks.

The team was good but they were not the same crew that won the title the year prior. Indeed, O’Neal’s defensive effort paled in comparison to his MVP season; which was his way of pouting for not getting what he felt was an adequate amount of touches.

The Lakers finished the 2000-01 regular season 14th in defensive efficiency, a far cry from their mark from just a year before, where they had the best one in the league. Luckily, their sixth best offensive efficiency would help carry the team and keep them afloat.

Late in the season, Kobe missed 10 games and the team won seven of those contests with O’Neal once again playing his dominant brand of basketball. Bryant returned to the team with a new resolve, asserting himself only in key stretches when the situation called for it. The guard and center combo helped the Lakers win eight games in a row to close out the season.

The Lakers ended the regular season with a respectable 56-26 record and a plus-3.4 average scoring margin; which really is hardly the stuff of legends. But it looked as though they were peaking at the right time.

Phil Jackson’s squad opened up the playoffs against the Portland Trail Blazers (50-32) and took them out in three games, winning every contest by an average of 14.7 points per game.

Next up, the Lakers faced off against the Sacramento Kings (55-27), who proved not to be much of a match for a Lakers team that was clicking on all cylinders. The purple and gold dispatched the Kings in four games, winning by an average of 9.3 points per game and setting up a terrific Western Conference Finals against the league leading San Antonio Spurs (58-24).

Many expected this series to be one for the ages, but the Lakers had no interest whatsoever in keeping things interesting.

With the Spurs alternating between double-teaming O’Neal and playing him straight up, it created lanes for Bryant to get shots off and create havoc for San Antonio’s defense.

The superstar guard was simply unstoppable as he put up 33.3 points per game, 7 rebounds per game and 7 assists per game on 51.4 percent field goal shooting in the conference finals. His dazzling scoring combined with his playmaking would destroy the Spurs’ defensive game plan and not only allow O’Neal to do damage on the interior, but also set up the likes of Rick Fox, Robert Horry and a scorching hot Derek Fisher to convert open jumpers.

What was supposed to be a series for the ages between arguably the two best teams in the league ended up being a cakewalk for the Lakers, as they thoroughly dispatched San Antonio in four games, winning them by an average of 22.3 points per game.

And just like that, the Lakers made it to the NBA Finals with a perfect 11-0 postseason record, ready to take on the Philadelphia 76ers (56-26).

Game 1 would provide great theatrics as Allen Iverson exploded for 48 points and led Philly to a victory at Staples Center despite Shaq’s almost outrageous line of 44 points and 20 rebounds.

Facing a must win situation at home in Game 2, O’Neal dominated the 76ers frontline and provided one of the most hidden gems as far as finals performances are concerned with 28 points, 20 rebounds, nine assists and eight blocks.

With O’Neal playing like an all-time great, Philadelphia just could not do anything to stop him despite the presence of Dikembe Mutombo — he won the Defensive Player of the Year award that season — as the Diesel would run roughshod through the Sixers as Los Angeles went unbeaten in the remainder of the title round.

Shaquille O’Neal won the Finals MVP award on the strength of his 33 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 4.8 assists per game 3.4 blocks per game on 57.3 percent field goal shooting in the five games in the NBA Finals.

Although the Lakers would “only” sport a plus-6.8 average victory margin in the 2001 Finals against the 76ers, their performance has to be considered as perhaps the best postseason run ever seen in the NBA.

The ’01 Lakers’ defeated four teams that won 50 games or more and also managed to take down three of the four — the purple and gold would be the fourth one obviously — best teams in the league and did so while only losing one game.

Their 15-1 playoff record still stands as the best postseason record in league history and their plus-12.8 playoff average scoring margin is the best of any of the Los Angeles Lakers title teams.

Should we compare this team to any of the Lakers from the 1980s, they might not match up favorably in terms of star power and Hall of Fame caliber talent available on the roster; but if we simply look at what this unit did in their own right on their way to the title, it’s awfully tough to not come away impressed with the way they outclassed the best teams in the NBA on their way to the title.

Lakers Countdown: At #4…

J.M. Poulard —  August 26, 2012

Sometimes unfair labels get cast on athletes or teams and for whatever reason they just tend to stick. At times it’s because the label itself has some minor truth to it even though previous events have proven to the contrary, and at times it’s just easier to roll with them.

As the story went, the Boston Celtics owned the Los Angeles Lakers; and they always would. It didn’t matter which year, which decade or which millennium it was, the Celtics had the ghosts on their side that always tipped the scales in their favor. Whether it was a missed shot at the end of regulation, a critical injury, a bad pass that led to a game going into overtime or an inability to execute in crunch time, Boston would always get the breaks at the expense of the Lakers…

Until they no longer would.

At some point, the curse would eventually come to an end.

Clocking in at the fourth spot in the Los Angeles Lakers title teams countdown…

The 1984-85 Los Angeles Lakers

Larry Bird would lead the Celtics to a victory over the Lakers in the 1984 NBA Finals after a tough seven-game series. With the championship lost, the purple and gold would spend an entire summer hearing about how James Worthy was a choker — with the Lakers leading by two points in Game 2 and the game essentially won, the Lakers inbounded the ball with the shot clock turned off and Worthy lofted a pass that was intercepted by Gerald Henderson that led to a score that sent the game to overtime where the Lakers lost — while Magic Johnson would be named Tragic due to his inability to deliver late in ball games and the Lakers would be seen as a team lacking mental toughness.

Consequently, when training camp opened the following season, the Lakers knew they needed to play better and get tougher; but they also needed for their big guns to rise to the occasion and lead the way.

And yet, the start of the season wasn’t necessarily impressive by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, the road back to redemption would start with back-to-back losses to open up the season and a 13-7 record. In the first 20 games of the season, the Lakers had eclipsed 130 points four times, but the defense had yet to catch up with the offense.

That theme would hold true until mid-January, when the Lakers lost a tight contest in Boston, which dropped Pat Riley’s record to 26-14 for the 1984-85 season. Not a bad record at all, mind you the Celtics were now 33-6 and seemed poised to continue to take over the regular season as well as possibly the postseason that was still a little over two months away.

The Lakers’ defense wasn’t bad, but given the pace at which they played, they gave up a lot of points but didn’t necessarily always put enough on the board. But with the loss to Boston, the Lakers seemingly opened things up even more and allowed themselves to truly unleash Showtime on the rest of the NBA.

After faltering against the Celtics on the road, Magic Johnson and his teammates went on a 36-6 run to close out the regular season with a 62-20 record.

The Los Angeles Lakers finished the regular season with the best offensive efficiency in the league and the seventh best defensive efficiency in the NBA. In addition, they had three winning streaks of nine games or more during the regular season, which helped them sport a plus-7.4 average scoring margin.

The regular season mind you would hardly matter. It would come down to the playoffs and vanquishing the Celtics in the title round should they be there waiting for them.

The Lakers would obliterate the Phoenix Suns (36-46) in the first round, sweeping them out of the playoffs and winning each game by an average of 20.3 points.

The second round would pit them against the Portland Trail Blazers (42-40), who would hardly prove to be a match. The Lakers would dispatch them in five games, and sport an average scoring margin of plus-11 in the series.

The Western Conference Finals would prove to be the same type of yawner as the Lakers would also take out the Denver Nuggets (52-30) in five games and even put up a whopping 153 points in the clincher. L.A. defeated another western opponent by an average of double-digit points to set up a rematch against the Boston Celtics (63-19) with all the chips on the line.

The NBA Finals would open up with the famed Memorial Day Massacre as Boston would spank the Lakers in a 148-114 victory in which Kareem Abdul-Jabbar looked every bit of his 38-year old age on his way to 12 points and three rebounds.

The NBA’s all-time leading scorer would rededicate himself and get into better shape with a few days off between games and lead the Lakers to a Game 2 victory at the Garden thanks to his 30 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists. Read that stat line again, he was 38 years old.

With the games now shifting to the Forum, the trio of Magic, Worthy and Abdul-Jabbar led their unit to a Game 3 blowout victory over the Boston Celtics and a 2-1 series lead. The Celtics would bounce back in Game 4 and steal one on the road to even up the series, thus setting up a monumental Game 5 at the Forum.

Magic would orchestrate things masterfully, scoring 26 points and dishing out 17 assists, but James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would combine for 69 points on 29-for-45 shooting from the field to win the contest and give themselves an opportunity to close out Boston in the Garden.

Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Dave Cowens and John Havlicek to name a few had given the Celtics an aura of invincibility in the title round. Consequently, to say that the team and its fans were confident at home would be putting it mildly. No road team had ever celebrated the title at the Boston Garden and their ghosts and leprechauns would make sure of that in Game 6 and Game 7.

Mind you, the Lakers never got that memo.

The Lakers would prevail in Game 6 on the road and finally avenge their 1984 NBA Finals defeat. The center labeled as too old would win the Finals MVP with averages of 25.7 points per game, 9 rebounds per game and 5.2 assists per game on 60.4 percent field goal shooting.

James Worthy who had been called by many a choker kept showing up with big performances in the finals while the player dubbed Tragic led many to wonder if he was perhaps the best maestro the league had ever seen given his ability to score, rebound, pass, run the offense and lead.

The ’85 Lakers would not only win the title, but do so in convincing fashion. They would end their title run with a 15-4 postseason record as well as an impressive plus-10.7 playoff average scoring margin despite the huge score differential in their Game 1 loss to the Celtics.

Between the good regular season and the terrific postseason showing, the ’85 Lakers were a no-brainer for many of the FB&G staff at the fourth spot, and it says something about the three teams left in the countdown for this squad to finish this “low”.

Three teams to go…

Lakers Countdown: At #5…

J.M. Poulard —  August 25, 2012

The 1990s gave us a new era of basketball as Michael Jordan’s Bulls dominated the decade and won three titles in a row on two separate occasions with Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets managing to win back-to-back titles in between the Bulls’ three-peats.

Then, the 2000s hit, and Shaquille O’Neal’s Los Angeles Lakers also won three titles in a row and were then followed by Kobe Bryant’s Lakers who won titles in consecutive years to close out the decade.

It wasn’t always this way though. Repeating as champions had become seemingly impossible since the Boston Celtics had done it in 1969. But ultimately one team had to break through and do it.

Clocking in at the fifth spot in the Los Angeles Lakers title teams countdown…

The 1987-88 Los Angeles Lakers

Fresh off a title run at the end of the 1987 postseason, Lakers head coach Pat Riley decided to throw a monkey wrench into the celebration plans of his team by going on the record and guaranteeing that his team would repeat the following season.

Although winning the championship is usually enough to serve notice to other teams about which unit is the one to beat, it almost feels as though Riley wanted to make sure that everyone was well aware not only that his band of players had reached the mountaintop, but that they would do it again and that there was nothing the rest of the NBA could do about it.

How’s that for a bull’s eye?

And yet, with a roster loaded with talent and future Hall of Fame caliber players, it’s easy to see why the charismatic and fierce head coach could go on the record and make such a proclamation.

The Lakers had not only the best point guard in the league, but the player that many agreed was the best in the NBA. In addition, the purple and gold also had arguably the best player in the history of the sport in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing next to a do it all forward in James Worthy and terrific finisher and shooter in Byron Scott.

And just for good measure, the Lakers had possibly the best defensive player in the association in Michael Cooper (he won the DPOY the year prior) as well as a terrific pair of big men in Mychal Thompson and A.C. Green that were versatile enough to run the floor, play in the half court and apply pressure on defense with Riley’s zone trap.

All the talent in the world.

Really, the only thing that could potentially derail this unit would have to be injuries and they would have to come in bunches to truly become problematic for Riley. Luckily for the Lakers, they faced some concerns on that front, but nothing truly major. Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Michael Cooper combined to miss 38 games during the course of the season.

They had a few minor bumps in the road, but the Los Angeles Lakers finished with a 62-20 record, tops in the league during the 1987-88 season.

Indeed, they finished the regular season second in offensive efficiency and ninth in defensive efficiency. Also, they sported a plus-5.8 average scoring margin during the regular season but this says very little about how they treated the 82-game grind despite the little bumps and bruises.

To know how good the Lakers were, one can point to their win streaks. Indeed, although they had some small five and six-game stretches where they always emerged victorious, they also knew when to turn it on and seize control of the regular season.

The 1987-88 Lakers started out the season with an eight-game win streak and then in early December went on a rampage until the middle of January, winning 15 games in a row. And just when things became dull for the team after a few losses, they turned things up once again in late January and won 10 consecutive contests and saw their streak end near the end of February.

The Lakers rounded up into form for the postseason with some good momentum and dispatched the San Antonio Spurs in three games in the first round.

The remainder of their playoff run would be the toughest one for any championship team in league history as the Los Angeles Lakers needed the full seven games in the Western Conference semifinals as well as the conference finals to advance to the title round.

With the NBA Finals set to take stage, the Lakers would have to dispatch a team that many saw as a bunch of basketball hooligans given their antics, physical play and intimidation tactics: the Detroit Pistons.

The team took their identity from their leader.

Isiah Thomas was a scrapper that never relented and that did anything and everything possible to gain an advantage over opponents and his teammates followed in bruising fashion. Their style of play earned them the moniker of Bad Boys.

The Pistons hit you on every drive to the basket, fought for every rebound and made sure to inflict as much punishment as possible when opponents went in for lay ups. With no flagrant fouls being called at the time, it gave Detroit a license to do everything short of murdering players in the paint.

Thus, the NBA Finals became the battle of Showtime versus the Bad Boys.

Detroit drew first blood by winning Game 1 at the Forum and then the Lakers bounced back by winning consecutive games by double digits. With the purple and gold now seemingly in control of the series, the Pistons went on to win Game 4 by 25 points and Game 5 by 10 points to take a huge 3-2 series lead back to Los Angeles with a chance to clinch the title on the road.

Detroit would come close to getting champagne poured on them as they led Game 6 by three points with just about a minute left in the game but failed to close out the contest and instead watched the Lakers execute down the stretch with championship poise and steal the contest from the Bad Boys and set up a winner take all Game 7.

The finale would be a seesaw battle that would eventually lead the Lakers to the brink of a blowout but Detroit would claw back in the fourth quarter and make things interesting but ultimately falter down the stretch.

James Worthy would earn the Finals MVP with a monstrous triple-double performance in Game 7 in which he scored 36 points, snatched 16 rebounds and dished out 10 assists.

The Los Angeles Lakers became the first team in nearly 20 years to repeat as champions and they did it with a flair for the dramatic.

Their regular season performance combined with their postseason run makes them one of the greatest Lakers teams of all time and thus worthy of the fifth spot in our countdown.

Why “only” fifth though?

The ’88 Lakers finished with an unimpressive 15-9 playoff record — no team has ever won the title with as many postseason losses — and were defeated by double figures a whopping six times during their playoff run. In addition, two of those six double-digit losses were by 25 points or more; which partly explains their seemingly low playoff average scoring margin of plus-2.5.

Nonetheless, Magic Johnson and his teammates will be remembered in the history books as the first team to repeat in 19 years as well as the franchise that paved the way for it to become a reality for the rest of the NBA.

Lakers Countdown: At #6…

J.M. Poulard —  August 23, 2012

As we continue to rank the Los Angeles Lakers title teams, we take a look today at not only a great unit that won a championship, but one that shall forever be immortalized throughout Lakers and NBA history as the team gave the path to one of the National Basketball Association’s most iconic figures: Magic Johnson.

Without further ado, clocking in the sixth spot in our countdown…

The 1979-80 Los Angeles Lakers

As the story goes, Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in the 1979 NCAA title game and it propelled him to an incredible NBA career in which he was great from day one.

The story is often recited as such but that isn’t an entirely accurate depiction of reality.

Indeed, Johnson joined the Los Angeles Lakers as a rookie in the 1979-80 season but he wasn’t seen as a savior or even as the team’s de facto point guard. Indeed, many wondered if he could actually play the position given his 6’9’’ frame and the requirements that went along with the position. In addition, the Lakers already had a great player in Norm Nixon playing the position for the team and he was more experienced at doing so in the professional ranks than the former Spartan.

Opposing coaches and general managers thought that Magic Johnson would be better suited to play forward and they weren’t entirely wrong given the star in the making’s gifts as a basketball player.

But the team instead chose to have him play in the backcourt with Norm Nixon with both players sharing point guard duties, although their relationship would often be tested during the course of the season as both players felt as though they could play the position best and thus did not require to share responsibilities. Mind you, by season’s end, they would realize that complemented each other perfectly.

Far be it for a team to face just one difficult situation in an 82-game campaign, the Lakers lost head coach Jack McKinney to a bicycle accident 14 games into the season. Assistant coach Paul Westhead was thus promoted to interim head coach and the task of directing the team fell square on his shoulders.

Westhead had two great ball handlers in Nixon and Johnson and thus favored the transition game much like McKinney but also deployed lineups in which Magic Johnson played at forward (small or power) given his rebounding prowess — he was the team’s second leading rebounder that season with 7.7 rebounds per game — and that allowed the Lakers to play Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper in the backcourt.

With Westhead pulling the strings, the Los Angeles Lakers finished the regular season with a 60-22 record. They sported the best offensive efficiency in the league during the 1979-80 season as well as the ninth best defensive efficiency.

Although the team was statistically dominant given their record and efficiency numbers, one could have expected them to flex their muscles a little more during the regular season.

At no point did the 1979-80 Lakers have a double-digit win streak during the course of the season, instead settling for multiple five and six-game winning streaks with their longest one of the season extending itself to seven games. Mind you, it’s worth pointing out that the two best teams in the Western Conference other than the Lakers were the Phoenix Suns and Seattle Supersonics, which happened to be divisional foes that the purple and gold played a combined 12 times in the regular season.

The Lakers finished with a plus-5.9 average scoring margin during the regular season and faced off against the two best teams in the conference in the playoffs.

In the first round, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Phoenix Suns in the first three games of the series by a combined 15 points. Perhaps sensing they had the series won, the top seed in the west was blown out in Game 4 by 26 points; and then came back to win Game 5 at home.

The following series would have the Lakers face off against the Seattle Supersonics, who would steal home court advantage with a narrow 108-107 victory in Game 1, thanks in large part to Fred Brown and Gus Williams combining for 62 points. Just when it looked as though the Lakers might be in trouble, they reeled off four games in a row to propel themselves to the NBA Finals with the Philadelphia 76ers (59-23) their opponent to be.

It would prove to be an exciting championship round as both teams split the first four games, setting up an all too important Game 5 at the Forum.

Game 5 would go back and forth as Philadelphia and Los Angeles would trade back the lead, but the Lakers would gain some sort of control on the contest in the third quarter but would lose Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to a left ankle injury. The team would stay afloat just long enough to buy the six-time league MVP time to come back early in the fourth quarter to close out the game with 14 points in the period to complete his 40-point masterpiece and give his unit a 3-2 series advantage.

The victory came at a huge price, as Abdul-Jabbar would not be able to travel to Philadelphia for Game 6. Instead it was suggested he remain at home and get rest and treatment with the hope that he would be able to suit up for Game 7.

As good as that plan sounded — having Kareem play in Game 7 was seen as the best case scenario since few expected the Lakers to actually win Game 6 — Magic Johnson had better ideas. The promising guard had already proved to many that he could play at a high level in the NBA with his playmaking and scoring, as evidenced by his 18 points per game, 7.7 rebounds per game and 7.3 assists per game on 53 percent field goal shooting that season; but few truly knew just how special he really was.

On May 14th, 1980, Magic Johnson started at center for the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the title round and submitted arguably the greatest performance in NBA Finals history. Johnson became a legend on that night by doing everything humanly possible on a basketball court. In fact, the only things Magic failed to accomplish was dance with the cheerleaders, provide color commentary and direct the halftime show. Other than that, Magic rebounded, scored, set up teammates, directed traffic, got out in transition and gave the team the boost it needed with its leading scorer injured.

Magic Johnson submitted 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals and helped the Lakers clinch the world title on this fateful night in Philadelphia. Jamaal Wilkes also poured in 37 points but the night belonged to the rookie, basically setting up the remainder of the decade for him.

His performance would earn him the NBA Finals MVP, although the award rightfully belonged to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The 1980 Lakers would close out the postseason with a 12-4 playoff record and a plus-4.3 average scoring margin in the playoffs. The sixth spot is perfect ranking for this team given its historical significance for both the league and the franchise but one could argue that the team was great but not legendary in terms of its accomplishments and what it did on the court.

Indeed, the story in itself is fantastic, but the team falls short of the top five.

Now the really good stuff is on its way…

The Laker Way

Emile Avanessian —  August 21, 2012

I stand corrected. It appears the “new Laker fandom” will bear a striking resemblance to that which preceded it.

Ever since Andrew Bynum schooled J.J. Barea on the nuances of Newtonian physics in the spring of 2011, it was apparent that the Lakers — as then constituted — required a facelift. As that spring gave way to summer, and summer to lockout, lockout to, well, more lockout, and ultimately to the most frantic NBA silly season ever, the Lakers looked to have gone full Jerry Jones, swapping championship lynchpins Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom for the best possible solution to their long running point guard dilemma, Chris Paul. Upon learning from David Stern that their health insurance policy did not cover cosmetic overhauls of this magnitude — let’s see if this analogy has legs, huh? — the Lakers were forced to pull a page from the playbook of many a courtside patron and “just get a little work done.”

No sooner had he “returned” from New Orleans than a dejected Odom was rerouted to the defending champion Mavericks, in exchange for a draft pick that reimbursed the Lakers for the legislated theft of Chris Paul — a pick that might just have materialized in time to select Little CP — and an $8.9 million handful of magic beans. Hold this thought.

Almost (if not) universally panned at the time, the saga seemed an ugly manifestation of the new Jimmy Buss era. Ascribed to a desire to jettison an emotional landmine, presumably of equal importance was the resulting cut in payroll. Between the new CBA and Short Buss/Gob/[insert pet name of your choosing], the Lakers were (yeah, I’m irrational and entitled. whatever) falling back to the NBA pack.

In the months that followed, they went back under the knife, turning Luke Walton and a first round pick into the point guard upgrade Laker Nation pined for, and then sending talismanic on-court liability Derek Fisher to Houston, in exchange for Jordan Hill. Ramon Sessions immediately cleared the shin-high hurdle of expectation (inspiring more than a few $e$$ion$ tweets along the way), averaging 12.7 points and 6.2 assists per game and posting a True Shooting Percentage of 57% (thanks to 48.6% from beyond the arc), while Hill showed flashes of becoming a badly needed frontcourt spark plug.

In the aforementioned pair of trades, the Lakers claimed no better than one draw and one defeat. There is a case to be made that the two trades did nothing more than cost the Lakers an ever-so-scarce first rounder (seriously, are we sure Mitch Kupchak didn’t once cut a shady deal with Joe Smith?) to rent a lead guard whose performance waned with time — though not so much that he opted against opting out of his contract — and a lotto-bust-turned-glue-guy that might have priced himself out of their budget with seven 6 and 6’s.

Fair enough.

That said, however, there is also a case to be made that the value of addressing your most glaring weakness — with a possible long-term solution (didn’t happen, but still) — while simultaneously inspiring goodwill among fans likely trumps the yield of a mid-20s draft pick. Hell, keeping Jordan Hill probably accomplishes that on its own.

Sure, the acquisition of this generation’s original #PointGod is a rising tide that lifts many a personnel decision, but that itself is merely a product of a longtime philosophy — one built on an ideal combination of patience and decisiveness, with zero parts fear. For more than three decades Mitch Kupchak (and Jerry West before him) and Jimmy (and for the three decades prior, Jerry) Buss have continually taken to the tightrope — if not in pursuit of improving the roster, then forcibly, at the hands of a disgruntled star (be it Magic in 1982, Shaq in 2003-04, Kobe in 2007 or Odom last winter) — and continually resisted the temptation of simple self-preservation (y’know, the type that seeks the comfort of “winning every trade” en route to building Replacement Player Voltron) in the interest of delivering true difference makers.

It is understanding, in the summer of 2004, that the differences between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant could no longer be worked around, and trading Shaq — perhaps a year or two early — in favor of the next decade of a purported franchise killer. It is, 11 months later with the Lakers clearly in decline and the remainder of Kobe’s prime hanging in the balance, selecting high schooler Andrew Bynum (while I begged for Danny Granger). Though Bynum was a project, his is twice- (perhaps three times) in-a-decade potential. It’s unlikely that in June 2005 the Lakers’ brass knew much more than we did regarding the path Bynum’s career would take, but they understood that should he realize even (arbitrarily) 60% of his potential, his value, on the floor and as an asset, would likely exceed that of an athletic wing, even one as talented as Granger. And given Bynum’s roles in both hanging another pair of banners in the rafters and the acquisition of the greatest center since Shaquille O’Neal, clearly they were correct.

In the weeks that followed, the second-best member of the 2004-05 Lakers and a future All-Star, Caron Butler – who is also a Kobe favorite and (in possibly related news) the rare member of the first post-Shaq Laker squad not openly starstruck in Bean’s presence – was shipped to the nation’s capital, in exchange for MJ-protégé-turned-ham-handed-cake-vandal Kwame Brown. In all likelihood the downgrade was not lost on Kupchak – though it must be said that Kwame Brown, a 22 year-old big man four years removed from being a #1 overall pick, presented an interesting value proposition — though neither was the realization that building the Western Conference’s version of the Gilbert Arenas-led Wizards offered little long term value.

Meanwhile, with Bynum developing at a pace one would expect from an 18 year-old big man, Kobe, fearing the remainder of his prime would be frittered away in NBA purgatory, (inadvertently) publicly lobbied for the front office to cut ties with Bynum, in favor of Jason Kidd. Upon the front office’s refusal to oblige his request, Kobe shifted his focus and, in the summer of 2007, demanded that he himself be traded, preferably to the Chicago Bulls, preferably in exchange for a less-than-optimal package. In this, the most terrifying time to be a Laker fan since November 1991, Kupchak stayed his course, recognizing that he was under no obligation to act in haste, and refused to become footnoted as the man that traded two of the top dozen players in the game’s history.

Banking on Kobe’s dedication to his craft (and his legacy) winning out, the Lakers tipped off the 2007-08 with their frustrated superstar in tow. And then a funny thing happened…

While Kobe brooded and plotted his exit from L.A. (though he still balled), a rare underdog Laker squad, behind double-double averages from Odom and Bynum (who was lost for the season after just 35 games) and 20.8 points and 5.6 assists in 48 combined minutes per game from Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar, unexpectedly returned to the top of the Western Conference. Winners of 19 of their first 29 and 27 of their first 40, the Lakers were rewarding Kupchak’s steadfastness in not parting company with a transcendent talent. The extent to which they were true contenders was debatable, but the greenness of the grass elsewhere could no longer be a given for Kobe.

Having not only traded a future All-Star to acquire Kwame Brown, but also having given him a three-year/$24-million contract to stick around, the Lakers looked to be a bit of a bind with their bust-y big man. That winter, as he did again this summer, Mitch turned the tables on that pair of increasingly fruitless personnel decisions. As tends to be the case with the habitually successful, good fortune smiled upon the Lakers — in the form of a stalled counterparty desperate to cut costs and salvage value for a big money star. On February 1, 2008, in one of the great redemptive trades in recent history, Kupchak parlayed Kwame (along with Marc Gasol, who unexpectedly blossomed into a top-shelf center) into one of the world’s most unique, talented and uniquely talented big men, Pau Gasol.

The rest you are probably familiar with. Having significantly upgraded the frontcourt without creating new holes elsewhere (sound familiar?), the Lakers won 27 of their final 36 in the regular season, locked up the West’s top seed and coasted through the playoffs, dropping just three games en route to the Finals.

A lackluster Finals performance and a pair of postseason disappointments gave rise (and longevity) to more undeserved criticism than any team-first top-15 talent that’s helped anchor a pair of title teams should ever have to endure. In addition, they sparked endless speculation regarding Gasol’s future with the franchise. In the face of mounting pressure and dwindling rationality, thanks in large part to Pau’s incredible maturity and professionalism, rather than selling low on an all-world talent, Kupchak held tight. (Note: yes, in December 2011 he did in fact trade Pau, but in doing so he was procuring the services of Chris freaking Paul)

Meanwhile…

Crucified at the time (yeah, I did it too) for gifting Odom, a valued contributor to the defending champions, and again at the trade deadline for seemingly foregoing the opportunity to salvage value in exchange, Kupchak again conducted a clinic in opportunism. With the Lakers sliding further down the Western Conference totem pole, in classic Laker front office fashion, he masterfully capitalized on one of the assets at his disposal. Using the flexibility afforded by the $8.9 million trade exception, Kupchak facilitated the Phoenix Suns’ transition into transition, landed one of the great point guards of this generation and one of the best shooters of all time — Steve Nash.

Meanwhile…

On a different front, trade winds continued to swirl around Andrew Bynum. Ever since the Jason Kidd chatter of years past, he had been rumored… let’s just say that any rumor not involving Gasol (and even one that did) was constructed around ‘Drew.

As he had with Kobe and Gasol, Kupchak (probably with some input from Jimmy) took a measured approach, valuing Bynum (rightfully) as elite asset and refusing to swap a super-skilled 7-foot, 285-pound, 24 year-old (how is he still so young??) for whatever shiny object du jour happened to be dangled before him. Additionally, when it seemed the Dwight Howard saga (putting it mildly) might conclude with the Lakers stranded in the cold, Kupchak held his ground, refusing to package Bynum and Gasol in exchange for Howard, as Orlando was demanding. And in the end, with a Joe Johnson trade here and Brook Lopez max-out there, the urgency Orlando had attempted to instill in the Lakers not only subsided, but reversed field.

In thinking about the recent chain of events in Lakerland, I am reminded of a decade and a half ago. A once-in-a-lifetime big man and (though we didn’t know it at the time) wing within the Lakers’ grasp, then-GM (and Kupchak’s mentor and hoops Jedi) Jerry West, having resisted the urge to trade away Vlade Divac — around whom (if memory serves) rumors had swirled (as much as they could back then) — the season prior, parted ways with his starting center only when payoff was the payroll flexibility required to secure a transcendent big man like Shaquille O’Neal… and an 18 year-old Kobe Bryant.

Hate the Lakers for past success. Hate them for their inexhaustible resources. Hate them for residing in a top-tier market with perfect weather. Understand, however, that more than any of these, what’s set them apart is the ability to maintain composure when the stakes are highest. West understood in ’96 what Mitch Kupchak has since mastered. The skill lies not in knowing precisely who will come available and when, but in the knowledge that someone will hit the market, and that the flexibility to deal and willingness to pounce without fear are the ultimate difference makers.