Ahead of the Lakers' 2022 Media Day festivities this past Monday, ESPN Los Angeles reissued a prior Media Day interview with All-NBA Lakers small forward LeBron James. The 18-time All-Star was asked to list his all-time Lakers starting five.
James listed some usual suspects in the top five, though he made some interesting exclusions, too, in part because the Lakers have so many all-timers that compressing the list to just five players and aligning them mostly by position is more or less impossible.
“I’m going Magic [Johnson] at the one, Jerry West at the two, Kobe [Bryant] at the three, myself at the four and Shaq [Shaquille O’Neal] at the five,” James told ESPN 710 AM radio reporter Allen Silwa.
All cumulative careers being weighed equally, James would absolute crack a Lakers starting five. Either he or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the best player ever to don a Lakers uniform. But James has only been a Laker since the 2018-19 season. James himself has been more limited by injuries with the Lakers than ever before in his career, probably due to his insane NBA minutes load, second all-time behind just Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As a Laker, James has missed 84 out of a possible 307 games. He has been an All-NBA First Team selection twice, and an All-NBA Third Team selection twice. His teams have missed the playoffs in two of his four completed seasons, although he and Anthony Davis did bring Los Angeles is 17th league title during their first year together. So does four twilight years and counting for one of the best five players in NBA history qualify him for an all-time Lakers starting slot?
Even in this top five, there is still some creative accounting when it comes to player positions. Johnson running the point is a no-brainer, with apologies to Norm Nixon. The 12-time All-Star won five championships and appeared in 10 Finals with the Lakers. He was a three-time league MVP and a three-time Finals MVP (although arguably a certain 7'2" colleague of his deserved that honor in 1980). The 6'3" West served as the primary ball-handler for many of his 14 years with the Lakers, though he could play either backcourt spot. He was a 14-time All-Star with L.A. and won one title as a player, in 1972, though he led his clubs to nine Finals appearances.
The 6'6" Bryant was traditionally a shooting guard, but could certainly slide up a position to small forward for the purposes of this list. An 18-time All-Star (though some of those appearances at the end of his career were purely a result of fan voting, not on-court results), Bryant was the second-best player on three championship winning Lakers teams and the best player on two, though he appeared in a total of seven Finals teams. Bryant was an excellent two-way player in his prime and certainly deserves a spot in an all-time top five, though whether that's at shooting guard or small forward is somewhat contingent on who one would want to play next to him. Elgin Baylor, James Worthy, and LeBron James himself could all lay claim to all-time Lakers starting small forward status.
Johnson, West, and Bryant all spent the entirety of their careers lacing up their sneakers for the purple and gold.
Things get more interesting in the frontcourt. James started himself at power forward, though he has played most of his minutes at small forward with L.A. The 6'9", 250-pound superstar can certainly move up a position for the purposes of this list, though whether he deserves a nod over other L.A. luminaries is more of an open question. Read on.
Shaquille O'Neal spent eight seasons as a Laker, and was the best player on four Finals teams, including three straight champions. He was the league MVP in 2000, and the Finals MVP in each of those title runs. He was a six-time All-NBA First Team honoree, a one-time All-NBA Second Teamer, and a one-time All-NBA Third Team pick while with L.A. All-NBA honors can serve as a good approximation of who was considered one of the top 15 players in the league at the time of the selection, so they can prove useful in an analysis like this.
Shaq's got some stiff competition in the race for best Lakers center. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, generally considered the better overall player (although we're really picking nits, these are two of the best 15 or so to have ever done it), played with L.A. for 15 seasons, and was part of nine Finals runs with the team, winning five titles alongside Johnson. As a Laker, Abdul-Jabbar was thrice named league MVP, was honored with six All-NBA First Team and four All-NBA Second Team selections, and made seven All-Defensive Teams.
Wilt Chamberlain, also considered a better overall player cumulatively than Shaq (but again, we're picking nits, both were amazing and their eras were fairly different), only played the final five of his 14 NBA seasons with L.A. During that tenure, the 7'1" big man led the club to four Finals appearances, and was named the Finals MVP over West during his only win in that run, 1972. Even in his playing dotage, the 13-time All-Star was still an All-NBA Second Teamer once with the Lakers and a two-time All-Defensive First Team selection. It should be noted that there was no All-NBA Third Team until the 1988-89 season, when Chamberlain had been retired for 15 years. He probably would have made a few All-NBA Third Teams during his Lakers run had that been an option. He led the league in rebounding four times during his L.A. run (he was hurt the other time, in 1970).
Ultimately, we here at All Lakers would probably give Abdul-Jabbar the nod at starting center, or cheat a bit and move the jump-shooting "Cap" down a spot to power forward. O'Neal may had a longer run with L.A. and earned more championship hardware, so he could get the nod over Wilt.
Does James's Lakers-specific pedigree qualify him for a starting spot in a very, very competitive group? If he wins a second L.A. title as the team's best or second-best player behind teammate Anthony Davis, then perhaps it does.