To put the quality of the Lakers core into something more quantifiable, lets examine the numbers. Between the Big-4 of Nash, Bryant, Gasol, and Howard, there’s been 32 all-star appearances, 3 regular season MVP awards, 2 Finals MVP awards, and 3 Defensive Player of the Year awards. Now that’s a pretty impressive collective resume.
To back up that superstar quartet, there’s the extremely useful Antawn Jamison, gritty centre Jordan Hill, and Metta World Peace—a player who should get more open looks off double-teams than anyone in the NBA next year. But, as the cliché goes, games aren’t played on paper.
This team has the potential to be one of the greatest ever assembled, but there are questions to be answered. Will Howard be the same after his back surgery? Will the team be able to find the right chemistry? And the big one: Is Kobe willing to share the ball with his teammates? As the new season unfolds we shall slowly get answers to these intriguing questions.
With the 2012-13 version of the Lakers possessing the potential for greatness, it’s a good time to take a look back at teams from the past that managed to turn mere potential into real, tangible greatness on the court. Here are the top-5 NBA teams of all time:
5. 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers. Regular Season: 65-17. Post Season: 12-1
Given the level of mediocrity surrounding the 76ers for the best part of 10 years now, it’s easy to forget that they were an NBA powerhouse in the 1980s—a very competitive period of time in the Eastern Conference. The 76ers that won the 1983 NBA Championship were battle hardened as a result of fantastic duels with Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics, and a consistently solid Bucks team. Just as crucially for their development, they had experienced the agony of losing the ’80 and ’82 Finals, both at the hands of the Lakers.
Thus, the 1983 champions were a team of destiny. Led by the league’s best centre, Moses Malone, who averaged 24 and 15 during the regular season, and an even more impressive 26 and 16 during the post-season, the 76ers powered through everyone in their path. Malone was assisted by another all-time great, Julius Erving, who averaged 18 and 7 during the playoffs, while point guard Maurice Cheeks (who, incidentally, should be in Springfield) took charge of the ball-handling duties.
Malone, of course, is widely remembered for his “fo’ fo’ fo’” prediction, and he wasn’t too far off the mark. The 76ers swept the Knicks, lost a single game to the Bucks in the conference semis, and got revenge against the Lakers by sweeping them in the Finals. Great teams don’t simply talk the talk.
4. 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. Regular Season: 69-13. Post Season: 12-3
There’s plenty to admire about the 1972 NBA champs. For starters, their 69 regular season wins broke a record held by the 1967 76ers, and stood for 24 years until another team on this list managed to surpass it. Secondly, the team set a record that has yet to be eclipsed: 33 straight victories. Bill Sharman’s team set that record by going undefeated between November 5th, 1971 and January 9th, 1972. The only team that’s come close to that Lakers winning streak was the 2007-08 Houston Rockets—and they only managed 22 straight wins.
A few games into their historic season, the Lakers lost one of the all-time great forwards, Elgin Baylor, to retirement. The sad ending to Baylor’s fantastic career didn’t slow the team down, however. Jerry West, perhaps the unluckiest superstar in NBA history, picked up much of the slack. The Logo was on the losing side in 8 of his 9 career NBA Finals—6 of those thanks to Bill Russell’s Celtics—and is the only player in NBA history to win a Finals MVP despite being on the losing team (1969).
West averaged 25 points and 9 assists during the regular season, and 22 and 8 in the playoffs. Gail Goodrich and The Big Dipper, Wilt Chamberlain, manfully supported West with some great production themselves. Wilt averaged 14 points and a god-like 21 rebounds per game during the team’s run to NBA glory—finally striking a balance between style and substance.
3. 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers: Regular Season: 65-17. Post Season: 15-3
15 years on from that great ’72 Lakers team, another transcendent group in purple and yellow graced the NBA. In-fact, it’s easy to argue that the Los Angeles Lakers were THE team of the 1980s: appearing in the Finals 8 times during that decade, and winning in 5 of those appearances.
The 86-87 ‘Show-Time’ Lakers were the pick of the bunch. Pat Riley’s team combined exceptional athleticism, with breathtaking ball-movement, and electrifying speed up and down the court. To underline how good the ’87 champs were, they were able to overcome the defending champion Celtics in the Finals—a fantastic team in their own right.
The Lakers were led by the greatest floor-general of them all, Magic Johnson. Johnson averaged a phenomenal 23-6-12 during the regular season, and 21-7-12 in post-season play. The defining moment of that post-season, of course, was Magic’s skyhook over Kevin McHale that won a crucial Game 4, putting the Lakers up 3-1 in the Finals.
If Magic was having an off day on the ‘87 Lakers (a rarity), then the opposition had to worry about nullifying perhaps the greatest centre of all time: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem was no longer in his prime, but was still one of the most feared players in the NBA. Hall-of-Famer, and 1988 Finals MVP, James Worthy, was another defense-torching weapon for the Lakers, while Mychal Thompson provided ample production off the bench. A scary, scary roster.
2. 1985-86 Boston Celtics. Regular Season: 67-15. Post Season: 15-3
If Celtics fans have one complaint about the 1985-86 season (and they really shouldn’t have more than one) it’s that their greatest ever team didn’t get to test its mettle against the hated Lakers in the Finals. Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets defeated L.A. in the Western Conference Finals, and a dream Finals match-up wasn’t to be.
Even without the test of Magic and the Lakers, however, it’s still safe to say that the ’86 champs were one of the best teams ever assembled. They had 5 future Hall-Of-Famers on their roster (Five!): Larry Bird, Robert Parrish, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, and just to underscore their embarrassment of riches, Bill Walton—their 6th man!
MVP Larry Legend led the way during the regular season, averaging a near triple double, 25-9-6, as the Celtics literally destroyed teams (unless they were feeling bored). They posted a staggering 40-1 record at home, as the Boston Garden became quite literally a fortress. Bird’s post-season average of 25-9-8 was even more impressive than his regular season stats, and overall the Celtics had 5 players average over 15 points per game in the playoffs.
In the first two rounds they swept the Bulls and the Bucks, losing only one game to Atlanta. They weren’t really tested until the NBA Finals against the Rockets, which went to 6. Bird didn’t want to play a Game 7, of course, so he decided to put up a jaw-dropping 29-11-12 to close out the series. Yikes.
1. 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. Regular Season: 72-10. Post Season: 15-3
The ‘86 Boston Celtics may have had 5 Hall-Of-Famers on their roster, compared to just the 3 on this Bulls team, but what a 3 they were! In Dennis Rodman, Chicago possessed one of the greatest rebounders and defenders to ever play the game. At small forward they had a guy who would’ve been the best player on almost any other team in the NBA: the great Scottie Pippen. And, of course, they possessed the greatest player to ever grace the hard-court, His Royal Airness, Mr. Michael Jordan. It would also be remiss to omit the fact that the Bulls were led from sidelines by perhaps the greatest coach of them all: Phil Jackson.
It’s a measure of his greatness that Jordan’s presence on any team would be enough to bump them up into all-time great territory. In-fact, Jordan’s, and to a lesser extent Pippen’s, otherworldly performances were good enough to help the Bulls mask weaknesses in their front-court—Luc Longley and Bill Wennington hardly go down as all-time great NBA centres.
But the holy trinity of Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman (incidentally, all on the All-Defensive First Team that season) did have some able deputies on the bench. Steve Kerr was money from beyond the arc, while Toni Kukoc capped off his rookie year in the NBA with a 6th man of the year award—averaging 13 points per game during the regular season. However, it was MJ who led the team in the biggest moments. He averaged over 30 points per game during the regular season, and a very impressive 30-4-4 in the playoffs.
The 1995-96 season was Jordan’s first full season back after his unsuccessful stint playing minor league baseball. He recaptured his hunger for the game, and played with a real chip on his shoulder—as did his teammates. They were out to prove that the Rockets were champs by default. The result was 72 regular season wins, including a record 33 victories on the road—records that don’t look like they’ll be broken anytime soon. More importantly, regular-season dominance translated into post-season dominance, and a 4th NBA title for Jordan and his indomitable Bulls.