Top 50 Lakers: A Rebuttal to ESPN's Flawed Rankings

December 26, 2009

When ESPN launched its new "Los Angeles" website, one of its first stories consisted of a ranking of the Top 50 Los Angeles Lakers. The criteria used in the rankings excluded players from the Minneapolis era; placed an extra emphasis on championships and "identity" with the franchise; and lastly, looked at individual accomplishments. Eliminated from the equation were any contributions made in a coaching or front office capacity.

Although on the surface the above standards appear to be relatively harmless, for this particular franchise, they create drastic problems which inaccurately skew the results.

In other words, the entire psyche of the Lakers organization is rooted in what happened during the 1960's, when they were otherwise outstanding, but repeatedly fell short to the Boston Celtics.

It was those years of heartbreak which prompted the Wilt trade, and later, caused Jerry West to constantly go the extra mile as a General Manager. It was that struggle which relentlessly drove Pat Riley and his charges during the 1980's to change franchise history. In fact, those failings still affect the fanbase today, as seen by the "sky is falling" moments of quiet in which they seemingly wait for the next potential catastrophe on the horizon.

In Lakerland, the crown always rests on an unsteady, nervous brow.

Simply put, without those failings, the Lakers aren't the Lakers. It is what fuels their Boston hatred, and it is what makes any victory over the arrogant Celtics so satisfying. Thus, the West-Baylor years cannot be marginalized simply because of the lack of rings.

Still, there are more fallacies with the rankings than just the criteria alone.

The ESPN Writer Was Unqualified to Write This Specific Article

Although ESPN writer Dave McMenamin learned the game from Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, and appears capable of analyzing an individual game or commenting about current NBA events, he fails to have the requisite qualifications to write a Top 50 Lakers article for two reasons.

First, since he admits that he was born in 1982, it is reasonable to conclude that he missed virtually the entire Showtime era. In order to learn about that team, he would have to watch highlight reels or look up stats, but in terms of vivid, recollection from his own mind's eye, he has no fallback memory.

This is best seen when the writer speaks of James Worthy's Game 7 triple-double in the '88 Finals, where after doing his research, he proclaims, "you forget just how great a game he had." Since the writer was only 5 or 6 when it occurred, McMenamin probably had no personal game memory to forget in the first place, and thus, very well could have been learning about it for the first time while writing his piece.

It is also seen in the fact that he would rank Derek Fisher above a Michael Cooper or a Jamaal "Silk" Wilkes. In the case of Cooper, it's an almost laughable miscalculation, as Coop was a vastly superior defender, an equally great clutch shooter, and a more beloved fan favorite.

Second, because McMenamin is a Syracuse grad, a Philly fan, and a general East Coast guy, he has no Los Angeles perspective whatsoever to justify making judgment calls on which players are strongly identified as "true" Lakers.

Time spent with the club alone fails to accurately tell the whole story. Instead, Laker identity often comes down to something much harder to pinpoint - the "feeling" locals have for that player. As such, one must be able to understand the mindset of the Los Angeles basketball observer, which cannot be done unless one is an LA guy.

Outsiders and expats, such as McMenamin, simply just don't get it.

Our Criteria

To set the record straight, the rankings criteria must be altered somewhat. First, a player's legacy should incorporate any coaching or front office accomplishments because those activities do have a significant influence over what happens on the basketball court.

Second, identity with the franchise again will be strongly emphasized, but not on longevity alone. Instead, a more feeling-oriented approach will be adopted, with threshold question being, "is this guy a Laker?"

Third, signature moments of excellence during the playoffs will be highly valued. However, championships, while important, will not be allowed to artificially elevate the less-deserving.

So, with those standards in mind, it's time to go onto the attack.

CRITICISMS: Glaring Omissions & Undeserving Inclusions

When viewing ESPN's rankings, several absurd listings immediately come to mind involving players who do not merit being in the Top 50. This occurrence produces a dual effect - it cheapens the rankings by putting the undeserving on the list while also kicking off those players who should be included.

Here is a quick list of some of the names who should and should not be in the rankings:


Luke Walton

Although Luke has been with the team for several years, and has had his signature playoff moment with several assists in Game 2 of the 2004 Finals, he essentially is no more than a very limited role player. While Walton does garner the occasional "Luuuke" chant from fans, he is not necessarily a beloved fan favorite, and worse yet, is often a non-factor in most games.

The fact that Walton's multi-year contract makes him virtually untradeable and hinders the Lakers' cap flexibility, only further verifies that his ranking at #40 is ridiculous. He should not make the top 50.

Mike McGee

McGee was a guy who was always hyped as a valuable scorer off the bench, but never really produced enough to warrant such praise during his few years in the Showtime era. His signature moments were few and far between, and he should not make the Top 50 list.

Horace Grant

Grant was a hired gun on the Shaq-Kobe teams who manned the 4 spot until Robert Horry could come in and finish the games. While he performed adequately enough in limited minutes during his Laker tenure, he never really struck a great bond with the fanbase, and thus, was not special enough to merit inclusion in the Top 50.

Ron Artest

Artest is already making an impact with the team, and should go on to become a major contributor given his scrappy, take-no-prisoners style of play. Still, he is not even 40 games into his Laker career, and thus, any listing at this point is far too premature.


Orlando Woolridge

How can so many journeyman make the list, and yet, Woolridge is omitted? This is a classic case of the writer never observing the Lakers while Woolridge was on the team.

Although Woolridge only played 2 years in LA during the end of the Showtime era, he was a tremendous fan favorite because of his high-flying dunks and athleticism. Woolridge provided valuable scoring off the bench at both the 3 and the 4, and was a natural filling the lanes on break. Coach Pat Riley had so much confidence in Woolridge's one-on-one abilities, that he often ran iso's for him when he entered the game against the opponent's second unit.

Mitch Kupchak

As a player, Kupchak did little other than provoke a fight with Hakeem Olajuwon in Game 5 of the 1985-1986 Western Conference Finals. Nevertheless, he deserves to be on the list for his single great accomplishment during his time as a GM in LA - engineering the Pau Gasol trade.

Kupchak also should get some props for a couple of other deals, including the Trevor Ariza trade with Orlando, and the Radmanovic-Shannon Brown deal last year.

Pat Riley

Riley got one ring as a role player with the '72 team, and was the motivational force behind the Showtime teams. To trivialize his coaching accomplishments by only looking at his playing days is nonsensical because the Showtime era would not have been what it was without his paranoid and relentless coaching.

As the head coach, it was Riley who resurrected the team following the 1985 Game 1 Memorial Day Massacre. Riley went after Kareem in film sessions, and urged his squad to once and for all, vanquish the franchise's demons in the Boston Garden. The Lakers wound up winning the title, with Kareem taking Finals MVP honors.

It was also Riley who wisely restructured the Lakers predictable offensive attack after the failed 1985-1986 campaign, diverting touches away from Kareem and toward Byron Scott, James Worthy, and Magic Johnson. As a result, the Lakers emerged with the greatest single team in NBA history - the 1986-1987 NBA Champions.

Finally, Riley was the one who pushed the Lakers to become the first repeat champions in nearly 2 decades, thanks to his "guarantee" speech during the '87 victory parade. As such, he cannot be omitted from the list.

Brian Shaw

Shaw was a valuable reserve on the Shaq-Kobe championship teams, and today remains an assistant coach with the franchise. However, his three-point bank shot against Portland at the end of the third quarter in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, ultimately altered the destinies of 2 franchises.

For LA, it provided the momentum for a fourth quarter rally, and eventually, the first of 3 consecutive titles. For Portland, it resulted in a devastating playoff loss, and some offseason roster tinkering which inevitably weakened the team.

Anthony Peeler

Peeler was a sweet-shooting 2 who provided valuable perimeter scoring for the young and exciting Lake Show teams of the 1990's. His later trade to Vancouver also freed up valuable money needed to lure Shaquille O'Neal to the purple and gold.

Karl Malone

When a hated conference rival joins his long-time nemesis, will he be embraced by his new home? In the case of Karl Malone, absolutely.

In Malone's one year with LA, he played with pure heart, and was quickly adopted by Laker fans. Despite being in a position to eclipse the all-time scoring record, Malone willingly gave up his touches for the good of the team. He also did all the dirty work, defended with zeal, hustled, and brought some sanity and leadership to the locker room. Coach Phil Jackson thought Malone was the team's MVP, and when he succumbed to injuries during the Finals, the Lakers quickly faded.

MORE CRITICISMS: Players Ranked Incorrectly

Like any list, the Laker rankings have players who are ranked either far too low or far too high. Here are some of the most obvious examples:

Derek Fisher (Too High) / Michael Cooper (Too Low)

Fish is a Laker favorite who has brought toughness, titles, class, and clutch shooting to the franchise. His "0.4" shot and his playoff shoulder to Luis Scola will forever be fondly remembered by Laker fans. And while he should be included in the Top 25, his place at #11 is ridiculous, especially when it puts him one spot ahead of Coop.

Cooper was the second-most beloved player of the Showtime era, behind only Magic. He was the Lakers' enforcer, and was able to play the 1, 2, or the 3. Coop was an outstanding clutch shooter and an athletic finisher of countless Coop-a-loops. More importantly, he was the premiere on-ball defensive stopper of the 80's, winning the Defensive Player of the Year award once, and getting into legendary battles with Larry Bird.

Fisher simply is not in Coop's class as a defender. A good team defender who can draw charges, Fisher struggles one-on-one with quicker guards. Ranking him above Cooper, could only be done by someone who never saw Cooper play extensively. When one considers that Cooper was a life-long Laker and had more rings, the rankings are even more absurd.

AC Green (Too High)

AC Green at #19 over Robert Horry?

AC was a crucial contributor during the Showtime era, but he lost much of that goodwill when he left the Laker family to take equivalent money with the Phoenix Suns. Green's decision was viewed in LA as a traitorous act, and only the passage of time coupled with his second go-round during the Shaq era, has alleviated any of that anger.

Only an outsider would dare to put Green above "Big Shot" Robert Horry in the rankings. Horry's defense, clutch outside shooting, and Game 4 winner against the Sacramento Kings should merit him a place above Green.

Nick Van Exel (Far Too Low) / Eddie Jones (Too High)

When Jerry West outsmarted the league by drafting Van Exel in the second round, the Lake Show era was born. With Kareem and Magic retired, and Worthy soon to follow suit, Van Exel became the driving force behind the Lakers resurgence in the 1990's. He played only a few seasons with the team, getting shipped out after his famous "Cancun" chant.

Van Exel was a flashy playmaker, and one of the most underrated clutch shooters in NBA history. His three-point hot streaks and swagger brought excitement back to the Forum, as Van Exel managed to save some of his best moments for the playoffs. His memorable game-winners on the road in Boston and San Antonio are two classic moments in franchise history.

During the Kobe era, Jack Nicholson was asked which Laker he enjoyed watching the most, and surprisingly, he stated Nick Van Exel. Many others felt the same way, and his #24 ranking does not do him justice.

The humble Jones, meanwhile, was one of the most popular Lakers during the Lake Show era. His explosive dunks, three pointers, and defense also earned him several All-Star berths. However, putting him at #22 above Van Exel and certain others is just too high. Eddie never brought a ring to LA, nor was he ever the team's go to guy with Nick the Quick around.

Andrew Bynum (Too High)

At #38, Bynum is a little high for now, as he is probably ranked on upside alone. Yes, he is the future of the franchise, and yes he has had some nice nights here and there, but Bynum has yet to have a signature moment during the only time that matters - the playoffs.

Pau Gasol (Too High) / Norm Nixon (Too Low)

Gasol's arrival ushered in a new championship era, and helped change the destiny of the franchise. Still, Gasol has not done enough, at this stage, to warrant a #14 ranking.

Prior to last season, Gasol was despised by much of the fanbase for his timid play against Boston in the Finals. It was only after a year of tougher and more determined play, especially in the Finals, that Gasol was able to win back the trust of the City. Over time, Gasol could justify such a ranking, but for now, it's clearly premature.

Nixon, on the other hand, had two rings, and was a feisty contributor for LA. His pull-up fallaway J was a thing of beauty, although he eventually had to go to make room for Magic's ever-expanding talent. For now, he should be ranked above Gasol.

Sedale Threatt (Far Too Low)

Sedale helped to single-handedly keep the backcourt respectable after Magic's stunning 1991 retirement. He was a hugely pleasant surprise in a time of disaster, as his defense and clutch perimeter shooting quickly won over fans.

Threatt also will be fondly remembered in LA for an incident that occurred when he was with 76ers - his legendary right-hand shot to the face of Celtic Danny Ainge. His ranking at #42 might be the single most objectionable ranking on the entire list.

Jamaal Wilkes (Slightly Low)

"Silk" was listed at #13, and while that is close to his proper ranking, it becomes problematic because the Fisher ranking at #11 is too high.

Silk was simply a more talented, elite, All-Star caliber player than Fish. His smooth, behind-the-head release on his jumper was poetry in motion, and his soft hands allowed him to catch hundreds of Magic's bullet passes in traffic. Silk put up huge scoring numbers over the years, and earned multiple rings with the Showtime teams. He should be above Fisher.

Trevor Ariza (Too High) / Glen Rice (Too High) / Kurt Rambis (Too Low)

Although Ariza won a ring and was a solid contributor last year, he played less than two seasons with the team. As such, putting him at #29 above Kurt Rambis (#33) is ludicrous. Ariza may be the more talented of the two, but Rambis was a key role player on multiple championship teams.

Rice brought perimeter marksmanship, scoring, and a ring to LA, but similar to Ariza, his stay was also brief. After winning his ring, Rice quickly became expendable due to Rick Fox and his tougher brand of defense. Moreover, Rice, through his wife, complained about his lack of shots throughout the title run, which did little to win over the City. As such, this hired gun should be ranked lower than #28.

Mychal Thompson (Too Low) / Bob McAdoo (Too Low) / Rick Fox (Too Low) / Vlade Divac (Too High)

Thompson, McAdoo, and Fox were vital contributors to championship squads, and thus, should probably get a higher ranking than Vlade Divac. Thompson (#27) changed the balance of power in the NBA when he arrived via trade in 1987, as the Lakers finally had a reliable backup for Kareem who could score and defend against Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.

McAdoo (#26) was a former league MVP who brought explosive, point-a-minute scoring off the bench, while again giving vital depth on the frontline for an aging Kareem.

Finally, Fox (#25) was a physical defender who had some big moments during the Shaq-Kobe title run. His sprint through the Staples Center tunnel to brawl with Doug Christie forever endeared him to Laker fans, and should alone increase his ranking above that of Vlade.

As for Vlade, he was a draft day steal at the end of the first round, and provided many highlights with his skilled finesse game during the post-Kareem era. However, he also had spells of inconsistency, and worse yet, was a major thorn in the Lakers' side as a member of the Sacramento Kings earlier this past decade.

Although he did eventually retire as a Laker, and gave the franchise Kobe Bryant thanks to a draft day swap with the Hornets, Vlade never won a title. Hence, he should be ranked slightly lower.

Jerry West (Too Low)

Limiting West's accomplishments merely to his playing days, again, fundamentally misunderstands his contributions as a Laker.

As a player, West arguably is the third-greatest 2 guard in history behind Jordan and Kobe. He earned a title on the famous 33 consecutive wins team, and was a great clutch shooter.

As a GM, he is probably the greatest executive of all time, whose abilities brought about the Showtime and Shaq-Kobe eras. West's shrewd talent evaluations led to several outstanding acquisitions which kept the Lakers afloat atop the league. From the drafting of Vlade Divac, to the signing of Sam Perkins and Shaquille O'Neal, West outworked his opponents much as he had during his playing days.

Oh, and that Vlade for Kobe trade wasn't so bad either.

Altogether, West brought 9 titles to LA for his efforts. As such, he should be ranked #3 All-Time, ahead of Kobe, but behind The Captain and Magic.

Wilt (Too High) / Elgin Baylor (Too Low) / James Worthy (Too Low)

Baylor and Worthy could be the two most underrated 3's in NBA history. The high-flying Baylor was the second greatest scorer of his era, behind only Wilt, and was a true matchup nightmare. He was a life-long Laker and the heart of the franchise for over a decade, and thus, should be ranked no lower than #6. The only thing preventing a higher ranking is his lack of rings.

"Big Game" James Worthy has the requisite rings and longevity to put him above Chamberlain at #7. More importantly, Worthy rose to the occasion in big games, winning a Finals MVP in 1988. Worthy has been foolishly criticized by many as almost living off Magic's greatness, which again, is a completely unfair evaluation.

When Worthy was isolated on the wing and beat his man with a devastating first step, that was due to his talent alone. Similarly, when Worthy drew double-teams in the low post, that was because coaches were petrified of dealing with his baseline spin move or his deadly turnaround jumper. Quite simply, the Lakers ran much of their half court attack through Worthy, and he would have been an elite performer no matter which team drafted him.

Wilt Chamberlain, meanwhile, brought LA its first ring, coming up big in the '72 Finals by winning the MVP award. He probably could have earned another title in '69 as well, but for the stubborn decision of coach Van Brenda Kolff to keep him out of the game during crunch time.

Although Wilt was a dominant All-Star presence down low, he came to the Lakers in the latter stages of his career. Moreover, he unselfishly gave up touches to Baylor, West, and Goodrich, and instead concentrated on rebounding and defense for the good of the team. Because of that unselfishness, fans did not see the same "100 point" version of Wilt from his early days, although he did have his 40 point scoring binges from time to time.

When viewed cumulatively, Wilt's shorter stay, limited offensive approach, and "early" retirement at 34, should put him below both Baylor and Worthy at #8.


A lot of flaws and omissions are found in the ESPN list, but at least one thing was correct: Magic and Kareem were correctly placed at #1 and #2, respectively.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for


  1. Straight-up sun. Woolridge was the bomb when he was in LA. At least they had enough sense to put Magic #1.

  2. Ohhhh man, Nick the Quick! He was the team during the Lake Show period. That shot he nailed against Boston was the -ish.

  3. I think that SOB Ceballos should have been waaaaaaay lower. So what if he put up numbers, he went AWOL in Lake Havasu spring break during the middle of the year. What an idiot!


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