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Lakers at 50: The greatest Lakers team ever? One vote for the 1985 NBA champions

With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy and much more, that team ended the dominance of the Boston Celtics.

November 13, 2009|By Mark Heisler

Part of me wants to say the best Lakers team ever is the one that's out there right now.

(Hopefully, none of the Showtime Lakers are reading this or they would have to be resuscitated at this point, after which they would cancel their subscriptions.)

That's the part that knows how fast things change and how much better players have gotten. When I started covering the NBA in 1969 in Philadelphia, Billy Cunningham was a power forward at 6-foot-7 (listed) and 220 pounds. Gus Johnson was a feared power forward at 6-5, 225. Cunningham wasn't even 6-7. Everyone knew his real height those days because being 6-6 got you out of the draft. When Cunningham got his notice, he said he had to have his back shot full of muscle relaxers to get over 6-6.

Today, Cunningham and Johnson would be big guards, and not the biggest either.

Bill Russell was listed at 6-10, 220. Kevin Durant, a twiggy small forward, is as big as he was. Kevin Garnett can see over the top of Russ' head.

I don't ever like to compare today's players versus the players of old because it's not fair to the players of old. They were what they were, compared with everyone else in their time, and that's who they deserve to be compared with, not the players who would follow in 20 years, whom they would never get to play.

So, the greatest Lakers team ever was the 1984-85 team.

It happens to be the one that broke the Celtics curse, after losing the first meetings in the Finals going back to the '50s when the Lakers were in Minneapolis, but that's not why.

I'm doing it on sheer personnel. That team had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson -- two players who wouldn't be physically disadvantaged in today's game -- but that was just the start.

James Worthy, the 6-9 small forward, averaged 17.6 points that season, his third. Byron Scott, in his second season as the shooting guard, averaged 16.0.

Two of their reserves averaged double figures, including Bob McAdoo, a former NBA MVP, at 33, and Mike McGee. Michael Cooper, establishing a reputation as a defender as well as for running and dunking, averaged 8.3. Old pros Jamaal Wilkes and Mitch Kupchak saw spot duty.

This was the pre-expansion, 23-team NBA, when good teams had real depth. Some of the Lakers reserves had done things none of the starters had, and some, like McAdoo, the five-time All-Star, weren't shy about mentioning it.

"We were playing bad once, and the starters were getting off to bad starts," Johnson once said, "So Pat said, 'I'll go down the line. What's wrong with you? What's wrong with the team?'

"So he got to Bob McAdoo, and McAdoo said, 'You really want to know what's wrong?'

"He went down the line: Kareem's not rebounding, I'm not being an assertive leader like I was before.

"Mouths just dropped. [He said] 'Buck [Johnson] ain't getting it done, we got Michael Cooper! You got all those guys sitting there, Buck, James Worthy. Hey, sit their butts down! Then I'll bet they start playing better."

That Lakers team averaged 118 points, shot 55% from the field and won 62 games -- one fewer than the defending champion Celtics.

The Lakers then passed the greatest test of character in franchise history, coming back from the Memorial Day Massacre, when the Celtics humiliated them in a 148-114 rout in Game 1 of the Finals that recalled the years of torture at the hands of their archrivals, to win the series, 4-2, in Boston, with fans streaming out of Game 6 early.

All Lakers history pivoted on that point, going from the Celtics' bobos to a great franchise of its own. It doesn't get any greater than that.

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