Okay, we were wrong. We do have one more gripe to register in the Kobe Bryant love fest that doesn’t seem to want to end. We know what Magic Johnson said a few years ago (and again this winter), and who are we to argue with Magic?
Well, sometimes players themselves get caught up in moments and use hyperbole. This is one of those cases, because there’s a clear-cut, best-ever Los Angeles Laker, and it’s not who Magic says it is.
Here’s the deal: We’ve already noted Bryant’s “greatness” is based on volume, nothing else. But there are three specific pieces of information, based on advanced sabermetrics, that demonstrate this.
First, there are only four players, really, that might be able to lay claim to the “greatest L.A. Laker ever” title, and yes, Kobe is one of them. The other three are Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Magic.
[In terms of impact, Shaquille O’Neal only played 514 games for the Lakers, so it’s hard to enter him into this conversation since he also played for five other teams. Likewise, Wilt Chamberlain played just 339 games for the Lakers. Both men were stellar players, of course, but they didn’t play in L.A. long enough to enter this analysis.]
In terms of Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Magic was the best with a 24.1 mark, followed by Kareem (23.4 as a Laker only), Kobe (22.9), and West (22.9). There is a very minimal gap between Kobe and West, actually. Yet clearly, both are significantly behind Magic and Kareem.
So, Kobe is not the best Laker there at all, which is no surprise, since we know his actual efficiency as a scorer/shooter was mediocre. But the volume makes up for it, right?
Well, not so fast: Our second fact of analysis here has to do with Win Shares (WS), another sabermetric measurement designed to isolate just how much each player contributes to a team victory under contextual circumstances.
Bryant actually leads all Lakers players in NBA history with 172.7 WS, followed by West (162.6), Kareem (158.7), and Magic (155.8). Yet Bryant also played the most games as a Laker, however, with 1,346 games in the regular season boosting that WS total. West played just 932 games, while Kareem (1,093) and Magic (906) also played considerably fewer games in a Laker uniform.
Do the math now: On a per-game basis, how much did Kobe contribute to Lakers victories in his career? Just 0.128 WS per game. The other three greats all did better than that: West (0.174), Magic (0.172), and Kareem (0.145) easily leave Bryant in the dust here, once again showing all Kobe had to offer was volume.
Finally, the championships each player won: West managed just one title (1972), while Kareem and Magic teamed up for five titles in the 1980s (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-1988). Kobe played on five championship teams as well (2000-2002, 2009-2010).
The best player on the 1972 team, according to Win Shares for that year alone, was Chamberlain (15.8). No slouch himself, West contributed 13.3 WS to that team’s overall success.
The 1980 squad was paced by Kareem (14.8) and Magic (10.5). The 1982 roster saw Magic (12.9) lead Kareem (10.7). The 1985 team was again Magic (12.7) first and Kareem (11.2) a bit lower. By the last two titles, Kareem was older and less effective (7.5 in 1987, 5.3 in 1988), while Magic was wrapping up his prime (15.9 in 1987, 10.9 in 1988).
Looking at the five title teams Kobe played on, the reality is he was never the best player on any of those teams. Shaq led the Lakers in WS for the 2000, 2001, and 2002 seasons, respectively, and Pau Gasol led the Lakers in WS for the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
2000: Shaq 18.6 WS, Kobe 10.6 WS
2001: Shaq 14.9 WS, Kobe 11.3 WS
2002: Shaq 13.2 WS, Kobe 12.7 WS
2009: Gasol 13.9 WS, Kobe 12.7 WS
2010: Gasol 11.0 WS, Kobe 9.4 WS
That’s right: Let that sink in for a moment and then try to argue Kobe as the “greatest” Laker ever. You can’t, for there is no logical or statistical bearing for such a claim.
He was not the most efficient Laker; he did not contribute the most Win Shares per game as a Laker; he did not lead any Laker team to a title based on Win Shares. All he did was play the most games as a Laker.
Clearly, Magic is the best Los Angeles Lakers player ever, when you factor in all the advanced data: best PER, second-best WS per game, and most titles as the best player on the championship-winning team.
Since he was always the definition of a team player, Magic politely deferred to Kobe in public, understanding no one wants to hear the old guy talk about how much better he was than the young guy—cue your own “Okay, Boomer!” now.
[After all, remember Jim Brown ranting about how Franco Harris couldn’t hold his jock? He was right, though.]
But the reality here is that Magic—and Jerry West, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—were all greater Lakers than Kobe Bryant.
Note: George Mikan played 439 games for the Minneapolis Lakers, compiling a 27.0 PER and 108.7 WS. Quick math is going to tell you he totaled 0.248 WS per game, easily distancing himself above the other players analyzed here. His teams also won five league championships, and Mikan was the best player on each squad. If we remove the “Los Angeles” part from this discussion? Mikan is your all-time greatest Lakers player ever, hands down.