What the Yankees are to MLB and what the Cowboys are to the NFL, is what the Los Angeles Lakers are to the NBA. With all due respect to the Celtics who have more championships, the Lakers are the NBA’s preeminent franchise in terms of prestige and popularity. They are a global brand as you are just as likely to see fans in Asia or Europe rocking Lakers jerseys as any other American sports team’s jersey.
The Lakers have reached this elite status thanks to dominance in multiple eras. They have made the playoffs more times than any other NBA team and they are the only team who has made the Finals every single decade since the NBA’s existence. They have also boasted some of the most popular and greatest players in league history and a Lakers’ all-time starting five would likely defeat any other team’s all-time starting five. Kobe, Shaq, Magic, Kareem, Wilt, West…all of these players are known by just one name and you can’t tell the history of the NBA without mentioning them.
But those are players who had their best days with the Lakers, both on and off the court. There are many other great players who didn’t have the best of days with the team and had their “Willie Mays with the Mets” moments with the Lake Show. At the other end of the spectrum, there are many greats who the Lakers let go far too soon for whatever the reason. We will look at players that fall into both of those groups as we take a look at 8 players the Lakers never should’ve let go and 7 they kept for too long.
15 Never Should've Let Go: Trevor Ariza
Ariza was raised in Los Angeles, attended UCLA, and was traded to his hometown team in 2008. He became the team’s starting small forward and won a ring in 2009 over the Orlando Magic. But after that season, the Lakers decided to sign Ron Artest, which left no spot for the free agent Ariza. As a result he joined the Houston Rockets (for the first time) and would later play for New Orleans and Washington before ending up back in Houston. Ariza is six years younger and carries none of the baggage that the now-Metta World Peace has.
On top of that, he was arguably the better player back then and certainly so now as World Peace is out of the league. But the Lakers made an impulsive move and went with the bigger name in Artest/World Peace while letting a valuable role player walk and netting nothing in return.
14 Kept For Too Long: James Worthy
Big Game James was an integral part of Showtime, and Magic Johnson called him the best all-around player he ever played with. Worthy won three NBA championships, was a seven-time All-Star and was the 1988 NBA Finals MVP. But while Magic retired in 1991, Worthy stuck around three more years and it was three years to forget. Not only did Worthy suffer an embarrassing arrest for soliciting a prostitute in the early 1990s, but his skills had diminished and people were calling him Little Game James.
The Lakers allowed most of their remaining core from the Showtime era to walk in free agency, such as Byron Scott, A.C. Green and Kurt Rambis, but they held onto Worthy while he was ruining his legacy. Finally, in 1994 it was Worthy, himself, who pulled the plug on his career as he retired during the 1994-95 preseason which conveniently followed the Lakers’ first missed postseason in 18 years.
13 Never Should've Let Go: Nick Van Exel
Nick the Quick was one of four All-Stars the Lakers had in the 1997-98 season (along with Shaq, Kobe and Eddie Jones). Jones was unsurprisingly traded because he played the same position as Kobe, but the team also traded Van Exel for reasons still unknown. He was a 27-year-old All-Star who was a pass-first point guard, but the Lakers shipped him to Denver for pennies on the dollar (Tony Battie and Tyronn Lue). The Lakers had Derek Fisher on the roster, but it would be another five years until he became the full-time starter at point guard. However, the move ended up paying off for Los Angeles as they would win three titles under Phil Jackson. Van Exel would spend another eight seasons in the league, and became one of the best three-point shooters in NBA history. When he retired in 2002, he ranked fifth all-time in three-pointers made.
12 Kept For Too Long: Steve Nash
When the two-time MVP fractured his leg in his second Lakers game, that should have been a sign of things to come with Nash in Tinseltown. He was expected to miss a week but ended up missing nearly two months and later had a hip injury, suffered from back pain, and had a nerve root irritation. Nash made nearly $28 million over three years with the Lakers, but played in all of 65 games and was a shell of his former self. Phoenix clearly got Nash’s best years, and Nash was only known for his cool dad haircut in L.A. The future Hall of Famer didn’t even play a single game for the Lakers in 2014-15, but he was still on the Lakers payroll. Instead of flipping his expiring contract to a team for a pick or two, the Lakers ate the contract and got nothing in return. L.A. could have certainly used another draft pick, as they had to give up four to Phoenix in the trade for Nash, including their first rounder in 2018.
11 Never Should've Let Go: Caron Butler
If you remember, Butler was among the players the Lakers received in the trade that sent Shaq to Miami. But you probably don’t remember it because Tuff Juice played just one season in L.A. After the 2004-05 season Phil Jackson was rehired as Lakers coach and he shipped Butler to the Wizards for Kwame Freakin’ Brown. Butler would become a two-time All-Star with the Wizards, while Brown would be called a “kitty cat” by Jackson. Butler would then play for the Mavericks, and they defeated the Lakers in the 2011 playoffs on the way to Butler’s only NBA championship ring. Kobe was particularly upset that Butler was traded away as the two were close as teammates, and Kobe even joined the Butler Family Barbecue in Caron’s hometown of Milwaukee.
Kobe chronicles: Caron Butler says Bryant ate ribs at a family barbecue in Milwaukee https://t.co/LLxXFrGjuJ— L.A. Times Sports (@latimessports) March 16, 2016
10 Kept For Too Long: Mychal Thompson
Klay’s daddy used to be a rival of his son’s current team, as Mychal Thompson spent most of his career with the Blazers and the Lakers. The number one overall pick of the 1978 draft, Thompson was a double-double machine with Portland for seven seasons. In 1987, he joined the Lakers at the age of 32 and was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s backup. While Thompson was a valuable bench player for L.A. for a few seasons, the Lakers elected to keep him around after Kareem retired in 1989, even though he was no longer a plus on the court. The Lakers drafted Vlade Divac in 1989 and Elden Campbell in 1990, yet Thompson was still there siphoning minutes at the center position. Not only did Divac and Campbell have more potential than Thompson, but they were even better players at those points in their respective careers.
9 Never Should've Let Go: Patrick Beverley
Even diehard Lakers fans can be forgiven if they forgot that Mr. 94 Feet was drafted by the Lakers in 2009. But Beverley’s tenure with the Lakers was as brief as could be and he never even received a Lakers jersey. That’s because the team then dealt him in a draft-day trade to the Miami Heat. What did L.A. get in return? Cash and a future second-round pick in the 2011 draft (the player selected never played in the NBA). Beverley certainly wasn’t an instant impact as he played overseas for four years before joining the Rockets as a free agent in 2013. He’s gone on to become arguably the best defensive point guard in the NBA and a two-time selection on the All-Defensive team. Lonzo Ball is someone who would certainly rather be playing with Beverley than against him:
8 Kept For Too Long: Metta World Peace
Ron Artest was an NBA champion, the Defensive Player of the Year and was named to four All-Defensive teams. Metta World Peace accomplished none of that and the artist formerly known as Artest was not the same player after his name change in 2011. Artest would move onto his hometown Knicks in 2013-14 and then didn’t play in the NBA in 2014-15.
Despite not being good enough to play in the NBA at 35, the Lakers decided to re-sign Metta and he, again, played with the team until the age of 37. I’m all for vets serving as mentors to young players, but the Lakers also had Kobe Bryant, who was certainly no spring chicken, and later Luol Deng on the team, so what was the point of Metta’s presence? He was more coach than player at that point yet still made over $3 million in his last spell with the team. Metta finally dropped the player role and became an assistant with the Lakers’ G-League team in 2017.
7 Never Should've Let Go: Tony Campbell
By the late 1980s, the core of the Lakers’ Showtime era was aging and they needed an infusion of youth and athleticism on the wings. They found just that in Tony Campbell who played with the team from 1987-89 as a backup to James Worthy. Campbell was a bit player with the Lakers but was seemingly a perfect fit running the wings next to Magic Johnson. However, the Lakers left Campbell unprotected in the 1989 expansion draft and he was selected by the fledgling Timberwolves. L.A.’s loss was Minnesota’s gain as T.C. would reach his full potential in the Twin Cities. He averaged over 20 points per game in back-to-back seasons and remained the franchise’s all-time leading scorer until 1995. After three seasons in Minnesota, Campbell then spent another three years in the NBA and he could have been the bridge from the Showtime Era to the Shaq-Kobe Era had he stayed in Los Angeles.
6 Kept For Too Long: Spencer Haywood
A recent inductee into the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame, Haywood made it to Springfield on the strength of his play with the SuperSonics. He was a five-time All-Star who also won the ABA MVP as a rookie in 1969-70. By the time he joined the Lakers in 1979, he was past his prime and dealing with a drug problem, which helped turn him into a locker room cancer. Just as cancer kills, Haywood tried to do the same as he hired a hitman to murder the Lakers coach, Paul Westhead. Thankfully, Haywood thought better of it and called off the job, but Haywood’s time in L.A. was brief as he was kicked off the team during the 1980 NBA Finals for falling asleep during a meeting. The Lakers would go on to win the Finals that year which gave Haywood his only NBA championship, and after playing one year overseas, he finished his career with two years in Washington D.C.
5 Never Should've Let Go: Doug Christie
The last Laker to wear No. 8 before Kobe Bryant, most NBA fans forget that Christie started his career in Los Angeles. Well, actually, Christie started his career with his hometown SuperSonics who drafted him, but due to a contract dispute, he was traded to the Lakers before playing in a game. Christie became a part-time starter in his second year and showed promise as a two-way player. But he was then traded the following offseason for a second-round draft pick who became a guy who never played in the NBA. Christie would finally find his footing with the Raptors and later with the Kings. He became a four-time All-Defensive selection and arguably defended Kobe Bryant as good as anyone else in NBA history. Looking back, it’s probably a good thing that Christie was traded from the Lakers because had he stayed on the team, we likely wouldn’t have gotten the epic fight between Rick Fox, Christie and Christie’s wife.
4 Kept For Too Long: Javaris Crittenton
Once you realize what exactly Crittenton got into while in Los Angeles, you’ll realize that even one day with the Lakers was far too long. Crittenton is known for two things: having a Wild, Wild West showdown with Gilbert Arenas in a locker room, and killing a single mother in Atlanta. It turns out that his life began to spiral when he was drafted by the Lakers in 2007. Crittenton reportedly joined the infamous Crips gang while in Los Angeles and that would be a foreshadowing to his criminal activity. He was indicted for participation in criminal street gang activity, felony murder and other charges in 2013 following the shooting of the mother, and he pleaded guilty to two charges in 2015.
Crittenton will be locked up until 2038 followed by 18 years of probation. On top of that, he wasn’t even a good NBA player and scored in double figures just once in a Lakers uniform.
3 Never Should've Let Go: Adrian Dantley
The only Hall of Famer who was let go far too early, Dantley retired as the ninth leading scorer in NBA history. Dantley was traded to the Lakers in his second season in 1977 and averaged 18 PPG across one-and-a-half seasons. Those Lakers teams didn’t have a ton of talent outside of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and when the Lakers were awarded the No. 1 overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft, everything changed. The team drafted Magic Johnson and that created a domino effect. The team wanted it to be Magic’s team which meant less reliance and playing time for Kareem. Thus, LA needed a backup for Kareem, and Dantley was their most valuable trade asset.
The 23-year-old Dantley would be shipped for Spencer Haywood, who was a former five-time All-Star, but also a notorious drug addict. Haywood would play just one year with the Lakers, was kicked off the team for being under the influence, and nearly hired a hitman to kill his coach. Meanwhile Dantley would become a six-time All-Star and two-time scoring champ with the Utah Jazz, as well as a key player for Chuck Daly's Detroit Pistons, on his way to Springfield.
2 Kept For Too Long: Karl Malone
The Mailman wasn’t the two-time MVP he was in Utah by the time he got to LA, but he was still a solid contributor to a team that made the Finals. But none other than Kobe Bryant would admit that Malone stayed a tad too long, as Malone allegedly hit on Kobe’s wife. Malone was wearing his customary cowboy hat and boots one day when Kobe’s wife said to him, “Hey cowboy, what are you hunting?” Malone responded, “I’m hunting for little Mexican girls,” in reference to Kobe’s wife being half-Mexican and half his age. Malone said afterwards he was just joking around but that ended any chance of Malone coming back to the Lakers for a second season. Kobe had already run off Shaq that offseason so there was no way the Lakers were going to keep around a 41-year-old Malone who wasn’t nearly the player that Shaq was at that point. Over a decade later, the two still haven't settled their beef and Malone even went on TV and challenged Kobe to a fight.
1 Never Should've Let Go: Robert Horry
After all the success, big shots and ringzzzzzzz that Robert Horry won during his career, wouldn’t you just keep him on your team for osmosis and the chance of good luck? Not if you are the Lakers, who didn’t re-sign Horry in 2003 after signing Karl Malone. Why not keep both? Horry didn’t start for the Lakers anyway, so I’d rather have him off the bench as opposed to Slava Medvedenko. But Phil Jackson felt otherwise and Horry joined the Spurs where he did what Robert Horry does: win more rings. He collected two more rings during his five seasons in San Antonio while the Lakers would go 0-2 in the NBA Finals during that span. Horry would play through the 2007-08 season, which outlasted both Malone who retired after one season in LA, and Medvedenko who last played in 2006-07.