Regardless of how many championships the Cavaliers and Warriors teams people know and love today win when it's all said and done, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers will always be revered as two of the NBA's most storied franchises. The Lakers are one of the few teams in sports who can claim league championships in every decade of their league's existence (except the current decade, of course).
Such dominance would not have been possible without legendary general managers and talent evaluators such as Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak making the right moves at the right time to ensure the Lakers' success. Of course, the Lakers did not end up on the right side of every move and that is an important reason for why they are in the dire straights they are today. Without further ado, here are the eight best and seven worst front-office moves in Lakers' franchise history.
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15 BEST: The Pau Gasol Trade
When Shaquille O'Neal departed Los Angeles in 2004, the narrative in town shifted from "Shaq and Kobe" to "The Kobe Show." However it cannot be ignored that Bryant still received plenty of help when he hoisted the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy in 2009 and 2010. Along with Bryant, ex-Grizzly Pau Gasol played an important role on those championship teams as well, though the Lakers had to jump through some hoops to acquire him.
Memphis traded Gasol, along with a 2010 second rounder to Los Angeles on February 1, 2008 for first round picks in 2008 and 2010, Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie and the rights to younger brother Marc Gasol. Then-Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley reportedly ordered General Manager Chris Wallace to make his team more attractive to a potential buyer. After "trolling" the waters for most of the season, Wallace eventually settled on the Lakers' offer, to which Gregg Popovich said in a Sports Illustrated was "beyond comprehension." The younger Gasol turned into a reliable hand and still plays with the Grizzlies to this very day, but his older brother averaged a double-double in the 2009 and 2010 playoffs provided Bryant with ample help in securing his final two rings.
14 WORST: The Dwight Howard Trade
The big problem with the Lakers' acquisition of Dwight Howard was not so much what they gave up, but more what they were getting. Howard came to the Lakers back in August of 2012 in a four-team trade that involved the Orlando Magic, Howard's former team, the Denver Nuggets and the Philadelphia 76ers. The primary Lakers outbound piece was Andrew Bynum, who never played a game with the 76ers. So what was the problem?
Kobe Bryant, like many Lakers fans at the time was initially ecstatic about the trade. "Well, it looks like Superman has found a home," Bryant wrote on his Facebook page. "The Lakers have landed a piece that will hopefully carry the franchise long after I'm gone." Unfortunately for all parties involved, Bryant and Howard didn't exactly see eye-to-eye and it showed on the basketball court. Howard would later be dealt to the Rockets and in the midst of a heated in-game exchange, Bryant got in Howard's face and called him soft. Ever since his brief run in Los Angeles, Howard earned himself a negative reputation amongst executives and fans of the league and the Lakers never came close to seeing the return the expected from the onset.
13 BEST: The Acquisition of George Mikan
George Mikan, a 6-foot-10 center from Joliet, Ill. was among the best players of the fifties partially because immense size was a relatively new element to the sport of basketball. Mikan led the Chicago American Gears to the National Basketball League (which later became the NBA we know today) championship in his rookie season and won Playoff MVP. However, Gears owner Maurice White pulled his team out of the league the following season in a feeble attempt to create a basketball league in which he owned all the teams and arenas called the Professional Basketball League of America. The league folded after just one month, however so all of the original Gears players were equally distributed amongst the remaining 11 NBL teams. Each team had approximately a nine-percent chance at landing Mikan but the big man ultimately fell into the lap of the Minneapolis Lakers.
Not only did Mikan lead the Lakers to six league championships, he is also indirectly responsible for many of the rule changes that shaped the game of basketball into what we know it as today. His dominance influenced the league to double the width of the lane and the create a shot clock. When he became the first American Basketball Association commissioner, he helped create the three-point line and brought professional basketball to Minnesota.
12 WORST: The Nick Van Exel Trade
For as pivotal as Derek Fisher was to the Lakers' three-peat run, he was never the pure playmaker that Nick Van Exel was in his prime. During the year of the Lakers' first of three straight championships (1999-00), Van Exel finished with more than triple the amount of assists as Fisher. The Lakers' logic was likely to free up more minutes at the guard spots so Kobe Bryant could have the space to blossom into the superstar he ultimately became. Eddie Jones, another great Laker ended up being a casualty of this very line of thinking. The difference between the two (and reason why the Jones swap for Glen Rice didn't make the list) was because Jones' game was actually quite similar to Bryant's while Van Exel acted as the pure point guard.
In July 1998, the Lakers yielded young center Tony Battie and the draft rights to Tyronn Lue out of the Van Exel trade while Van Exel went on to have four more productive years in Denver. What's puzzling about the trade is how the Lakers achieved pennies on the dollar for an all-star caliber player. Battie went on to become a journeyman player but at best would have been just a substitute center for Shaquille O'Neal anyway. Lue may be the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers now, but as a player was most famous for being stepped over by Allen Iverson in an iconic photo op. The Van Exel trade just represented terrible value across the board for the Lakers and might be one the team would like to have back.
11 BEST: The Wilt Chamberlain Trade
Before coming over to put an exclamation point on the Lakers's sixties dominance, Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain had already made a name for himself with the Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors and later the Philadelphia 76ers. His 100-point game and four NBA Most Valuable Player awards came pre-Lakers, after all, though the last of his four MVP awards came right before being traded. Chamberlain became the first league MVP from the prior season to be traded when the 76ers sent him to Los Angeles for Darrall Imhoff, Archie Clark and Jerry Chambers, who was immediately shipped to Phoenix in another trade. None of the players "delivered" in a Sixers uniform.
Together, along with Lakers mainstays Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, Chamberlain went on to make NBA Finals appearances in four out of five seasons with the team. Though Chamberlain spent most of his years in Los Angeles focusing primarily on defense and rebounding he had his jersey retired by the team in 1983.
10 WORST: Phil Jackson's Rumored Third Stint
Though "health concerns" prematurely derailed two prior stints with the Lakers, Jackson found himself back in play to coach the team after the Lakers fired his successor, Mike Brown in the middle of the 2012-2013 season. "The Zen Master" was approached by the front office about giving it another go with the team, but Jackson requested he have two days to think about it. The very next day, team officials met with Mike D'Antoni and made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
While Jackson' health concerns were indeed legitimate concerns, legend has it that the real reason behind his on again-off again relationship with the Lakers is due to his uneasy relationship with Jerry and Jim Buss. The elder Buss long felt that a more up-tempo offensive scheme would be more beneficial to the team than Jackson's methodical triangle offense, in spite of Jackson being an 11-time NBA champion. D'Antoni seems to have finally found his niche in Houston while Jackson has had some ups and downs in the Knicks front office in the present day. However, if anybody could have gotten the most out of Dwight Howard and at least given the depleted Lakers a chance to make some waves in the postseason, Jackson, not D'Antoni would have been the guy.
9 BEST: The Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Trade
In 1975, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, formerly known as Lew Alcindor requested to be traded from Milwaukee Bucks, the team he called home for the first six years of his career. The Bucks sent the Lakers Abdul-Jabbar and Walt Wesley to the Lakers in exchange for Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith and Brian Winters. While the package of players sent to Milwaukee produced to an extent, none went on to be the player Abdul-Jabbar became for Los Angeles, a team in need of a shot-in-the-arm after its star players from the sixties got old and retired.
Abdul-Jabbar, a record 19-time NBA All-Star, continued to produce immediately upon arriving in Los Angeles. He won two league MVP's pre-Magic Johnson, and once Johnson arrived in the fold, the duo led the Lakers to five NBA championships throughout the 1980s before Abdul-Jabbar called it a career in 1989. His legacy is that of a finesse-scoring center who could also carry the load beneath the glass and fellow legends such as Pat Riley, Isiah Thomas and Julius Erving have called him the greatest basketball player to ever live.
8 WORST: Four Draft Picks for the Declining Steve Nash
In an attempt to provide Kobe Bryant some backcourt help, the Lakers acquired Steve Nash in Summer 2012 in a sign-and-trade deal with Phoenix. The price? First round picks in 2013 and 2015 and second round picks in 2013 and 2014. Needless to say, the trade didn't really work out for the Lakers. Of course, the Suns aren't in great shape now either, but the Lakers' win count over that stretch should tell fans everything they need to know about the Nash trade. Though they made the playoffs in Nash's first season, they got bounced in the first round by the San Antonio Spurs and went on to go 27-55 and 21-61 in the ensuing seasons. Mounting injuries proved to be the real problem for Nash. He played in just 65 games as a Laker over the three year span and missed the entire 2014-15 season with a back injury he aggravated while lifting luggage.
The Suns, for the record used the first rounder in 2013 (30th overall) on Nemanja Nedović who got traded to the Warriors that same night. The Suns then used the second rounder that same year on Alex Oriahki who became part of the Isaiah Thomas trade that netted them a future first rounder. The 2014 second rounder was also used to eventually net the team a first rounder in another three-team trade and the 2015 first rounder was used to bring in Brandon Knight and Kendall Marshall. While the deal yielded the Suns a few great assets they were able to use to acquire bigger pieces, the Lakers got an expensive veteran who ultimately hampered the team's ability to win due to declining health.
7 BEST: The Hiring of Phil Jackson
Prior to his present feud with Carmelo Anthony, Phil Jackson earned a reputation as one of the league's most elite coaches. He won six of his 11 NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls throughout the nineties, but entered a public feud in 1997 with General Manager Jerry Krause and "retired" from coaching following the 1998 championship run. Jackson took a year off before joining the Lakers in Summer 1999.
The timing couldn't have been better as the Lakers were on the lookout for a more permanent solution at head coach, having gone through three coaches the prior year--in a lockout-shortened season no less. With a near-identical roster to the prior year, Jackson seized control of the Lakers and led them to the NBA Championship in his first year with the team in 2000. He ended up coaching the Lakers for 11 years across two different stints and led the team to five total league championships before officially retiring from the profession in 2011.
6 WORST: The Adrian Dantley Trade
Adrian Dantley flashed superstar qualities in his time at Notre Dame and became a star from the moment he stepped foot in the league. As a result, a run with the Lakers was almost a formality. The Lakers acquired a young Dantley in 1977 from the Indiana Pacers, where Dantley averaged 26.5 points and over nine rebounds per game. However in a similar fashion to Wilt Chamberlain, playing next to household names like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West curbed Dantley's production. It skewed the fact that Dantley had perhaps regressed since his time in Indiana.
On the lookout for a better fit, the Lakers traded Dantley to the Utah Jazz in 1979 for Spencer Haywood. Following the trade, Dantley's production normalized almost immediately and he went on to have a Hall of Fame career. He averaged more than 30 points for four consecutive seasons and led the league in scoring in 1981 and 1984. Haywood, on the other hand, has had a bit of a checkered past since his time with the Lakers, struggling with a cocaine habit and even once considering to place a hit on former Lakers coach Paul Westhead back in 1980 (per a Philly.com interview). Dantley's struggles aside, his acquisition had nothing to do with the Lakers' ability to draft Magic Johnson in 1979. In a pre-salary cap era of the league, the "Showtime Lakers" plus Adrian Dantley might have been a threat to double their championship count in the eighties
5 BEST: The Arrival of Earvin "Magic" Johnson
Given how the Lakers dominated the league in nearly every decade pre-Michael Jordan, it may come as a surprise to those outside of Los Angeles to know the team used a first-overall pick by way of the then-New Orleans Jazz to select the key to their dominance in the eighties, Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Johnson, a standout at Michigan State was considered a shoo-in to be the top selection in the 1979 NBA Draft.
When the Lakers let Gail Goodrich walk in free agency prior to the 1976-77 season, league rules mandated that the Jazz had to compensate the Lakers. New Orleans ended up surrendering three draft picks to the Lakers, one of which turned out to be the first-overall pick in 1979 after the Jazz finished the season in dead last. By near total happenstance, Magic Johnson fell into the Lakers' lap and led them to five NBA championships in the eighties. Had Goodrich gone to a different team or simply resigned with the Lakers, league history would have been altered drastically.
4 WORST: The Failed Chris Paul Trade
December 2011 brought about a unique situation involving star New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul and the Lakers. Paul had been the subject of trade rumors for months and for if only a few hours it seemed a like the Lakers' acquisition of Paul was imminent. Dell Demps, the Hornets' GM at the time agreed to a three-team trade that would send Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol to the Rockets and net the Hornets a package of Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic and the New York Knicks' 2012 first-round pick.
While it seemed like New Orleans netted itself a good haul for its superstar, David Stern, the then-league commissioner who took over the league-controlled Hornets on a temporary basis until a new owner came into the fold decided to veto the trade. Stern was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying, "The GM [Dell Demps] was not authorized to make that trade and acting on behalf of owners, we decided not to make it." Instead, Stern unconscionably consented to have Paul sent to the other Los Angeles team, the Clippers in exchange for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and Minnesota's 2012 first-round pick (which became Austin Rivers). This move may not have necessarily been the fault of the Lakers, but it does represent an undeniable fork in history that may have helped Bryant polish off his legacy with a few more championships.
3 BEST: The Kobe Bryant Trade
Did you know that the Lakers acquired their "by-the-numbers" greatest player in franchise history not through the draft, but through a trade? The Philadelphia-native entered the 1996 NBA Draft out of Lower Merion High School and came into the process prepared. He hired agent Arn Tellem to ensure he went to a desirable destination and when the Charlotte Hornets selected him with the 13th overall pick, Tellum told the New York Times that his client playing in Charlotte was "an impossibility."
It was soon revealed, however that the Hornets selected Bryant on behalf of the Lakers. Los Angeles traded starting center Vlade Divac in exchange for Bryant's draft rights and while Divac was a good player in his time, the Serbian proved to be a small price to pay for one of the greatest players to ever play the game.
2 WORST: Kobe Bryant's Final Two Contracts
As big of a "home run" as it may have been for the Lakers to bring Bryant into the fold originally, it was almost as big of a "strikeout" when they decided to pay Bryant what he was worth at the time. That is not to degrade how closely linked Bryant's success was to the Lakers having success but the trend for superstar players in any sport is to take less money as they age to maximize the front office's ability to build a winning team around them (see Brady, Tom). Bryant was the exception to this ideology and maxed out his earnings with the Lakers over the final five years of his career. In 2010, he signed a three-year contract worth $87 million over that stretch. When that contract expired, he signed a two-year deal worth $48.5 million.
Bryant has always been one who hated to lose, but the fact is his contract hampered the front office's ability to build a winning team around him. It forced the powers that be to take big gambles on square peg-round hole types like Dwight Howard, or players in the twilight of their career like Steve Nash. All the while, Bryant's body began to break down and all of a sudden his salary became harder and harder to justify. With Bryant now happily retired, the future of the franchise will depend on the front office's ability to work the salary cap while providing the city of Los Angeles with quality young talent its fans can be proud of.
1 BEST: Shaquille O'Neal
Arguing who the more important piece was to the Lakers' three-peat championship run in the early 2000s is kind of like arguing whether the chicken or the egg came first. What cannot be argued is how the acquisitions of both changed the complexion of not just the franchise, but the league during this time period.
As cool as it might have been to see what a prime Shaq could accomplish with Penny Hardaway and an Orlando Magic team built specifically to suit his skill set, O'Neal thought it even cooler to have the chance to win three championships all in a row along with a young Kobe Bryant. O'Neal signed with the Lakers $121 million over seven years and rest is history. The combination of O'Neal, Bryant and Head Coach Phil Jackson won rings in 2000, 2001 and 2002 in what has gone down as arguably the most dominant three years in NBA history. As good as he may have been in Orlando, Shaq became Shaq in Los Angeles and transformed into a pop-culture icon who is still talked about today as one of the most recognizable faces in the history of the league.
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