One of the Lakers’ most impressive virtues is their ability to stay relevant through the decades, somehow dodging the lulls that afflict so many other teams. Time and again, top players have joined the Lakers through trades or free agency, and have been rewarded by winning championships in a purple and gold uniform. As a result, the Lakers’ history is the stuff that NBA lore is made of and is still talked about by diehard fans and sports commentators, sometimes decades later.
Let’s go back in time and relieve some of the immortal moments that define the Lakers, paying homage to players, coaches and executives who contributed to the immense collection of trophies and achievements forever associated with the franchise:
1948 – Lakers franchise joins the NBA predecessor league
The Lakers franchise was founded in 1947 in Minneapolis, MN, and for one season competed in the now-defunct National Basketball League. A year later, they joined the Basketball Association of America (BAA), which eventually became the NBA. There were 12 teams back then, only half of which are still in existence, illustrating how long and illustrious the Lakers tradition really is. The team’s roots in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” explains the team’s famous nickname.
1949 – First NBA Championship
Having joined the BAA, the Lakers wasted no time getting to the top of it led by center George Mikan, the first in a long line of big, dominant men to play for the team. This debut season win was swiftly followed it up with four more over the next five years, all under the watch of legendary coach John Kundla. Thus, the Minneapolis Lakers of the early 50s can legitimately be described as the NBA’s first true dynasty.
1960 – Move to Los Angeles
At this time, there were no NBA franchises on the West Coast, so the move to Southern California was regarded as “risky”. But it worked out perfectly, with the team finding a permanent home in Los Angeles and growing to national prominence in their new locale. The best player was former #1 draft pick Elgin Baylor, alongside #2 pick in the 1960 draft, Jerry West. The foundations of a legendary team were already in place, but there was a Bill Russell-sized obstacle standing in their way.
1962 – Heart-breaking Finals loss to Celtics
The 1960s were marked by the fierce rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, with the latter winning all five Finals encounters in this decade. Perhaps the most dramatic series unfolded in 1962, when the Lakers surged to a 3:2 lead behind the unreal play of their two star players. Baylor set a still-standing Finals record by scoring 61 points in Game 5, but it all came to nothing after Game 7 ended in overtime loss following a last-second miss by Frank Selvy.
1967 – Lakers start playing at The Forum
The iconic arena where the Lakers have won most of their championships opened in late 1967 in Inglewood, immediately becoming a Los Angeles landmark. Its bold architectural design mimicking a Roman Forum fit well with the Lakers’ identity, both being competitive and glamorous. The resence of celebrities in courtside seats soon became a trademark of Lakers games, greatly contributing to the popularization of the team and the league in general. The Lakers would continue playing at “The Forum” until 1999, when they moved to their present arena.
1968 – Wilt Chamberlain becomes a Laker
During the ’68 off-season, the Lakers shipped three players in exchange for Wilt Chamberlain, one of the league’s elite players at the time, even though he was already 32 years old. Despite big expectations, Wilt’s first season ended with more heartbreak, since Russell and his Celtics got away with another Game 7 Finals win in 1969. Chamberlain would go on to play five seasons in LA, finally winning the championship in 1972.
1972 – Record-breaking season
Just about everything went right for the Lakers in the 1971/72 season. The team went on a still-record 33-game winning streak to start the year, and won a total of 69 regular season games – a mark that was eclipsed only by Jordan’s Bulls in 1996. Success continued throughout the playoffs, with the Lakers prevailing over the New York Knicks in a relatively one-sided Finals series. This team is widely regarded as one of the greatest in NBA history, and was perhaps the most dominant Lakers team ever.
1975 – Kareem Abdul Jabbar traded to LA
Another league-shaking trade happened in 1975, when Los Angeles sent four inconsequential players to Milwaukee while bringing in a three-time MVP still in his prime. Jabbar promptly won another MVP with his new team, but his individual brilliance didn’t translate into team success right away, as the Lakers missed the playoffs in 1976. It would take a few more years before the necessary components were added to its all-world center for them to return to dominance.
1979 – Drafting Magic Johnson
Perhaps the brightest moment in Lakers’ history was the decision to draft Michigan State star Earvin Johnson with the top pick of the 1979 draft. Standing at 6-9 and gifted with uncanny passing ability, Johnson revolutionized the point guard position and quickly gained a reputation of, “creative innovator”. His stellar career with the Lakers started with a bang, as he put up amazing numbers, was selected as a starter in the All Star game, and won a championship during his rookie season.
1982 – Pat Riley and the birth of ‘Showtime’
Head coaching changes at the start of the 1981/82 season brought Riley to the helm and resulted in the development of a fast and furious style of play that would become the Lakers’ calling card in the mid 80s. Boosted by the arrival of another generational talent in James Worthy, the Los Angeles Lakers entered a golden age that is now fondly remembered as ‘The Showtime Era’. Not only was this a period of unmatched success for the team, but the entertaining style of basketball pioneered by this team would have a tremendous impact on the global popularity of the NBA and basketball in general.
1988 – Top of the world
There was no better time to be a Lakers fan than in the summer of 1988. The team won yet another title, bringing the total for the decade to five – two more than the Celtics, their arch rivals. The star-studded team was immensely popular, both in the US and the rest of the world, while Lakers jerseys would commonly be seen in opposing arenas across the league. However, good feelings wouldn’t last forever – it would take 12 years before the Lakers would score another title.
1996 – Acquiring Kobe and Shaq
Los Angeles acquired two pillars of future success during the same summer, trading veteran center Vlade Divac for draft rights to 18-year old Kobe Bryant, and signing superstar Shaquille O’Neal to a massive free agent contract. These twin moves paid off nearly immediately, with the Lakers returning to success after a long spell of irrelevance, although it would take a few years until Kobe matured enough to become a serious playoff player. Looking back, the summer of 1996 proved to be one of the most significant moments in the history of the franchise.
2000-2002 – Threepeat under Phil Jackson
The most important addition came in the form of Jordan’s old coach, Phil Jackson, and his famed triangle offense. Jackson also had the capacity to manage the large egos of both star players, and he navigated the team to three consecutive titles, a feat last achieved by his Bulls in the mid 90s. This glorious period included one of the most dominant playoff runs in NBA history, with the Lakers sweeping the first three series before conceding just one game in a memorable Finals series against Allen Iverson’s 76ers.
2006 – Kobe’s 81-point game
After trading Shaq away in 2004, the Lakers were diminished to a second-rate contender, but Bryant remained one of the very best players in the league, especially in terms of scoring. Asked to carry even greater offensive load, he responded with the level of individual brilliance that matched any in the Lakers’ long history. His efforts were crowned with a timeless performance against Toronto, when he scored a jaw-dropping 81 points – the closest anyone ever got to Wilt Chamberlain’s famous 100-point game, including Wilt himself.
2008-2010 – Renewed rivalry with Celtics
It didn’t take long for the Lakers to return to the top of the league. Buoyed by the arrival of Pau Gasol, they reached the Finals in 2008, only to be thwarted by Boston once again. In 2009, Kobe and his crew had their revenge, as they cruised to another title, which they defended in style in a seven-game thriller against the Celtics in 2010. Most importantly, these two titles increased the all-time championship tally to 16, just one less than Boston – a score that still stands today.
2012 – Failed chemistry experiment
Eager to add to the impressive trophy collection, the Lakers made a couple of risky moves, trading for an aging Steve Nash and mercurial center, Dwight Howard. The moves backfired in a spectacular fashion, as the team never coalesced and the season ended in an embarrassing first-round playoff exit. Howard left town as a free agent soon after and Nash retired without ever really contributing, while the draft picks surrendered in the deals would haunt the franchise for many years.
2018 – Arrival of LeBron James
Long seen as Kobe’s rival, LeBron shocked the world by deciding to sign a four-year contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. His arrival instantly created championship expectations and launched an inexperienced team into national spotlight. Unable to immediately sign another star, Lakers filled out their roster with veterans on one-year deals, a decision that turned out to be unworkable in the end. James spent a portion of the season injured, and the team missed the playoffs in a highly competitive Western Conference. Still, the presence of a bona fidé superstar on the roster gave the team a clear sense of direction.
2019 – Anthony Davis trade
Trading for superstars was always the way the Lakers did business, and in the summer of 2019 the team proved to be faithful to its roots by executing a mega-deal with the New Orleans Pelicans. Los Angeles paid a steep price to get Anthony Davis, sending out several good young players and multiple first-round picks, but gained a spectacular player who is still just 26 years old. It won’t be possible to analyze the full implications of this trade for many years, but it certainly created a lot of optimism around the Lakers.