In the dog days of NBA off-season, the mind of the fan tends to wander about basketball history. Well, the dog days are coming to an end but still I keep thinking about the old Showtime Lakers from the 1980s. I recently read Jeff Pearlman’s awesome book on the subject, which gave a comprehensive review of this dynsaty and almost all the players (both major and minor). I can’t recommend the book enough for NBA fans who want to dig deeper into Lakers lore beyond the basics of Magic, Kareem, and Pat Riley.
I thought it would be interesting to go back and review some of the big stories of the Lakers over that time and see how the conventional wisdom hues to the stats. Let’s take a look at some of those stories/themes now:
How bad were the pre-Magic Lakers?
It is undoubtedly true that Magic’s presence made the Lakers much better but the incumbent Lakers team wasn’t a bad team and was actually a good offensive team. The 1978-79 Lakers (the last pre-Magic team) was 47-35 and lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Sonics. The core of the early Showtime was already present, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (age 31), Norm Nixon (age 23), and Jamaal Wilkes (age 25). The other major players were a young Adrian Dantley (who put up an 18.4 PER) and older vets playing out the string like Lou Hudson (age 34) and Ron Boone (age 32).
Even without Magic, the Lakers were quite effective on offense (5th in the NBA out of 22 teams). Wilkes and Dantley did not make a great defensive front court but the team was solid enough defensively (10th). This team, though, didn’t run a lot (probably because they spent a ton of time posting up Kareem and Dantley), and was a middling 12th in pace. The West lacked great teams and there is reason to believe that this team would have continued to be good, even if Magic never came to town.
For every good transaction, a bad one: Dantley for Haywood
The Lakers coupled the drafting of Magic with the horrible decision of trading Dantley for Spencer Haywood, who was on the brink of being washed up due to drug issues and age (he was turning 30). On paper the trade made some sense. Haywood was an actual power forward, while AD and Wilkes were really both small forwards. Additionally, Haywood had put up his best raw numbers (20.9 ppg, .494 FG%, 7.8 rpg) since his monster run with Seattle in the early 1970s.
Looking a little deeper, though, numbers were questionable. Haywood’s scoring was up but his rebound rate had eroded to a then career-low making his overall PER a decent, but not great, 16.8. In L.A., Haywood struggled with drugs and his career ended shortly thereafter. In the meantime,Dantley put up 29.6 PPG over the next seven years. In the Lakers’ defense, the 1978-79 stats made it look like Haywood should’ve had a few years left as a productive starter. Still, the uptick in production looked like the anomaly in Haywood’s stat line, compared to the prior two weak seasons and that red flag popped up without wondering if the Lakers did due diligence on Haywood’s personal life (it seems clear they didn’t).
Who wanted Moncrief?
This is the second book I read that indicated that the Lakers were not sure about drafting Magic Johnson with the top pick in the 1979 Draft and that they were strongly considering Sidney Moncrief. At the time, Jerry Buss was in the process of buying the team from Jack Kent Cooke. Bill Sharman was running the front office with Jerry West (who had coached the team the prior season). So, who wanted whom?
Pearlman’s book states that Sharman and West were leaning towards Moncrief but that Cooke told Buss that Johnson had a star personality and that the Lakers had to take such a player for Hollywood. This differs a bit from other accounts:
-From Magic’s own autobiography “My Life”: “I learned later that the team’s decision to draft me was actually made by Dr. Jerry Buss….Buss had watched Michigan State on TV during the recent NCAA tournament and decided that I was the man who could help the Lakers improve their break….Cooke told [Buss] that the Lakers’ management had recommended drafting Sidney Moncrief. No way, said Buss. Magic Johnson is the guy, or the deal’s off.”
Roland Lazenby in “Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon” wrote: “West could easily see that Moncrief was destined to be an outstanding pro guard. Johnson, on the other hand, was something of an odd duck….Johnson handled the ball in extraordinary but unorthodox fashion, but he was far from polished. Moncrief was a much safer pick, West argued in playing devil’s advocate to the rest of the Lakers’ management staff, all of whom, like new owner Jerry Buss, were leaning toward Johnson. Sharman saw Magic’s ability and nudged the organization in that direction.”
Steve Springer in “100 Things Lakers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die” wrote: “Although the draft would not be held until after Buss had officially bought the Lakers from Cooke, the latter was still in charge when the team won a coin flip to decide who had the No. 1 choice. So Cooke made the decision. ‘There was some thought among my counselors that Sidney Moncrief might have been the better choice,’ Cooke said. ‘Never any question in my mind….I don’t give a damn what you say. It’s going to be Magic Johnson.’”
So, it seems likely that Cooke made the call and that West and Sharman recommended Moncrief. This is not to say that they were comically wrong. Moncrief was a pretty sure thing and no one could anticipate how a unique player like Magic would play out. In fact, Moncrief was pretty much as good as Magic early in his career. Justin Kubtako compared Moncrief’s prime (1981-82 to 1985-86) with Magic during that time and found them to be a pretty much in a dead heat statistically. The irony is that the older more polished Moncrief took two years to really blossom as a player while Magic was a star almost immediately (though you could argue that Milwaukee merely failed to recognize how good Moncrief and did not play him enough right away). In either case, after 1985-86, Magic continued to grow as a player but Moncrief’s knees were shot and he retired at age-31 (though he had a one season comeback at age-33).
How much different would the Lakers have been with Moncrief instead of Magic? When interviewed by Pearlman for Sports Illustrated in 2012, Moncrief pretty much called it: “Maybe we win a championship, but there’s no way the Lakers do with me what they did with Magic.”
A story I had totally forgotten about with the old Lakers was Norm Nixon, the incumbent point guard in the 1979-80, who gradually ceded the point (as well the leadership mantle) to Magic. Nixon apparently did resent the attention and the amount of credit Magic was getting for Showtime, which became an issue with management. Another issue was a rumor that Nixon, who ran in the Los Angeles party scene, had a drug problem.
The Lakers hired private detectives to follow Nixon. The investigators never saw Nixon use drugs (Nixon, to this day, vehemently denied drug use, an assertion that was backed up by fellow Laker Michael Cooper in the Pearlman book). But Nixon did discover the investigation and confronted management. Nixon was assured that all was well and that he would be Laker long term. Shortly thereafter, Nixon was traded to the Clippers for Swen Nater and recent draft pick Byron Scott.
The story of Nixon’s exit from the Lakers in all places is tinged with the two major themes: (1) Magic and Nixon had a rivalry that meant one had to go and (2) Nixon might have had drug issues. The stat evidence tells a bit different story. Nixon’s raw numbers with Magic were nice enough (16.9 ppg, 7.9 apg, .490 FG%) but he wasn’t particularly efficient. Nixon’s PER from 1979-80 to 1982-83 was 14.9 (slightly below average). Nixon was not tall (6’1) and had played a ton of minutes (he averaged 36.8 minutes per season from his rookie season through his final Laker season of 1982-83, including exceeding 3,000 minutes three times). In short, at age 28, it was a good time to trade him if the Lakers could get value. Scott was six years younger and fit the team better as a traditional shooting guard (so that Magic could play the point full time).
Despite all the minutes, Nixon still played a ton for the Clippers the next three season and improved a bit off the Laker numbers (his usage rate and assists shot up without having to share the ball with Magic, though his PER was only slightly better 16.2 for that time period). A freak knee injury at a softball game in the summer of 1986 essentially ended Nixon’s career. Scott steadily improved as an above-average two guard in L.A. in the late 1980s. (A quick footnote on Scott, he peaked as a star at age-26 in 1987-88 but slowly declined to an averageish starter the next five seasons in L.A.). In short, the number indicated thath the Lakers trade of Nixon was perfectly rational choice even when divorced of the back stories.
Another narrative is that the Lakers were the premier fast break team in the NBA in the 1980s. This certainly seems true. But how true is it? Let’s take a look at the Lakers’ year-by-year offensive rating and pace factors during the Magic Era:
-1979-80: 1st in Offense, 8th in Pace
-1980-81: 7th in Offense, 6th in Pace
-1981-82: 2nd in Offense, 4th in Pace
-1982-83: 1st in Offense, 10th in Pace
-1983-84: 5th in Offense, 6th in Pace
-1984-85: 1st in Offense, 9th in Pace
-1985-86: 1st in Offense, 10th in Pace
-1986-87: 1st in Offense, 10th in Pace
-1987-88: 2nd in Offense, 11th in Pace
-1988-89: 1st in Offense, 12th in Pace
-1989-90: 1st in Offense, 20th in Pace
-1990-91: 5th in Offense, 25th in Pace
It is clear that the Lakers had a great offense with Magic but they were not particularly fast. They were above average in pace and almost always the most efficient team but the pace was usually in the top ten of the NBA (which is not shocking when you consider the Spurs and Nuggets and other gunners out West at that time).
The other interesting fact to gleam from this chart is the gradual slowdown in pace from fast to somewhat fast to glacially slow by 1990-91. Much has been written how about old Kareem’s pace would slow down the offense but he retired in 1989 and the Lakers only got slower. Another fact to note is that the big decline in pace didn’t come after Pat Riley left in 1990 (though the team was even slower afterwards) but actually in Riley’s final season 1989-90.
It’s not clear why this happened but it seems likely that as Magic slowed down, the offense was slowed down to accommodate him. By age-30, Magic couldn’t keep the new breed of fast young points like Kevin Johnson, John Stockton, or Tim Hardaway in front of him. The offense and defense had to slow down to maximize Magic’s effectiveness. Indeed, Magic’s usage and assists remained high during the slow times (he had a career high 49.3 assist percentage in 1990-91).
A few more random thoughts on Showtime
-The best Laker team that was judged best by the experts at the time was the 1986-87 team that won 65 games and vanquished the Celtics. SRS totally agrees with this assessment and finds that squad to be much better than any other version. Second place goes to the 1985-86 squad that lost to the Rockets narrowly trailed by the 1988-89, 1989-90, 1990-91, and 1984-85 teams (all of which had SRS in the 6.50 to 6.84 range). The worst Showtime squad was the 1980-81 team that lost in the first round of the playoffs. Incidentally, the 1971-72 Lakers and the 1999-00 Lakers both rate higher than any Showtime squad.
-The testament to Laker popularity during that time has to be the 1989-90 All-Star vote, when A.C. Green won the fan vote over Karl Malone to start at power forward. On the date when the voting results were announced, Malone had 30.5 ppg, .582 FG%, and 10.9 rpg while Green had 14.4 ppg, .490 FG%, and 9.6 rpg. Malone was so peeved he refused to play in the All-Star game as a bench player. Green didn’t dispute that Malone was better but stated that it was the fans’ decision. Green ended up shooting 0-3 for the game with three rebounds in 12 minutes. Yes, Malone was correct and a whiner all at the same time.
-Speaking of All-Star game stuff, Magic actually wasn’t named to the 1980-81 team (he had an injury most of the season but he also wasn’t quite popular enough to get voted in). As expected, Magic and Kareem pretty much made it every year. James Worthy made the team six times during the Showtime Era, followed by two appearances for Wilkes and a single appearance for Nixon and Green.
-Magic and Kareem were obviously the heart of Showtime. To underscore that point, the top 18 PER seasons by Lakers during the Showtime Era were put up by either Magic or Kareem (Worthy’s 1985-86 and 1989-90 seasons pop up as 19th and 20th best). If you rank by Win Shares, Magic and Kareem still dominate but Byron Scott’s 1987-88 season emerges as the best of the rest in 16th place.