This is the tenth in a series of articles featuring a countdown of the Top 16 Greatest Lakers of All-Time, as decided by the followers of Lakers UK on Twitter and Instagram.
Continuing with number 7 – Elgin Baylor. We’ll take an in-depth look at his rise to fame and his inevitable decline through injury.
Baylor played his whole 14 season career with the Lakers organisation, having the pleasure of representing the franchise in both Minneapolis and Los Angeles. Between 1958-72 Mr Inside played 39,973 minutes in 980 games, scoring 26,772 points and securing 13,187 rebounds.
Baylor saw out the end of the Minneapolis era in his first 2 years in the league, making an instant impact on the Lakers squad. Averaging 27.3 PPG and 15.7 RPG in the dying embers of the era, leading his team to their first finals appearance in 4 years in his rookie season. He would continue his individual success once the team moved to Los Angeles, averaging 27.6 PPG and 13.2 over the next 10 seasons. Missing out on an All-Star selection only once.
Baylor had some truly brilliant games in the Laker uniform. Scoring a career-high 71 points against the New York Knicks in 1960 would be one, having to go 28/48 from the field by virtue of the league not having a 3 point line at the time. Another example would be the record 61 points he scored in Game 5 of the 1962 NBA Finals, once again without a 3 point line, a volume scorer of Baylor’s caliber will never be seen again.
Because of the lack of game tape available for analysis, we have decided to look at the wider picture of Baylor’s success throughout his career.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ First Star:
The Lakers had desperately needed a star since the retirement of George Mikan, and winning only 19 games in the 1957-58 season. Baylor was more than the answer to the Lakers prayers, averaging 24.9 PPG and 15 RPG in his rookie season, winning Rookie of the Year, earning his first All-Star appearance, an All-Star MVP award, and his first All-NBA 1st team selection. As well as leading the Minneapolis Lakers to their first finals appearance since Mikan’s surprise retirement.
Baylor would, unfortunately, suffer his first finals loss at the hands of the Boston Celtics, losing in four straight games to Bill Russell and Co. Baylor would then come back stronger after an incredible rookie season, scoring 29.6 PPG and 15 RPG in the following season. Earning another All-Star appearance and an All-NBA 1st team selection. The Lakers would only manage 25 wins in the ’59-’60 season, struggling to put useful players around Mr Inside. The next best performer was Rudy LaRusso with 13.7 PPG and 9.6 RPG.
During the 1960 offseason, the Lakers would make history in becoming the NBA’s first west coast team. The decision was made due to the fall-off in attendances after the retirement of Mikan. With the presents of Baylor not enough to pull in the crowds the franchise once had. Bob Short, the Lakers owner at the time, saw an opportunity, especially after watching the example set by Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers when they moved from Brooklyn to LA in the 1958 season.
The Lakers were born for the start of the 1960-61 season. An extremely exciting time for the franchise would only be extended by the arrival of Jerry West, the number 2 draft pick. Gifted by virtue of the poor performance in the season before.
The results would show in the team’s record, winning 11 more games than the season before, finishing with a 36-43 record. Baylor only got better, averaging 34.8 PPG and 19.8 RPG, scoring his career-high of 71 points and earning yet more accolades in the form of All-Star and All-NBA selections. West was the first serviceable teammate Baylor had, averaging 17.6 PPG in an impressive rookie campaign for the guard out of the University of West Virginia.
The Lakers’ luck would finally start to turn in the 1961-62 season, under exceptional circumstances. They would finish the season with a record of 54-26. Baylor’s first winning season in the NBA. During the season, Baylor served in the United States Army Reserve and was stationed in Washington. This meant that he could only play for the Lakers whilst on a weekend pass, resulting in him only playing 48 games. Remarkably he still managed to score 1,800 points in the season, an average of 38.3 PPG.
The Lakers would make the finals that season, credit going to both Baylor and West. They would once again face the Celtics on the NBA’s biggest stage. Baylor was incredible in the seven games, averaging 40.6 PPG and 17.9 RPG. He scored 61 points in Game 5, a record for the most points in a Finals contest that still stands today. Despite this, the Lakers would once again suffer a series loss to Russell and Co.
The regular-season success would continue in the following years for the Lakers, a winning record would be the result of the next 4 seasons. Baylor would average 26.2 PPG and 12.3 RPG over that time. His game obviously dropping slightly as he got older but the production was still at an All-Star and All-NBA level. With the help of West, they would reach the finals in ’63, ’65 and ’66. Unfortunately losing all three times, at the hands of the Celtics. Just a few more tragic strings added to Baylor’s bow in the hunt for a championship.
To go along with this, Baylor had developed issues with his knees during the 1963-64 season. This would continue to escalate into a severe injury during the 1965 postseason. After this point, he was never the same, still able to average over 20 PPG, he was still a force, but nothing like he once was. This began a slow decline for the perennial All-NBA talent. West would take over as leader of the team, taking the Lakers to three more straight finals as Baylor continued to play a role. The team would still struggle to make it over the hump of their championship drought, losing two more NBA Finals series’ against the Celtics and against the New York Knicks too.
From the beginning of the 1970-71 season, Baylor would only play 11 more games in his career. His knees were failing him. In 1972 the Lakers would finally make it over the hump, winning their first championship in Los Angeles. Baylor played 9 games in that season and was forced into early retirement before the championship. The Lakers would still award Baylor a championship ring as a gift for his service to the franchise, somewhat a silver medal when looking back at a career of chasing the gold.
After being drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers with the first pick in the 1956 NBA Draft, Baylor opted to stay at school and gain a proper education before joining the team in 1958. He would go on to win a Rookie Of The Year award, 11 All-Star selections, an All-Star MVP award, 10 All-NBA First Team selections, and later an induction into to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 1983 the Lakers made it so no other Laker would wear number 22 again, hanging his jersey in the rafters of The Forum, and now the Staples Center. Becoming the joint first player (with Wilt Chamberlain) to have his number retired by the franchise. More than making him worthy of a place on this list as a true Laker great!
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