This is the thirteenth 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 4 – Jerry West. We’ll take an in-depth look at the role he played in the Los Angeles Lakers’ front office following his playing career.
West played his whole 14 season career with the Lakers, representing the franchise onwards from that, working for the purple and gold in different roles as recently as 2000. As a player he played 42,892 minutes in 1,085 games, scoring 29,649 points (2nd all-time among Lakers) and accumulating 7,208 assists (3rd all-time among Lakers).
Becoming a Laker in 1960, West joined just as the team made their move to the west coast. Arriving as a high draft pick following the Lakers’ struggle to put talent around their star man, Elgin Baylor. Joining forces, West became Mr Outside to Baylor’s Mr Inside, forming a formidable duo that would go on to make 7 of the next 10 Finals. Unfortunately losing them all. West would eventually get his ring in 1972, following the fall of Baylor and the arrival of Gail Goodrich and Wilt Chamberlain.
Just like every Laker great, West had some truly legendary moments in Los Angeles. One would be winning Finals MVP in 1969 and becoming the only player to ever win the award whilst playing for the losing team. Averaging 37.9 points, 7.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds throughout the 7 game series. Another moment would be West winning his championship in 1972, a story we have covered previously in the series during the Gail Goodrich and Wilt Chamberlain articles.
Due to our past coverage of his only NBA championship, we have decided to review the role West played in building the 3-peat team of the early 2000s.
Jerry West – The Executive
During his final season in the NBA, West only managed 31 regular-season games and 1 playoff game due to a pulled groin. Forced into retirement, West remarked “I’m not willing to sacrifice my standards, perhaps I expect too much”. The legend walked away from the game as NBA’s 3rd leading scorer of all-time.
This would not be a long absence, however. After taking a 2-year break West would return to the Lakers as Head Coach. Between 1976-79 West would lead the purple and gold to 3 winning seasons and 3 Playoff appearances. A record of 145-101 over the 3 seasons.
Unfortunately, the success of a Head Coach is decided in the playoffs, an area of the season in which West’s Lakers did not succeed. In ’76-’77 they would lose in the Conference Finals to the Portland Trail Blazers in 4 games. In ’77-’78 they would lose in the First Round to the Seattle SuperSonics in 3 games. And in ’78-’79 they would lose in the Conference Semifinals to the SuperSonics in 5 games.
At the beginning of the 1979-80 season, the Lakers would go in a different direction. Bill Sherman (the General Manager at the time) brought in Paul Westhead as head coach, moving West to a scouting role as a way of keeping him within the organisation. This would work as intended, as over the next 3 seasons the Lakers would go on to win their first two championships of the Showtime era under the leadership of first Westhead, and later Pat Riley.
Following his 3 years as a scout, in 1982 West would move into an executive role with the Lakers as he continued to help the organisation build a team to dominate the 80s. His first significant act as General Manager would come in the 1982 NBA Draft as with the 1st pick the Lakers would select James Worthy.
In the 1982-83 season, the Lakers went 58-24 as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the team with 21.8 PPG as they made the Finals. But lost in 4 games to Moses Malone and the Philadelphia 76ers. This would prompt West to make a trade in the 1983 offseason, trading Eddie Jordan, Norm Nixon and 2 second-round picks to the San Diego Clippers for Swen Nater and a recently drafted Byron Scott (a building block for the coming decade).
These 2 moves would prove key in the 1985 championship run. After being beaten in the ’84 Finals by the Boston Celtics in 7 games, the Lakers would win their 9th NBA title in ’85 over their dreaded rivals. Both Worthy and Scott played key roles in the victory as throughout the Playoffs they averaged 21.5 and 16.9 PPG, respectively.
In the summer following West’s first championship as an executive, he would make another good selection in the 1985 NBA Draft as he used the Lakers number 23 pick to select A.C. Green. A crucial pick up when considering the teams lack of depth at the Power Forward position. Beyond Worthy, Kurt Rambis had been the next best option at the 4 for last couple seasons.
The Lakers would then continue their struggle for consistency in the 1986-86 season as they would finish with a 62-20 record but face disappointment, losing in 5 games in the Conference Finals to the Houston Rockets. Despite this West remained patient with his core, making moves around the edges to help the team develop. He spent the ’86 off-season acquiring players like Billy Thompson and Frank Brickowski as end of the bench role players to help supplement the Showtime powerhouse.
The next 2 seasons would see the Lakers win back-to-back championships for the first time since the Minneapolis days. First winning over their long term rivals, the Celtics, in ’87 and then winning against a somewhat new rival, the Detroit Pistons, in ’88. Little did anyone know this would begin a slow decline for the franchise as this would be the last time they would reach this height in the 20th century.
This would begin in the 1988-89 Playoffs as the Pistons assumed dominance over the league, beating the Lakers in 4 games to win their first championship. The following offseason Abdul-Jabbar would call it a day on his legendary 20 season career. In the 1989 Draft, West would select Vlade Divac with the 26th pick as an attempt to supplement the loss of the 6-time MVP big man. This would work originally as the team would go 63-19 the following season, only to be beaten in the Conference Semifinals in 5 games by the Phoenix Suns.
Following the defeat, Pat Riley stepped down as Head Coach, forcing West to select his successor, who came in the form of Mike Dunleavy. Another former player who had served for 3 years previous as an Assistant Coach for the Milwaukee Bucks.
The 1990-91 season saw the Lakers finish with a 58-24 record as Johnson and Worthy managed to extend their primes. They would lead the team to yet another Finals appearance in which they would come up short against the Chicago Bulls, losing 4-1, as they began to claim dominance of the 90s.
The following season would feature the first Laker roster without Magic Johnson since the 1978-79 season due to him being forced into early retirement after being diagnosed with HIV. This presented a new challenge for West, forced to build a roster around a 30-year-old Worthy. He would trade 3 future 2nd round picks to the SuperSonics for Sedale Threatt, a journeyman Point Guard who had flourished in Seattle.
Despite West’s best efforts, Worthy only played 54 games due to a knee injury, the team went 43-39 and got bounced by the Trail Blazers in the first round of the Playoffs, losing 3-1. A down period had well and truly started for the Lakers, the following off-season West traded Dunleavy to the Bucks for a pair of future 2nd round draft picks. As he brought in Randy Pfund to replace him.
The 1992-93 season saw the Lakers finish with a 39-43 record, their first losing season since the mid-70s. Things would only go from bad to worse for them, as in the ’93-’94 season the team would go 33-49 as Pfund would lose his job after 64 games. West would hire Magic Johnson as a temporary replacement for the remainder of the season as the Lakers missed out on the playoffs for the first time since ’75-’76.
The 1994-95 season saw the beginning of the Del Harris era as West and the Lakers tried to forge a road map for the future. This would begin as West selected Eddie Jones with the 10th pick in the 1994 draft. Nick Van Exel had excelled expectation in his rookie season after being selected with the 37th pick in the 1993 draft, a potential piece to build around. Vlade Divac had grown into a double-double threat following the last couple seasons of development. The team was set up to develop as they moved forward, but as we all know, LA is not a patient franchise, they would continue the hunt for a star.
West would trade their 1995 first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Cedric Ceballos. With the help of 21.7 PPG from Ceballos, the Lakers would go 48-34 and find themselves back in the Playoffs, a performance that would see Jerry West win Executive of the Year. They would go onto beat the SuperSonics 3-1 in the First Round, before losing to the San Antonio Spurs 4-2 in the Semifinals. A huge improvement on the season before as the Lakers were becoming competitive again.
The 1995-96 season would see the brief return of Laker Legend Magic Johnson. Rejoining mid-season, Johnson had become much bigger as a way of combatting HIV, increasing his bench press from 135 pounds to 300 pounds, and increasing his weight to 255 pounds. Due to this, Harris would use Johnson as a Power Forward, forcing him to adapt his game. A decision Johnson resented a great deal, making things difficult throughout the team.
Despite this, the team would finish with a 53-29, giving them home-court advantage in the First Round. Unfortunately, they would face the defending champions, Houston Rockets, losing 3-1. Following the defeat, Johnson initially expressed a desire to return for the 1996-97 season. Before changing his mind and ultimately retiring permanently, stating “I am going out on my terms, something I couldn’t say when I aborted a comeback in 1992”.
Going into the summer of ’96, little did anyone know that West’s performance in the following offseason would go down in history. This would begin with drafting Derek Fisher with the 24th pick in the 1996 draft, once again finding a gem deep in the draft class. This would be followed by the trading of Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant, another gem many NBA scouts were unsure about at the time. This would be topped off by the signing of Shaquille O’Neal about a week later. “To get this prize”, West said at the time, “I think is something that when I look back on history and the time that I’ve spent with this team, this might be the single most important thing we’ve ever done.”
West had built the core of a contender, now he began to skirt around the edges. In January of the 1996-97 season, he would trade Ceballos to the Suns for Robert Horry, a player who would prove crucial in the coming years. The Lakers would finish the season with a 56-26 record as they continued to develop into a contender. Facing the Portland Trail Blazers in the First Round of the playoffs, beating them 3-1. Advancing to face the Utah Jazz, who they would lose to in 5 games.
The ’97 offseason would see the signing of Rick Fox, another key piece in the championship team West was building. The 1997-98 season would have the Lakers go 61-21, their best record since the 1987-88 season (the last time the team won a championship). Going into the Playoffs, they would face the Trail Blazers in the First Round, beating them 3-1 to advance and face the SuperSonics. A team they would beat 4-1 before advancing to the Conference Finals to face the Utah Jazz. The series was no competition, as the Lakers got swept in 4 games, Karl Malone and company proving to stong for a young LA team.
The 1998-99 season would be a lockout as the league and the players association struggled to reach an agreement. the extended offseason would feature the departure of Nick Van Exel as Tyronn Lue was brought in, he was viewed as a promising young score first Point Guard at the time. The Lakers would continue play on the 6th of February, with a myriad of transactions to follow. One would be the signing of Dennis Rodman as he walked away from a situation that had gone sour in Chicago. Another would be the arrival of Glen Rice, as West gave up both Elden Campbell and Eddie Jones to acquire the former All-Star.
Following the delayed start of the ’98-’99 season, the Lakers would go 6-6 in the first 12 games, a performance that had West see good enough reason to dismiss Del Harris. He would be replaced by former Laker Kurt Rambis for the remainder of the season, finishing with a 31-19 record. They would face the Houston Rockets in the First Round of the Playoffs, beating them 3-1. They would then lose to San Antonio Spurs in the Semifinals, 4-0, as they continued their march to their first title.
The ’99 offseason would see West make the finishing touches to a championship roster, adding league veterans Ron Harper and Brian Shaw to the team. West would also add a championship level coach in Phil Jackson following his messy exit from the Bulls. Built around Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the Lakers were well and truly a contender, a situation West had developed and nurtured from the ground up.
The Lakers would finish the 1999-00 season at 67-15, the teams 2nd best record in franchise history after the ’71-’72 season in which West led the team to 69 wins. They would face the Sacramento Kings in the First Round, beating them 3-2 in a tight series. LA would then face the Suns in the Semifinals, defeating Jason Kidd‘s team in 5 games, 4-1. Advancing to the Conference Finals to face the Portland Trail Blazers, they would be taken to 7 games by the veteran team, winning 4-3.
They would advance to their first Finals appearance since 1990-91, somewhat of a draught for a franchise that was used to such success. They would face the Indiana Pacers, a team that had been chasing a Finals appearance throughout the 90s, only to be fraughted by Michael Jordan.
A closely fought series would follow as the Lakers won 4 out of 6 games, winning their first championship since the Showtime days. Shaquille O’Neal would average 38 PPG and 16.7 RPG in the 6 games, a true representation of West’s words years earlier when signing O’Neal.
West would leave the team in the summer of 2000, after spending 14 years as a player, 3 years as a coach and 18 years as the general manager of the organisation that had played such a major role during his adult life. Throughout his 35 years with the franchise he would play a role in 6 of the 12 championships up until the year 2000, creating the structure for the next 4 championships in the process as the team moved into the 21st century.
After being drafted with the 2nd pick in the 1960 NBA Draft, Jerry West would turn himself into a Los Angeles Lakers legend. As a player, he earned himself an NBA assist title, an NBA scoring title, 14 NBA All-Star selections, an NBA All-Star MVP, an NBA All-Defensive Second Team selection, and 4 NBA All-Defensive First Team selections. As well as, 2 All-NBA Second Team selections, 10 All-NBA First Team selections, an NBA Championship, an NBA Finals MVP, and later an induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 1983 the Lakers made it so no other Laker would wear number 44 again, hanging his jersey in the rafters of The Forum, and now the Staples Center. Becoming the third player to have his number retired by the Los Angeles Lakers. All these achievements more than cement his number 4 place as a true Laker great!
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