Friday, January 15, 2010

How Good Were The West/Baylor Lakers?

Los Angeles famously lost 8 Finals (7 to Boston) between 1959 and 1970 while having two (then three) of the greatest NBA players in their primes. Were they a great team that consistently choked away series they should have won? Or were they simply a good team that lost to better teams? How many championships should they have won? I want to try to answer these questions with a year by year look at the Lakers.

1958: The post-Mikan years hit their nadir, as the Lakers finish a league worst 19-53, with only three decent NBA players on the roster (Vern Mikkelsen, Larry Foust, Dick Garmaker).

1959: The Lakers pick up Elgin Baylor in the draft, and improve to 33-39. They upset the Hawks in the playoffs before getting crushed by a much better Celtics team in the Finals.

1960: Mikkelsen and Foust leave, and Rudy LaRusso arrives. Other than Elgin, LaRusso is the only thing resembling a decent player on the roster, and the team slips to 25-50. As 6 of the 8 teams made the playoffs in those days, the Lakers made it to the conference finals before losing to the Hawks in a surprisingly close 7 game series.

1961: Jerry West's rookie year. He struggles at times, and finishes the year averaging 18 points and 4 assists. Elgin has a sublime season (35-20-5), Rudy LaRusso becomes a decent player, and the Lakers improve to 36-43 before losing to the Hawks again in a much closer 7 game series (they lost 3 games by 1 or 2 points, including Games 6 and 7).

1962: Jerry West becomes Jerry West, Elgin only plays 48 games due an Army commitment (but averages 38-19-5), and the Lakers win the West at 54-26. In the playoffs, with Elgin back, they took care of the Pistons, before losing to the Celtics in overtime of Game 7 (the Frank Selvy game). Were the Lakers the better team? Statistically, it's hard to make the case. Even though the Lakers won 54 games, the Celtics won 60, and more tellingly, outscored their opponents by 9.2 points per game compared to the Lakers' 2.2 PPG advantage. Now, that number may be depressed because the Lakers lost Baylor for about 30 games. However, even with Baylor, the Celtics outscored the Lakers by 29 points in the Finals, suggesting that the better team did win. A look at the Lakers roster reveals 2 superstars, one good player (LaRusso), and not much else. Meanwhile, the Celtics had one superstar (Russell), two very good players (Sam Jones and Heinsohn, who was having a career year-22 and 10 in 30 MPG), and four good players (defensive stopper Satch Sanders, an older Bob Cousy, sixth man Frank Ramsey, and defensive specialist KC Jones).

Even though the West-Baylor combo was better than the Russell-Sam Jones combo, the Celtics were so much deeper than the Lakers that I'm forced to consider them the superior team. The fact that the Lakers got that close to beating the Celtics is impressive, although the fact that the Finals started two nights after Boston had finished a grueling seven game series with Wilt's Warriors probably helped LA to jump out to a 2-1 advantage.

1963: The next year, the Lakers got Baylor (34-14-5) back for the whole season, but West only played 55 games due to an injury. The Lakers finished 53-27, as Dick Barnett joined the team, and gave the Lakers another scoring option, although LaRusso slipped a bit. In the playoffs, the favored Celtics (58-22) and Lakers struggled to put away Oscar's Royals and Pettit's Hawks, but they both prevailed in 7 games to reach the Finals. The Celtics weren't as good as in 1962, as some of the old guard (Cousy, Heinsohn, Ramsey) was on the decline, and rookie John Havlicek wasn't yet ready to pick up the slack. Still, the Celtics, behind Russell and Sam Jones, comfortably led the league in Wins and Point Differential again. In the 1963 Finals, the Lakers outscored the Celtics, but lost a close series in 6 games, as Tommy Heinsohn had a great series.

I think this was the best of the pre-Wilt Laker teams, when West was healthy. West's injury happened towards the end of the regular season, and then he came back for the playoffs. In their first 55 games (when West presumably played), the Lakers were 43-12. In their last 25, they went 10-15. Although they lost the Finals, they essentially played the Celtics to a standstill, and were a few plays away from winning. I don't know that they were better than the Celtics, but they weren't much worse.

1964: After two peak seasons from Baylor and West, Baylor started to decline in 1964, averaging 25 and 12 after averaging 34 and 14 the previous year. Baylor was still good, but he was no longer a superstar, and the Lakers declined to 42-38. They still had only four reliable players (Baylor, West, LaRusso, and Barnett), and Wilt's Warriors took the top spot in the West.

1965: West has his best year yet (31-6-5), and the Lakers grab the top spot out west at 49-31. The Lakers weren't as good as the Celtics, who went 62-18. To make matters worse, Baylor got injured before the playoffs. West carried the team to the Finals by averaging 41 PPG, but the hobbled Lakers were no match for Boston, and probably wouldn't have won even if healthy.

1966: Baylor feels the lingering effects of his knee injury, and averages just 17 and 10 in 65 games. West averages 31-7-6, and carries the team (primarily LaRusso, Leroy Ellis, and Walt Hazzard by now) to the Finals in a weak West-at 45-35, the Lakers win the division handily. The Celtics were weaker than previous years, but still a superior team (54-28). They were still much deeper than the Lakers, with a top three of Russell, Sam Jones, and John Havlicek along with role players KC Jones, Satch Sanders, Don Nelson, Larry Siegfried, and Willie Naulls. It wasn't as impressive as previous years, but Elgin Baylor was hobbled and the Lakers' 5th best player was Walt Hazzard. Still, the Lakers were able to stretch the Celtics to 7 games on West's heroics.

1967: The '67 Lakers in a nutshell: Darrall Imhoff led the team in minutes. Baylor had a bounce back year, but he and West (who wasn't as good as in '65 and '66) battled injuries, LaRusso gave them much less, and the team finished 36-45. They were swept by the Nate Thurmond-Rick Barry Warriors in the first round. One encouraging sign: the first real shot at playing time for guards Gail Goodrich and Archie Clark.

1968: A bounce back season (52-30) for the Lakers, as Archie Clark had a breakout season (20-4-4). Elgin goes for 26-12 and West goes for 26-6-6 in 51 games. With Darrall Imhoff, Tom Hawkins, Gail Goodrich, and Mel Counts, the Lakers finally put together a decent group of role players. In the East, the Celtics (54-28) upset the 76ers in 7 games to advance to the NBA Finals, where they beat the Lakers. Boston was an old team by this point, but still very good, with the addition of Bailey Howell giving them another good player to team with Russell, Jones, and Havlicek.

1969: Wilt comes to LA. However, the team does not noticeably improve (55-27), as their depth takes a big hit with the losses of Gail Goodrich (to PHO in the expansion draft), Archie Clark (in the Wilt trade), and Darrall Imhoff (ditto). In addition, Wilt and coach Butch Van Breda Kolff spend the season feuding. Despite all this, they make it to the Finals and take a 3-2 lead on Russell's last Celtic team. And then, everything falls apart. West pulls his hamstring in Game 5, then Wilt suffers a minor injury in Game 7, and his coach famously refuses to put him back in the game. The Lakers lose by two, Van Breda Kolff is fired, and the Lakers are titleless once again. The Celtics deserve some credit here. Despite their mediocre record (48-34), their point differential was better than many of the teams that finished ahead of them-including the Lakers. Still, LA probably should have won a championship in this two year stretch.

1970: Wilt gets injured, and misses almost the whole season. Despite his absence, the Lakers finish 46-36. Wilt then returns for the playoffs, and the Lakers meet a very tough Knicks team in the Finals. With both teams fighting injuries (most notably Willis Reed), and two overtime games, the series came to a game 7. Then Willis Reed limped on the court, Walt Frazier took over the game, and the rest is history.

1971: The next year, Elgin Baylor missed the season due to injury, but the Lakers got solid performances from Happy Hairston and Gail Goodrich, back with the team after two years in Phoenix. The Lakers went 48-34, and were no match for the Kareem-Oscar Bucks.

1972: The year the Lakers finally win. Goodrich and West have great years, and the addition of forward Jim McMillian countered the loss of Baylor. The team wins 69 games and beats the Knicks in 5.

One striking aspect of the Lakers during this period is that, until 1972, they never had a team that was obviously the best team in the league going into the playoffs. The '62 and '63 teams were the only teams to have the best of West and Baylor, but neither team had both players for a full season, and the Celtics won more games with a vastly superior point differential each season. I'm inclined to believe that, when healthy, those teams were almost as good as the Celtics, but without game by game data that shows what games both players were on the court for, I'm forced to guess. Then, in 1968 and 1969, the Lakers put together teams that were about as good as the Celtics (the Celtics had more wins in '68 and a better point differential in '69 while the Lakers had more wins in '69 and a better point differential in '68), and came very close to beating Boston both years. The Lakers probably should have won one title in '62-'63 and one in '68-'69. Were they unlucky? Yes, but sometimes you make your own luck-West and Baylor were both injury prone, which often came back to hurt the Lakers, they didn't have a deep team until 1968 (and then got rid of most of that depth the following year), and Butch Van Breda Kolff wasn't going to win any coach of the year awards. Still, they were unlucky not to win at least one title during that time frame.

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