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LeBron May Already Be The Greatest Laker Of All-Time

LeBron James in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform used to be the stuff of fan photoshops and NBA 2K’s franchise mode.1 But now it has become reality, after the announcement Sunday night that James is signing a four-year, $153 million free-agent contract with L.A. It might be jarring at first to see James in Lakers gear this fall — but he’ll fit right in with a franchise whose destiny has always been determined by Hall of Fame talent. In fact, even among the Lakers’ many, many historical stars, James could be the best player who ever suited up for the team the first second that he steps onto a court wearing Forum blue and gold.

In their 70-year history, the Lakers have won 16 NBA championships, one behind their archrival Boston Celtics for the most by any franchise in the league. And most of that success has been due to the team’s immense star power: players such as Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor … the list goes on and on. If we measure player value using a mixture of Basketball-Reference.com’s Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares, and look back in history to 1963,2 Los Angeles has gotten nearly 1,200 total wins above replacement3 from players who either eventually ended up in the Hall of Fame or are likely to be there someday — a number that represents roughly 60 percent of the team’s total wins above replacement over that period. In each regard, only the Celtics have gotten more out of their Hall members, and the Lakers might have surpassed even Boston if we could have also included the contributions of Mikan and Vern Mikkelsen (who played before we have a precise accounting of a player’s minutes spent with each team during a season).

Which teams have relied on Hall of Famers?

The franchises with the most wins above replacement (WAR) from players who are currently in, or are likely to be in,* the Hall of Fame, 1963-2018

Franchise Top three HOF players by WAR WAR By all HOF HOF % of total WAR
Celtics Bird • Pierce • Parish 1,213 63%
Lakers Bryant • Jabbar • Johnson 1,165 58
Spurs Duncan • Robinson • Gervin 739 39
76ers Barkley • Erving • Chamberlain 713 50
Rockets Olajuwon • Harden • Malone 688 45
Thunder/Sonics Payton • Durant • Westbrook 566 36
Knicks Ewing • Frazier • Reed 563 39
Pistons Lanier • Thomas • Hill 562 39
Jazz Malone • Stockton • Dantley 558 41
Warriors Curry • Barry • Mullin 539 39

* Weighting active players’ WAR by their Hall of Fame probability.

WAR is calculated using a mixture of Win Shares and Player Efficiency Rating.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

From 1997 through 2013, the Lakers had picked up double-digit WAR from Hall of Fame players in 16 of 17 seasons, almost always managing to pair Bryant with an all-time great like an O’Neal or a Pau Gasol (who, perhaps surprisingly, has a 93 percent Hall probability according to Basketball-Reference). It was part of a pipeline that had flowed nearly uninterrupted since the days of Mikan in the 1950s. But since 2014, Los Angeles has gotten a mere 2.4 WAR from future Hall of Famers, almost all of it belonging to Gasol before he departed for the Bulls. (Apologies to Lou Williams and Jordan Hill, but they’ll probably have to pay to visit Springfield like the rest of us.)

Even granting that we don’t know what the future will ultimately hold for younger prospects such as Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, the Lakers had never gotten fewer than 7 WAR from Hall of Famers in any five-year span since 1963 — and that dark period came from 1992 to 1996, right after Johnson abruptly retired after contracting HIV. The franchise really was never forced to confront life without an NBA legend for so long until very recently.

And thanks to James, it won’t have to anymore. Our CARMELO projection system thinks LeBron will add about 12 wins to the Lakers’ tally next season. Depending on whether L.A. can also trade for Kawhi Leonard (or sign another star to pair with James), the team could see its Hall of Fame contributions be rebuilt even further. Either way, the Lakers’ pipeline of all-time talent is gushing again.

Moreover, by the historical metrics, LeBron might instantly be the best player who has ever suited up for the Lakers (in terms of stats produced across a player’s entire career, not just with the Lakers). James is the NBA’s all-time career leader in Box Plus/Minus (which can be calculated going back to 1974), easily outpacing Johnson. Among fellow Lakers, he trails only Mikan in Player Efficiency Rating (ranking one slot ahead of O’Neal), and he trails only Chamberlain in Win Shares per 48 minutes (coming in one spot better than Jabbar):

The Lakers’ greatest players, by the numbers

Where LeBron James ranks in career Box Plus/Minus, Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares per 48 minutes relative to other Lakers

Top 10 in BPM Top 10 in PER Top 10 in WS/48
1 James +11.1 Mikan 28.5 Chamberlain .248
2 Johnson +7.4 James 28.3 James .238
3 Jabbar +5.4 O’Neal 26.1 Jabbar .228
4 O’Neal +5.3 West 23.1 Johnson .225
5 Horry +4.8 Jabbar 23.0 West .213
6 Bryant +4.4 Johnson 23.0 O’Neal .208
7 Gasol +4.4 Chamberlain 22.8 Malone .205
8 Russell +4.1 Bryant 22.4 Dantley .189
9 Grant +4.0 Howard 22.3 Howard .172
10 Harper +3.8 Baylor 21.8 Bryant .171

BPM is calculated since 1974. PER and WS/48 are calculated since 1952.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

You can make the case that Jabbar — and maybe also Chamberlain and Karl Malone, who had a cup of coffee with the Lakers when he was 40 — generated more total value in their careers than James has to date. So his case as the greatest player to ever wear a Lakers uniform is not totally open and shut. But the fact that James can even enter the argument, a day into his tenure with one of the most decorated franchises in pro sports history, is telling about his stature among NBA legends.

It remains to be seen if James will be the Lakers’ lone surefire future Hall of Famer next season; whether he gets big-name help will likely determine L.A.’s viability as a true threat to the Golden State Warriors’ supremacy right away. Whatever happens, though, James has finally restored to the Lakers the one resource they’ve scarcely been able to live without over the years: legendary talent.

Footnotes

  1. Usually accomplished by switching off the game’s trading AI.

  2. For accounting purposes, this was the first season for which we know exactly how many minutes a player split between teams if he switched teams midseason.

  3. Using the same replacement-level threshold as in Daniel Myers’s VORP metric.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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