Ranking the Best 10 Acquisitions in LA Lakers History
For the sake of clarity, the selections included here are free-agent signings and trades by the Los Angeles Lakers but not draft picks or draft day trades.
And for those who feel compelled to howl in protest because Kobe Bryant is not part of this—take a deep soothing breath. The Mamba would be listed here in a heartbeat except for the fact that he was selected by the Charlotte Hornets on behalf of the Lakers in the 1996 NBA draft.
The same goes for Magic Johnson—the No. 1 overall pick in 1979 won’t be listed here, and neither will Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, James Worthy, Michael Cooper, Norm Nixon or any other Lakers draftees.
It also doesn’t include the Lakers’ new head coach Byron Scott, who was drafted by the San Diego Clippers and then traded to the Lakers for Norm Nixon.
No, this is about the competition to land elite free agents and crazy multi-team blockbuster trades. Or, in the case of some of the players from yesteryear, the deals you used to read about in things called newspapers.
And on the subject of blockbusters, one of the best trades of all time can’t be included—the three-team agreement between the New Orleans Hornets, Houston Rockets and the Lakers that would have had Chris Paul wearing purple and gold if not for then NBA commissioner David Stern.
Finally, with all the caveats, consider one more—this isn’t a historical comparison of the greatest Lakers of all time but a look at both players and transactions as we know them.
Honorable Mention: Dwight Howard
Let the protests begin—Dwight Howard lasted one season with the Lakers and left fans with a bad taste in their mouths when he waltzed away a year later as a free agent, electing to take his talents to the Houston Rockets.
Howard was coming off back surgery when he arrived in Los Angeles but still wound up averaging 17.4 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks for the season. But that wasn’t up to his standards as the league’s premier center, and he didn’t deliver a championship. He also wasn’t a good fit with his teammates or his coach.
So why is he on this list?
Because his arrival in August 2012 came via an absolute monster of a multi-team trade. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak swung for the fences in an effort to return the team to prominence after a disappointing season, and for whatever misgivings fans may have ultimately had, the move—along with a separate acquisition of Steve Nash—had most basketball observers penciling in a championship run.
In all, 11 players and five future draft picks were involved. The transaction marked the sudden and unexpected end of Bynum’s dominance in the league—he has played just 26 times since then and is currently without a job. The Lakers also gave up a conditional second-round draft pick in 2015 and a conditional first-round pick in 2017.
At the time of his signing, per Arash Markazi of ESPN LA, Howard spoke about joining the ranks of former famed Lakers big men: "I want to be great in my own right. I want to write my own history, and today is the first day of that history."
Howard’s history in Los Angeles turned out to be brief. It was a top-10 deal, but he wasn’t an ideal teammate.
No. 10: Metta World Peace
Metta World Peace deserves some sort of mention here. As a result, he leapfrogs over Howard’s honorable mention.
Why? Because he brought a true passion for the game and an absolute willingness to play hard on both ends of the floor. Additionally, he actually wanted to be a Laker.
He also contributed to a world championship in 2010.
Ron Artest signed with Los Angeles as a free agent during the summer of 2009 and promptly changed his name. He brought his signature defensive toughness, even though he was well past the peak of his prowess—he was Defensive Player of the Year in 2004.
The small forward packed 244 pounds into a 6’6” frame and was a load to deal with for any opposing player, even in the latter years of his career. Peace spent four years in LA, starting 269 of 298 regular-season appearances and all 41 playoff games.
His acquisition was a simple one—he said goodbye to the Houston Rockets and accepted $6 million per year with the Lakers. This occurred after LA’s free-agent small forward Trevor Ariza balked at a similar offer. And where did Ariza wind up? With the Rockets, naturally.
Peace never backed down from a matchup, played through injuries and chucked up more than a few questionable shots from beyond the arc. He was also awarded the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 2011 for raising awareness and fundraising for mental-health issues.
No. 9: Derek Fisher
The return of Derek Fisher to the Lakers during the summer of 2007 was modest in terms of dollars spent, but the move helped restore hope and faith to a franchise that was going through a particularly rough period.
Fisher had been Kobe Bryant’s rookie classmate for the 1996-97 season and had won three championship rings alongside him. But in the summer of 2004, the sturdy point guard signed with the Golden State Warriors and from there was traded to the Utah Jazz.
Meanwhile, the Lakers had gone through a near-total housecleaning, with Phil Jackson departing along with most of the roster, including Shaquille O’Neal. But Jackson returned after a season away and began rebuilding around Bryant, who was growing increasingly frustrated with a lack of wins and ultimately asked for a trade at the end of the 2006-07 season.
That same spring, Fisher was dealing with the health concerns of his one-year-old daughter Tatum, who had been diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer. After his daughter’s surgery and the end of the playoffs, Fisher asked to be released by the Jazz in order to be close to a Los Angeles treatment center.
The venerable point guard signed with the Lakers for a three-year deal worth $14 million, less than what he was earning with the Jazz. The return of Fisher helped stabilize a rocky Lakers ship. Later that same season, the team acquired Pau Gasol.
Fisher’s career should be appreciated in total, not just for his second time around with the Lakers. There have been plenty of great moments, including classic buzzer-beaters against the San Antonio Spurs. But his return to the team in 2007 was a legitimate turning point and deserves recognition as one of the Lakers' best acquisitions. Plus, it resulted in two more championship rings.
No. 8: Lamar Odom
Lamar Odom joined the Lakers as part of the trade that sent Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat in July 2004. The Lakers also received Brian Grant, Caron Butler and a first-round draft pick in the deal.
It was a time of transition—the aftermath of the Lakers’ stunning loss to the Detroit Pistons in the Finals.
Odom was the No. 4 draft pick by the Los Angeles Clippers in 1999 and was a starter for four seasons before signing with the Heat as a free agent. A silky-smooth left-handed combo-forward, he could play all five positions on the floor.
It was with the Lakers, however, that he ultimately found a sense of belonging and a comfort zone as a player. He spent four seasons as a starter in LA and then three more switching between starter and reserve.
There were times along the way when he could seemingly disappear during the course of a game. Yet this same elusive, chameleon-like quality could also be a strength. And who could forget his signature coast-to-coast romps with a hesitation move just past center court and then accelerating to the basket with a left-handed lay-in.
Odom won two championships with the Lakers and was the league’s Sixth Man of the Year for the 2010-11 season. But he was used as a chip in the failed Chris Paul trade before the start of the following season and couldn’t get past it. He ultimately asked to be traded.
Odom was a shell of his former self during two subsequent seasons with the Dallas Mavericks and the Clippers. Most recently, he was signed to an offseason contract by Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks in the hopes that his career could be revived. That came to an end in July when he was waived. Per Ian Begley of ESPN NY, the statement from Jackson was simple: "Unfortunately, Lamar was unable to uphold the standards to return as an NBA player. We found it necessary to free up the roster spot."
Odom’s life and career have been touched by highs and lows and by great personal loss and turmoil. But for a seven-year period in Los Angeles, he was a special basketball player. And, he was a great acquisition.
No. 7: Robert Horry
Robert Horry has been known throughout his career as a big-game player—he seems to come alive during the postseason—often with some thoroughly iconic big-time shots.
Yet, the guy nicknamed Big Shot Rob also earned his keep during the regular season as well. It’s just that he looked so casual doing it. Never has a player set more effective picks, just slouching with arms at his sides.
Horry didn’t just play big for the Lakers—he won seven championship rings in all. Two were with the Houston Rockets, three with Los Angeles and two with the San Antonio Spurs. That’s kind of insane.
And for those who would minimize his accomplishments by virtue of the superstars he played alongside, isn’t that the same argument that detractors make about Phil Jackson?
Horry was the quintessential role player who made everyone around him better and then turned it up when all the chips were on the line.
The laconic 6’9” forward also had a quirky temper, however. In January 1997 while playing for the Phoenix Suns, he missed a three-point shot and was pulled from the game by his coach, Danny Ainge. That was not appreciated by Horry, who shouted obscenities and threw a towel at his coach.
Horry was suspended and traded days later as a key component in a four-player swap with the Lakers—Horry and Joe Kleine switched places with Cedric Ceballos and Rumeal Robinson.
Said Ainge, according to the Chicago Tribune, “The incident had nothing to do with this. We would have made the trade regardless. Robert was struggling in our system. He just never fit in. Cedric is a good player who can give us some scoring."
Whatever the motivation, Lakers fans appreciate you, Danny Ainge. Even more so, we appreciate Jerry West for pulling the trigger on one of the all-time best acquisitions for the purple and gold.
No. 6: Happy Hairston
Harold “Happy” Hairston was a full-court juggernaut and a double-double machine way before anyone was describing basketball players in this manner.
As the starting power forward on the mighty 1971-72 championship Lakers, Hairston averaged 13.1 points and 13.1 boards, making for a nice symmetry. He was the team’s second-leading rebounder that season, behind a guy by the name of Wilt Chamberlain.
That was the legendary Lakers squad that won 69 games, including 33 straight. The other starters were Jerry West at the point, Gail Goodrich at shooting guard and Elgin Baylor at small forward.
As a 6’7”, Hairston could do a bit of everything on the floor—he wound up with a lifetime average of 14.8 points and 10.3 rebounds, but stats don’t tell the whole picture. Back in those days, a lot of stats weren’t even tracked.
After Hairston’s death in 2001 from cancer, Lakers announcer Chick Hearn said, per NBA.com: “He was one of the most fierce rebounders the Lakers have ever had. He was tough. He was a leaper. He was very competitive and a good teammate.”
After attending New York University, Hairston was drafted by the Cincinnati Royals as the 33rd overall pick. That was back when there were nine NBA teams and a 15-round draft. After four seasons he signed with the Detroit Pistons and a year later was traded to the Lakers for Bill Hewitt—also a 6’7” power forward.
The Lakers got the best out of that deal by far. Hewitt played a total of six seasons in the NBA, averaging 5.7 points and 5.5 rebounds. Hairston, by comparison, averaged 20.6 points and 12.5 rebounds in his first season in LA. That’s a good acquisition.
No. 5: Pau Gasol
It was the middle of the 2007-08 season, and the trade deadline was nearing. The Lakers had been in a slow rebuilding mode since the summer of 2004. Kobe Bryant was restless—he wanted a quality big man by his side. Andrew Bynum had dislocated a kneecap in January and would be out for the rest of the season. And Kwame Brown wasn’t going to be leading anybody to a championship.
And then one of the all-time trade deadline coups occurred—Mitch Kupchak swung a package of Brown, Javaris Crittenton, the contract of retired Aaron McKie (who was working as an unpaid assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers at the time), the draft rights to Marc Gasol and two future first-round draft picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol and a future second-round pick.
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was beside himself, saying per Sports Illustrated:
What they did in Memphis is beyond comprehension. There should be a trade committee that can scratch all trades that make no sense. I just wish I had been on a trade committee that oversees NBA trades. I'd like to elect myself to that committee. I would have voted no to the L.A. trade.
Bryant was singing a different tune, naturally, telling Lee Jenkins for Sports Illustrated:
They had to do something. They couldn’t just sit there anymore. I was pushing them because I felt like I was playing with my hands behind my back. I had no guns. When we got Pau, it was like, ‘OK, now I got my guy, now we can meet up at high noon’.
Gasol’s fluid, natural style was an immediate fit in Jackson’s triangle system. The four-time All-Star helped lead the Lakers to three NBA Finals and two championships. The 7-footer signed with the Chicago Bulls this summer after seven seasons in Los Angeles.
He was a consummate team player and remains as skilled a big man as the league has ever seen.
No. 4: Jamaal Wilkes
Hall of Famer Jamaal Wilkes was smoothness personified with a lifetime scoring average of 17.7 points. He also had one of the highest release points you’ll ever see—literally shooting from somewhere behind his right ear. And he made it look easy.
That same unorthodox shooting motion could be a jump shot from outside or a free throw at the charity stripe. It didn’t matter; Wilkes sank them.
Check out this clip of Red Auerbach with Wilkes and Rick Barry as they demonstrate the over and under of oddball free-throw mechanics.
One of Wilkes’ most memorable performances was in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers. With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar out with a severely sprained ankle, rookie Magic Johnson started at center and Wilkes became a scoring machine, dropping 37 points as the Lakers iced the series. Amazingly, he wasn’t the team’s highest scorer that night—Johnson finished with 42 points, 15 boards and seven assists, playing all five positions during the course of one of his most legendary performances.
It didn’t all start with the Lakers for Wilkes. He teamed with Bill Walton to win two NCAA championships for UCLA before being drafted by the Golden State Warriors in 1974. In his first NBA season he averaged 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds in 30.7 minutes per game, winning Rookie of the Year and his first Finals trophy. Casual.
But somehow, the Warriors let this guy slip away as a free agent in 1977—Wilkes joined the Lakers, and an eight-year journey was on. The guy nicknamed Smooth as Silk won four NBA championships, was a three-time All-Star and had his jersey retired by both UCLA and the Lakers.
No. 3: Shaquille O’Neal
The Lakers weren’t a terrible team during the 1995-96 season, but they weren’t a great one either. A franchise that had enjoyed so much success during the Showtime era was trying to find its way again.
At the end of the season, general manager Jerry West was making moves—sending Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for the draft rights of Kobe Bryant. West was shedding salary to make a run at a behemoth.
What followed was a monumental free-agency signing, as reported by Mark Heisler for the Los Angeles Times on July 19, 1996: "Winning the highest-stakes bidding war in American sports history, the Lakers signed Shaquille O'Neal away from the Orlando Magic on Thursday, giving him a $120-million, seven-year contract that tilted the balance of power in the NBA with the stroke of a pen."
O’Neal was just 24 at the time and at the peak of his power. And, he was looking for a change. The Lakers gave him just that. As the big man said, per Heisler: "Keep in mind the word change. To me, change is for the good. I'm a military child; I'm used to relocating every three, four years.”
Except that he wound up staying for eight seasons and won three championships during that time. The first one happened during the 1999-2000 season after Phil Jackson arrived as the Lakers’ new head coach. O’Neal also won his second scoring title that season. Plus the league’s MVP award. He would also win three Finals MVPs, be a 15-time All-Star and win a fourth championship with the Miami Heat in 2006.
The Diesel was a force of nature—7’1” and 325 pounds (and that was just his listed weight). He was a wrecking crew of a player, and in his prime, thundering down the hardwood floor at Staples Center, he was unstoppable.
No. 2: Wilt Chamberlain
So why is Wilt Chamberlain at No. 2 and not No. 1 here? It’s not an easy call—he’s the only guy to ever score 100 points in a game, after all, and was without a doubt the greatest rebounder of all time, racking up 23,924 during his career.
But he was a bit past his prime when he joined the Lakers. That’s not to say he still wasn’t the most dominant force in the game, but he’d been playing professional basketball for a decade by that point, with the Harlem Globetrotters, Philadelphia/Golden State Warriors and then the Philadelphia 76ers.
In July of 1968, Wilt the Stilt, who had been the league’s MVP that season, was traded from the 76ers to the Lakers, for Darrall Imhoff, Archie Clark and Jerry Chambers along with an unspecified amount of cash, according to a report by Ralph Bernstein for the Gettysburg Times. Chamberlain was making a reported $250,000 per year at the time.
Chamberlain played five seasons in Los Angeles, winning one championship to go with the one he earned with the Sixers. He was still a monster at both ends, averaging 27.3 points and 18.4 rebounds in his first season with the Lakers. But as amazing as those numbers were, they paled in comparison to his early days in the league.
During his 1961-62 season with the Warriors, Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds. His career average was 30.1 points and 22.9 boards per game.
No. 1: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
What makes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the best acquisition ever for the Lakers? How about 14 seasons with the team along with five championship rings in LA to go along with the one he already had from his previous time with the Milwaukee Bucks?
How about his unstoppable skyhook, team leadership and all the amazing Showtime years? He’s the all-time NBA scoring leader at 38,387 points and is the third-leader scorer in Lakers history at 24,176, behind Kobe Bryant and Jerry West. He also has the most total rebounds for the Lakers at 10,279 and the most blocks at 2,694.
Abdul-Jabbar was already a huge star in the NBA, having played six seasons with the Bucks before desiring a change of scenery to one of the coasts. He asked for a trade and was sent west to Los Angeles in exchange for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, Junior Bridgeman and Dave Meyers.
According to an Associated Press report in the Daytona Beach Morning Journal in June of 1975, Abdul-Jabbar signed a five-year, multimillion dollar deal that would average at least $500,000 per year.
In the article Abdul-Jabbar is quoted as saying:
When I was going to UCLA, I was a young man and young men tend to be dissatisfied and blame it on location. I’m now happy that I have come home here. I am looking forward to playing for the Lakers. I will do everything possible to help our club win many championships here.
And help he did, along with earning too many other awards and honors to mention. He arrived as a young man and all these years later is still indelibly associated with purple and gold. He recently showed up to lend support when his former teammate, Byron Scott, was officially announced as the Lakers’ new head coach.
The choosing of a “best” acquisition can be subjective, but the player known as The Captain made a strong case for a long time.