Happy 59th birthday, Magic Johnson!
No player in the history of the game enjoyed showtime quite like Magic. So in an effort to put the birthday boy in the best of moods and bring out that billion dollar smile, we put together an all-time Los Angeles Lakers team that Johnson would have the most fun playing alongside.
Seeing as Johnson is the ultimate unselfish superstar, we figured the opportunity to imagine dazzling Hollywood crowds alongside the very best versions of his Lakers brethren would be more fun than a rehashed debate about whether he's the greatest Laker ever (spoiler alert: he is) or where he fits in the all-time GOAT debate.
The one rule? Only one version of each player allowed. And not necessarily the best version but the one that would fit best alongside Johnson.
On to the picks!
MR. MAGIC HIMSELF
For starters, we have to pick which version of Johnson is running point. Is it the youthful 20-year-old that jumped center in the Finals and seemingly reimagined position-less basketball on the fly? Is it the craftier, shiftier, hook-shot flinging MVP from the late 80s?
There's no wrong answer.
I'll go with the 1986-87 version, the season in which Johnson won his first MVP and led the Lakers to 65 wins, the most they ever won with Johnson at the helm. It's also Showtime at its peak, as those Lakers posted an offensive rating of 115.6, tied for the best in modern NBA history according to Basketball-Reference.com.
THE OTHER FOUR STARTERS
Selecting just four others to fill out a starting lineup is next to impossible with a franchise littered with all-time greats. We're less worried about specific positions and instead focused strictly on which version Johnson would have the most fun playing alongside. It is after all his birthday.
Let's get this out of the way first: 2018-19 LeBron James.
The feather in the cap of Johnson's brief tenure as the Lakers leading executive, James is quite possibly the perfect running mate for Johnson. If you were doing this exercise regardless of franchise, the current version of James - perhaps at his mental peak and with an off-the-charts basketball IQ - might be the number one overall pick. A 16th year James alongside Johnson at his best would be playing a brand of chess the likes of which neither Garry Kasparov or Bobby Fischer has ever seen.
For the rest of the starters, we're rolling with 1996-97 Shaquille O'Neal, 2002-03 Kobe Bryant and 1964-65 Jerry West.
There are certainly better, more dominant versions of each player but here's the reasoning.
I wanted the closest thing to Orlando Magic Shaq as possible, you know, the one that ran the break with Penny Hardaway and was more Superman than Diesel. While watching early 2000s Shaq catch the ball on the block, drop the shoulder and dunk was fun, I think Johnson wants to do more than throw the big fella entry passes. Even though he missed 31 games in his first season with the Lakers, give me 1996-97 O'Neal as this team's center.
Who says you can't pick both Kobe Bryant and Jerry West?
Bryant shot 38.3 percent from beyond the arc in 2002-03, the best of his career. Still just 24, this version could also still throw down with the best of them. Give me the Bryant that can space, run all day and play lockdown D next to Johnson.
West averaged 40.6 points per game in the playoffs in 1965, which to this day is a record for the most in any postseason (min. three games). If the logo started running hot, it's easy to imagine Johnson like a kid in a candy shop feeding him over and over again.
The final seven spots are not the best available Lakers. Remember, this is about Johnson having the most fun possible, not necessarily surrounding him with the best individual Lakers. There are Hall of Famers here that get snubbed for role players.
Our sixth man for Magic's birthday bash is 1961-62 Elgin Baylor, who flew above the rim before it was normal and developed a blueprint for the modern athletic wing. Baylor averaged over 38 points per game that season with a 23-year-old West running the point, and if we're being totally honest, could probably slide into either West or Bryant's spot in the starting five.
A six-time MVP and actual teammate of Johnson, it's impossible to leave out Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Given the only season he won MVP alongside Johnson came in 1979-80, that's the version we're picking to come off the bench behind O'Neal. Should he be starting? Perhaps. But since we saw a decade of Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar, I'm more intrigued by the unknown, hence his spot in the second unit.
Give me 1987-88 James Worthy to once again re-ignite Showtime. There's no better version of Worthy than Big Game James who won Finals MVP in 1988 with a 36-point triple-double in Game 7.
When Johnson briefly unretired in the 1995-96 season, he returned to a Lakers roster headlined by Cedric Ceballos. An All-Star and former dunk contest champion, the high-flying Ceballos would have cleaned up alongside a 27-year-old Johnson running the point.
Not sold on his inclusion here? Just know that even LeBron himself has respect for the Garbage Man.
The Lakers version of Wilt Chamberlain was past the point of winning MVPs or scoring titles. And yet as one of only a handful of personalities that could match the wattage served up by Johnson, Chamberlain gets the nod for the third-string center gig. We'll roll with the 1971-72 title-winning edition to soak up a few minutes behind the much younger versions of O'Neal and Abdul-Jabbar. If nothing else, the halftime conversation would be worth more than the price of admission.
Every team needs a specialist and every point guard needs a microwave. Enter Nick Van Exel, circa 1994-95. He canned 183 3-pointers that season, which incredibly remains the single-season Lakers record despite coming in an era in which teams took about half as many 3s as they do today.
There's a number of directions to go with for the final roster spot: a long-time teammate like Byron Scott or Michael Cooper, a towel-waiving and fun-loving future coach Luke Walton, a high IQ and wine aficionado Pau Gasol or a dominant in his day legend like George Mikan. To bridge the generational gap and give an actual present-day franchise pillar the opportunity to learn from the best, 2018-19 Lonzo Ball is getting the opportunity of a lifetime. An amazing passer with the IQ to stay on the floor with prime Johnson, Ball gets the nod for the final spot and the right to help give his boss the birthday gift of a lifetime.
So there you have it. If on his 59th birthday Magic Johnson had the opportunity to hop in a time machine and grab his pick of the Lakers litter for a run in the gym, this is our advice for squeezing out the most of the big day.