Of sports' many traditions, the retired jersey stands out as particularly cool. It's the most visible way a team honors its own history. Seeing a player's name and number in the rafters when you enter an arena activates memories of his greatness. It tickles whatever part of our brain retains images of Kareem's sky hook or Magic's fast-break artistry. The Hall of Fame might be the capstone of a professional career, but because jersey retirements happen at the team level, they're a more intimate means of recognition. They bind a player's legacy to a team's physical home.
Recently Ben Rosales and I have been exchanging thoughts about the Lakers' retired jerseys, discussing what the standards should be, whether the organization's made mistakes in the past (of omission or commission) and whether guys like Pau Gasol or Derek Fisher should ultimately be granted admission to the club. Below is part one of our dialogue. Part two will come next week. As always, we'd love to hear your views and reactions in the comments.
One introductory note: to be in this discussion at all a player must have had a great career. When we're talking about jersey retirements, we're reaching for distinctions among the best of the best. So when one of us argues that a certain player shouldn't have his jersey retired, it's honestly not an attempt to disparage. No one's saying they weren't all tremendous performers. We're just trying to figure out where to draw the innermost circle.
Dex: At the beginning of April, on the same day Jamaal Wilkes learned he'd be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Lakers announced they'd retire his number 52 jersey next season. This surprised me. As a zealous fan of both UCLA and the Lakers, I have nothing but affection for Wilkes, who was an important player on two Laker championship teams (1980 and 1982), but I'd never really thought of him as one of the all-time greats of the sport. And historically that's what it's taken to get your name and number up in the Staples rafters.
Of the seven Lakers whose jerseys the team has retired, five (Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West) are unquestionably super-elite. So are two guys, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, whom we know the team will honor with a retired jersey in due time. You couldn't have a conversation about the best point guards, shooting guards, power forwards and centers in the history of the game without mentioning these names. James Worthy I don't think is in that same class, but he was so important to the most celebrated era in Laker history that his inclusion makes sense. Gail Goodrich... is an odd case that maybe we'll get to later. In any event, I think a sound argument can be made that both Goodrich and Worthy had demonstrably better careers than Wilkes.
Which is why, for all his impressive talents, the decision to retire Wilkes's jersey feels to me a bit like grade inflation. Even at his peak he was probably never a top-10 player in the league. For the early and mid-period Showtime Lakers he was a very good defender, rebounder and third scorer - kind of the Lamar Odom of his time, but more consistent. That's a great thing to have been, but I don't think there's any doubt that making his jersey number permanently sacrosanct amounts to a lowering of standards.
Am I being too curmudgeonly about this? Do you agree with what I think my position is, that the Lakers should only be retiring jerseys when the player in question is a titan of the sport on a historic level? And what do you think about the Jamaal Wilkes thing in particular?
Ben: I think it is a fair question to ask given the standards that have been previously established for jersey retirement. As you astutely noted, the grand majority of the numbers in the rafters are for those who were not just elite, but titans at their position that compare favorably to any player past or present. To use as a basis of comparison, five of those currently retired (Wilt, Baylor, Magic, Kareem, West) and the two superstars that will be (Shaq, Kobe) all rank in the top fifteen of Bill Simmons' Hall of Fame Pyramid in his The Book of Basketball - which I might add, is a tremendous read for any hoops fan. Mind you, this means that they rank among the fifteen players ever, and coming from an unabashed Celtics fan in Simmons, his very admirable attempts to contain his bias throughout the book notwithstanding, high praise indeed.
To put it bluntly, that's a hell of a lofty standard to live up to. The pertinent question I suppose then becomes whether such a standard was intended or merely a consequence of the caliber of players who have defined every era of Laker history. We can trace a fairly straightforward path from West and Baylor to Magic and Kareem, from Shaq and Kobe to the present. As such, it wouldn't be outlandish to say that jersey retirement for the Lakers is the providence of the super-elite. After all, a continuous refrain about the team every year is that anything short of a championship is viewed as a failure. It would be completely understandable for the Lakers to have far higher standards of admission for jersey retirement than most teams as a result of this culture and their illustrious history.
Still, I see the value in acknowledging the contributions of those who didn't fit such an elevated standard. Outstanding secondary and tertiary players had key roles as well, and I wouldn't be opposed to recognizing players who were clearly "stars" (read: one of the top players at their position at their peak) and whose performances were critical to the Lakers' success at different points in their history. At the same time, however, you have to maintain a certain exalted level for entry that doesn't devalue the accomplishments of the guys at the top. In this sense, the guys who are "stars" but not part of the super-elite should have extraordinary reasons for inclusion that are can be clearly defined and defended.
I agree that Worthy passes muster under such a criteria, as his contributions to Showtime and his resume - seven All-Star selections, two third team All-NBA selections and a well-deserved Finals MVP for one of the most epic playoff performances ever - is suitable for someone who falls into the bracket below the super-elite. Goodrich, on the other hand, seems rather...ordinary for a group of this standing. He led the Lakers in scoring from ‘71-'74, which included one title team and a runner-up, but West and Chamberlain were at the tail end of their careers and Wilt still walked away with the Finals MVP hardware in '72, although Goodrich did average 25.2 points a game against an injured Earl Monroe. I also find it telling that it took the Hall of Fame, which has pretty easy standards for admittance, seventeen years to induct him. Worthy took nine years to get his name in the Hall and every other Laker player with a retired jersey only had to wait six save Baylor, who only needed five. Simmons ranks him eighty-seventh in his Pyramid - only two spots ahead of Vince Carter (!) - and offhandedly considers him a pseudo-archetype of Manu Ginobili, not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Of course, I am getting away from what you asked, which is how we look at Jamaal Wilkes among this bunch. As you stated, it is fair to say that Wilkes is the worst among the aforementioned players and given that I just spent half a paragraph ragging on Goodrich, where I stand on Wilkes should be fairly self-evident. After 1977, the league started to track turnovers, so evaluating via PER becomes applicable and whatever one thinks of Hollinger's measure, Wilkes was alarmingly average. His career high was in ‘81-'82, when he tallied an 18.0 PER while putting up a line of 22.6/5.4/2.9. To compare, Worthy averaged a 17.7 PER and none of the super-elite were remotely close to that level except for very early or late in their careers. Overall, an 18.0 PER is barely All-Star quality nowadays, and testament to that, Wilkes only made three All-Star games. Sans the playoff performances that defined Worthy, it is really hard to see how he is worthy of being enshrined among the players currently in the rafters.
Naturally, all of the above does not mean that I do not deeply respect what Wilkes and Goodrich brought to the team, but it seems like a knee jerk reaction by the Lakers to Wilkes making the Hall, a highly flawed institution in its own right. If a number is going to stand in the rafters for perpetuity, it better be one of a player whose legacy we can unarguably treat as greatness personified or at least, something pretty close to it. After all, if this is the new standard the team is going to set, is Pau Gasol going to have his jersey retired? It is difficult to think of Pau as a "great," but he has a career 21.9 PER, two titles with the team, and was unquestionably a top ten or so player in the league during his time here. If Wilkes is the new bottom line, then the answer to this question is an emphatic "yes," but if we are to stick to the tradition of retiring only the Laker greats, does Pau belong in the Laker pantheon?
Dex: Of current or near-current Lakers, two will present the organization with very tricky decisions when it comes to jersey retirement. One is Derek Fisher, and let's put him aside for the moment because his performance record is so unlike anyone else in this discussion. The other, as you correctly bring up, is Pau. If you were to poll Laker fans today about whether Pau should eventually get his number 16 retired, I suspect fewer than 20 percent would be in favor. Part of the reason is that the Pau Gasol brand has taken a beating over the last couple postseasons. Part of it is that he really hasn't been a Laker for all that long: just four-and-a-half seasons, one of which was lockout-shortened. (For our purposes let's assume, regardless of what Jim Buss told T.J. Simers, that Pau's played his last game as a Laker and will be traded away this summer.)
But in Wilt, there's a precedent for honoring someone who didn't spend that much time, in the big scheme of things, as a Laker. Regular season and playoffs combined, Wilt played 419 games in the purple and gold. Pau has played 409. (Granted, playoff series are longer now than they were in Wilt's era.) And then there's the Hall of Fame issue. Pau will unquestionably make the Hall someday, and if the unstated policy is to retire the jerseys of guys whom the Hall inducts (which, best I can tell, is one of the main reasons the team decided to retire Wilkes's number), don't the Lakers have to retire Pau's jersey as well?
They don't, actually, because outsourcing decision-making to the Hall is a terrible idea. For one thing, the Hall takes into account a player's entire career, not just the time he spent with one team. For another, the Hall does some stupid shit. Dominique Wilkins, to give one example, wasn't inducted the first time he was eligible. Dominique Wilkins! These people shouldn't be deciding anything for us.
I'm glad you mentioned Simmons's Pyramid because it gets at an important feature that's missing from both the Hall and the practice of retiring jerseys: stratification. What the Lakers need is a way to recognize very good players (Goodrich, Wilkes, Pau) without putting them on the same, semi-divine level as West, Magic and Kobe. (In a sense the Lakers have already started to stratify via the Staples Center statue, but I'm pretty sure they're cutting everyone off after Kareem and Kobe.) I'd like to see something like the Dallas Cowboys' Ring of Honor, a more expansive club that facilitates recognition of the second-tier guys. The Lakers could then limit jersey retirements to the best of the best.
Anyhow, I give a thumbs down to retiring Pau's jersey, unless his career has a lot more gas in it than I suspect it does. Where do you come out? And while we're on borderline cases, how about Byron Scott? I'd argue he was, on the whole, roughly the same caliber player as Wilkes, but he spent three more years with the organization. He has one more ring than Jamaal, and his peak season (1987-88) was better than Jamaal's. (Interestingly, Basketball Reference lists Goodrich as one of Byron's five most similar career comps.)
Ben: For the most part, I agree that Pau's lack of longevity with the team hurts his case. If he had been with the team for six or seven years, putting up 20+ PER seasons as he has been doing for his time here, then it would be very difficult to argue against him, his recent playoff failures notwithstanding. Still, part of me thinks that the last two postseasons have overshadowed just how good he has been in a Laker uniform, as his play has been comparable to a lot of very good players who have worn the purple and gold. Basketball Reference's biggest similarity score for Pau is Elgin Baylor for Pete's sake and while Pau definitely isn't at Baylor's level, someone who could maintain the kind of sustained excellence he has for eleven years isn't chopped liver. When your worst statistical year is a 19.5 PER rookie season, you are a damn good player. Nevertheless, the fact that a lot of those seasons were spent in another uniform doesn't do him any favors for a Lakers-centric honor, unfortunate as that is.
In that sense, something like a Ring of Honor is an appealing concept to give recognition to players like Pau that fall short of super-elite status. The Lakers already sort of do this with their "honored numbers" for the players and coaches on the Minneapolis Lakers such as George Mikan and John Kundla. It does make one rather hesitant when you consider the sheer number of second tier guys this would entail though: beyond Wilkes, Goodrich, and Pau, there's Lamar Odom, Norm Nixon, Michael Cooper, Byron Scott, A.C. Green, Vlade Divac, Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel, Happy Hairston, and we can go on and on and on depending on how strict you make the criteria. Does Bob McAdoo make the list? Sam Perkins? Perhaps these problems aren't a bad thing - we are a very successful franchise, are we not? - but it runs across a pretty slippery slope at that juncture. A hard line has to be set somewhere to avoid award creep.
The main reason is to guard against sentimentality. To put it plainly, it is hard not to root for everyone to receive some form of honor for their service to the team. They wore the jersey proudly, most of them won championships, and longtime fans can run off their favorite stories about their particular favorite players to no end. In general, choosing which jerseys to retire is treading over those feelings since you are inherently making judgments about the legacies of former players. For the most part, however, you have to accept that. There will be some injustice done because it has to be so in order to preserve the dignity of what the entire process represents.
That's why if we head around to the most difficult problem of our entire discussion in Derek Fisher, my honest opinion is that we have to steel ourselves and simply make the hard decision to give an emphatic "no" to any question of him being included in any of these honors. Fisher is the very embodiment of this feeling of sentimentality - he was with the team for such a long period, has so many memorable moments on the biggest stage, and endeared himself to the fans through his class, perseverance and close relationship with Kobe. Yet, the only thing he has on his resume that compares to his peers in these discussions is an excess of sentimentality. He has no notable individual honors for his basketball play beyond five titles, and his shining moments have always obscured the fact that he was, at best, a quite average player. Even so, he had a factor that entranced fans and coaches alike - look at all the wonderfully unproductive minutes Scott Brooks continues to give him in the Finals to his team's detriment. It shouldn't get him his jersey retired, especially since he is emphatically worse than every single player I mentioned as a possible second tier guy above.
That's my fear about stratification: it becomes harder and harder to guard against the team bringing more and more people in out of a sense of sentimentality the lower you go. Bryon Scott, whom you brought up as a very pertinent example, would be an easy call for most teams, especially for the length of time he spent with the franchise, but not for the Lakers. Not with their history and the standards they have (or should have at any rate). Now, he certainly was a very good player, but his peak was inferior to Pau's worst season in a Laker uniform last year. Still, we remember him more fondly since he wasn't a key part of two postseason collapses and was with the team for so long.
As such, do you share my fears in this regard? Perhaps I am making too much of this, but putting Wilkes up in the rafters makes me think that an honor for second tier stars and players is just an invitation to start plastering names around the arena. Granted, a lot of those are very deserving names, but I feel there will be quite a few "mistakes" so-to-speak if the Lakers down head this route. And what do you think about the Fisher issue?
To be continued....