More than any other sports franchise, the Lakers' identity is bound up in its star players. I don't need to recite for you the list of immortals who've worn the purple and gold. Their names, accomplishments and signature moves are permanently encoded in your memory. Unlike, say, the Spurs, whose brand is that of humble, team-oriented professionalism, the Lakers are about the overwhelming force of star power. In that sense especially they reflect the values of the entertainment-industry elite who populate the courtside seats at Staples.
But today we're not here to talk about the leading men. They get enough love already. Instead, we're going to look back at some Laker role players who've captured our hearts over the years. For this week's roundtable I asked a few of my fellow authors: who's your favorite Laker role player of all time and why? I didn't ask who's the best, just who's their favorite. Most of our attention stays focused on the A-list talent, but that doesn't stop us from developing soft sports for unheralded contributors, such as D.J. Mbenga, or even unheralded noncontributors, such as Theo Ratliff.
Did anyone choose Theo "Manhood Knowledge" Ratliff as his all-time favorite role player? Rock with us on this topic and find out...
The Lakers have a rich line of generational superstars who will forever exist within the history books of the NBA. Players like Jerry West, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant are just a few names that one could pick out of a hat and plug into any all-time great conversation. But, for all the top-tier players who have donned the purple and gold, in between the pages exist the role players who helped bring it all together. The players who stepped up when it mattered most and made it all possible.
It's rather difficult to pick a personal favorite, though, with so many options in front of me. How about Derek Fisher? He's been a key piece in five championships for the Lakers, has nailed clutch shot after clutch shot and was considered the "heart" of the team over his last stint with the Lakers. The yin to Kobe's yang over all these years, bringing the team together. Lamar Odom? Mr. Versatility himself? His game was so smooth. When Lamar would snag an defensive rebound, run the floor, and finish with a graceful layup on the other end it was a thing of beauty. Trevor Ariza's time with the Lakers was short lived, but watching him grow into the hustle player the Lakers needed through the 2009 NBA playoffs was thrilling. His gritty defense, knack for creating turnovers, and shooting touch through that 2009 run were keys in bringing the Larry O' Brien back to Los Angeles after being away for far too long. But in the end, after thinking this over, I have three rings and three words ...
Big Shot Rob.
Robert Horry, master of the critical playoff basket, tops out as my favorite Laker role player of all time. As close at this was for me, as usual, Horry came up big to bring it home when it mattered the most. Seriously. I was seconds away from running with Lamar Odom here, but there Robert Horry was. Standing in the corner. Waiting for me to kick it out to put this one away. How could I refuse?
The three-peat era holds a special place in my heart, and Robert Horry hit shots that changed the momentum of many a series during that period. How about Game Three of the 2000 NBA Finals with the Philadelphia 76ers? Less than a minute to go, the Lakers up one on the Sixers, and the series tied at one a piece. A pivotal moment in this championship series, and Big Shaq Diesel was fouled out and sipping Gatorade on the bench. Kobe gets doubled beyond the arc and dumps it off to Brian Shaw, who then zips it over to a wide open Big Shot Rob in the corner. Cool as a fan, Horry drains the three to put the Lakers up four with 47.1 seconds to go (not to mention the four free throws he put in to ice the game).
Or, the following year, against the Portland Trailblazers. Who was there when Kobe was being chased by Ruben Patterson, the "Kobe Stopper" himself in the 2002 playoffs? Yes, that was Robert Horry hitting the game-winning three in Portland, graciously accepting the pass from Kobe Bryant. And then there was the Western Conference Finals with the Sacramento Kings following up the aforementioned series with Portland. File this one under crucial games during the Lakers' three-peat era. Game Four, the series 2-1 in the Sacramento Kings' favor, and Sac-town had the Lakers on the ropes looking to take a commanding 3-1 lead back to northern California. Still, with just under 12 seconds on the clock, the Kings up two with the score at 99-97, the Lakers had one last possession. Kobe Bryant drives in against Doug Christie for a layup, but misses. Shaq grabs the offensive rebound, tries to put in a gimme of a put-back, but misses as well. Time's ticking away. With about two seconds left, Vlade Divac knocks the missed Shaq put-back out of the paint and naturally it bounces right into the hands of Robert Horry.
He pulls up. Shot goes down. Buzzer goes off. Crowd goes wild. 100-99, Los Angeles Lakers' victory. Big Shot Rob did it again.
His stats weren't staggering by any means, his game wasn't particularly breathtaking, but man oh man did Robert Horry love being the hero when the apartment building across the street was on fire and there were citizens trapped inside. Grandma trapped on the second floor and the roof is about to collapse? Have no fear, Horry's here. Little Rusty, the miniature pet poodle, can't be found in the smoldering building? Big Shot Rob will save the day! Robert Horry made a career out of being "that" guy for NBA teams, from Houston all the way up to his time in San Antonio, and there's a reason he holds the NBA record for most made career three-point field goals in the NBA Finals with 53. He was a part of seven championship teams through his career, which was beyond being coincidental. Every eventual champion needs role players who can step up and deliver at the unlikeliest of moments. His time with the Los Angeles Lakers not only helped make the three straight championships a possibility, but enveloped it with magic that to this day still gives me chills when I look back. I can only hope there's a Robert Horry somewhere on this revamped bench, ready to make the big play without a scared bone in their body.
It is tough to pick a favorite as there have been so many memorable role players, especially because the Lakers bench has been in constant fluctuation for the last decade, it seems. But if forced to choose a single favorite, I would have to go with none other than Sasha "The Machine" Vujacic.
Lakers fans, a finicky group to say the least, quickly turned on Sasha during the 2008-09 season as he failed to repeat the 43% shooting on threes that he produced the season before. Compounding the issue was his new contract, which paid him $5 million per year. Needless to say, much was expected of Sasha and most felt he failed to meet those raised expectations. His run with the Lakers officially ended when the Lakers made the choice to go with Shannon Brown as the backup shooting guard in the 2010-11 season.
I, however, do not share the same views as most other Lakers fans. I always viewed Sasha as about as close to an ideal backup shooting guard as the Lakers could find and felt that the decision to go with Shannon Brown over Sasha was flawed from an on-court production standpoint. (If salary was the key factor, and it may have been for a Lakers squad well over the luxury tax, then Brown did make sense.) Realistically speaking, a backup to Kobe Bryant was never going to see more than 20 minutes a night so the Lakers would have to be resigned to a player who was league average (PER 15.0) at best. A player who performed better than this standard would likely go elsewhere in free agency for a chance to start. If the player could shoot threes at a high percentage and played a little defense he would be a great back-up two-guard. Sasha Vujacic fulfilled both of those roles, certainly better than Brown at least.
I find it somewhat amusing that many fans who felt that Sasha was a poor backup two guard are the same fans that are clamoring over the recently acquired Jodie Meeks. I would love to know why they view each player in a different light when Jodie Meeks and Sasha Vujacic are quite similar. Their biggest asset is their three-point shooting, in which Meeks has made 37.1% in his career, the exact same rate as Vujacic. In terms of other statistics, Vujacic has posted higher career rebounding rates, assist rates, steal rates and block rates. Looking at some of the advanced all-encompassing statistics paints a similar picture. Vujacic's Win Shares per 48 Minutes for the last three seasons with LA: 0.136, 0.138 and 0.120. Meeks' last three seasons by comparison were 0.124, 0.120 and 0.120. The career average PER of Vujacic (11.7) was basically the same as Meeks (11.9). By any statistical measure Meeks and Vujacic are very similar in terms of on-court productivity, yet one was basically ran out of town and another welcomed with open arms.
I felt bad for the way the fans seems to turn on Vujacic at the end of his career with LA. The allure of the human spring board that was Shannon Brown quickly had the fans looking more for www.letshannondunk.com than they were "The Machine." They also appeared disappointed that he couldn't repeat his 2007-08 shooting display. Just FYI, if he were to repeat that percentage for his career he would be in the top five in career three-point percentage. Can we all agree that bar was set too high now? The fact that Sasha was being paid $5 million per year while a cheaper and more entertaining player was available as the backup shooting guard eventually resulted in Vujacic being traded. I loved watching him pull the trigger without fear and get feisty with the opposition. That is why Sasha is my favorite role player.
Oh, I have so many favorites. This is like choosing which kid you love most (except if kids made clutch baskets off the bench instead of spilling crap on my car seats). I do have to give shouts to a few guys I've watched and loved over the years but who fell just a little short in my personal rankings...
- Kurt Rambis - dorky white energy guy before we knew that was a type.
- Mitch Kupchak - good rebounder and rugged defender in his day, though I'm not sure what became of him after his playing career.
- Sam Perkins - big, smooth.
- Elden Campbell - fun, underrated player but points deducted for winning a ring against the Lakers in 2004.
- Brian Shaw - SS&R legend, had a great rapport with Shaq and Kobe, not so much with Sasha.
- Isaiah Rider - wasted more talent that just about anyone but still one of my favorite dunkers ever.
- Gary Payton - LOL, just kidding.
- Trevor Ariza - will love him forever for his heroics during the 2009 title run.
- Metta World Peace - does too much dumb shit for him to get the nod, but in terms of "signature moments," nobody in this conversation except Horry and Derek Fisher can match his three-point bomb in Game Seven against Boston.
As you can see, there's a lot to choose from, and I'm not even going that far back into Laker history. This wasn't an easy choice.
But in the end, it kind of was. Who else could I possibly honor except my man Michael Cooper? Coop was just a beautiful athlete to watch. His playing style was lithe and fluid and made all the more distinctive by his knee-high socks. His game was complete. Coop could handle the ball and shoot from distance. He could score or defer, as needed. And he could defend... oh, how he could defend. Larry Bird called him the best defender he ever faced.
I also love that Coop is L.A. through and through. He grew up in L.A., played his high-school ball in Pasadena and attended Pasadena City College before transferring to New Mexico. The Lakers took him in the third round of the 1978 draft, and he never played for another NBA team. After retiring he worked in the Lakers' front office under Jerry West. He eventually won a couple WNBA rings (to go with the five he earned with the Lakers) as head coach of the Sparks, and he's now head coach of the women's team at USC. No doubt he could've been a bigger star in his playing days if he'd gone to another team, one without the best point guard and center in league history. Instead he chose to stay in Los Angeles, and to this day no one embodies this city's great hoops tradition like Michael Cooper.
The Great Mambino
My answer has to be Andrew Bynum.
Recent history may dictate otherwise, but the Andrew Bynum whom I know, love and sometimes detest was merely a role player for the 2005-2011 Los Angeles Lakers, rather than the All-NBA 2nd Teamer we saw last year. As we've endlessly discussed on SS&R, Drew is a conundrum wrapped in a blanket wrapped in a mystery, all topped off with a strangely unkempt ‘fro that belies the millions of dollars he's made in the NBA. The Bynum I loved the most was a young player with endless potential, a description that could still fit him today, who took a backseat to not just the superstars, but even to the other veteran role players by his side, such as Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and Kwame Brown (him for...different reasons). On the court, Andrew really had only a few truly memorable moments during these years, the "Shaq Bump" coming to mind. But even with a truly dominant Kobe Bryant and other established players on the court, the fact that there was a seven-footer with soft hands and a ever-present possibility of a double-double was an incredible luxury I'll never forget.
Even as far back as just his third season in 2008, Bynum easily could have been the second best player on the floor on any given night, though he rarely got to shine behind even the likes of Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom or Trevor Ariza. I loved knowing that Phil Jackson had a secret, hidden option in the game that even Lakers fans didn't pay enough attention to. I still pump my fist to that sweet spin move on the baseline, those long arms rising up for the finish and an emotionless blank stare from a man-child who would probably get more fired up playing Diablo. I loved that even as a young fat kid who most Lakers fans thought should have been (ironically) drafted behind Sean May, Bynum never backed down to any challenge from anyone, whether it was his own team, fans or the opposition. I loved how underrated his presence in the 2010 Finals was, and how the Lakers never would have won that chip without him. Mostly, I loved seeing that year after year, he kept showing up to training camp better than the year before. It's been my plight to show people that despite repeated criticisms that he was "immature," Andrew Bynum consistently strived to improve his game. What's immature about that?
But as great as it was having a capable 7-footer on the floor, there truly was nothing like having Andrew Bynum on your favorite team off the floor. From balancing a playmate on his shoulders with a bum knee at a pool party to calling off surgery to go on his own Eurotrip to listlessly staring off into the distance during timeouts, the Lakers' only lottery pick in the last 15 years has been a confusing joyride to follow. Bynum has been especially hilariously frustrating the past year and a half, and with that my love for the awkward chubby kid from Jersey has only grown, like your local financial institution. After all, there are banks in every city, right Drew?
As I've commented over and again to fellow SS&R bloggers, I'll miss writing about Andrew almost as much as I'll miss his bevy of post moves and high free throw percentage... two qualities which we probably won't see from the Lakers' center position for another six years or so. So this one Andrew, is dedicated to you. I promise to wear just a Sixers t-shirt to my next formal occasion in your honor.