Noah Graham/Getty Images
The state of California has been richly blessed with professional basketball talent.
Just think of the all-timers who spent prime years playing for the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State (or San Francisco) Warriors.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Rick Barry are just a handful who come to mind. Wilt Chamberlain played for both the Warriors and Lakers. And there are arguments to make that list even longer.
So, in an unprecedented era in which live sports have been almost entirely shut down, it’s natural to wonder how those two California powerhouses, led by all-time-great talent, might fare against each other.
On Thursday, ESPN presented the hypothetical to the masses:
Shortly thereafter, “Lakers in 4” began trending on Twitter. And that’s understandable. The lineup ESPN provided for the Lakers contains five of Bleacher Report’s top 18 players of all time. Kareem, Magic and Shaq come in at Nos. 3, 4 and 6, respectively, on that list.
Of course, the all-time Warriors lineup is a doozy, as well. Curry and KD are top 15, but Draymond and Klay didn’t make the cut. And Wilt, who could’ve been added to the Lakers’ embarrassment of riches, makes sense on the Warriors, given the all-timers L.A. has up front. He slotted in at No. 9 on that list.
Simply comparing placements in a largely subjective ranking doesn’t answer this question, though. And while an old-school head-to-head-matchups analysis isn’t perfect either (for example, the Warriors would likely cross-match and put Klay on Magic), it does get us closer.
Let’s dive in.
Magic vs. Curry
Wouldn’t you know it? Bleacher Report tackled this very comparison just under one year ago. And Curry comfortably won the blind polls conducted for that comparison.
That includes peaks:
And career numbers:
However, a deeper dive into this head-to-head reveals some fairly significant advantages for Magic.
For one, he’s undoubtedly the better creator for others. Curry may be a bit underrated in this regard, but Magic’s 10.9 assists per 75 possessions is the second-best mark in NBA history, trailing only John Stockton’s 12.6. Curry is 95th on that list.
Of course, assists aren’t the end-all, be-all for playmaking. Curry naturally needs to score more for his team than Magic did. But while he’s dished out plenty of nasty dimes in his career, he has not consistently displayed the level of vision, timing and anticipation Magic did.
“The greatest point guard in NBA history,” ESPN’s J.A. Adande wrote. “Magic had unparalleled vision; he could see players get open and deliver the ball before they even realized they were open.”
One of the big reasons Magic could see the floor the way he did was his size. And though he was no lockdown defender himself, that alone might give him an edge over Curry on that end of the floor, as well. Magic can guard multiple positions, even if that just means getting in the way.
Curry fights on defense, but in this hypothetical matchup, him getting stuck on Kobe, either of the bigs or even Magic would be a massive problem for the Warriors.
Obviously, he presents matchup problems, as well. There isn’t a single defender in that Lakers lineup who can effectively chase Curry around off the ball for 40-plus minutes. And when he catches the ball without a defender in his immediate vicinity, he’s much more than a problem.
Curry is the greatest shooter of all time. Sort players with his career effective field-goal percentage (58.1) by three-point attempts and marvel at the gap between his total and second place (you have to combine the totals of second through sixth place to get within shouting distance of Curry).
And there’s no one in that Lakers lineup even close to Steph’s level as a shooter. He’s bound to get hot in a game or two of this hypothetical series. And if the teams get caught in a “trading twos for threes” battle, the Warriors will likely come out on top.
But in terms of who’s the better player, Magic does have a slight edge. Box plus/minus has undergone an adjustment since those blind polls were posted. And on the updated career leaderboard, Magic’s 7.5 is tied for fourth all-time, while Curry’s 6.4 is 12th.
Lakers 1, Warriors 0
West vs. Klay
There was a temptation to compare West and Curry and give the Warriors one of these hypothetical matchups early (though I’m sure Lakers fans wouldn’t easily concede that one). But following the positional designations of the original post felt safer, though there are sure to be plenty of switches throughout these imaginary games.
Indulging that could open up a can of worms in selecting which players should be compared to each other. Instead, we’ll just keep it simple.
Reducing this comp down to numbers probably isn’t fair, especially since the vast majority of West’s career was played without steals and blocks, and the entirety of his career was played without threes. Still, a look at basic averages, adjusted for pace and playing time, and true shooting percentage relative to league average is instructive:
The NBA played at a breakneck pace in the 1960s, so West’s per-game numbers are a bit inflated when compared to more modern numbers. But, as you can see, he’s still the more well-rounded player of these two.
And when you just look at some of his raw playoff numbers, the production is staggering. For his postseason career, West averaged 29.1 points per game. In the 1964-65 postseason, he put up 40.6 over 11 contests.
And what is perhaps most impressive is his efficiency. As a guard, West posted a career 55.0 true shooting percentage that would look right at home in today’s NBA in an era dominated by bigs and devoid of a three-point line.
Klay is an all-time-great shooter and off-ball threat. He’s a versatile defender who’d likely spend plenty of time on Magic and Kobe in this series. But his overall impact falls shy of West’s.
“As relentlessly competitive and prolific as Jordan,” Rob Peterson wrote for ESPN. “There’s a reason West’s silhouette is the NBA’s logo.”
Lakers 2, Warriors 0
Kobe vs. KD
When you get into historical comparisons, there is an awful lot of hair-splitting. Solid arguments can be made in either direction. And the passage of time can contribute to new opinions.
This is all true of a comparison between Durant and Bryant. Last summer, I had Kobe one spot above Durant, largely because it was a top 50 that attempted to incorporate not only peak production, but also longevity and accolades.
Kobe has Durant topped in those last two categories, but if we’re talking about one imaginary series, we’re likely just looking at peaks. And Kobe’s statistical peak lags a bit behind the numbers from KD’s time with the Warriors:
Yes, Kobe had the higher scoring rate in the poll, but Durant’s overwhelming edge in efficiency more than makes up that gap.
Now, one could argue that Durant’s job was easier because of the teammates he had in Golden State, but his box plus/minus was significantly higher in his previous four seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder than the marks he posted with the Warriors.
And his Finals performances in Golden State are among the greatest we’ve ever seen. Among the 424 individual performances in which a player logged at least 100 minutes, Durant’s two healthy Finals appearances with the Warriors rank second and 13th in box plus/minus (tracked in the Finals back to 1984-85).
But, as KD himself has said, “Who the f–k wants to look at graphs while having a hoop convo?”
In competitive drive, Kobe might top everyone but Michael Jordan, but it’s fair to wonder whether it can bridge the gap created by Durant’s size and shooting ability.
If these two are matched up against each other in the imaginary series, KD’s length is going to be a massive issue. He can shoot over the top of Kobe on offense and make shots exceptionally difficult for the Black Mamba on the other end. Even if he gets beat off a first step, that length will allow him to recover on plenty of possessions.
Durant is also a slightly more willing passer, which makes teammates Curry and Thompson more dangerous.
Again, this likely depends on how you want to frame the discussion. But if we’re not accounting for the totality of Kobe’s achievements, this matchup goes to Durant.
Lakers 2, Warriors 1
Kareem vs. Draymond
Draymond is one of the most versatile defenders of all time. And he’s probably a little underrated as a point forward. But if yours truly had constructed this Warriors lineup, Durant would get bumped to the 4, with Draymond being ousted for Rick Barry.
But ESPN went with Draymond and Kareem at the power forward slots. And my goodness, that’s a whale of a matchup for Golden State:
Draymond can ably guard many of today’s centers, but he’s 6’6″ and won’t come anywhere near contesting Kareem’s patented skyhook. And even if Green focuses on giving the most technically sound box-outs he can for the entire series, Abdul-Jabbar’s overwhelming physical advantage is still going to allow him to dominate the boards.
And on defense, unless Green is having one of his occasional hot shooting nights, Kareem can probably play something of a free safety. With Shaq as a stationary paint protector and Kareem lurking for weak-side and help clean-ups, the Warriors are going to have a tough time scoring inside.
At the same time, Golden State’s Curry-Green pick-and-roll would force those bigs to do things they’re not used to. Prime Kareem never had to help on a shooting threat like Curry coming off a ball screen. That’ll create enough confusion and open threes for the Warriors to probably steal a game or two.
But in the aggregate, the Lakers win this matchup in a landslide.
Green is a great player with a 30.2 percent Hall of Fame probability. Plenty are comfortable putting Kareem in GOAT conversations.
Lakers 3, Warriors 1
Shaq vs. Wilt
LeBron James is probably in this conversation as well (and Zion Williamson might be on the way), but Shaq and Wilt are arguably the NBA’s two most striking examples of physical anomalies.
The size and athleticism of each made them nearly impossible matchups for their contemporaries, and their numbers reflect that:
What gives Shaq a slight edge here, beyond the efficiency and slightly more robust scoring and passing rates, is the talent pool against which he played.
Over the course of Chamberlain’s five seasons with the Warriors, the NBA had an average of 8.6 teams per season. The league and its predecessor (the BAA) had only been around for 13 seasons prior to Wilt’s debut. The game of basketball may not have been in its infancy, but it also couldn’t have been past adolescence.
As with most human physical pursuits, the species has improved dramatically at this game over the last 50-60 years. Wilt was way ahead of his time. On a physical level, he was rarely tested.
Going from that era to Shaq is like going from eighth-grade civics to the bar exam.
That isn’t to say that Wilt wouldn’t hang with modern NBA players. He’s one of the rare examples of the game’s early pioneers who’d probably be just fine now. But Shaq putting up similar pace-adjusted numbers against a significantly deeper and more diverse talent pool has to count for something.
Now, you could argue that I should extend the same logic to the “West vs. Klay” section. And that’s probably fair. But West dominated that era while being on a similar physical level to his contemporaries. And despite being much smaller, he was more efficient than Wilt. His skill level figures to translate a bit better.
But even if we concede that matchup to the Warriors, the Lakers still come out on top in this simple position-by-position breakdown. As it stands, they dominate it.
Lakers 4, Warriors 1
The Warriors can put together one of the game’s best all-time starting fives. And the difference in three-point shooting between these two lineups is huge. There would almost certainly be a game or two in which the three-pointer was the deciding factor.
If Curry or Thompson (or both) got on one of their heaters, the Lakers’ lineup probably doesn’t have the firepower to keep up. And, as his trips to the Finals have taught us, Durant can thoroughly take over a high-leverage game.
But to put all the ingredients together for four games against that Los Angeles lineup seems borderline impossible.
In these exercises on all-time starting fives, it’s tough for anyone to break into the tier occupied by the Lakers and the Boston Celtics.
Lakers win the series, 4-2.