Were the 86-87 L.A. Lakers the Best Team Ever?

Don’t worry, Celtics and Pistons fans, I haven’t forgotten about you. But when we’re looking at one of the best NBA, and sports teams of all times, we have to look at the 1980s L.A. Lakers–specifically, the 86-87 Lakers. 

The 1986-87 L.A. Lakers were not just one of the best NBA teams of the 1980s–but one of the greatest teams ever. Led by Magic Johnson, they would go 65-17, win an NBA championship, and create the era of “Showtime” basketball. 

The L.A. Lakers of the 1980s were a decade-defining team during an era of decade-defining teams. This was the era of Showtime and the Lakers were the perfect made-for-TV sports team. 

Not only was this one of the defining NBA teams of the 1980s–but of all time. It was the hottest show in town, and this is a look back on an epic season for a truly epic franchise.

The Origin of the L.A. Lakers

This isn’t to say that the 86-87 Lakers was the organization’s only exceptional year. We all know how many notable seasons this historic franchise has had. 

As a franchise, the L.A. Lakers actually go back to the 1940s. In 1947, they began as the Detroit Gems. Then, they were moved to Minneapolis. If you’ve ever wondered why Los Angeles is called the Lakers, it has to do with their Minneapolis origins. 

Minneapolis is the “land of 1000 lakes,” and the team would be called the MPLS: Minneapolis Lakers.  

The team started out with a solid roster when they were part of the NBL. They would win the 1947/48 NBL championships. The next year they moved to the Basketball Association of America or BAA.

After the 1948/49 season, the National Basketball League and the BAA merged ‌to form the National Basketball Association, aka the NBA. The Minnesota Lakers continued to dominate no matter what the league was called and would win another 5 championships.

Going into the 1960 season, some top players had retired and attendance was waning. The Lakers drafted Jerry West (West is who the NBA logo is modeled after), and the owner moved the team to Los Angeles. Even with the relocation, the Lakers didn’t miss a beat and would appear in another 4 finals, losing each time to a team that they would be connected to forever: The Boston Celtics.

The Lakers of the 1970s

In 1968, the Lakers would acquire a player that would help to define their franchise forever: Wilt Chamberlain. In that 1968 season, they yet again lost in the finals to the Celtics. 

In 1972, with the dominance of Chamberlain, the Lakers would finally win a championship. It would be their first championship in the National Basketball Association and their first one as the Los Angeles Lakers. 

It seemed as if Wilt Chamberlain was a franchise-defining player, but two new additions would come in that took them to an even higher level. The first was Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Jabbar came over from Milwaukee and then the Lakers drafted a giant point guard out of Michigan named Earvin Magic Johnson.

It’s crazy to think these players were on the same team at the same time. Johnson was still a rookie but showed a sixth sense on the court. His ability to find players with no-look passes made him extremely difficult to defend against. It took a while for the team to adapt to his style, but once they did, they were borderline unstoppable.

In his rookie season, Magic Johnson would help lead the team to a 60-win season and an NBA championship. He also picked up finals MVP honors. Not a bad rookie season…

Showtime: The Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s

As the 80s began, the Lakers were already at the top of their game. For the 1981-82 season, Johnson would lose some time to injuries. But they had brought in a new coach: the legendary Pat Riley. 

With assistant coach Jerry West, The Lakers came out hot winning 17 of their first 20 games. The Lakers had a fast break that was relentless. They were so big, and moved so fast, that it was a nightmare to defend against. This dynamic, and very entertaining style of basketball, earned them the name Showtime.

As the 80s moved on, Lakers’ games had now become events. They were a super hot ticket and everyone wanted to catch a glimpse. Celebrities were now a common occurrence at courtside, including a staple of the front row: Jack Nicholson. The Laker Girls didn’t hurt, either. 

This really felt like the beginning when sports moved into show business. The Lakers were pushing the boundaries for presentation, and the game began to feel more like entertainment than merely just a sport. Example: The Laker Girls wouldn’t be cheerleaders: they would be dancers. Most of what you associate with modern sports as far as how they are packaged and presented started with the Showtime Lakers. 

The NBA had actually been struggling up to this point and some say it was on the verge of bankruptcy. A team like the Lakers brought more eyes to the game, bigger TV contracts for the league, bigger endorsement deals and sponsorships, and, ultimately, more money. Magic Johnson also signed what was–at the time–the richest deal in sports history. He agreed to a 25-year, $25 million contract. 

The league value, endorsements, and TV contracts were nowhere near what they are today, but they were getting better, and a huge part of this was because of the Showtime Lakers. 

Fun Fact: It was around this time that Magic turned down a deal with an upstart shoe company named Nike, which could have potentially made him a billionaire. Read all about that story here

But everything was not rosy. In the early days, Johnson had complained about then-head coach Paul Westhead. He was outspoken in the media and was even demanding a trade. Westhead would end up getting fired after these remarks were made, but the owner of the Lakers–Jerry Buss–said they were not related. Sure they weren’t Jerry…

This is when Pat Riley was brought in but the whole situation did not do Magic Johnson any favors. He was seen as disruptive and vilified in the media. He was constantly booed on the road and the showtime era made them easy to hate in other markets. 

Despite their dominance in the 80s, the Lakers were not always on top. In the 1982/83 season, they lost in the finals in four straight games to the Philadelphia 76ers. In the 83-84 season, they again came out hot and went 54-29. This brought them back to the finals against their old rivals the Boston Celtics. This was the first time the two iconic teams had faced off in the finals since way back in 1969.

The Lakers quickly went up two games to one. But the Celtics rallied and won three of the next four to secure the championships. For those keeping score at home–especially if you’re from Boston–the Lakers were now 0-8 against the Celtics in a championship series.

The next season, with motivation from the previous year’s loss, the Lakers again came out hard. They easily won the Pacific Division and had a dominant playoff run. They would only lose two games during the Western Conference playoffs. This would bring them back to the finals against their old foes, the Celtics.

 L.A. got crushed in the first game and it was looking like a familiar story. However, led by a 38-year-old–and eventual MVP–Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers would win the title in 6 games on the road in Boston. This was the only visiting team to ever win a championship in the legendary Boston Garden. 

Despite how dominant the Lakers have been over the years, there was one season that stood above all others.

The 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers

Truly iconic teams are able to not only define their league but an entire era of the sport.

Every sport has its dominant and iconic teams: The Oilers, the Canadiens, the Patriots, the Yankees, the 49ers, the Bears, and Man United, just to name a few. Each of those teams also has a few seasons that stand out even amongst several standout seasons.

This is the case with the 1986-87 Lakers. If the Showtime era began in the early 80s, they solidified it during the 86/87 season. Like the 95-96 Chicago Bulls, this is when everything was firing on all cylinders.

Magic Johnson was also firing on all cylinders. His specific brand of offensive prowess was at its best. Similar to Wayne Gretzky’s brilliance, Magic’s teammates had completely learned how to play with him, and opposing defenses struggled to contain it. If there was a league better than the NBA, Magic would be a star there, too. 

For the 86-87 season, Magic would average:

  • 24 points a game
  • 12.2 assists
  • 6.3 rebounds
  • 1.7 steals per game
  • 52% shooting

The league had never really seen a season like this before. Not only was Magic tearing it up on offense, but he was also shutting it down on defense. To have just an offensive season like this would be remarkable, but it was also a standout defensive season all on its own. 

Not only was he averaging 12 assists a game, but he was also top ten in scoring. If you’re not a basketball fan, this is pretty astonishing. 

But it wasn’t just Magic. Byron Scott was the perfect finisher to Magic’s passes. Scott also had a remarkable 43.6% 3-point shooting percentage. It was hard to be noticed during Magic’s standout season, but Byron Scott was an important piece of the puzzle. 

Next was James Worthy. Another seemingly overlooked player, but perfectly complemented Magic Johnson. He had a lightning-quick first step but also was one of Magic’s favorite targets for a no-look pass. 

At power forward was AC Green. He narrowly missed finishing the season averaging a double-double per game. Despite not being a major star, he was one of those backbone-type players that every team needs. This guy was an iron man and only missed three games in his entire career.

But let’s not forget the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Despite getting on in years, their center was also their captain. Despite not being in his prime, Abdul-Jabbar was still one of the best centers in the league. He averaged 17.5 points per game with 6.7 rebounds. A pretty amazing season for a 39-year old. At Seven foot two inches, his legendary hook shot was still indefensible. You basically needed a ladder to stop it. 

The Depth of the 86-87 Lakers

You’ve got your household-name starters, but the Lakers of that year had a really deep bench. The second unit contained Michael Cooper; an amazing perimeter defender and the guy used to shut down the top outside shooter for every team they played. Cooper would be the defensive player of the year for this season–and he was on the bench. This is what I mean by depth.

Then they had Michael Thompson. The 6’10 power forward was a finesse player and offensive threat. Despite averaging 20 points a game before he joined the Lakers, he needed to be assigned to the bench to come in and provide a spark. 

Kurt Rambis was another one of those grinders that every team needs. He might not have been pretty to watch, but got the job done. 

It goes on from there, but this is just to give you an idea of the individual skill this team possessed. But individual skill only gets you so far: you need to play as a unit. Not only could they do that, but they somehow assembled the perfect combination to play with Magic Johnson.

Johnson was a unique player, and not everyone could adapt to his style. Fortunately, for the 86-87 Lakers, everyone was in sync with him. 

The Lakers ran the floor fast and pushed the tempo. This was pure Showtime Lakers basketball. You didn’t even have to like basketball to be entertained by this team.

I’m a hockey guy through and through, but there are just some teams from other sports that you are drawn to watch–this team was one of them. The Lakers were just so damn fast and it looked like every player was trying to clock their best 40-yard dash time every time they moved down the court with the ball. They could slow things down and leave opposing teams bewildered by what was coming next. It was just too hard to prepare a game plan to face the Lakers. 

A Dominate Record Turns into a Dominant Postseason

Like all great teams, you need a great coach to put it all together. Just think Vince Lombardi, Scotty Bowman, and Phil Jackson.

Pat Riley had an insatiable appetite to win. He not only had a team overrunning with talent, he knew how to get the best out of them. The 86-87 Lakers went on to an incredible 65-17 season. 

It’s hard to imagine a team like this ever losing a game. If they did, God help the opposing team the next night. They rode this dominant play right into that year’s playoffs. They beat the Denver Nuggets in three games, Best Golden State in five games, then swept the Seattle Supersonics to win the conference.

And who would be waiting for them in the NBA finals? None other than the team that was a key part of their history: The Boston Celtics. The Lakers had peaked going into the finals, and their relentless pace would be too much for that year’s Celtics. The Lakers would win the championship four games to two. 

Magic had a series for the ages including an iconic skyhook shot to win game four. He would finish the finals with 26.2 points per game, 13 assists, eight rebounds per game, and 2.3 shots blocked. A ridiculous stat line that almost saw him average a triple-double for the first time in finals history. 

Even Larry Bird had to admit that Magic Johnson was unstoppable at this point in his career. 

Breaking Down the 86-87 L.A. Lakers Season

Do you like stats? Well, let’s sum up this season with a look at some of the notable stats.

  • Record: 65-17
  • Offense: #1 in the NBA
  • Defense: #7 in the league
  • They beat teams by an average of 9.3 points (that’s pretty good)
  • Playoff record: 15-3
  • Season MVP: Magic Johnson
  • Finals MVP: Magic Johnson

It Didn’t End There–But All Good Things Have to Come to an End

It’s not that the 86-87 season was the end of the Lakers–far from it. This was just the team at their absolute peak. In the coming years, they were still dominant, just not quite as dominant as this year. In the 87-88 season, they would go 62-20 and start the playoffs sweeping the Spurs. 

But this is where things would get tough. They were taken to 7 games by the Jazz featuring a young John Stockton and Karl Malone. Then another game 7, this time against the Dallas Mavericks. 

they would again get to the NBA finals this time going up against the bad boys from Detroit: The Pistons. In yet another seven-game series, the Lakers would come out with the win. This would be their fifth championship in nine years. But it would also be their last for more than a decade.

They still had an amazing season, it just wasn’t as dominant as 86-87.

For the 1988-89 season, they still won 57 games. This time, they had an easier run in the playoffs sweeping through the early rounds. This, again, would bring them up against the Detroit Pistons in the finals where the Lakers got swept. 

Kareem would announce his retirement after this season. The next year–despite winning their ninth consecutive division crown–they would get knocked out in the second round of the playoffs. 

As the 90s began, the Showtime era seemed to have come to a close. They failed to win the division for the first time in ten years. Despite all this, they would cruise through that year’s playoffs, bringing them to yet another NBA finals–their ninth trip in 12 years. But this time, they came up against a new player and a new dynasty ready to take flight: Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

The era of AIr Jordan had begun. 

How Do the 86-87 Lakers Match Up to Other Iconic Teams?

These discussions are almost impossible–but they’re still fun to have. It’s great to debate how different iconic teams would be if they had to play each other. How would the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s do against the great Edmonton Oilers teams of the 80s?

How would the 86-87 Lakers team do against other iconic NBA teams such as the Bulls in their Prime, the Milwaukee Bucks of the early 70s, LeBron’s 2015-16 year with the Cavs, or the Golden State Warriors and Steph Curry? 

It’s almost impossible to compare the different eras of a sport. So many things change, and there are so many variables to consider. Some eras were not as big on defense. Some eras were more physical and you wouldn’t get the calls you do today. But with those 86-87 Lakers, their speed would transfer over to any era of basketball. This might be the thing that could actually let them compete no matter what the year was. 

Modern teams might have trouble containing them and the free-flowing style of offense might overwhelm modern defenses. Or, defensive-minded teams may find a way to contain the Showtime Lakers. Would physicality be enough to slow them down? Or would this lead to too many fouls? Basically, we’ll never know. But it’s always fun to speculate. 

The 80s were a golden age of the NBA. Besides the 86-87 Lakers, you also had the 85-86 Celtics, the 82-83 Philadelphia 76ers, and the 88-89 Detroit Pistons. All these teams have been considered to be in the top ten greatest NBA teams of all time–and they all existed within a few years of each other. 

Final Thoughts on the 86-87 L.A. Lakers

Were the 1986-87 Lakers the best team of the 1980s? They may very well be. It all depends on who you ask. No one from Boston would ever admit this, neither would someone from Detroit. From an outsider’s perspective, they were definitely the most notable. The Showtime era of the Lakers caught the sports world by storm. Everyone knew who “Magic” was, and the Lakers were must-see-TV before that was even a thing.

Whether they are the best team of the 80s remains up for debate–but they’re definitely in the conversation. What doesn’t seem up for debate is how astounding this 1986-87 season was. Is it the best season in NBA history? Again, up for debate. Many may go with the 95-96 Bulls, but this Lakers team remains in the conversation.

The Lakers are such an iconic franchise that this team may not even be the best Lakers team ever. But as more time goes by, it’s a season that continues to astonish. 

The 1980s was also an amazing time for the NBA and sports in general. New stars were being born and it gave us multiple dynasties all at once. As sports continue to evolve, it’s become much tougher to build dynasties. In an era of salary caps, teams relocating, and players leaving for better deals, it can be very difficult to repeat a championship–let alone win several in a row. 

A three-peat now seems unfathomable, and the last team to do it? The Lakers in 2002. There seemed to be an abundance of sporting dynasties in the 80s. Besides the Lakers, Celtics, and Pistons of the NBA, In the NHL, you had the Edmonton Oilers. They won four Stanley Cups in 84, 85, 87, and 88. They didn’t three-peat, but if it wasn’t for a fluke play in 1986–may have won five straight. 

The New York Islanders of the 80s had a three-peat, and even won four in a row, making them the last team of the four main professional North American sports to do so. This has now stood for nearly 40 years.  The 49ers won three super bowls in the 80s, and another one in 1990, which was still connected to the 1980 season, so I’m counting it. 

It was an awesome time to be a sports fan, and dynasties just seemed normal. Some complain that dominant teams aren’t good for the sport, but I love it. I love to witness teams that will go on to define an era. And it makes it more interesting to see who might take them down. When that dynasty eventually falls, it makes that win even more significant. When a different team wins the championship every year, it never seems as notable. During the 80s, we not only got several of these iconic dynasties, but we also got to watch it all play out right in front of our eyes.