In Magic Johnson’s day, they walked three miles through the snow, uphill both ways, just to get to practice, and the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers would have swept the modern-day Golden State Warriors.
That’s right. At a corporate event hosted by ESPN’s Cari Champion, the legendary Lakers player and his former coach Pat Riley were asked how their “Showtime” Lakers would have fared against the current Warriors. Not only did Magic say his L.A. squad would have won, but, “We would probably sweep ’em”:
Magic Johnson says the "Showtime" Lakers would have swept today's Golden State Warriors. pic.twitter.com/D9wm2T35ZA
— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) June 6, 2017
“They’re too small,” said Johnson.
“Try to put somebody on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” added Riley.
“Zaza?” finished Johnson. “I’m sorry.”
Riley called Johnson “the greatest player of all time” and described Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James as “the closest thing to Earvin we’ve ever seen because of his size, his speed, his acceleration, his vision — everything he can do. He just has more pressure on him to score all the time.” Oh, and Magic would beat LeBron in a game of 1-on-1, “because he would never call a foul”:
Pat Riley says Magic Johnson would beat LeBron James in a game of one-on-one. It'll make sense when you hear him explain why. pic.twitter.com/4p64MJsSJp
— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) June 6, 2017
I’m not sure how never calling fouls helps Magic beat LeBron, especially since LeBron is the superior shooter and defender, but I think Riley was getting at a perceived lack of toughness in today’s game. Or maybe it was a shot at James constantly complaining about calls. Either way, get off his lawn.
Seriously, though, if anyone would be able to compare the two players, it would be Riley, who coached Magic either as an assistant or head coach in L.A. for 11 years, two decades before recruiting LeBron to Miami and serving as president of basketball operations during the Heat’s four-year reign in the East.
Riley won five titles with Magic (four as a head coach) and two with LeBron, and Magic never spurned Riley the way LeBron did in returning to the Cavaliers, so maybe there’s a bit of bias about that 1-on-1 matchup. Regardless, there’s most definitely bias in Riley and Magic’s thoughts on the 2017 Warriors.
The addition of Kevin Durant to a team that won 73 games in the 2015-16 regular season, combined with Golden State’s 14-0 run through these playoffs, including a dominance of the defending champs two games into the Finals, has many comparing the Warriors to the greatest teams of all time — a list that most often includes the 1996 Chicago Bulls, the 1986 Boston Celtics and, yes, the 1987 Lakers.
Unfortunately, the ’86 Lakers never reached the Finals to challenge Boston, and the ’87 Celtics weren’t at full strength to compete with L.A. in the Finals, so we don’t even really know which team was even the best of that decade. Still, despite the death of Len Bias and injuries to Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Bill Walton and Danny Ainge during the 1987 playoffs, that Celtics team still took the Lakers to six games, so it’s hard to imagine those Lakers sweeping these Warriors. Unless, of course, you’re willing to make the argument that the hobbled 1987 Celtics were vastly superior to the 2017 Warriors.
In terms of statistical achievements, the 1987 Lakers won 65 games and finished the playoffs with a 15-3 record; the 2017 Warriors won 67 games and enter Wednesday’s Game 3 with a 14-0 playoff record. Both teams scored 115.6 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, while the 2017 Warriors allowed 2.5 fewer points per 100 defensively. Both teams were the best shooting units in the league.
Warriors' average scoring margin in playoffs is +17.1 PPG. Entering this season, the best in one postseason was +15.5 by the 1956 Lakers
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 6, 2017
As for the matchup issues, it’s true the Warriors have no answer for Kareem, who was 40 years old at that point. The Lakers would own a height advantage at every position, but there’s one small thing Magic might be forgetting. The 2017 Warriors, who averaged a dozen made 3-pointers per game, would bomb on the 1987 Lakers, who averaged two. As Warriors guard Klay Thompson’s father — Showtime Lakers forward Mychal Thompson — said last year, before Golden State added Kevin freakin’ Durant:
“Two things make me think they would beat us. Their defense — their team defense — is as good as ours was. They really play great team defense. And number two: 3-point shooting. We shot eight a game, they shoot eight a quarter. If we played them, they would outscore us 50-16 in 3s. So do the math from there.”
And that’s the difficulty with comparing great teams across eras. If we were to somehow drop the ’87 Lakers into the current season, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper, who shot a combined 40.5 percent from 3-point range three decades ago, might be attempting three or four times as many 3s today.
Those Lakers were stacked with talent eight or nine deep, maybe even more so than the Warriors now, but it’s impossible to tell how they’d fare against each other. The only thing we should know for sure is that the Showtime Lakers, who never won a Finals in fewer than six games, would not sweep these Warriors. Heck, those Lakers didn’t even sweep the 1987 Warriors during the regular season or the Western Conference semifinals. And my money is on LeBron beating Magic in a game of 1-on-1, too.
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