1949-51: Lakers Win First NBA Finals
The BAA and the NBL merged after that season, and the NBA was born for the 1949-50 campaign. In its first year the NBA consisted of 17 teams competing in three divisions. Minneapolis was assigned to the Central Division (the new circuit's strongest division), where the team once again went head-to-head with Rochester. If anything, the Lakers were even better than they had been the season before. The team included a trio of promising first-year players in forward Vern Mikkelsen and guards Slater Martin and Bud Grant. (Grant went on to greater fame as coach of the football Minnesota Vikings.)
Minneapolis seemed to have a lock on the top spot in the Central Division, but Rochester put together a 15-game winning streak as the campaign wound down, and the teams ended the regular season tied for first with identical 51-17 records. The Lakers then edged the Royals by a single basket in a one-game playoff to claim the division title.
For the second season in a row Minneapolis waltzed through the preliminary rounds of the postseason. The powerful Lakers felled the Chicago Stags in the Central Division Semifinals, swept the Fort Wayne Pistons in two games in the division finals, and then dusted the Anderson Duffey Packers in two games in the NBA Semifinals.
The first NBA Finals pitted the Lakers against the Syracuse Nationals. The Nats had the home-court advantage, but the Lakers took Game 1 in Syracuse when reserve guard Bob Harrison heaved in a 40-foot shot at the buzzer to give Minneapolis a two-point victory. The Nationals evened the series the next night. When the Finals reconvened in Minnesota five days later, Minneapolis pounded out a 91-77 win, then followed that with a victory in Game 4. Syracuse postponed the inevitable by shutting down Mikan in Game 5, but the Lakers came back with a 110-95 victory in Game 6 to earn the first NBA Championship. Mikan, who had led the league in scoring during the regular season with 27.4 points per game (only one other player topped 20.0 ppg), poured in 31.3 points per contest in the playoffs.
A slimmed-down NBA fielded 11 teams in the 1950-51 campaign and went back to a two-division format, with the Lakers returning to the Western Division. With the best players from the six disbanded clubs distributed throughout the remaining teams, the offseason attrition helped to raise the level of competition in the two-year-old league.
The Lakers were favored to repeat as NBA champs that season. In addition to Mikan, the team boasted a solid frontcourt in Jim Pollard and Vern Mikkelsen and a better-than-average backcourt in Bob Harrison and Slater Martin. Minneapolis took the Western Division by three games and posted the league's best record at 44-24. But the playoffs didn't go according to plan. Minneapolis lost a game to the Indianapolis Olympians in the division semifinals, marking the Lakers' first-ever loss in a preliminary playoff round. They nevertheless won the series, two games to one, and advanced to face old rival Rochester in the Western Division Finals. The Lakers won Game 1, but the Royals came back with three straight victories to take the best-of-five series.
1951-52: NBA Tries To Slow Down "Big George"
The NBA widened the foul lane before the 1951-52 season in an attempt to slow Mikan, but the rule change had a minimal effect on "Big George." He still averaged 23.8 points, but he lost the scoring title to Paul Arizin, a sharp-shooting forward with the Philadelphia Warriors. The Lakers went into the campaign with essentially the same lineup. Rochester took the Western Division crown by a game, but the Lakers ousted the Royals in four games in the division finals to set up an NBA Finals matchup between the Lakers and the New York Knickerbockers.
Minneapolis took Game 1 at St. Paul but needed overtime to do so. The Knicks prevailed in Game 2. Back in New York, Games 3 and 4 were played at the 69th Regiment Armory instead of at Madison Square Garden because the circus was in town. The teams split those games, and Games 5 and 6 as well. Game 7 was all Minneapolis. The Lakers pounded out an 82-65 win at home to claim their second NBA crown in three years.
1952-53: Basketball's First Dynasty
The 1952-53 Lakers outmuscled the Royals during the regular season to finish atop the Western Division by a four-game margin. Mikan's scoring output dipped a notch to 20.6 points per game, second best in the league. He was joined in the NBA's top 10 by teammate Vern Mikkelsen, who finished eighth with 15.0 points per game. Mikan led the league in rebounding, pulling down 14.4 boards per contest. In the playoffs the Lakers and the Knickerbockers marched toward an NBA Finals rematch. Minneapolis whipped past Indianapolis and Fort Wayne in the preliminary rounds. Meanwhile, in the Eastern Division, New York downed the Baltimore Bullets and then the Boston Celtics.
The NBA Finals opened in Minneapolis, and the Knicks stunned the Lakers with an eight-point win in Game 1. Minneapolis barely beat the Knicks in Game 2, winning by a slim two-point margin. The next three games were scheduled for New York, and with the series tied at one game apiece, the Knickerbockers had hopes of unseating the defending champions. But the Lakers would have none of that. They took all three contests at Madison Square Garden to win the series and become the NBA's first repeat champs. With four championships in five years (including the BAA crown in 1949), the Lakers staked a claim as professional basketball's first dynasty.
1953-54: Lovellette Comes To The Rescue Of Ailing Mikan
The following season saw Mikan's production dip again. Bad knees were beginning to take a toll on the 29-year-old center, and he scored only 18.1 points per game. But the Lakers signed a promising rookie named Clyde Lovellette, who was more than capable of spelling Mikan at the center position. Minneapolis won the Western Division in 1953-54, posting the NBA's best record at 46-26. The playoffs got off to an odd start when the league experimented with a round-robin format in the first round. Minneapolis survived, then downed Rochester in the Western Division Finals. The expected NBA Finals rematch between the Lakers and the Knickerbockers failed to materialize because New York was eliminated in the Eastern Conference round-robin. Instead, the Lakers faced Syracuse.
The Nationals surprised Minneapolis with a two-point win on the Lakers' home court in Game 2, tying the series at one game apiece. The Lakers then took two out of three games in Syracuse, and the teams returned to Minneapolis with the Lakers leading, three games to two. Syracuse survived Game 6 with another two-point victory, but the Lakers made it three titles in a row with an 87-80 triumph in the deciding game.
1954-58: New Rules Are Bad News For Lakers
The NBA instituted two revolutionary rule changes shortly after the end of the 1953-54 season. The 24-second shot clock was introduced, as was a limit of six team fouls per quarter (after which every foul would result in penalty free throws). The new rules accomplished two things: they helped quicken the pace of the action on the court, and they took away the tactical advantage of fouling a player who has possession of the ball late in a game. The big question was what effect the new rules would have on the three-time defending NBA-champion Lakers, a team built around the size and power of George Mikan. But the question was never really answered, because Mikan retired before the 1954-55 season began and assumed the job of team general manager.
With Mikan gone, the center position fell to second-year player Clyde Lovellette, who contributed 18.7 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. But Lovellette was not the defensive force that Mikan had been, and the Lakers finished 40-32, second to the Fort Wayne Pistons in the Western Division. Minneapolis survived the first round of the playoffs but fell to the Pistons in four games in the division finals. The beginning of the shot-clock era meant the end of the Lakers' dynasty.
Age was also beginning to take its toll on Minneapolis. Jim Pollard retired before the 1955-56 season, ending an eight-year career with the Lakers that stretched back to the NBL days. Guard Slater Martin had a fine season, but he was 30 years old. The Lakers' youngest starter was the 26-year-old Lovellette, who had become the team's star, finishing fourth in the league in scoring (21.5 ppg) and third in rebounding (14.0 rpg).
By midseason the Lakers were struggling so badly that they prevailed upon Mikan to come out of retirement. It took him some time to get back into shape, but by the end of the season he had become a solid contributor, if not the star he had been a few years earlier. All told, Mikan appeared in 37 regular-season contests, averaging 10.5 points and 8.3 rebounds.
Slater Martin finished among the NBA's top 10 in assists (6.2 apg) and free-throw percentage (.833), while seven-year veteran Vern Mikkelsen led the league in personal fouls for the second year in a row.
The Lakers fell under .500 for the first time in franchise history that season, finishing with a 33-39 record. Facing the St. Louis Hawks in the playoffs, Minneapolis dropped Game 1, 116-115, then walloped the Hawks by 58 points in Game 2. But St. Louis came back with a repeat of the opening game and won Game 3, 116-115, to take the series.
In 1956-57 Minneapolis managed to earn a tie for first place in the Western Division, but that said more about the division's weakness than about the Lakers' strength. Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Fort Wayne shared first place with identical losing records of 34-38. By contrast, the last-place team in the Eastern Division was 36-36.
After a series of one-game playoffs, St. Louis earned the Western Division title and a bye in the first round of the 1957 NBA Playoffs. While the Hawks waited, the Lakers and the Pistons squared off in the division semifinals. Minneapolis prevailed with a two-game sweep. St. Louis then took out the Lakers in three straight, but the series was close for a sweep. The Hawks won Game 1 by a comfortable nine-point margin. Game 2 was a squeaker at 106-104. The final contest was a no-holds-barred marathon. The game lasted through a pair of overtime periods, and when it ended, St. Louis was the team still standing. The final score was Hawks 143, Lakers 135.
The franchise endured a disastrous season in 1957-58. George Mikan was persuaded to assume the head coaching duties, but he failed miserably and stepped aside after the club fell to 9-30. John Kundla moved back into the coaching spot after half a season in the front office, but there wasn't much he could do with the Lakers that year. The team finished with a 19-53 record and in last place in the Western Division.
1958-60: Baylor Ushers In A New Era
The dreadful record had a silver lining, however, for it earned Minneapolis the No. 1 pick in the 1958 NBA Draft. The Lakers came away with Seattle University star Elgin Baylor. With the unbeatable combination of a great scoring touch, smooth ballhandling and passing skills, a willingness to pound the boards, and the seeming ability to defy gravity on the way to the hoop, the 6-5 forward helped usher in a new era for the struggling Lakers franchise. In his rookie campaign Baylor finished fourth in the league in scoring (24.9 ppg) and third in rebounding (15.0 rpg). He also led the club in assists with 4.1 per game. Powered by the league's newest superstar (and that season's Rookie of the Year), Minneapolis won 14 more games than the year before and finished with a 33-39 record, good for second place in the Western Division behind the St. Louis Hawks.
The Lakers dispatched the Detroit Pistons in the division semifinals, then moved on to face St. Louis in the Western Division Finals. By all accounts the series was little more than a warm-up for defending NBA-champion St. Louis. The Hawks had breezed through the regular season with a 49-23 record and were looking forward to a rematch with the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.
However, behind Baylor and Vern Mikkelsen, who was the last link to the glory years of the Mikan-era Lakers, Minneapolis stunned the Hawks. St. Louis owned a two-games-to-one series lead heading into Game 4, but the Lakers took that game by 10 points and then earned a one-point overtime victory in Game 5. They completed the upset with a 106-104 triumph in Game 6.
The Lakers ran out of gas in the 1959 NBA Finals, however. They faced the Celtics, who owned an 18-game winning streak against Minneapolis and had demolished the Lakers, 173-139, in the teams' last meeting. When the dust settled, the Celtics' winning streak was still intact-Boston swept the series in four straight.
Still, the Lakers' season had to be counted as a great success. After finishing with the league's worst record the year before, they had bounced all the way back to the NBA Finals.
After the Lakers' great playoff run in 1959, the 1959-60 regular season was a bust. Head Coach John Kundla was replaced by John Castellani, who had been Baylor's college coach. The team managed a dismal 11-25 record under Castellani's command, and he was replaced by Jim Pollard, who had played alongside George Mikan in the early years of the NBA. Pollard fared no better, and the Lakers finished with a 25-50 mark. Only Baylor managed to shine-he pumped in 29.6 points and snared 16.4 rebounds per game.
Despite the difficult regular season, the Lakers made the playoffs because they had the third-best record in a four-team division. (The Cincinnati Royals were worse at 19-56.) After making short work of second-place Detroit in the division semifinals, they headed to St. Louis for a rematch of the previous year's Western Division Finals. Minneapolis got ahead, three games to two, but the Hawks avoided embarrassment for a second straight year by posting a 21-point win in Game 6 and then ousting the Lakers with a 97-86 victory in Game 7.
1960-62: A Double Dose Of West
During the offseason the Lakers became the NBA's first West Coast team. Although Minneapolis fans had come out in droves to watch the Lakers when Mikan was with the club, attendance had fallen off dramatically in the ensuing five seasons. Even the presence of Elgin Baylor hadn't made much of a difference. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball's Dodgers had moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958 and had become a huge financial success. Lakers owner Bob Short, a shrewd young businessman from Minneapolis who had owned the franchise for two years, packed up the club and moved it to Los Angeles before the 1960-61 season. That wasn't the only important change for the franchise during the offseason. The Lakers' 25-50 record the previous year had given the club the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft. The prize was 6-21/2 guard Jerry West, a talented playmaker and scorer. West's former coach at West Virginia, Fred Schaus, was installed at the Lakers' helm.
Baylor was a scoring machine and a terror on the boards for the new Los Angeles Lakers. He averaged 34.8 points and 19.8 rebounds in 1960-61. West struggled for the first half of the season before hitting his stride, finishing his first NBA campaign averaging 17.6 points. The two players combined to boost the Lakers to a 36-43 record and a second-place finish in the Western Division.
The Lakers faced the Pistons in the opening round of the playoffs. In an era of rampant scoring, the two teams lit up the scoreboard. Los Angeles posted 120 points in each of the first two games and won both. Back in Detroit, the Pistons won Game 3, 124-113, and Game 4, 123-114. The Lakers closed out the series with a 137-120 shoot-out in the final game.
That meant a Lakers-Hawks matchup in the Western Division Finals for the third year in a row. St. Louis had finished the regular season 15 games ahead of Los Angeles and was heavily favored, but the series was a dogfight. The Hawks managed a one-point victory in Game 4 to even the series at two games apiece. After the Lakers took Game 5, St. Louis eked out a 114-113 overtime win in Game 6 and a 105-103 victory in Game 7 to move on to the Finals.
Los Angeles played with a slight handicap during the 1961-62 season. Elgin Baylor was one of only two NBA players called to active military duty in the wake of the Berlin crisis. (Lenny Wilkens was the other.) For much of the campaign Baylor was only available on weekends. Still, in 48 games he averaged 38.3 points. Meanwhile, West exploded for a 30.8 average in his second year.
The high-scoring duo was ably supported. The cast included 6-8 Rudy LaRusso, a third-year forward who chipped in 17.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Frank Selvy, a much-traveled veteran who had played with six teams in his first five seasons in the NBA before settling in with the Lakers, added 14.7 points per game at guard. A solid bench featured Rodney "Hot Rod" Hundley and Tom Hawkins.
Los Angeles dominated the Western Division, topping second-place Cincinnati by 11 games. Up against Detroit in the division finals, the Lakers trounced the Pistons in the first three games of the series, lost Games 4 and 5, and then ousted Detroit in Game 6.
The NBA Finals pitted the Lakers against the Boston Celtics, and the series opened in Boston, where the teams split two games. The Lakers won Game 3 in Los Angeles, thanks to a last-second steal and a layup by Jerry West. The Celtics evened the series with a win in Game 4. Game 5, which was played in Boston, saw Baylor pour in 61 points to set a playoff record that stood for a quarter of a century. The teams headed to Los Angeles with the Lakers up three games to two and poised to clinch the championship on their home court. But the Celtics pushed the series to the limit with a 119-105 win.
Game 7 ranks as one of the most exciting championship games of all time. The score was knotted at 100 apiece when Selvy put up a shot that slid off the rim as time expired. Had the shot fallen, the Lakers would have claimed the crown. Instead, the game moved into overtime, and the Celtics outscored the Lakers, 10-7, to win the game and the NBA Championship.
1962-65: The Start Of A Trend: Celtics Clip Lakers For NBA Title
The Lakers added Dick Barnett to their roster during the offseason. Barnett, who had spent the previous two seasons with Syracuse, moved into the starting lineup at guard, and Selvy became the team's sixth man. Barnett averaged 18.0 points during 1962-63, and his contribution became critical when Jerry West missed 27 games with a leg injury. West still finished with 27.1 points per game, while Elgin Baylor poured in 34.0 points per contest to finish second in the league in scoring behind the San Francisco Warriors' Wilt Chamberlain. Los Angeles finished 53-27, repeating as Western Division champs. The Lakers then earned a rematch against the Celtics for the NBA crown by besting St. Louis in the Western Division Finals. But the Celtics, in the midst of a string of 11 championships in 13 seasons, continued to hold the upper hand, winning the series in six games.
The Lakers' two-year reign atop the Western Division came to an end during the 1963-64 season. West (28.7 ppg) and Baylor (25.4 ppg) finished fifth and sixth in the league in scoring, respectively. But the team was weak in the middle. Starting center Gene Wiley averaged only 4.3 points, and Los Angeles placed third in the division with a 42-38 record. The Lakers failed to get by the St. Louis Hawks in the first round of the playoffs.
Los Angeles rebounded from a relatively disappointing year by posting a 14-6 record to open the 1964-65 season. The Lakers then coasted to a 49-31 overall mark and their third division title in four years. As usual, West (31.0 ppg, second in the NBA) and Baylor (27.1 ppg, fifth) provided the firepower. The Lakers had a surprisingly tough time with Baltimore in the Western Division Finals, needing six games to win the series and advance.
The NBA Finals, which pitted the Lakers against the Celtics, was a lopsided affair. Baylor went down with a knee injury and was unable to play in the series. West did his best to make up for Baylor's absence by averaging 40.6 points during the postseason, but he couldn't do it alone. Boston humiliated Los Angeles in Game 1, 142-110. Only a token Lakers win in Game 3 prevented a sweep. The Celtics finished off Los Angeles in Game 5 with a 33-point rout.
1965-68: Cooke Purchases Lakers For Million
The Lakers franchise changed hands during the offseason when Bob Short sold the club to Jack Kent Cooke. Cooke paid million for the team, which not only represented a huge profit but also established that the value of an NBA franchise was on par with the value of a Major League Baseball team. Cooke left the team virtually intact. Center Darrall Imhoff and guard Walt Hazzard, who had been backups the season before, moved into the starting lineup for the 1965-66 season. Bob Boozer came to Los Angeles from New York and proved to be a valuable addition when sore knees sidelined Baylor. The Lakers also featured a promising young rookie from UCLA named Gail Goodrich.
Baylor had a tough season. Knee problems limited him to 65 games, and after scoring at least 24 points per game in each of his first seven seasons, his output dipped to just 16.6 points per contest. West (31.3 ppg) was as irrepressible as ever, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain in the NBA scoring race. The Lakers came away with the Western Division title but never really put together a hot streak during the regular season. Their best month was November, when they went 10-7. But they barely played above the .500 mark for the next three months and finished 45-35.
Los Angeles moved on to the postseason and bested the Hawks in seven games to reach the NBA Finals. Facing the Celtics for the fourth time in five years, Los Angeles stole Game 1 in an overtime thriller, then dropped three straight. Wins in Games 5 and 6 sent the series to a seventh game. Once again the Celtics prevailed, this time by the score of 95-93. Since 1959 the Lakers had faced Boston in the NBA Finals five times and had come away losers each time.
The Lakers stumbled out of contention in the 1966-67 campaign. Injuries kept Jerry West on the sidelines for 15 games and Elgin Baylor out of action for 11. The squad finished in third place in the Western Division and chalked up a losing record (36-45) for the first time since the 1960-61 campaign. San Francisco made short work of Los Angeles in the playoffs, ousting the Lakers in a three-game sweep.
That season ended Fred Schaus's reign as the team's head coach. The Lakers' pilot since the move to Los Angeles, he had guided them to the NBA Finals four times. His replacement was Bill "Butch" van Breda Kolff, who started the season in the new 17,500-seat Forum.
West missed 31 games during the 1967-68 campaign with injuries, but second-year guard Archie Clark blossomed into an offensive threat, averaging 19.9 points. Baylor led the team in scoring (26.0 ppg) and rebounding (12.2 rpg). The club improved by 16 games over the previous season, to 52-30, but finished in second place in the division behind St. Louis. The Lakers dispatched the Chicago Bulls in the division semifinals, then breezed by San Francisco in the division finals. That set up a sixth meeting between Los Angeles and Boston in the NBA Finals, and once again the Celtics came out on top, this time taking the series in six games.
1968-69: L.A. Acquires A Supercenter
By now it had become clear to everyone that the Lakers were missing the one ingredient they needed to nail down a championship-a dominating center to complement West and Baylor. And time was running out-Baylor was 34 years old and playing on gimpy legs, and West was 30. So owner Jack Kent Cooke filled the gap by wresting supercenter Wilt Chamberlain away from the Philadelphia 76ers for Clark, Darrall Imhoff, and Jerry Chambers. The 1968-69 Lakers weren't the dominating force that everyone expected them to be after the arrival of Chamberlain, but they did take the Western Division title with a 55-27 record. Chamberlain led the league in rebounding with 21.1 boards per game while West and Baylor each averaged better than 20 points.
In the playoffs the Lakers dropped the first two games of their division semifinal matchup with the San Francisco Warriors. But Los Angeles stormed back to win the next four, including a 118-78 romp in Game 6, and take the series, four games to two. The Hawks (now playing in Atlanta) came next, and the Lakers dispatched them in five games. That set up yet another Celtics-Lakers showdown, but with a new twist-a clash of the titans, with Chamberlain going up against old nemesis Bill Russell.
Los Angeles took the first two games and appeared to have a good chance at ending the Celtics' dominance. But Boston won Game 3 and then eked out a win in Game 4 after Sam Jones hit a shot at the buzzer to give the Celtics an 89-88 victory. The series went to seven games, with the deciding contest played at the Forum in Los Angeles. The Celtics built a 17-point fourth-quarter lead and then held on to win by two points. For the sixth time in eight years the Lakers had butted heads with the Celtics in the NBA Finals and had come away without a championship. Jerry West earned the first-ever NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award. It was the only time the award was given to a member of the losing team.