Showtime Lakers, revisited: How Jerry West built an NBA dynasty in Los Angeles

Jerry West was a Lakers legend on the court, making nine NBA Finals during his 14-year playing career and winning a title in 1972. He made an even bigger contribution to the team’s 17 banners as an executive. 

The Showtime Lakers dominated the 80’s, making nine NBA Finals appearances and winning five championships behind the electric play of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They electrified Los Angeles with their up-tempo play. 

Those two, along with Pat Riley, get most of the credit for that era of Los Angeles basketball. But it was West who was behind the scenes, putting much of that roster together as the General Manager starting in 1982 and a scout three years before that title change.

Here’s how he helped engineer one of the greatest dynasties in league history. 

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How Jerry West built the Showtime Lakers.

Convincing Pat Riley to take over as head coach

The Showtime Lakers won their first title with coach Paul Westhead, who was fired in 1981 after he couldn’t get along with Magic Johnson. 

Owner Jerry Buss originally wanted West and Pat Riley to coach the team together in place of Westhead. West had already coached the Lakers previously, and didn’t want to return to those ranks. West told Riley that he would have to be the head coach of the team. 

Riley went on to become one of the best coaches of all time, and West thrived as an executive. 

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Jerry West’s controversial role in the Magic Johnson draft

West was working as a scout for the Lakers when they had the No. 1 pick in the 1979 draft. He actually preferred a different prospect over Johnson, according to Jeff Pearlman’s book Showtime. 

“West wanted [Sidney] Moncrief, and he made it very clear to [owner] Jack Kent Cooke,” Pearlman wrote. 

West wasn’t totally wrong on that talent evaluation — Moncrief ended up making five All-Star teams and the Hall of Fame. But Magic was clearly the better player. 

Finding Michael Cooper in the third round

Along with Magic, the Lakers also found a steal with the 60th pick of the 1978 draft. West was working as a coach for the Lakers at the time, but was also consulted on personnel decisions.

The Lakers selected Cooper, who was named to eight All-Defensive teams over the course of his career and won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1987. He was a part of all five championship teams, and was later enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Drafting James Worthy

One No. 1 pick West did nail was James Worthy, who went with the top pick in 1982. Worthy was coming off a great career at North Carolina and helped the Lakers to championships in 1985, 1987, and 1988. 

Worthy made seven All-Star teams with the Lakers and was named to the Hall of Fame after 12 terrific seasons with the franchise. 

Signing Kurt Rambis

Rambis was drafted by the Knicks in 1980 but couldn’t find a way to stick in the league until the Lakers signed him in the summer of 1981. He was part of four championship teams, becoming a fan favorite because of his defense, rebounding, and hustle plays.

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Rambis was originally hesitant about joining up with the Lakers. West was working as a scout at the time and personally called Rambis in the hopes that he would try out. Ultimately it was a combination of West and coach Paul Westhead who convinced Rambis to join on. 

Other acquisitions

West made other good signings on the margins to supplement the talent on the Showtime Lakers. He brought in Byron Scott in 1983, A.C. Green in 1985, and Mychal Thompson in 1987. 

The rosters that West built remained competitive until 1991, when Magic Johnson first retired from the league. From 1979-1991, the Showtime Lakers went 712-272, winning 72.4 percent of their games to go along with their five championships.


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