Johnson, who won five titles in Los Angeles between 1980 and 1988 and is now the team’s president, was speaking Monday at an event in Los Angeles that also featured the head coach for “Showtime,” Pat Riley, now the president of the Miami Heat. Asked by ESPN’s Cari Champion who would prevail in a matchup of his Lakers and these Warriors, Johnson replied, “We’re going to win.”
“We would probably sweep ’em,” said Johnson, to the delight of Champion, Riley and those in attendance.
Johnson explained his reasoning: “They’re too small.” Riley interjected with, “Try to put somebody on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.”
“Zaza?” added Johnson, referring to Golden State center Zaza Pachulia. “I’m sorry.”
Pachulia would, indeed, have great trouble guarding Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. But of course, the Georgian big man is by far the least consequential member of the Warriors’ starting lineup, which features two near-certain Hall of Famers in Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, another strong candidate in Draymond Green and a fourth all-star in Klay Thompson.
That quartet has led Golden State to a playoff sweep thus far, with the team’s 14 straight postseason wins breaking a record that had been held by its own 2016-17 version and Johnson’s 1988-89 Lakers, whose streak began in the previous playoffs and who were stunningly swept in the Finals by the Detroit Pistons. As for the Warriors being “too small,” given that they play in a small-ball era, they could also be described as “state of the art.”
The big question is how the three-point shot would factor into a hypothetical matchup between today’s Warriors and the “Showtime” Lakers, who featured a third Hall of Famer in James Worthy and an outstanding perimeter defender in Michael Cooper. The shot entered the NBA alongside Johnson in 1979, but it was used relatively sparingly in his day, unlike the bombs-away modern game.
The NBA has also made it more difficult to play physical defense, another reason teams have gone smaller, and it’s likely that the Lakers would have their collective hands full with the Warriors’ array of scoring options. In other words, it’s highly unlikely that Johnson’s crew would pull off a sweep, a sentiment with which Green was quick to agree Tuesday.
When asked about Johnson’s comments, Green laughed and said, “That’s my thoughts.” Then he added (via the New York Post), “It can never happen. First off, the game is completely different than it was back then. Nowadays, if you can’t shoot a three, you’re a liability on the floor. That wasn’t the case back then.
“So I never understand when people try to compare eras and say, ‘Oh, this team could have beat this team’ or ‘They couldn’t have beat that team.’ … They were great in their time, we’re great in our time and respect that.”
On the other hand, if you’re a Cleveland Cavaliers fan, you’re thinking it would be pretty great to see a repeat of last year’s comeback from a 2-0 (not to mention 3-1) Finals deficit. Meanwhile, Riley was happy to touch on another hot debate, the LeBron James-Michael Jordan “greatest ever” discussion.
According to Riley, “the greatest player of all time” is none other than Magic. Not the most unbiased opinion, but neither was the one coming from Johnson, not that the crowd in Los Angeles minded a bit.