In this ongoing series, we will take a trip to yesteryear to highlight some Los Angeles Lakers players whom some fans may have forgotten. These players didn’t get the billing that some others enjoyed, but they were very instrumental to the Lakers’ success.
Back in the day, Sam Perkins was a standout power forward in the NBA who was a difference-maker on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. He came to the Lakers at a time when they appeared to be in slow decline, and he helped them make one last run at glory at the end of the Showtime era.
Perkins was just what the Lakers needed at the start of the 1990s
Perkins, who stood 6-foot-9 and weighed 235 pounds, was the No. 4 pick in the 1984 NBA Draft. He was a standout and a three-time All-American at the University of North Carolina, and he was taken ahead of Hall of Famers Charles Barkley and John Stockton.
After winning a gold medal with Team USA in the 1984 Summer Olympics, Perkins was named to the All-Rookie First Team. In six seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, he averaged 14.4 points and 8.0 rebounds a game while also gaining a reputation as an excellent interior defender.
In 1990, the Lakers lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Phoenix Suns, ending a run during which they reached the NBA Finals seven times in eight years. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had retired a year ago, while super sub Michael Cooper and head coach Pat Riley left that summer.
The Lakers were a bit thin in the frontcourt at the time. Starting center Mychal Thompson was starting to decline, and while Vlade Divac showed promise as a rookie during the 1989-90 season, he wasn’t ready to carry a large burden.
So they signed Perkins as a free agent to a large sum of money. He became their starting power forward, but he could also play center at times when needed. His excellent ability to score in the post somewhat filled the void created by Abdul-Jabbar’s decline and departure, and it helped L.A. feel a bit revitalized.
Many expected the team to decline during the 1990-91 campaign, but with Perkins’ help, it instead finished 58-24. He played outstanding ball in the Western Conference Finals versus the Portland Trail Blazers, who had the league’s best record, and he scored 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting in Game 6 to help the Lakers advance to the NBA Finals.
There, they went up against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, and Perkins had arguably the highlight of his career when he hit the game-winning 3-pointer in Game 1.
Unfortunately, Los Angeles lost the series in five games. That November, Magic Johnson announced he was retiring after testing positive for HIV, and there went the Showtime era.
Everyone had to pick things up to keep the Lakers competitive, and Perkins responded by putting up a career-high 16.5 points a game during the 1991-92 season. He suffered a season-ending injury in March, but even without him, they barely made the playoffs as the seventh seed.
By the following campaign, the Lakers had become old and crippled. Hall of Famer James Worthy, one of the few remaining links to Showtime, was a thin shell of his former self, and it was clear the team needed to bite the bullet and rebuild.
General manager Jerry West triggered that rebuilding process by trading Perkins to the Seattle SuperSonics for rookie guard Doug Christie and center Benoit Benjamin. Basketball-wise, it didn’t help the team, as Christie would take a few more years to develop, while Benjamin was a bona fide bust. But it did get L.A. out of Perkins’ big contract, which allowed it to move forward with a youth movement.
The big man was heartbroken about being traded, but he would go on to have several more productive years. He would reach the NBA Finals two more times, and ironically, one of those championship series appearances came in 20000 against the Lakers, who were now led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.