Perhaps more than any other player, Jerry West demonstrates that in life what you earn isn’t what you get.
Despite being greatness personified, West won just one NBA title in his career. Not that he lacked for chances. Under his watch, the Lakers made the NBA Finals nine times in 14 years. And in a fit of irony, the one time that West came out as a champion was when he put together the worst Finals series of his career.
It was the 1972 Finals and West averaged 20 points on a putrid 33% shooting. Luckily that Lakers team showed the resolve that led it to 69 regular season wins and they dispatched the Knicks in 5 games.
For years prior, West had time and time and time again proved himself unstoppable in the playoffs generally, and in the Finals particularly. In 1965 when he practically led the Lakers to the Finals single-handedly. His long-time partner Elgin Baylor was out for the playoffs and West stepped up with a playoff average of 40.6 points in 11 games. The Baltimore Bullets in the Western Division Finals got West’s fury particularly bad that postseason as he averaged 46 points… forty-six points… in the six-game series.
In 1969, the Lakers battled the Boston Celtics in the Finals for the final time in West’s career. Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor struggled in the series, but West was magnificent. He averaged 38 points and 7.5 assists in the seven-game series. In Game 7, the Lakers lost 108 to 106, but Mr. Clutch poured in 42 points on a bad hamstring and a busted ankle.
It was the kind of performance that even made his opponents sad to beat him. Celtics players interrupted their own celebration to console West, who was named the first-ever Finals MVP for his efforts. He remains the only player from a losing squad to win the Finals MVP.
Again, what you’ve earned isn’t always what you get.
Standing just 6’2″ tall, Jerry West achieved his greatness through a hard-nosed demeanor. He relentlessly attacked the basket. He has a litany of nose fractures as evidence of this tactic. The fouls he racked up on opponents earned him a tremendous amount of free throws throughout his career. He still has the 6th most free throws made in NBA history. His drives were made more effective by the fact he was a deadly jump shooter. The deadly jump shot was made more lethal by the fact he was a tremendous passer.
His extremely long arms coupled with his hellish, relentless nature made him a staggering defender. Steals weren’t recorded until West’s final season (1973-74) but the old and hampered West still averaged 2.6 steals per game. Despite his height, he was also a very good rebounder. The same attitude that made him drive the lane on offense compelled him to crash the boards on defense.
His versatility allowed him to lead the league in scoring in 1970 and in assists in 1972. His zeal to win and his brilliant mind, ensured that he could transition from shooting guard of the 1960s to point guard of the 1970s without sacrificing much, if anything, in his effectiveness.
Simply put he was a flawless player who in the end received something no one else can match. The shy West certainly didn’t set out to be the most recognizable player in the history of the NBA, but well, he is…
Years Played: 1960 – 1974
Finals MVP (1969)
10x All-NBA 1st Team (1962-’67, 1970-’73)
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1968-’69)
4x All-Defensive 1st Team (1970-’73)
All-Defensive 2nd Team (1969)
14x All-Star (1961-’74)
All-Star Game MVP (1972)
NBA – 932 Games
27.0 PPG, 6.7 APG, 5.8 RPG, 47.4% FG, 81.4% FT
PPG Leader (1970), APG Leader (1972)
Contemporary NBA Ranks (1960-61 through 1973-74 season)
3rd Points, 6th PPG
3rd FGs Made, 26th FG%
2nd FTs Made, 19th FT%
3rd Assists, 6th APG
10th Games Played, 5th Minutes Played