I seem to have a fascination for the early 60s. Have you ever heard the saying, “those that don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it?” The thing is, for those that love the game, they LOVE the game. Everything about it. Things that would fall by the wayside to casual fans — things like the fundamentals, the strategies, the plays, the intricacies and most importantly the history of the game — these things are voraciously eaten up by fanatics of the NBA. In memoriam (of his career, not of his life) of the great Elgin Baylor, let’s take a look into what made the career of one of the best players in the history of the game.
One of the biggest tragedies of the NBA is the fact that there are so many undocumented moments in the history of the game; never having video footage of some of the greats makes it hard to keep in perspective how good these players were. If Elgin Baylor played in a time where video photography was as prevalent as it is today, he would’ve been a YouTube sensation.
Regarded as the first ‘highlight machine’ player, Baylor mixed skill with elite athleticism to create some breath-taking baskets. It was only fitting that he played his entire career with the Showtime Lakers, because Baylor sure knew how to put on a show. Scoring the ball is the most important skill in basketball, and Elgin Baylor was quite prolific at it. He put up 27.4 points per game over his 14-year career, good for third all time in scoring averages behind Michael Jordan (30.1) and Wilt Chamberlain (30.1).
Even though Baylor could play above the rim and dunk it over a couple of rim protectors, what people rave about Baylor was the variety of ways that he could score the ball. Not many would say that a 43 percent career field goal percentage is elite, but Baylor’s field goal percentages don’t even come close to telling the story of one of the greatest scorers in league history.
When looking through the available video footage of Baylor, his scoring versatility really does stand out. Reverse layups, pump-fake-side-step-leaning-in-bank-shots, tomahawk dunks, crossover pull-ups. He had the whole package, and then some. Standing at 6-5, 225, Baylor could soar high above the rim, post up the strongest defenders, blow by the best defenders and simply flat-out shoot the rock. His longtime teammate Jerry West was quoted as saying in 1992, “He was one of the most spectacular shooters the game has ever known.”
Hard to argue that when you have three consecutive seasons with over 34 points a game (34.8, 38.3, 34 from 1960-1963). Drafted first overall in 1958 by the Minneapolis Lakers (the move to Los Angeles came before the 1960-61 season), Baylor immediately showed how valuable he was to the team by turning a 19-53 team into a 33-39 squad that made it to the NBA Finals before losing to the Boston Celtics.
Baylor’s scoring ability was there from the start, averaging 24.9 points (fourth in the league) and even scoring 55 in one game, which was the third-highest mark ever at the time. With a scorer like that on the roster, Coach John Kundla made sure that Baylor was on the court as much as possible, playing the rookie 40 minutes a game, which was the third-most minutes played that year behind Bill Russell and league MVP Bob Pettit.
Baylor only got better, upping his scoring outputs four years in a row until he peaked with his 38.3 points per game average. Couple that with nearly 20 rebounds a game, and it’s easy to see why Baylor was such a two-way force. Paired with West, the duo made a huge splash in the league and helped lead the Lakers to eight Finals appearances.
Despite the talent of the two, Baylor never managed to win a championship ring, as his career arc aligned with the dominant years of Russell’s Celtics. Just as unlucky as his ringless career, Baylor never managed to win an NBA MVP (taken by Russell, Chamberlain, Pettit and Robertson) nor a scoring title — his best scoring years were overshadowed by Chamberlain’s greatest scoring years. The year Baylor notched 38.3 points per game, Wilt averaged 50.4 points.
By the traditional prerequisites of individual accolades or championships won, Elgin Baylor wouldn’t meet the requirements of being considered a great. In his career, Baylor only had two individual accolades won in the NBA — the Rookie of the Year and NBA All-Star MVP — both of which he won in the same year and one of which he shared with another player! (co-MVP with Bob Pettit). Despite being in the top five of four NBA categories one year (points per game, rebounds per game, free throw percentage and assists per game), Baylor never led the league in any one category.
However, the proud Hall of Famer rests easy at night knowing he had a brilliant career and that true basketball junkies understand greatness comes in all forms. One of the best scorers ever, Elgin Baylor is truly an NBA legend.