How did the Lakers get James Worthy? Exploring how the Lakers drafted him in 1982

James Worthy of the LA Lakers during an NBA game.
James Worthy of the LA Lakers during an NBA game

James Worthy was the No. 1 pick in the 1982 NBA Draft by the LA Lakers out of North Carolina.

Worthy remains the only player selected No. 1 by the defending NBA champions. So, how did the Lakers manage to get the first pick in 1982 despite winning the championship a few weeks before?

The pick was originally owned by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Ted Stepien had bought the team ahead of the 1979-80 season and wanted to turn things around for the Cavaliers. He traded the team's first-round picks from 1982 to 1986 to improve their roster.

Cleveland traded their 1982 first-round pick to the Lakers along with guard Butch Lee in exchange for forward Don Ford and a 1980 first-round pick. Fast forward to a few years, and the Cavaliers had the worst record at the end of the 1981-82 season.


The LA Lakers, meanwhile, beat the Philadelphia 76ers to win their second NBA championship of the decade. Equipped with the Cleveland Cavaliers' 1982 first-round pick, the Lakers won a coin toss against the San Diego Clippers to claim the No. 1 selection that year's draft.

The Lakers picked James Worthy out of North Carolina, and he would turn out to be a perfect fit alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. Worthy came off the bench as a rookie but still managed 13.4 points and 5.2 rebounds on 57.9% shooting.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers did not win 30 games in the next four seasons as they struggled to rebuild without those first-round picks. Stepien subsequently sold the team in 1983, and the franchise's fortunes soon turned around. Cleveland would make the playoffs four times in the rest of the decade.

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James Worthy's NBA career

James Worthy of the LA Lakers
James Worthy of the LA Lakers

James Worthy is among the greatest players in LA Lakers history. Worthy played his entire 12-year career with the Lakers and won three NBA championships. He became a starter in his second season after the Lakers had traded Jamaal Wilkes.

He earned his first ring in 1985 when the Lakers conquered the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. He became an All-Star the next year and ended up with seven in total. Worthy won his second championship in 1987 after another NBA Finals win over the Celtics.

However, Worthy's biggest achievement happened the next year when he won the 1988 NBA Finals MVP. He averaged 22.0 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 4.4 assists against the Detroit Pistons. He saved the best for last in Game 7, when he put up 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists.


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Edited by Juan Paolo David