50 Years of Lakers Memories – 3PEAT
• dEDGE Post Scriptum •
Take a deep breath… The Lakers will be fine. Repeat this 3-times. Sure there’s been some hiccups along the way, but they’ve always managed to get to the promised land. Take a few moments to reflect back on some spectacular moments in Lakers history.
There are thousands upon thousands of Laker images that evoke fond memories of past glory, and perhaps arguably one of the most memorable was Robert Horry knocking down a three-pointer for the win, from the top-of-the-key, as time ran out against the hated, Sacramento Kings. The red lights behind the basket that signify the game clock hitting 0:00 was ablaze as the ball was in mid-flight on its trajectory towards the basket. In the balance was a possible 3-1 deficit to the suddenly surging Kings. But the Los Angeles Lakers had managed to whittle down an almost, insurmountable 24-point lead and evened the series at two games apiece on Horry’s game winner. They would go on to defeat the Kings in the 2002 Western Conference Finals 4-3 and snare their second, back-to-back title, shutting out the New Jersey Nets, 4-0. But before all of the glory of three consecutive championships, there were some lean years that went along with the growing pains of a young squad trying to make its mark in the upper echelons of professional basketball.
The coup of the 1996 off-season was Jerry West’s acquisition of Orlando Magic free agent center, Shaquille O’Neal. But a draft day trade with the Charlotte Hornets was perhaps of even greater importance as the Lakers traded for the rights to high school phenom, Kobe Bryant in exchange for veteran Vlade Divac. The trade was initially held up by an unhappy Divac, threatening to retire instead of reporting to the Hornets. But after some pleading and prodding by the Lakers front office (with some help from Magic Johnson), Divac eventually agreed and the teenager officially became a Laker. The 1996 team was full of newcomers as well as the return of Byron Scott. Scott’s mentoring of a young Kobe Bryant went a long way in preparing him for the rigors of the NBA. And while Shaq was the star of the show, as well as the talk of the town, Kobe remained to himself, practicing and trying to find a way to get more playing time from coach Del Harris. Kobe stayed late after practice to hone his game with another rookie on the team trying to make an impression, Derek Fisher. The Lakers, behind a dominating O’Neal, posted a 56-26 record, good enough for second place behind the Seattle Supersonics. But there were difficulties internally as the team tried to mesh itself around Shaq’s game. The first to be jettisoned was Cedric Ceballos, fresh off his mid-season (unauthorized) vacation in Lake Havasu. Harris had already begun to notice the difficulty that Elden Campbell was having playing alongside Shaq. Campbell was accustomed to occupying the paint, while his frontcourt mate in Divac would roam the perimeter. But Shaq was a immovable object in the post and Campbell’s game suffered. The Lakers would lose in the second round to the Stockton-Malone 1-2 punch and their Utah Jazz, 4-1.
No longer able to suppress the eagerness and talents of Kobe, Harris was forced to start playing the youngster the following season. Kobe’s minutes rose from 15.5 to 26 minutes a game. His 15.4 points per game was third highest on the team even though he was still logging fewer minutes and not yet in the starting line-up. And as Kobe’s production rose, it started to become more and more evident that there was a logjam at shooting guard with starter Eddie Jones. The Lakers would improve on their previous campaign with a 61-21 record, good enough for first place alongside Seattle in the Pacific Division but behind them due to the tie-breaker. The Lakers would run over the Portland Trailblazers 3-1 in the first round, unseat Seattle in the second round, 4-1 only to encounter the same Utah Jazz team in the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers believed that they finally had all of the pieces for a shot at the title. Now comfortable in his second season was sharpshooter Robert Horry and joining the team was veteran small forward Rick Fox, who brought toughness and a strong defensive presence. Nick Van Exel and Jones were a formidable backcourt and with Shaq anchoring the middle, the Lakers looked tough to beat. But the Jazz easily swept them 4-0 with superior ball movement combined with a suffocating defense on everyone except Shaq. They simply let O’Neal have his points, but stymied the rest of the squad and dared them to beat them from the perimeter. A perplexed Bryant would only average 20-minutes per game in the post-season, the result of Harris wanting to go with his veterans. After a Game 3 loss and 0-3 deficit, the disheartened Lakers looked for some sort of inspiration. As they huddled to break practice, a cavalier Van Exel would shout out, “1, 2, 3, Cancun.” Van Exel’s days as a Laker quickly evaporated as news of his outburst became public. It would prove to be a difficult off-season for the Lakers and also for the entire league.
The strike-shortened 1998 season was full of turmoil and unrest. Unable to agree on a collective bargaining agreement, the season started, or rather did not start until February. The regular season consisted of a shortened 50-game schedule; the 6-time champion Chicago Bulls were dismantled with Michael Jordan retiring for the second time; and here in Lakerland, the unrest had only just begun. 1998-99 would also mark the last season that the Lakers would call the Great Western Forum home. A new facility was being built in downtown LA where owner Jerry Buss envisioned luxury suites that would surpass any arena in the league. Gone were Van Exel and soon to follow were Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell. The Lakers signed high scoring Glen Rice to help open up the middle for Shaq. And along the way, Harris was fired and replaced by interim coach Kurt Rambis. Buss would gamble and lose with the signing of Dennis Rodman. The rebounding demon proved to more headache than player as his antics caused nothing but turmoil within the organization. The Lakers would fall well short of expectations as the team imploded in disarray by the end of the season. They would lose to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round and General Manager Jerry West knew it was time for a drastic change. The pieces were all there, he just needed someone to mold them all together into an efficient, well-oiled machine. Enter Phil Jackson.
Red Auerbach, Red Holtzman, Chuck Daly, Larry Brown, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson. Among these Hall-of-Fame coaches, who ranks as the greatest NBA head coach of all time? If you decided by the statistics alone, Phil Jackson with his .706 winning percentage clearly stands alone. His 10 championships give him the most ever, one more than the legendary Auerbach. He became only the sixth NBA coach in league history to reach 1,000 wins last season. Yet there remain detractors that he inherited talented, far superior teams that only needed someone to roll out the balls. They used to say this about Pat Riley after he stepped down from his temporary perch, situated high above the Forum floor next to Chick Hearn, after he had won his first NBA title with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982. Four NBA titles later (Lakers-3/Miami Heat-1), and now this is just foolish fodder spurned on by other jealous organizations still searching for their first sip of champagne. Phil has 10 rings in addition to the 2 he earned as a player with the Knicks, yet he is still questioned on his uncanny good fortune, his moxie, and his coaching abilities. Even Laker fans fuel this speculation by second guessing his play calls, or lack thereof. Phil will leave his players stranded on a deserted island in order to force them to figure a way off by themselves. And when they become castaways on Gilligan’s Island, the critics appear out in force.
A good teacher teaches. A better teacher empowers his pupils to think for themselves. Split-second decisions can make or break a title run. It is within these instances where Jackson uses the regular season to teach these lessons. If Phil called a time-out on every possession to set up a play, all intuitiveness is lost. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden rarely called time-outs during games nor felt that they were all that necessary. Practices were where players were taught. Games were for the execution of those lessons. Phil has obviously succeeded in this approach, for his record speaks for itself. Our passion as Laker fans live in every detail, the smallest of minutiae, and each split second of every contest. These are the reasons why we yell at the television screen, palms up in disbelief over a botched play that could have been set-up during a timeout. But these are the sacrifices that we must learn to endure, with our primary focus directed on the bigger prize–a taste of bubbly and a shiny, new trophy.
The 1999-2000 season saw the Los Angeles Lakers move into their brand new arena, Staples Center, with renewed vigor, a new attitude, and a new head coach. PJ brought along some familiar faces from his days with the Chicago Bulls. Joining him on the bench were Assistants Tex Winter, Frank Hamblen, and Jim Cleamons. The lone holdover was Bill Bertka, a Lakers-lifer that dated back to his days as an Assistant under Bill Sharman with Wilt and Jerry, to the success of the ’80s with Pat Riley. The team also retooled and brought in veterans Ron Harper, John Salley, Brian Shaw and former Showtime power forward, AC Green. Shaq also trained hard in the off-season and benefitted from a little prodding from Phil. He turned that season into his personal showcase, running away with the regular season MVP honors. Kobe was also entrenched in becoming the most talented player in the game and his skills were showcased that season as he became the Lakers secondary weapon in their potent 1-2 offense. Shaq averaged 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3 blocks per game. Kobe would provide 22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists as the two combined to become the most feared tandem in the league. The Lakers rolled to a league-leading 67-15 record, steamrolled the Sacramento Kings in the first round, eliminated the Phoenix Suns in the second round, then met the Portland Trailblazers in the Conference Finals. In a memorable series that see-sawed back and forth, the Lakers would stage a dramatic comeback in the 4th quarter of Game 7 to clinch the series for a trip to the Finals against the Indiana Pacers. Shaq’s tip-jam off a beautiful
lob-feed from Kobe was emblematic of all of their years of struggle, finally pushing them over the top. Their battle with Indiana was anti-climatic at best, and only an injury to Kobe provided momentary drama to the series. The Lakers would win their first championship of the Phil Jackson era with Shaq taking home Finals MVP honors. As the squad celebrated on the court, talk of repeating soon followed. And they did not disappoint.
The following campaign saw the favored Lakers bring aboard another Jackson favorite, power forward Horace Grant. The coaching staff saw how the Lakers were pushed to the brink against the physical Blazers and traded Rice to New York along with back-up Travis Knight for Grant and Greg Foster. Both were familiar with Jackson’s triangle offense and would bring the needed toughness and rebounding that the team lacked. The team sputtered in the first half of the season, and at the All-Star break were a meager 31-16. Injuries to Derek Fisher, O’Neal and Bryant would limit their combined time on the floor, but as the season came to a close, the Lakers were just beginning to hit their stride. They would sweep Portland, Sacramento and San Antonio in the playoffs and would grab their second title in a row
with a 4-1 Finals beating on Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers. Shaq would register his second Finals MVP award averaging 33 points and 15.8 rebounds against the Sixers. The team’s quest for the elusive Threepeat would start with a bang. Winners of 16 out of 17 games out of the gates, the Lakers had incorporated another new cast of supporting characters. Gone were Harper, Grant and Foster and in their place were Lindsey Hunter, Samaki Walker and perennial all-star Mitch Richmond from the Golden State Warriors. But a visibly larger Shaq had begun to suffer from feet pain and took time off to rest and heal. Meanwhile, Kobe had assumed more of the scoring role and was quickly becoming known as the possible heir apparent to Air Jordan himself. The comparisons were always there, even when Kobe first entered the league. But this time, he was living up to the lofty standards that MJ had set. The Lakers entered the post-season as the number three seed and met the Portland Trailblazers in the first round. The Lakers had a relatively easy time against the Blazers, capped by a Horry three-pointer to secure the sweep. They next took care of the San Antonio Spurs 4-1 and bounded into the WCF with an abundance of confidence and swagger. After an easy blowout win in Game 1 against the Sacramento Kings, the Lakers found themselves in a dogfight, down 2-1 and on the verge of losing Game 4 if not for Horry’s heroics from the top-of-the-key. The Lakers would eventually eliminate the Kings in overtime in a decisive Game 7 and go on to steamroll the New Jersey Nets 4-0 in the Finals.
Back-to-back-to-back. The Los Angeles Lakers had matched what only the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls had accomplished. Not even the great Showtime Lakers could say that they won three titles in a row. No single team in the entire league stood a chance against the mighty Los Angeles Lakers. Free-agents-to-be contemplated moving to the Eastern Conference just so they wouldn’t have to face the Lakers in the playoffs and thus, their only hope of reaching the Finals. Coaching staffs could not devise game plans to slow down the combo of Shaq and Kobe. And with their group of veteran role players filling every other need, the Lakers appeared on the verge of another dynasty much like the Auerbach-led Celtics. Little did anyone know, that the Lakers biggest opponent wasn’t on another team or some genius defensive masterplan, but rather a simple, self-destructive emotion known as jealousy.