1991-96: The Lean Years
On November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson made the shocking announcement that he had been diagnosed with the HIV virus and was thusly retiring from the NBA at the age of 31.
The 1991-92 Lakers struggled with the news of Magic's retirement and serious injuries to key players. They did manage to win 43 games and qualify for the playoffs for a then-NBA-record 16th consecutive time, thanks in no small way to the offseason recruitment of guard Sedale Threatt. However, playing without the injured James Worthy and Sam Perkins, the Lakers were overmatched by a powerful Portland Trail Blazers team and lost the first round series three games to one. That series featured one of the Lakers' "home" games being played in Las Vegas due to the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Dunleavy decided to leave the Lakers prior to the 1992–93 season to take charge of the Milwaukee Bucks' organization. Long-time Laker assistant coach Randy Pfund was promoted to replace him. The 1992-93 Lakers fought off an early injury to guard Byron Scott and posted a respectable 33-29 record over the first 61 games. The Lakers then traded Sam Perkins to the Seattle SuperSonics for Benoit Benjamin and the rights to rookie Doug Christie. The trade upset an already fragile team as they closed the season with a poor 6-14 run, but did manage to qualify for the playoffs. The Lakers surprised the basketball world by winning the first two games of the series against the powerful Phoenix Suns on the road, including a 35 point performance by Sedale Threatt in Game 1. However the Lakers lost the final three games of the series, including an overtime thriller on the road in the fifth and final game, with Phoenix prevailing over the Lakers three games to one.
Vlade Divac and draft pick Nick Van Exel led the team in scoring the next year, but it was rough going. After losing veteran players Byron Scott and A. C. Green to free agency and with James Worthy in the final season of his career, the team posted a 33-49 record and failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. The Lakers did make a late playoff push when Pfund was fired and Magic Johnson took over as head coach. Unfortunately for Laker fans, Johnson went on to lose the final ten games of the season, which is to date the worst losing streak in franchise history. Realizing that he was not cut out for coaching, Johnson stepped aside and the Lakers appointed Del Harris as their head coach going into the 1994-1995 season.
The Lakers were one of the most improved teams in 1994-95, posting a 48-34 record and returning to the playoffs after a one-year absence. The vast improvement was due to several reasons, including the coaching of Harris, the improved play of second year guard Nick Van Exel, the maturing of veteran players Vlade Divac and Elden Campbell, and the offseason signing of Cedric Ceballos and drafting of rookie Eddie Jones. Ceballos went on to record the first 50-point game by a Laker player in over 20 years. The Lakers won their first playoff series in the post-Magic era, beating the talented Seattle SuperSonics three games to one before losing to the Western Conference's number one seed San Antonio Spurs four games to two. Harris was named Coach of the Year and Jerry West won the NBA Executive of the Year Award.
The Lakers brought back essentially the same team in 1995-96 and had posted a 24-18 record after 42 games. On January 30, 1996 Magic Johnson returned to the Lakers as a reserve power forward and registered 19 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds in his first game back against the Golden State Warriors. Johnson played well in the first few weeks of his return and sparked the Lakers to a 29-11 record while he was back in uniform. However, as the season progressed the wheels began to fall off as Johnson's age and time away from the game began to affect his performance. Team captain Cedric Ceballos was suspended by the team, Nick Van Exel was suspended for seven games for shoving a referee, and Johnson even lost his cool, getting ejected from a late-season game for bumping an official. The imploding Lakers lost in the first round of the playoffs to the defending champion Houston Rockets three games to one. Magic Johnson retired again following the season.
Read more about this topic: History Of The Los Angeles Lakers