1996-2004: Return To GloryFuture hall-of-famers Shaquille O'Neal (left), and Kobe Bryant (right), would help the Lakers to win three NBA titles in a row. Though they played well together on the court, the pair had an acrimonious relationship at times in the locker room later on.
During the 1996 off-season, the Lakers acquired 17-year-old Kobe Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets for Vlade Divac; Bryant was drafted 13th overall out of Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania in that year's draft, by Charlotte. Los Angeles also signed free-agent and former Magic Shaquille O'Neal. Trading for Bryant was West's idea, and he was influential in the team's signing of the all-star center. "Jerry West is the reason I came to the Lakers," O'Neal later said. They used their 24th pick in the draft to select Derek Fisher. During the 1996–97 season, the team traded Cedric Ceballos to Phoenix for Robert Horry. O'Neal led the team to a 56–26 record, their best effort since 1990–91, despite missing 31 games due to a knee injury. O'Neal averaged 26.2 ppg and 12.5 rpg and finished third in the league in blocked shots (2.88 bpg) in 51 games. The Lakers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the 1997 NBA Playoffs. O'Neal scored 46 points in Game 1 against the Trail Blazers, marking the highest single-game playoff scoring output by a Laker since Jerry West scored 53 against the Celtics in 1969. Despite a NBA-record 7-for-7 three-point shooting performance from Lorry in game 2, the Lakers lost the next round four games to one to the Utah Jazz. Karl Malone and John Stockton subsequently lost the finals to the Bulls 4-2.
In the following 1997–98 season, the Lakers were the only team without a player over the age of 30 and were joined by Rick Fox from the Boston Celtics. They started off with the best start in franchise history, 11-0. Los Angeles battled Seattle for the Pacific Division title most of the season. In the final two months, the Lakers won 22 of their final 25 games, finishing 61–21, and passing Seattle in the standings. O'Neal - although missing 20 games due to an abdominal injury - was dominant, finishing only second to Michael Jordan in scoring, and leading the league in field-goal percentage (.584). The Lakers defeated Portland three games to one in the first-round of the play-offs. The following round, Seattle took a one-game lead, with the Lakers responding with four straight wins, taking the series. They were swept again by the Jazz in the Conference Finals, who in turn would again lose to Chicago in the Finals.
During the lockout-shortened 1998–99 season, All-Star guard Eddie Jones and center Elden Campbell were traded to the Charlotte Hornets to acquire Glen Rice. Nick Van Exel was traded to the Denver Nuggets, and the flamboyant Dennis Rodman joined the team, though he was cut after just 23 games. The team also acquired J. R. Reid, and B. J. Armstrong. Harris was fired in February after a three game losing streak and replaced on an interim basis by former Laker Kurt Rambis. The team finished 31–19 in the shortened season, which was fourth in the Western Conference. Los Angeles defeated Houston 3-1 in the first round of the playoffs, but were swept by San Antonio in the next round with game 4 being the last game ever played at the Great Western Forum.
The 1999–2000 season brought upon four huge changes: a new home floor at Staples Center (which they share with the city rival Los Angeles Clippers), newer, more modern jerseys replacing the ones worn by the Lakers since the late 70's, a new coach in Phil Jackson, and a new system: the triangle offense. The new philosophy proved to be potent, as the Lakers started off strong, winning 31 of their first 36 games. They also were able to string together winning streaks of 16, 19, and 11 games, becoming only the third team in NBA history to have three double-digit streaks in one season.
Despite topping the league with a 67–15 record in the regular season, the Lakers found themselves struggling in the playoffs, needing all five games to knock off the Sacramento Kings and coming back from 15 points down in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against Portland. The Indiana Pacers, coached by the Lakers' old nemesis, Larry Bird, proved to be slightly less of a problem, however, and in six games, the Lakers claimed their first NBA championship since 1988. Shaquille O'Neal picked up both MVP and Finals MVP awards in 2000. Having also shared the 2000 All-Star Game MVP award, he was only the third player in NBA history to win all three awards in the same season. Kobe Bryant was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team, the youngest player to earn the honor. Bryant had blossomed under Coach Jackson, as had Lakers role players such as Derek Fisher, Rick Fox and Robert Horry.
The Lakers certainly looked the favorite repeat the following year, but they had a tougher time of it, accumulating 16 losses by the All-Star break, one more than they had had the entire season before. Nevertheless, they pulled together and were able to edge Sacramento for the division title. Then the team went on a tear, sweeping the first three playoff series. The Lakers-Spurs series in the conference finals was the most lopsided conference finals series in NBA History, with the Lakers winning by an average of 22 points per game. The Lakers lost the first game of the NBA Finals to Philadelphia, but that only proved to be a temporary blip, as they swept the next four games to claim their second consecutive championship. O'Neal collected his second Finals MVP and Derek Fisher set a playoff record with 15 three-pointers in the series against San Antonio. The Lakers concluded the 2001 playoffs with a staggering 15-1 record, the best single season playoff record in NBA history.
Would a third consecutive championship be possible? The Lakers certainly thought so, and they started strongly in the 2001-2002 season, winning 16 of their first 17, but an arthiritic toe hobbled O'Neal for much of the season and the Lakers lost the division crown to the Sacramento Kings. Thus began a memorable post-season for Robert Horry, who sealed the first series against Portland with a game-winning three-pointer, enabling the Lakers to sweep. The Lakers followed with a 4–1 defeat of San Antonio in the second round. In the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers faced the immensely talented Sacramento Kings, a team many believed was ready to finally make it over the hump and get to the NBA Finals. The series, which will most likely go down as one of the most exciting Conference Finals in NBA history, was neck and neck throughout. The Kings were only seconds away from taking a commanding 3–1 series lead in Game 4 in Los Angeles before a 3-pointer at the buzzer by Robert Horry saved the Lakers, tied the series at 2–2, and enabled the Lakers to push the series to a seventh and deciding game in Sacramento. Game 7 proved to be as dramatic as the previous games in the series, with the Lakers eventually defeating the Kings in overtime and advancing to the NBA Finals.
The championship series against the New Jersey Nets was a mere formality, as the Lakers swept all four games in one of the most lopsided NBA Finals ever. By securing their third straight NBA Championship, the Lakers of 2000–2002 earned their place in NBA history. O'Neal won his third consecutive Finals MVP award joining only Michael Jordan as players to have achieved such honors, and Jackson won his ninth championship as a head coach, tying Celtics legend Red Auerbach, while surpassing Pat Riley as the coach with the most playoff victories.
The Laker juggernaut seemed unstoppable, and a fourth consecutive championship was in their sights. However, they started off poorly, with Shaquille O'Neal missing the first 12 games while recovering from toe surgery, and then taking time to get into game shape. At Christmas, the team was 11–19, but then Kobe Bryant turned in the best sustained performance of his career, setting NBA records for youngest player to reach 10,000 points, most three-pointers in a game (12), most three-pointers in a half (8), and most consecutive three-pointers in a game (9). Additionally, he set a team record for most points in a half (42), scored 40+ points in 9 consecutive games (joining Chamberlain and Jordan), scored 35+ points in 13 consecutive games (trailing only Chamberlain), became the third player to average 40 points in a month, and became the first Laker to record a triple-double in consecutive games since Magic Johnson in 1991.
The Lakers finished the season with a 50–32 record, their 27th 50+ victory season since moving to Los Angeles. In the playoffs, the pivotal moment was a familiar one. With the series tied at two games apiece, the Lakers were already missing one of their tri-captains in Rick Fox, who had torn a ligament in his left foot during the Minnesota series. San Antonio led by as many as 25 points in the game before the Lakers' poise and confidence once again emerged down the stretch. Down 18 in the final period, Los Angeles dug deep and rallied, leaving themselves a two-point deficit with a mere 14.7 ticks left on the clock. The game would come down to a familiar hero in a familiar situation. Following the inbounds pass and with 3.6 seconds remaining in the game, Robert Horry let fly the potential game-winning three-pointer — only this time the Lakers saw the ball go in, then inexplicably rim out. A shot that had always fallen in the past would not this time around. It was a moment that legendary Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn, who had died shortly before the season after 42 years as the only play-by-play announcer the Los Angeles Lakers had ever had, would probably have described by exclaiming, "In and out, heartbrrrrreak!"
Rather than rejoicing in another last-second victory that would have given them a 3-2 series lead and a chance to finish the Spurs off back home in Los Angeles, the Lakers instead faced the dejection of having been so close, but now facing a 3-2 deficit and now being on the brink of elimination. The Spurs did not waste their chance to finish off the Lakers. They swarmed the Lakers in Game 6 and put an end to the Lakers' dreams of a fourth consecutive NBA championship.
Determined to reclaim the title in Dr. Buss' 25th year of ownership, the Lakers brought in free agents Karl Malone and Gary Payton, and started the 2003–04 season with a bang, winning 20 of their first 25 games, during which time Malone became the oldest player to record a triple-double. But then Malone went down with a knee injury, and other ailments to Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant soon followed, leaving Payton to lead the younger players in an offensive system with which he wasn't particularly familiar. Additionally the team faced the ongoing distraction of Bryant's sexual assault case and the sniping between O'Neal and Bryant which had ensued after Bryant was charged.
Still, the team managed to keep things together long enough for everyone to recover, closing the season in style with 14 victories in 17 games, and a Pacific Division title thanks to Bryant's two buzzer-beating three-pointers against Portland: one to tie the game at the end of regulation, and the second to win it in double-overtime. Without Horry in the playoffs, it was up to Fisher to save the team with a game-winning buzzer-beater. Again the Lakers were down 0-2 to San Antonio (at this time, the defending champions) in the semifinals. Again they were able to tie the series two games a piece at home. Again they were down as Game 5 drew to a close. Fisher's miraculous basket, coming off of an inbounds play that began with just 0.4 seconds left in the game, would achieve acclaim as one of the NBA's most amazing playoff moments. This time, the Lakers returned home for Game 6 indeed relishing the joy of their improbable win, and they took advantage of their chance to finish off the Spurs, taking the game to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
After storming through the number one seed Minnesota Timberwolves in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers were expected to run roughshod over their NBA Finals opponents, the Detroit Pistons. But it wound up being the other way around, with the Pistons winning the series easily in five games, playing a team-oriented game featuring a particularly stingy defense.
Read more about this topic: History Of The Los Angeles Lakers
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