Lakers Season Capsules
The Lakers franchise predates the NBA. The Minneapolis Lakers' first season was 1947-48, when the team entered the National Basketball League. A strange series of events early that year landed the Lakers the biggest prize in the game at that time-center George Mikan.
Mikan was a 6-10 giant of a man who had dominated college basketball in his four years at DePaul. He joined the Chicago American Gears at the end of the 1945-46 season, then led the Gears to the NBL Championship the following year.
Prior to the 1947-48 campaign Maurice White, president of the American Gear Company and owner of the Chicago team, pulled the club out of the NBL. White's plan was to create a 24-team circuit called the Professional Basketball League of America, in which he would own all of the teams and all of the arenas. But the new league lasted barely a month, and the players on White's teams were distributed among the 11 NBL franchises. The first-year Minneapolis Lakers landed Mikan strictly by chance.
The Lakers were a good team even without Mikan. The club featured a fine forward named Jim Pollard and one of the better playmakers in the league in Herm Schaefer. Coaching the squad was John Kundla, who had been hired away from the University of Minnesota. But once the bespectacled Mikan joined the Lakers there was no stopping them.
Minneapolis walked away with the NBL crown that season. After winning the Western Division by 13 games, the team disposed of the Oshkosh All-Stars, the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, and the Rochester Royals. Minneapolis lost only two games during the postseason, one in the first round and one in the finals against the Royals. Mikan paced the circuit in scoring during the regular season with 21.3 points per game and was tops in postseason play with an average of 24.4 points per contest.
Before the 1948-49 season began the Minneapolis Lakers, Rochester Royals, Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons and Indianapolis Kautskys (later renamed the Jets) jumped to the Basketball Association of America. The BAA was already an eight-team league that included franchises in such major markets as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. The addition of the four NBL teams now gave the league the big-name players it needed.
The biggest name of all was Mikan, and fans flocked to see him in every BAA city. When the Lakers arrived in New York to face the Knickerbockers, the marquee at Madison Square Garden read "George Mikan vs. Knicks."
Rochester and Minneapolis dueled for the top spot in the BAA's Western Division, but the Royals edged out the Lakers by one game, even though the tall, broad-shouldered, and extremely agile Mikan played with unstoppable force. His 28.3 points per game led the league and accounted for one-third of the Lakers' point production.
Minneapolis swept the Chicago Stags in the first round of the 1949 playoffs before attention shifted to a division finals matchup that pitted the Lakers against the Royals. Minneapolis squeezed out a one-point win in Game 1, then stormed back from a 12-point third-quarter deficit to take Game 2 and sweep the best-of-three series.
The BAA Finals came next, and the Lakers faced the Washington Capitols, who were coached by Arnold "Red" Auerbach. Minneapolis notched three quick wins to open the best-of-seven series. In Game 4 Mikan sustained a broken wrist, and the Capitols came away with a win. Mikan played Game 5 with a cast on his hand and still pumped in 22 points, but Washington prevailed. Game 6 was played on the Lakers' home court, and Minneapolis came away with a 77-56 win and a BAA Championship
The BAA and the NBL merged after that season, and the NBA was born for the 1949-50 campaign. In its first year the NBA consisted of 17 teams competing in three divisions. Minneapolis was assigned to the Central Division (the new circuit's strongest division), where the team once again went head-to-head with Rochester.
If anything, the Lakers were even better than they had been the season before. The team included a trio of promising first-year players in forward Vern Mikkelsen and guards Slater Martin and Bud Grant. (Grant went on to greater fame as coach of the football Minnesota Vikings.)
Minneapolis seemed to have a lock on the top spot in the Central Division, but Rochester put together a 15-game winning streak as the campaign wound down, and the teams ended the regular season tied for first with identical 51-17 records. The Lakers then edged the Royals by a single basket in a one-game playoff to claim the division title.
For the second season in a row Minneapolis waltzed through the preliminary rounds of the postseason. The powerful Lakers felled the Chicago Stags in the Central Division Semifinals, swept the Fort Wayne Pistons in two games in the division finals, and then dusted the Anderson Duffey Packers in two games in the NBA Semifinals.
The first NBA Finals pitted the Lakers against the Syracuse Nationals. The Nats had the home-court advantage, but the Lakers took Game 1 in Syracuse when reserve guard Bob Harrison heaved in a 40-foot shot at the buzzer to give Minneapolis a two-point victory. The Nationals evened the series the next night. When the Finals reconvened in Minnesota five days later, Minneapolis pounded out a 91-77 win, then followed that with a victory in Game 4. Syracuse postponed the inevitable by shutting down Mikan in Game 5, but the Lakers came back with a 110-95 victory in Game 6 to earn the first NBA Championship. Mikan, who had led the league in scoring during the regular season with 27.4 points per game (only one other player topped 20.0 ppg), poured in 31.3 points per contest in the playoffs.
A slimmed-down NBA fielded 11 teams in the 1950-51 campaign and went back to a two-division format, with the Lakers returning to the Western Division. With the best players from the six disbanded clubs distributed throughout the remaining teams, the offseason attrition helped to raise the level of competition in the two-year-old league.
The Lakers were favored to repeat as NBA champs that season. In addition to Mikan, the team boasted a solid frontcourt in Jim Pollard and Vern Mikkelsen and a better-than-average backcourt in Bob Harrison and Slater Martin. Minneapolis took the Western Division by three games and posted the league's best record at 44-24. But the playoffs didn't go according to plan. Minneapolis lost a game to the Indianapolis Olympians in the division semifinals, marking the Lakers' first-ever loss in a preliminary playoff round. They nevertheless won the series, two games to one, and advanced to face old rival Rochester in the Western Division Finals. The Lakers won Game 1, but the Royals came back with three straight victories to take the best-of-five series.
The NBA widened the foul lane before the 1951-52 season in an attempt to slow Mikan, but the rule change had a minimal effect on "Big George." He still averaged 23.8 points, but he lost the scoring title to Paul Arizin, a sharp-shooting forward with the Philadelphia Warriors.
The Lakers went into the campaign with essentially the same lineup. Rochester took the Western Division crown by a game, but the Lakers ousted the Royals in four games in the division finals to set up an NBA Finals matchup between the Lakers and the New York Knickerbockers.
Minneapolis took Game 1 at St. Paul but needed overtime to do so. The Knicks prevailed in Game 2. Back in New York, Games 3 and 4 were played at the 69th Regiment Armory instead of at Madison Square Garden because the circus was in town. The teams split those games, and Games 5 and 6 as well. Game 7 was all Minneapolis. The Lakers pounded out an 82-65 win at home to claim their second NBA crown in three years.
The 1952-53 Lakers outmuscled the Royals during the regular season to finish atop the Western Division by a four-game margin. Mikan's scoring output dipped a notch to 20.6 points per game, second best in the league. He was joined in the NBA's top 10 by teammate Vern Mikkelsen, who finished eighth with 15.0 points per game. Mikan led the league in rebounding, pulling down 14.4 boards per contest.
In the playoffs the Lakers and the Knickerbockers marched toward an NBA Finals rematch. Minneapolis whipped past Indianapolis and Fort Wayne in the preliminary rounds. Meanwhile, in the Eastern Division, New York downed the Baltimore Bullets and then the Boston Celtics.
The NBA Finals opened in Minneapolis, and the Knicks stunned the Lakers with an eight-point win in Game 1. Minneapolis barely beat the Knicks in Game 2, winning by a slim two-point margin. The next three games were scheduled for New York, and with the series tied at one game apiece, the Knickerbockers had hopes of unseating the defending champions. But the Lakers would have none of that. They took all three contests at Madison Square Garden to win the series and become the NBA's first repeat champs. With four championships in five years (including the BAA crown in 1949), the Lakers staked a claim as professional basketball's first dynasty.
The following season saw Mikan's production dip again. Bad knees were beginning to take a toll on the 29-year-old center, and he scored only 18.1 points per game. But the Lakers signed a promising rookie named Clyde Lovellette, who was more than capable of spelling Mikan at the center position.
Minneapolis won the Western Division in 1953-54, posting the NBA's best record at 46-26. The playoffs got off to an odd start when the league experimented with a round-robin format in the first round. Minneapolis survived, then downed Rochester in the Western Division Finals. The expected NBA Finals rematch between the Lakers and the Knickerbockers failed to materialize because New York was eliminated in the Eastern Conference round-robin. Instead, the Lakers faced Syracuse.
The Nationals surprised Minneapolis with a two-point win on the Lakers' home court in Game 2, tying the series at one game apiece. The Lakers then took two out of three games in Syracuse, and the teams returned to Minneapolis with the Lakers leading, three games to two. Syracuse survived Game 6 with another two-point victory, but the Lakers made it three titles in a row with an 87-80 triumph in the deciding game.
The NBA instituted two revolutionary rule changes shortly after the end of the 1953-54 season. The 24-second shot clock was introduced, as was a limit of six team fouls per quarter (after which every foul would result in penalty free throws). The new rules accomplished two things: they helped quicken the pace of the action on the court, and they took away the tactical advantage of fouling a player who has possession of the ball late in a game.
The big question was what effect the new rules would have on the three-time defending NBA-champion Lakers, a team built around the size and power of George Mikan. But the question was never really answered, because Mikan retired before the 1954-55 season began and assumed the job of team general manager.
With Mikan gone, the center position fell to second-year player Clyde Lovellette, who contributed 18.7 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. But Lovellette was not the defensive force that Mikan had been, and the Lakers finished 40-32, second to the Fort Wayne Pistons in the Western Division. Minneapolis survived the first round of the playoffs but fell to the Pistons in four games in the division finals. The beginning of the shot-clock era meant the end of the Lakers' dynasty.
Age was also beginning to take its toll on Minneapolis. Jim Pollard retired before the 1955-56 season, ending an eight-year career with the Lakers that stretched back to the NBL days. Guard Slater Martin had a fine season, but he was 30 years old. The Lakers' youngest starter was the 26-year-old Lovellette, who had become the team's star, finishing fourth in the league in scoring (21.5 ppg) and third in rebounding (14.0 rpg).
By midseason the Lakers were struggling so badly that they prevailed upon Mikan to come out of retirement. It took him some time to get back into shape, but by the end of the season he had become a solid contributor, if not the star he had been a few years earlier. All told, Mikan appeared in 37 regular-season contests, averaging 10.5 points and 8.3 rebounds.
Slater Martin finished among the NBA's top 10 in assists (6.2 apg) and free-throw percentage (.833), while seven-year veteran Vern Mikkelsen led the league in personal fouls for the second year in a row.
The Lakers fell under .500 for the first time in franchise history that season, finishing with a 33-39 record. Facing the St. Louis Hawks in the playoffs, Minneapolis dropped Game 1, 116-115, then walloped the Hawks by 58 points in Game 2. But St. Louis came back with a repeat of the opening game and won Game 3, 116-115, to take the series.
In 1956-57 Minneapolis managed to earn a tie for first place in the Western Division, but that said more about the division's weakness than about the Lakers' strength. Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Fort Wayne shared first place with identical losing records of 34-38. By contrast, the last-place team in the Eastern Division was 36-36.
After a series of one-game playoffs, St. Louis earned the Western Division title and a bye in the first round of the 1957 NBA Playoffs. While the Hawks waited, the Lakers and the Pistons squared off in the division semifinals. Minneapolis prevailed with a two-game sweep. St. Louis then took out the Lakers in three straight, but the series was close for a sweep. The Hawks won Game 1 by a comfortable nine-point margin. Game 2 was a squeaker at 106-104. The final contest was a no-holds-barred marathon. The game lasted through a pair of overtime periods, and when it ended, St. Louis was the team still standing. The final score was Hawks 143, Lakers 135.
The franchise endured a disastrous season in 1957-58. George Mikan was persuaded to assume the head coaching duties, but he failed miserably and stepped aside after the club fell to 9-30. John Kundla moved back into the coaching spot after half a season in the front office, but there wasn't much he could do with the Lakers that year. The team finished with a 19-53 record and in last place in the Western Division.
The dreadful record had a silver lining, however, for it earned Minneapolis the No. 1 pick in the 1958 NBA Draft. The Lakers came away with Seattle University star Elgin Baylor. With the unbeatable combination of a great scoring touch, smooth ballhandling and passing skills, a willingness to pound the boards, and the seeming ability to defy gravity on the way to the hoop, the 6-5 forward helped usher in a new era for the struggling Lakers franchise.
In his rookie campaign Baylor finished fourth in the league in scoring (24.9 ppg) and third in rebounding (15.0 rpg). He also led the club in assists with 4.1 per game. Powered by the league's newest superstar (and that season's Rookie of the Year), Minneapolis won 14 more games than the year before and finished with a 33-39 record, good for second place in the Western Division behind the St. Louis Hawks.
The Lakers dispatched the Detroit Pistons in the division semifinals, then moved on to face St. Louis in the Western Division Finals. By all accounts the series was little more than a warm-up for defending NBA-champion St. Louis. The Hawks had breezed through the regular season with a 49-23 record and were looking forward to a rematch with the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.
However, behind Baylor and Vern Mikkelsen, who was the last link to the glory years of the Mikan-era Lakers, Minneapolis stunned the Hawks. St. Louis owned a two-games-to-one series lead heading into Game 4, but the Lakers took that game by 10 points and then earned a one-point overtime victory in Game 5. They completed the upset with a 106-104 triumph in Game 6.
The Lakers ran out of gas in the 1959 NBA Finals, however. They faced the Celtics, who owned an 18-game winning streak against Minneapolis and had demolished the Lakers, 173-139, in the teams' last meeting. When the dust settled, the Celtics' winning streak was still intact-Boston swept the series in four straight.
Still, the Lakers' season had to be counted as a great success. After finishing with the league's worst record the year before, they had bounced all the way back to the NBA Finals.
After the Lakers' great playoff run in 1959, the 1959-60 regular season was a bust. Head Coach John Kundla was replaced by John Castellani, who had been Baylor's college coach. The team managed a dismal 11-25 record under Castellani's command, and he was replaced by Jim Pollard, who had played alongside George Mikan in the early years of the NBA. Pollard fared no better, and the Lakers finished with a 25-50 mark. Only Baylor managed to shine-he pumped in 29.6 points and snared 16.4 rebounds per game.
Despite the difficult regular season, the Lakers made the playoffs because they had the third-best record in a four-team division. (The Cincinnati Royals were worse at 19-56.) After making short work of second-place Detroit in the division semifinals, they headed to St. Louis for a rematch of the previous year's Western Division Finals. Minneapolis got ahead, three games to two, but the Hawks avoided embarrassment for a second straight year by posting a 21-point win in Game 6 and then ousting the Lakers with a 97-86 victory in Game 7.
During the offseason the Lakers became the NBA's first West Coast team. Although Minneapolis fans had come out in droves to watch the Lakers when Mikan was with the club, attendance had fallen off dramatically in the ensuing five seasons. Even the presence of Elgin Baylor hadn't made much of a difference. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball's Dodgers had moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958 and had become a huge financial success. Lakers owner Bob Short, a shrewd young businessman from Minneapolis who had owned the franchise for two years, packed up the club and moved it to Los Angeles before the 1960-61 season.
That wasn't the only important change for the franchise during the offseason. The Lakers' 25-50 record the previous year had given the club the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft. The prize was 6-21/2 guard Jerry West, a talented playmaker and scorer. West's former coach at West Virginia, Fred Schaus, was installed at the Lakers' helm.
Baylor was a scoring machine and a terror on the boards for the new Los Angeles Lakers. He averaged 34.8 points and 19.8 rebounds in 1960-61. West struggled for the first half of the season before hitting his stride, finishing his first NBA campaign averaging 17.6 points. The two players combined to boost the Lakers to a 36-43 record and a second-place finish in the Western Division.
The Lakers faced the Pistons in the opening round of the playoffs. In an era of rampant scoring, the two teams lit up the scoreboard. Los Angeles posted 120 points in each of the first two games and won both. Back in Detroit, the Pistons won Game 3, 124-113, and Game 4, 123-114. The Lakers closed out the series with a 137-120 shoot-out in the final game.
That meant a Lakers-Hawks matchup in the Western Division Finals for the third year in a row. St. Louis had finished the regular season 15 games ahead of Los Angeles and was heavily favored, but the series was a dogfight. The Hawks managed a one-point victory in Game 4 to even the series at two games apiece. After the Lakers took Game 5, St. Louis eked out a 114-113 overtime win in Game 6 and a 105-103 victory in Game 7 to move on to the Finals.
Los Angeles played with a slight handicap during the 1961-62 season. Elgin Baylor was one of only two NBA players called to active military duty in the wake of the Berlin crisis. (Lenny Wilkens was the other.) For much of the campaign Baylor was only available on weekends. Still, in 48 games he averaged 38.3 points. Meanwhile, West exploded for a 30.8 average in his second year.
The high-scoring duo was ably supported. The cast included 6-8 Rudy LaRusso, a third-year forward who chipped in 17.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Frank Selvy, a much-traveled veteran who had played with six teams in his first five seasons in the NBA before settling in with the Lakers, added 14.7 points per game at guard. A solid bench featured Rodney "Hot Rod" Hundley and Tom Hawkins.
Los Angeles dominated the Western Division, topping second-place Cincinnati by 11 games. Up against Detroit in the division finals, the Lakers trounced the Pistons in the first three games of the series, lost Games 4 and 5, and then ousted Detroit in Game 6.
The NBA Finals pitted the Lakers against the Boston Celtics, and the series opened in Boston, where the teams split two games. The Lakers won Game 3 in Los Angeles, thanks to a last-second steal and a layup by Jerry West. The Celtics evened the series with a win in Game 4. Game 5, which was played in Boston, saw Baylor pour in 61 points to set a playoff record that stood for a quarter of a century. The teams headed to Los Angeles with the Lakers up three games to two and poised to clinch the championship on their home court. But the Celtics pushed the series to the limit with a 119-105 win.
Game 7 ranks as one of the most exciting championship games of all time. The score was knotted at 100 apiece when Selvy put up a shot that slid off the rim as time expired. Had the shot fallen, the Lakers would have claimed the crown. Instead, the game moved into overtime, and the Celtics outscored the Lakers, 10-7, to win the game and the NBA Championship.
The Lakers added Dick Barnett to their roster during the offseason. Barnett, who had spent the previous two seasons with Syracuse, moved into the starting lineup at guard, and Selvy became the team's sixth man. Barnett averaged 18.0 points during 1962-63, and his contribution became critical when Jerry West missed 27 games with a leg injury. West still finished with 27.1 points per game, while Elgin Baylor poured in 34.0 points per contest to finish second in the league in scoring behind the San Francisco Warriors' Wilt Chamberlain.
Los Angeles finished 53-27, repeating as Western Division champs. The Lakers then earned a rematch against the Celtics for the NBA crown by besting St. Louis in the Western Division Finals. But the Celtics, in the midst of a string of 11 championships in 13 seasons, continued to hold the upper hand, winning the series in six games.
The Lakers' two-year reign atop the Western Division came to an end during the 1963-64 season. West (28.7 ppg) and Baylor (25.4 ppg) finished fifth and sixth in the league in scoring, respectively. But the team was weak in the middle. Starting center Gene Wiley averaged only 4.3 points, and Los Angeles placed third in the division with a 42-38 record. The Lakers failed to get by the St. Louis Hawks in the first round of the playoffs.
Los Angeles rebounded from a relatively disappointing year by posting a 14-6 record to open the 1964-65 season. The Lakers then coasted to a 49-31 overall mark and their third division title in four years. As usual, West (31.0 ppg, second in the NBA) and Baylor (27.1 ppg, fifth) provided the firepower. The Lakers had a surprisingly tough time with Baltimore in the Western Division Finals, needing six games to win the series and advance.
The NBA Finals, which pitted the Lakers against the Celtics, was a lopsided affair. Baylor went down with a knee injury and was unable to play in the series. West did his best to make up for Baylor's absence by averaging 40.6 points during the postseason, but he couldn't do it alone. Boston humiliated Los Angeles in Game 1, 142-110. Only a token Lakers win in Game 3 prevented a sweep. The Celtics finished off Los Angeles in Game 5 with a 33-point rout.
The Lakers franchise changed hands during the offseason when Bob Short sold the club to Jack Kent Cooke. Cooke paid $5 million for the team, which not only represented a huge profit but also established that the value of an NBA franchise was on par with the value of a Major League Baseball team.
Cooke left the team virtually intact. Center Darrall Imhoff and guard Walt Hazzard, who had been backups the season before, moved into the starting lineup for the 1965-66 season. Bob Boozer came to Los Angeles from New York and proved to be a valuable addition when sore knees sidelined Baylor. The Lakers also featured a promising young rookie from UCLA named Gail Goodrich.
Baylor had a tough season. Knee problems limited him to 65 games, and after scoring at least 24 points per game in each of his first seven seasons, his output dipped to just 16.6 points per contest. West (31.3 ppg) was as irrepressible as ever, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain in the NBA scoring race. The Lakers came away with the Western Division title but never really put together a hot streak during the regular season. Their best month was November, when they went 10-7. But they barely played above the .500 mark for the next three months and finished 45-35.
Los Angeles moved on to the postseason and bested the Hawks in seven games to reach the NBA Finals. Facing the Celtics for the fourth time in five years, Los Angeles stole Game 1 in an overtime thriller, then dropped three straight. Wins in Games 5 and 6 sent the series to a seventh game. Once again the Celtics prevailed, this time by the score of 95-93. Since 1959 the Lakers had faced Boston in the NBA Finals five times and had come away losers each time.
The Lakers stumbled out of contention in the 1966-67 campaign. Injuries kept Jerry West on the sidelines for 15 games and Elgin Baylor out of action for 11. The squad finished in third place in the Western Division and chalked up a losing record (36-45) for the first time since the 1960-61 campaign. San Francisco made short work of Los Angeles in the playoffs, ousting the Lakers in a three-game sweep.
That season ended Fred Schaus's reign as the team's head coach. The Lakers' pilot since the move to Los Angeles, he had guided them to the NBA Finals four times. His replacement was Bill "Butch" van Breda Kolff, who started the season in the new 17,500-seat Forum.
West missed 31 games during the 1967-68 campaign with injuries, but second-year guard Archie Clark blossomed into an offensive threat, averaging 19.9 points. Baylor led the team in scoring (26.0 ppg) and rebounding (12.2 rpg). The club improved by 16 games over the previous season, to 52-30, but finished in second place in the division behind St. Louis. The Lakers dispatched the Chicago Bulls in the division semifinals, then breezed by San Francisco in the division finals. That set up a sixth meeting between Los Angeles and Boston in the NBA Finals, and once again the Celtics came out on top, this time taking the series in six games.
By now it had become clear to everyone that the Lakers were missing the one ingredient they needed to nail down a championship-a dominating center to complement West and Baylor. And time was running out-Baylor was 34 years old and playing on gimpy legs, and West was 30. So owner Jack Kent Cooke filled the gap by wresting supercenter Wilt Chamberlain away from the Philadelphia 76ers for Clark, Darrall Imhoff, and Jerry Chambers.
The 1968-69 Lakers weren't the dominating force that everyone expected them to be after the arrival of Chamberlain, but they did take the Western Division title with a 55-27 record. Chamberlain led the league in rebounding with 21.1 boards per game while West and Baylor each averaged better than 20 points.
In the playoffs the Lakers dropped the first two games of their division semifinal matchup with the San Francisco Warriors. But Los Angeles stormed back to win the next four, including a 118-78 romp in Game 6, and take the series, four games to two. The Hawks (now playing in Atlanta) came next, and the Lakers dispatched them in five games. That set up yet another Celtics-Lakers showdown, but with a new twist-a clash of the titans, with Chamberlain going up against old nemesis Bill Russell.
Los Angeles took the first two games and appeared to have a good chance at ending the Celtics' dominance. But Boston won Game 3 and then eked out a win in Game 4 after Sam Jones hit a shot at the buzzer to give the Celtics an 89-88 victory. The series went to seven games, with the deciding contest played at the Forum in Los Angeles. The Celtics built a 17-point fourth-quarter lead and then held on to win by two points. For the sixth time in eight years the Lakers had butted heads with the Celtics in the NBA Finals and had come away without a championship. Jerry West earned the first-ever NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award. It was the only time the award was given to a member of the losing team.
Coach Butch van Breda Kolff stepped down after the Finals and was replaced by Joe Mullaney, who took over a team that was badly bitten by the injury bug during the 1969-70 campaign. Chamberlain tore up his knee in the ninth game of the season and was lost until the playoffs. Baylor's injured knees limited him to 54 games. That placed most of the burden on West, who led the league with an average of 31.2 points. He couldn't keep the team at the top of the Western Division, however, and the Lakers finished with a 46-36 record, two games behind Atlanta.
Chamberlain and Baylor both recovered in time for the playoffs, but the Lakers nearly faced elimination at the hands of the Phoenix Suns in the division semifinals. Down three games to one, Los Angeles rallied with convincing wins in the final three games to take the series in seven. The Lakers then swept Atlanta in the division finals and moved on to face not the Celtics but the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals.
It was a dream matchup for the league, pitting the two most glamorous teams from America's two largest cities against each other. The Lakers and the Knicks split the first two games. In Game 3 at the Forum, Jerry West provided one of the most memorable moments in Finals history when he sank a 60-foot shot at the buzzer to send the game into overtime. New York won the game, 111-108, but West's miraculous heave helped earn him the nickname "Mr. Clutch."
Unfortunately for the Lakers, the Knicks' Willis Reed upstaged West with a memorable moment of his own. After Los Angeles evened the series with an overtime victory in Game 4, the teams returned to New York for Game 5. In the first half of that game Reed went down with a torn thigh muscle and didn't return. Despite trailing by 13 points at halftime, New York rallied without its center to post a 107-100 victory. Reed sat out Game 6, and the Lakers rolled to a 135-113 victory behind Wilt Chamberlain, who had 45 points and 27 rebounds, and West, who had 31 points and 13 assists.
It looked as if the Knicks would be without Reed in the deciding game. Then, moments before tip-off amid a deafening roar from the crowd at Madison Square Garden, Reed hobbled onto the court. He then scored the first two baskets of the game before returning to the bench, but the damage was done. With the crowd and Reed's teammates inspired, the Lakers fell, 113-99. For the seventh time in nine years the team had reached the Finals and come away empty.
The 1970-71 season saw the league expand to 17 teams and four divisions. Los Angeles was put into the Pacific Division alongside San Francisco, the San Diego Rockets, the Seattle SuperSonics, and the Portland Trail Blazers. The Lakers had Wilt Chamberlain back and healthy, but Elgin Baylor played in only two games because of ongoing knee problems. The team was helped by the addition of Harold "Happy" Hairston, who had joined the club midway through the previous season, and Gail Goodrich, who returned to Los Angeles after two years in Phoenix. Future Lakers Coach Pat Riley was acquired from Portland as a player.
With Baylor missing, West (26.9 ppg), Chamberlain (20.7 ppg), Hairston (18.6 ppg), and Goodrich (17.5 ppg) picked up the scoring slack. Chamberlain led the league in rebounding with 18.2 boards per game. The Lakers finished 48-34 and won the Pacific Division, seven games ahead of second-place San Francisco. Los Angeles squeaked by the Chicago Bulls in a tough conference semifinal series, then fell to Lew Alcindor (soon to be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the Milwaukee Bucks in the Western Conference Finals.
Owner Jack Kent Cooke replaced Head Coach Joe Mullaney in 1971-72, bringing in former USC star and Celtics standout Bill Sharman. The team had to make do without Baylor, who retired early in the season after realizing that his legs were not going to hold up through another year. The Lakers may have lost Baylor, but they did have a balanced, mature, and experienced team with Hairston and second-year player Jim McMillian as forwards, Chamberlain in the pivot, and West and Goodrich at the guard spots.
The Lakers went 6-3 through the first month of the season. On November 5 they beat Baltimore, 110-106, marking the first of 14 straight wins in November. December saw them take 16 games without a loss. Along the way, the Lakers shattered the NBA mark of 20 consecutive victories set by the Milwaukee Bucks just one season before. Los Angeles won three straight to open the new year before the Bucks finally ended the string on January 9, besting the Lakers, 120-104. At that point the Lakers had rung up a 33-game winning streak, an American professional sports record.
The team rolled on to a 69-win year, setting a new NBA record for victories in a season, a record that would stand until the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls went 72-10. Chamberlain averaged a career-low 14.8 points, but it may nevertheless have been his finest season-he led the league in rebounding with 19.2 per game, was a defensive stalwart, and played outstanding team basketball. West led the league by dishing out 9.7 assists per game, and he and Goodrich each averaged better than 25 points. The team paced the league in points, rebounds, and assists. At season's end, Bill Sharman was named NBA Coach of the Year.
The Lakers breezed right through the playoffs, sweeping the Chicago Bulls in the conference semifinals, ousting the Bucks in six games in the conference finals, and then zipping by the Knicks in the Finals, four games to one. After years of frustration the Lakers had finally earned an NBA Championship, the team's first in Los Angeles and the first for the franchise since 1954. Chamberlain was named Most Valuable Player of the Finals.
The Lakers didn't match their record pace of the previous season during the 1972-73 campaign (although they won all 12 of their games in November), but they did roll to another Pacific Division title by winning 60 games overall. Wilt Chamberlain, playing in his final season, led the league in rebounding for the 11th time in his career. He also became the first player in NBA history to record a field-goal percentage above .700 -he finished at .727.
Los Angeles needed seven games to get by the Chicago Bulls in the conference semifinals, but they then breezed past the Golden State Warriors in the Western Division Finals. That set up an NBA Finals rematch between the Lakers and the New York Knicks. Los Angeles took the first game by three points, but the Knicks employed a pressing, trapping defense that forced the Lakers into an average of 19 turnovers and held them under 100 points in each of the final four games. New York took the series in five games to wrest the title away from the defending champions.
Chamberlain, now 37 years old, retired. He left the NBA with a career average of 30.1 points per game. Of the 57 top scoring performances in NBA history, he had accounted for 47. In 14 years he had accumulated more than 31,000 points and had pulled down more than 23,000 rebounds. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1978.
For the 1973-74 season the Lakers picked up promising young defensive center Elmore Smith to plug the hole in the middle, and they also acquired Connie Hawkins to add some punch to the offense. But the team was hampered by the loss of Jerry West, who lasted only 31 games before his 35-year-old legs finally gave out. By that point the team's real star was Gail Goodrich, who averaged 25.3 points and helped engineer a late-season surge.
Trailing Golden State by three games with seven left to play, the Lakers rallied to win the Pacific Division with a 47-35 record, three games ahead of the Warriors. Los Angeles advanced to the postseason but managed only one win against Milwaukee in the conference semifinals.
The 1974-75 season found the Lakers in transition. West had retired after 14 incredible seasons in a Los Angeles uniform. Mr. Clutch had led the Lakers to the playoffs in every season of his career, including nine trips to the NBA Finals. He was an All-Star all 14 seasons and an All-NBA First Team selection 10 times. He finished with 25,192 career points and an average of 27.0 points per game. Truly one of the league's all-time greats, West scored more points as a Laker than any other player in the franchise's history.
For 1974-75 the team signed Cazzie Russell, who played just 40 games before a knee injury ended his season. Despite the addition of Lucius Allen (19.5 ppg) and another strong season from Goodrich (22.6), the club posted its first losing record in eight seasons, at 30-52. Los Angeles sat out the postseason for the first time in 17 years.
During the offseason the Lakers made an acquisition that laid the foundation for yet another championship-caliber squad. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the league's premier big man, made it known that he would not return to Milwaukee after the 1974-75 season, demanding instead to be traded to either New York (where he had grown up) or Los Angeles (where he had attended college). He ended up going to the Lakers for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, Junior Bridgeman, and Dave Meyers.
Abdul-Jabbar had an MVP season for Los Angeles in 1975-76. He led the league in rebounding, blocked shots, and minutes played and finished second in scoring and field-goal percentage. But the big trade paid higher short-term dividends for Milwaukee than it did for Los Angeles-the Bucks went from last to first in the Midwest Division.
The Lakers stumbled through a 3-10 January and finished out of the playoffs with a 40-42 record. At season's end, Abdul-Jabbar won the fourth of six career NBA Most Valuable Player Awards.
Jerry West replaced Bill Sharman as head coach during the offseason. The club lost Gail Goodrich, who signed with the New Orleans Jazz as a free agent. It took another MVP season from Abdul-Jabbar to carry the team back to the top of the Pacific Division, as the Lakers finished 1976-77 with a league-best 53-29 record. They barely survived a tough seven-game series against the Warriors to open the postseason before being defeated by Portland in the Western Conference Finals. The Trail Blazers swept the Lakers en route to an NBA Championship.
During the offseason the Lakers picked up Jamaal Wilkes from Golden State and signed first-round draft pick Norm Nixon. But the 1977-78 season got off to a horrendous start. Just two minutes into the campaign's first game Abdul-Jabbar punched Milwaukee's Kent Benson in retaliation for an overly aggressive elbow. Abdul-Jabbar broke his hand and was out for two months.
Then, on December 9, the Lakers' Kermit Washington got into a tussle with Kevin Kunnert of the Houston Rockets. Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich ran downcourt to break up the fight. Washington saw Tomjanovich running at him from behind and responded with a devastating punch that nearly ended Tomjanovich's career. Washington was fined and suspended for 60 days. Tomjanovich missed the entire season and underwent a series of operations to reconstruct his jaw, eye, and cheek.
The Lakers struggled through the first half of the season but rebounded to post a 28-13 mark during the campaign's second half. A 45-37 record earned them a matchup against Seattle in a best-of-three first-round playoff series. The Sonics, on their way to the NBA Finals under Coach Lenny Wilkens, eliminated Los Angeles.
Despite the early ouster, the pieces were beginning to settle into place for the Lakers. During the 1978-79 season the team got a sneak preview of the future with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, and Norm Nixon all turning in fine performances. The club posted a 47-35 record, then fell to the SuperSonics in the semifinal round of the playoffs.
During the offseason owner Jack Kent Cooke sold his sports empire, which included the Lakers and the Great Western Forum, to Santa Monica real estate developer Jerry Buss for $67.5 million. Buss brought in Jack McKinney as the new head coach.
When the Lakers had let Gail Goodrich go to free agency prior to the 1976-77 season, they had no idea how significant Goodrich's departure would be for the team's future. Because Goodrich signed with the New Orleans Jazz as a veteran free agent, the Jazz had to compensate the Lakers. New Orleans did so by giving Los Angeles three draft picks, including its first-round pick in 1979. When the Jazz (who moved to Utah in 1979) finished with the league's worst record in 1978-79, the Lakers found themselves holding the No. 1 overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft.
Los Angeles picked Earvin "Magic" Johnson, an electrifying 6-9 point guard who had led Michigan State to the 1979 NCAA Championship. "Showtime" had arrived, and a dynasty was established almost overnight.
The 1979-80 season was one of intense drama for the Lakers. With the team at 10-4, Head Coach Jack McKinney suffered a serious injury in a bicycle accident and was replaced by Paul Westhead. The Lakers rallied to finish the season at 60-22, tops in the Pacific Division. Inspired by NBA All-Rookie Team member Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar turned in the best all-around performance of his career and earned his sixth and final Most Valuable Player Award. The Lakers were talented and deep-Jamaal Wilkes, Jim Chones, and Abdul-Jabbar made for an intimidating front line, and the backcourt of Johnson and Nixon could stand up to any guard tandem in the country. The Lakers' bench included Michael Cooper and Spencer Haywood.
Los Angeles walked all over Phoenix and Seattle in the first two rounds of the playoffs, taking each series in five games. The NBA Finals pitted the club against the Julius Erving-led Philadelphia 76ers, and the two teams split four close games to start the series. Abdul-Jabbar sprained his ankle in Game 5 but still scored 40 points to give the Lakers a 108-103 win.
Abdul-Jabbar was unable to play in Game 6, but Johnson stepped up to turn in one of the most remarkable performances in NBA Finals history. Still just a 20-year-old rookie, Johnson moved from guard to center and tallied 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists, single-handedly carrying the Lakers to a 123-107 victory and the NBA Championship. Johnson earned the first of three NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Awards.
The 1980-81 season was a major disappointment. The Lakers lost Magic Johnson for much of the season to a knee injury. Behind another brilliant year from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (26.2 ppg, 10.3 rpg), the team turned in a 54-28 record and finished second behind the Phoenix Suns in the Pacific Division. But Los Angeles was stunned by the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. Led by Moses Malone, the Rockets bumped the Lakers in a best-of-three series, notching both victories in Los Angeles.
Owner Jerry Buss fired Coach Paul Westhead after the Lakers went 7-4 to start the 1981-82 season. Buss promoted Assistant Coach Pat Riley, a former Lakers backup point guard, to head coach on November 19, and the team won 17 of its next 20 games.
The Lakers took the Pacific Division title and then embarked on one of the most impressive playoff journeys in NBA history. They swept both Phoenix and the San Antonio Spurs with an average margin of victory of 11 points. Los Angeles then stretched its postseason winning streak to nine games by taking the first contest of the NBA Finals from the 76ers. Philadelphia came back to win Game 2, but the Lakers prevailed in the series, four games to two, to win their second title in three years. The team's playoff record that year was 12-2.
The Lakers found themselves with an embarrassment of riches when, after winning the championship, they also ended up with the first overall pick in the 1982 NBA Draft. The situation was the result of a trade with Cleveland midway through the 1979-80 season, when the Lakers had sent Don Ford and a 1980 first-round pick (eventually Chad Kinch) to the Cavaliers for Butch Lee and their 1982 selection. Fortuitously for the Lakers, Cleveland had finished with the league's worst record in 1981-82, giving Los Angeles first crack at a talented crop of college players. It marked the first time in NBA history that a reigning champion held the No. 1 pick.
The Lakers used that pick to select forward James Worthy, who had just led North Carolina to the 1982 NCAA Championship. Worthy, Magic Johnson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would define the powerhouse Lakers teams of the 1980s. Worthy proved to be the perfect complement to both players, finishing on the break for Johnson and stepping out to the perimeter when Abdul-Jabbar needed room to maneuver inside.
Worthy's rookie year ended in disappointment, however. He suffered a broken leg in the last week of the regular season and had to watch the postseason from the sidelines. The Lakers, who had won the Pacific Division with a 58-24 record, advanced to the 1983 NBA Finals with early-round victories against Portland and San Antonio. But Los Angeles was no match for the Philadelphia 76ers, who had acquired Moses Malone before the season. The Sixers won the series and the championship in four straight games.
During the offseason the Lakers sent Norm Nixon to San Diego for Byron Scott. Los Angeles started 1983-84 at 12-4, but on December 2 Magic Johnson sustained a dislocated right index finger and missed a month of action. Although he led the league with 13.1 assists per game, Johnson's injury prevented him from setting a probable NBA record for total assists in a season. The Lakers garnered their share of NBA records that year anyway. On April 5 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became the NBA's all-time leading scorer when he scored point No. 31,420 against Utah to pass Wilt Chamberlain.
The Lakers reached the NBA Finals in 1984 by roaring past the Kansas City Kings, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Phoenix Suns in the early rounds. That set up a Larry Bird-Magic Johnson matchup as Los Angeles and Boston squared off for the championship. Los Angeles took Game 1, then held a two-point lead in Game 2 with 15 seconds remaining when Gerald Henderson picked off a James Worthy pass and scored a layup to send the game into overtime. Boston prevailed, 124-121, and then the teams split the next four games. The Celtics had never lost Game 7 in an NBA Finals series, and tradition held. Boston triumphed, 111-102.
The Lakers cruised to a fourth straight Pacific Division title in 1984-1985 despite losing Jamaal Wilkes for the season in mid-February because of torn knee ligaments. Los Angeles (62-20) took the division by an NBA-record 20 games. The club, at the height of its "Showtime" era, set two other NBA marks by posting a phenomenal .545 team field-goal percentage and handing out 2,575 assists.
Los Angeles reached the NBA Finals after eliminating Phoenix, Portland, and the Denver Nuggets, chalking up an 11-2 record on the way. Facing Boston again in the championship round, the Lakers were humiliated in the first game, 148-114, a contest remembered as the "Memorial Day Massacre." But Los Angeles bounced back to take four of the next five games, led by 38-year-old series MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The 1985 series marked the ninth time that Los Angeles and Boston had met in the NBA Finals but the first time that the Lakers had come away with the crown.
Jamaal Wilkes left the Lakers before the 1985-86 season. (He played only 13 games with the Clippers before retiring.) Los Angeles continued to rebuild, adding 33-year-old Maurice Lucas, who gave the team some muscle, and rookie A. C. Green. The Lakers also had power forward Kurt Rambis, a bespectacled, blue-collar fan favorite who had joined the team in 1981. Rambis spent seven seasons in a Los Angeles uniform.
The team got off to a blazing start, with records of 11-1, 19-2, and 24-3 early in the season. Los Angeles won 62 games for the second year in a row and finished 22 games ahead of second-place Portland in the Pacific Division. Abdul-Jabbar was playing in an unprecedented 17th season, and he set new NBA career records for minutes and games played while averaging 23.4 points. Johnson paced the league in assists (12.6 apg) for the third time in six seasons.
The Lakers seemed headed for an NBA Finals rematch with the Boston Celtics, who had ripped through the Eastern Conference with a 67-15 record. The Celtics lost only one game en route to the Finals, but the Lakers failed to hold up their part of the bargain. After eliminating San Antonio and Dallas in the first two rounds, Los Angeles met Houston in the Western Conference Finals. Led by twin towers Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, the Rockets took a surprising series lead after four games. But the teams headed back to Los Angeles for Game 5, where the Lakers expected to regain the momentum. Instead, Sampson stunned the Lakers with a miraculous turnaround jump shot at the buzzer, breaking a 112-112 tie to give Houston the series victory. The Rockets managed two victories against the Celtics in the Finals but lost the series.
Once again the Lakers made a couple of key offseason moves, letting go of Maurice Lucas, moving A. C. Green into the starting lineup, and picking up Mychal Thompson from San Antonio. Head Coach Pat Riley also made a tactical adjustment in 1986-87 by shifting the offensive focus from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Magic Johnson.
The moves paid off. Johnson won his first career NBA Most Valuable Player Award while leading the Lakers to a 65-17 record, the second-best mark in franchise history. Abdul-Jabbar, now 39 years old, chipped in 17.5 points per game, and Michael Cooper was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
The Lakers earned another matchup with the Celtics in the NBA Finals by sweeping Denver, losing just one game to Golden State, and then sweeping Seattle. Los Angeles routed Boston in the first two games of the Finals, and the teams then split the next four contests, giving the Lakers their second championship in three seasons.
Johnson earned the NBA Finals MVP Award to go with his regular-season MVP trophy. At the Lakers' championship celebration in Los Angeles, Coach Riley brashly declared that the Lakers would repeat as NBA champions in 1987-88. It was a bold statement that served to motivate the team throughout the next season.
Los Angeles made no major moves before the 1987-88 campaign. The Lakers opened the season with an eight-game winning streak but lost six of their next nine games. They snapped out of the uncharacteristic slump with a 115-114 victory in Boston on December 11 that ignited a 15-game winning streak, the second longest in franchise history.
The club finished with a 62-20 record and a seventh consecutive Pacific Division title. After sweeping San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs, Los Angeles was forced to the limit in each of the next two series. The Lakers struggled against both the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks before winning each series in seven games. In the NBA Finals the Lakers had a new opponent in the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons had grown into an Eastern Conference power thanks to Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, and Dennis Rodman. Detroit had managed to unseat the Celtics in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The NBA Finals represented a clash of styles, with the run-and-gun Lakers battling the physical Pistons. The series went a grueling seven games, with players on both sides turning in heroic performances. The most heroic of all was turned in by James Worthy, who had a triple-double in Game 7 to lead the Lakers to a 108-105 victory. Worthy was named Finals MVP, and Los Angeles became the first club to repeat as NBA champions since the Boston Celtics in 1968-69.
The next year marked the 20th and final NBA campaign for 41-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The 1988-89 Lakers won 57 games, the 10th year in a row that they had topped the 50-victory mark, and maintained their stranglehold on the Pacific Division crown by finishing two games ahead of Phoenix. Magic Johnson earned his second NBA Most Valuable Player Award.
Three-quarters of the way through the playoffs it looked as if Abdul-Jabbar's career would have a perfect ending. The Lakers reached the NBA Finals by sweeping Portland, Seattle, and Phoenix. No other team in NBA history had ever earned sweeps in three series in one year. But the Finals rematch with the Pistons didn't go according to plan. Hamstring injuries to Johnson and Byron Scott hobbled the Lakers, and Detroit swept Los Angeles out of the playoffs and Abdul-Jabbar into retirement.
The 1989-90 Lakers adjusted very quickly to the absence of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, moving Mychal Thompson into the starting lineup and bringing over Vlade Divac from what was then Yugoslavia. The team rolled to another 60-win season, its fifth in six years, and Johnson claimed his second straight MVP trophy (and third in four seasons). The Lakers won the Pacific Division for the ninth consecutive season.
Heading into the playoffs, another Lakers-Pistons Finals seemed likely. But in the Western Conference Semifinals, Los Angeles was overpowered by a tough Phoenix team that included Kevin Johnson, Eddie Johnson, Tom Chambers, and Jeff Hornacek. The Suns won the series in five games.
After winning the NBA Coach of the Year Award for 1989-90, Pat Riley stepped down during the offseason. His nine-year reign in Los Angeles had yielded incredible numbers: a .733 regular-season winning percentage, a 102-47 playoff record, nine Pacific Division titles, and four NBA Championships. Mike Dunleavy was appointed to fill Riley's shoes, and the team signed free agent Sam Perkins from Dallas.
Los Angeles got off to a slow start under Dunleavy, with a 2-5 record to open the year. But the team won eight straight after that and then strung together 16 consecutive wins at midseason. An important milestone was reached on April 15 when Magic Johnson handed out career assist No. 9,888 to pass Oscar Robertson and become the NBA's all-time assists leader.
The 1990-91 Lakers won 58 games but finished in second place in the Pacific Division to the high-powered Portland Trail Blazers. Los Angeles had no problem with either Houston or Golden State in the first two rounds of the playoffs but found itself in the unaccustomed position of underdog against Portland in the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers upset the Blazers by winning the series in six games but then fell victim to the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan in the 1991 NBA Finals. Los Angeles won Game 1 against the Bulls on a last-second three-pointer by Perkins. But Chicago roared back to take four straight and the championship, the first of three consecutive titles for the Bulls.
The following season was a roller-coaster ride for the team. Los Angeles went 1-2 in three straight overtime games to start the season. Then on November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson shocked the world when he announced his retirement, having tested positive for the HIV virus. The Lakers responded on the court with a nine-game winning streak. In early December center Vlade Divac underwent surgery for a back problem and was lost for two months. Divac's absence contributed to a 6-8 showing by the club in December, the Lakers' first losing month since March 1979.
Although he had retired, Johnson was voted to the 1992 NBA All-Star Game and, in a rousing performance, earned the game's MVP Award. That was the high point of the season for the Lakers. The team qualified for the playoffs for an NBA-record 16th straight year, but they limped through the final month of the season after losing James Worthy and Sam Perkins to injuries. Los Angeles was eliminated in four games by Portland in the first round of the playoffs.
After Johnson's stunning announcement in November, he went on a season-long crusade to help increase AIDS awareness and raise money for AIDS research. For his tireless efforts Johnson was presented with the NBA's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, given annually to that member of the NBA family who makes outstanding contributions to the community.
Johnson's playing career wasn't quite finished, however. He joined Larry Bird and Michael Jordan on the U.S. Dream Team at the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona and helped the team win a gold medal. Wherever he went during the Olympics, Johnson found himself mobbed by fans, reporters, and even fellow athletes. He had truly become an international icon.
Perhaps bolstered by his Barcelona experience, Johnson declared that he would return to the Lakers for 1992-93. He practiced and played with the team throughout the preseason but then called it quits again before the start of the campaign, citing personal reasons.
Thus, one of the most dynamic and successful players in NBA history, just two years removed from the NBA Most Valuable Player Award, brought his career to a premature close. Johnson was 33 years old and had accomplished so much, yet he still had so much to accomplish. His career ledger was impressive. In 12 seasons he had led the Lakers to five championships; he had won three NBA MVP Awards, three NBA Finals MVP Awards, and an Olympic gold medal; and he had earned 12 All-Star selections (including 1992), two All-Star Game MVP Awards, and nine All-NBA First Team selections.
At the time of his retirement Johnson also ranked as the NBA's all-time career assists leader with 9,921. With his spectacular passing skills, Johnson had made team basketball glamorous again. He had also rekindled one of the league's greatest rivalries by facing off with Boston and Larry Bird three times in the NBA Finals.
Prior to the 1992-93 season Mike Dunleavy departed the Lakers to become head coach and vice president of basketball operations for the Milwaukee Bucks. Los Angeles promoted longtime assistant Randy Pfund to the head coaching role.
The Lakers had a difficult season, struggling to mesh young talent such as Vlade Divac, Elden Campbell, and Anthony Peeler with veterans such as James Worthy, A. C. Green, and Byron Scott. Veteran Sedale Threatt, whom Los Angeles had acquired from Seattle prior to the 1991-92 campaign, assumed Johnson's vacated point guard role for the second consecutive year. Threatt led the team in both scoring (15.1 ppg) and assists (6.9 apg), but something was still missing.
At midseason the Lakers sent Sam Perkins to Seattle for Benoit Benjamin and the rights to unsigned rookie Doug Christie, an athletic swingman who seemed to have star potential. The move was a signal that the Lakers intended to rebuild with youth, a philosophy that would hit home when they let both Green and Scott go to free agency after the season.
The Lakers finished the campaign at 39-43, barely earning the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference. They drew the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the postseason and nearly staged one of the greatest upsets in NBA Playoff history. The Suns had climbed onto the shoulders of newly acquired superstar Charles Barkley and had ridden him to the NBA's best record at 62-20.
The Lakers, however, stunned Phoenix by opening the series with two straight victories at America West Arena. The Suns, who had been favored by many to win the championship, suddenly seemed on the verge of collapse, especially with the series heading to Los Angeles for two games. But Phoenix won both games in Los Angeles, forcing a deciding Game 5 back in Phoenix. The Lakers hung tough, forcing the contest into overtime before finally losing, 112-104.
Magic Johnson had another moment in the Lakers' sun in 1993-94, but it was brief and added only a glimmer of excitement to the club's worst season in almost two decades. The Lakers lost their last 10 games and finished at 33-49, out of the playoffs for the first time since the 1975-76 season. The record was the second worst since the club had come to Los Angeles in 1960. The 1993-94 Lakers had trouble both on offense and defense. The team yielded opponents an average of 104.7 points per game (19th in the league), while its offense generated a franchise record low of 100.4 points per contest.
Individually, Vlade Divac was the team's top scorer with 14.2 points per game, and rookie Nick Van Exel proved to be the steal of the 1993 NBA Draft. A second-round pick, Van Exel started 80 games for the Lakers at point guard, scored 13.6 points per contest, and earned a spot on the NBA All-Rookie Second Team. Second-year players Anthony Peeler and Doug Christie, considered part of the club's core for the future, missed a combined 69 games because of injuries.
With the team sputtering in late March, the Lakers replaced Coach Randy Pfund with Johnson, hoping that he would take a liking to coaching and stay on for 1994-95-and that his championship magic would rub off on the team. With Johnson at the helm, the Lakers captured five of the next six games, defeating such teams as the Houston Rockets and the Atlanta Hawks, and began battling for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. But reality soon set in, and Los Angeles dropped nine straight games. Before season's end Johnson announced that he would not return to guide the Lakers for the next year. In the offseason Del Harris was named the team's new head coach.
The Los Angeles Lakers were one of the league's most improved teams in 1994-95, and their playoff success augured well for the future. The Lakers had finished the previous season with a 33-49 record; in 1994-95 the team was 48-34. The 15-win improvement was second best in the league behind that of the Dallas Mavericks. Aside from the emergence of electrifying point guard Nick Van Exel, three new arrivals keyed the Lakers' turnaround: Head Coach Del Harris, free-agent signee Cedric Ceballos, and rookie Eddie Jones.
The postseason was even more satisfying. The Lakers earned a No. 5 seed in the playoffs, finishing in front of the defending NBA-champion Houston Rockets, and they met the fourth-seeded Seattle SuperSonics in the first round. Los Angeles was defeated soundly in Game 1 but responded with three straight victories to score an upset. Van Exel, who made a name for himself in the postseason, averaged 24.8 points and shot .500 from the field against the Sonics. In Game 3 of that series he set a team record by playing 48 minutes without committing a single turnover-all the more impressive considering that he handled the ball against a Seattle team that had led the league in steals.
In the Western Conference Semifinals the Lakers met the San Antonio Spurs, who had finished the season with the league's best record. Los Angeles won two games in an exciting series but fell to the Spurs in six. In Game 5 at San Antonio, with the Lakers down three games to one, Van Exel hit two buzzer-beating three-pointers-one at the end of regulation and one at the end of overtime-to give the Lakers a 98-96 victory.
For his team's effort, Harris was named NBA Coach of the Year. General Manager Jerry West was named NBA Executive of the Year for his work behind the scenes. On the court, Ceballos had a terrific season in his first year with the Lakers, averaging 21.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.03 steals and earning selection to the All-Star Game, although he didn't participate because of an injury. Van Exel averaged 16.9 points and 8.3 assists in the regular season, while center Vlade Divac averaged 16.0 points, 10.4 boards, and 2.18 blocks. Athletic swingman Jones averaged 14.0 points and won a spot on the NBA All-Rookie First Team.
The 1995-96 season gave the Lakers much cause for optimism. After all, they were coming off of a first round upset of the Seattle Sonics and their best season since 1990-91. Not many, though, could have predicted that "Showtime" would return to Los Angeles with the return of Magic Johnson.
The Lakers were already a talented team -- featuring Nick Van Exel and second-year player Eddie Jones in the backcourt and a frontline of Vlade Divac, Elden Campbell and Cedric Ceballos. On January 30, they added a legend. Johnson, who after talking about it for years, finally made the decision to come out of retirement.
Although his statistics were impressive (15.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg and 6.5 apg), his arrival did upset the delicate chemistry of a team that had gotten a whole lot younger. In spite of the turmoil, which included a brief unexcused absence by leading scorer Ceballos, the Lakers returned among the league's elite, posting 53 wins, and a second place finish in the Pacific Division.
In the playoffs, the Lakers had the challenge of unseating the two-time defending champion Houston Rockets. Not even the Magic of Magic could save the Lakers, who fell to the Rockets in four games.
The conclusion of the season began an offseason of change for the Lakers, who stayed true to their history and acquired a franchise center in the rich tradition of Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar. The arrival of Shaquille O'Neal necessitated the trading of longtime center Vlade Divac, and the trading or renouncement of several other veterans. A new look Laker team would take the floor in 1996-97.
The Los Angeles Lakers dipped into the free agent coffers prior to the 1996-97, wresting away prized center Shaquille O'Neal from the Orlando Magic. O'Neal, a 7-1 center with a rare combination of power and quickness, averaged 27.2 ppg and 12.5 rpg in four seasons with the Magic, leading Orlando to the NBA Finals in 1995.
O'Neal was just the tonic to rekindle championship hopes in Los Angeles. He paid immediate dividends for the Lakers, leading them to a 56-26 record, their best effort since 1990-91, despite missing 31 games with a knee injury. O'Neal averaged 26.2 ppg and 12.5 rpg (but did not qualify for the league leaders in either category due to his injury), and finished third in the league in blocked shots (2.88 bpg) and fourth in field goal accuracy (.557). In the 51 games that O'Neal played, Los Angeles was 38-13.
Opponents of the Lakers were faced with more than a Shaq Attack. The team featured several of the quickest, youngest, most versatile players in the NBA, including Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Elden Campbell and Robert Horry, as well as an 18-year-old rookie, Kobe Bryant, who showed flashes of brilliance at All-Star Weekend, winning the Slam Dunk competition and scoring a game-high 31 points in the Rookie Game.
Jones (17.2 ppg) received his first All-Star berth, while Van Exel averaged 15.3 ppg and finished eighth in the NBA with 8.5 apg. His 23 assists against Vancouver on Jan. 5 were an NBA season high. Campbell also enjoyed the best season of his career, averaging 14.9 ppg and 8.0 rpg, and filling in ably during the O'Neal injury. Horry, acquired from Phoenix for Cedric Ceballos during the season, provided additional spark, setting an NBA playoff record for three-point playoff goals without a miss with a 7-for-7 effort against the Utah Jazz.
Despite Horry's heroics, the Jazz was more than the Lakers could handle. The Lakers dispatched Portland in the first round before losing to Utah in the Western Conference Semifinals, 4-1. O'Neal's 46-point effort in Game 1 against the Trail Blazers marked the highest single-game playoff scoring output by a Laker since Jerry West tallied 53 against the Boston Celtics in 1969.
In the second season of the Shaquille O'Neal era, the Los Angeles Lakers survived early injuries to the gargantuan center, then climbed upon his broad shoulders and ascended all the way to a 61-win season and a berth in the Western Conference Finals.
O'Neal and the Lakers immediately served notice of their improvement with the best start in franchise history. The Lakers started 11-0, then endured a stretch of 20 games that O'Neal missed because of an abdominal injury. That key stretch, during which the Lakers were 13-7, gave other players the opportunity to step up and prove that the Lakers proved they were more than a one man show.
In Shaq's absence, Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones and Kobe Bryant stepped into the limelight and shined, picking up the offensive slack while Elden Campbell manned the middle. Versatile forwards Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Derek Fisher rounded out the nucleus of the one of the youngest and quickest teams in the NBA -- the only NBA team without a single player over the age of 30. With Jones, Bryant and Van Exel running and gunning, and the January return of the dominant O'Neal inside, the Lakers possessed the most prolific offense in the NBA (105.5 ppg). All four players were rewarded for their effort, as the Lakers became the first team in 15 seasons to send four players to the All-Star Game.
All season, the Lakers found themselves embroiled in a fierce battle with Seattle for the Pacific Division title. On Mar. 16, Seattle scored a 101-89 win to take a four-game lead in the division with only five weeks remaining in the season. But the Lakers wouldn't give up. In the final two months of the season, no team played better ball than the Lakers, who won 22 of their final 25 games. O'Neal led the team in scoring in all but two of those games, including a 50-point effort in a 117-106 win over New Jersey.
O'Neal averaged 28.3 ppg for the season to finish a close second to Michael Jordan (28.7 ppg) in the scoring race, and was among league-leaders in rebounds (11.4 rpg) and blocks (2.40 bpg), while leading the league with a field-goal percentage of 58.4 percent. With their late-season surge, the Lakers captured Seattle atop the Pacific at 61-21. Their paths crossed in the second round, after the Lakers disposed of Portland with a 3-1 win in the first-round best-of-five. A series destined to be a classic instead was a one-sided affair. After Seattle won the first game, the Lakers responded with four straight wins, making quick work of their division rival.
What looked to be a Laker steamroller rolled to a halt in Salt Lake City, where the Lakers were swept in four games by the Utah Jazz, putting a damper on an otherwise exceptional season in which Los Angeles was stopped one series short of reaching the Finals for the first time since 1991.
The Lakers made a blockbuster trade, changed coaches, brought a seven-time rebounding champion on board for awhile and closed out their historic arena. In other words, they squeezed an entire year's worth of action into a lockout-shortened season.
By the time the regular season was over, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant had led the Lakers to a 31-19 record. They advanced to the Western Conference semifinals, where they lost to San Antonio in four games.
The Lakers' 118-107 loss to the Spurs in Game 4 on May 23, 1999, marked the last meaningful game in the Great Western Forum, home to six championship teams in 32 years. Los Angeles would play two more preseason games at the Forum the following season before moving into the brand-new Staples Center.
Early in the 1998-99 season, the Lakers made three significant moves in a three-day span. It started Feb. 23 when they signed Dennis Rodman, a member of five NBA championship teams and one of the top rebounders in league history. He would average 11.2 boards in 23 games before being waived April 15.
One day after signing Rodman - with the team sporting a 6-6 record -- Los Angeles relieved head coach Del Harris of his duties. Assistant coach Kurt Rambis took over Feb. 26 for the rest of the season.
On March 10, the Lakers and Charlotte Hornets pulled off a deal involving All-Stars Glen Rice and Eddie Jones. L.A. sent Jones and Elden Campbell to Charlotte for Rice, J.R. Reid and B.J. Armstrong, who was subsequently waived. Rice averaged 17.5 points in 27 games and 18.3 ppg in the playoffs for the Lakers.
O'Neal, who was named All-NBA Second Team, averaged 26.3 points and narrowly lost the league scoring title to Philadelphia's Allen Iverson (26.8). Bryant scored 19.9 points per game and was All-NBA Third Team.
The 1999-2000 season was the beginning of a new era in Los Angeles Lakers basketball. The team hired a new head coach in former Chicago Bulls lead man Phil Jackson, and for the first time in 31 years the Lakers would play their home games somewhere other than the Great Western Forum, as the club moved into the brand new 18,997-seat STAPLES Center in Downtown Los Angeles.
Jackson brought with him three new assistant coaches in Jim Cleamons (a former player on the Lakers 1971-72 squad), Frank Hamblen and Tex Winter, and along with holdover Bill Bertka, that quartet would form one of the most experienced assistant coaching teams in the NBA. The team also took on a different look as veterans A.C. Green, Ron Harper, John Salley and Brian Shaw were added to the roster.
Shaquille O'Neal began the season with a vengeance as he earned NBA Player of the Month honors for November after averaging 28.7 points, 13.4 rebounds and 3.36 blocked shots in the first month of the season. O'Neal continued his dominating ways as he earned Player of the Month honors two more times, in February and March, becoming the first player to receive Player of the Month accolades three different times in the same season. O'Neal was also named the MVP of the 2000 All-Star Game played in Oakland and was joined there for the second time by teammate Kobe Bryant.
Not limited to individual efforts, the new coaching staff, the veteran additions, and the returning players all meshed incredibly well as the club got off to a fast start, registering wins in 25 of their first 30 games and reeling off a 16-game winning streak in the first half of the season. The streaks continued as the Lakers also added a 19-game winning streak and an 11-game winning streak to become only the third NBA team to register three different double-figure winning streaks in the same season.
The Lakers stormed though the regular season achieving the best record in the league (67-15) and earning homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Though they were heavily favored, the team struggled to get out of the first round, needing five games to defeat the Sacramento Kings. The next round was less difficult as the Lakers knocked off the Phoenix Suns in five games. The Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers went to seven games, as the Lakers staged a miraculous comeback. Trailing by 13 points entering the fourth quarter of Game Seven, the Lakers fought back to win the game and the Western Conference Championship. Boosted by their improbable comeback, the Lakers went on to defeat the Indiana Pacers in six games, earning their first NBA Championship since 1988.
O'Neal (First Team) and Bryant (Second Team) were named to the All-NBA teams and both were also named to the NBA's All-Defensive Teams, with Bryant becoming the youngest player to ever receive All-Defensive honors. O'Neal became only the third player to be named Most Valuable Player of the regular season, All-Star Game and the NBA Finals.
With a nucleus that included two of the NBA's best players in Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and a head coach that has won seven NBA titles in Phil Jackson, the Lakers began the season with aspirations of winning a second consecutive NBA Championship.
After struggling to contain the Western Conference's high scoring power forwards in the playoffs, Los Angeles dealt Glen Rice and Travis Knight to the New York Knicks in a three-way deal involving the Seattle SuperSonics, which netted power forward Horace Grant and center Greg Foster. Having played under Jackson earlier in their careers, both Grant and Foster were skilled in running the Lakers triangle offense, and Grant was to provide a solid defensive and rebounding presence.
Derek Fisher began the season on the injured list after being diagnosed with a stress fracture in his right foot and would miss the first 62 games of the season. The rest of the team also got off to a slow start and was 31-16 at the All-Star break, already picking up one more loss than during the entire 1999-2000 campaign. The Lakers battled through injuries to Fisher, O'Neal and Bryant, but as the club returned to full health, the Lakers began to pick up steam heading into the postseason.
After a 96-88 win over the Utah Jazz at the Delta Center on April 3, the Lakers ran off eight consecutive victories, their longest winning streak of the season, and were able to claim their second consecutive Pacific Division title, edging out the Sacramento Kings in the last week of the season. Los Angeles would not lose another contest until Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, sweeping Portland, Sacramento and San Antonio. Philadelphia surprised the Lakers with a 107-101 overtime victory at STAPLES Center, but Los Angeles went on to victories in each of the next four games to claim a second consecutive NBA title.
O'Neal was named Finals MVP after averaging 33.0 points and 15.8 rebounds against Philadelphia and was again a First Team All-NBA selection. Fisher returned from injury to convert 35 three-pointers throughout the playoffs, setting an NBA record with 15 threes in the four-game series against San Antonio. Bryant earned Second Team All-NBA and Second-Team All-Defense honors.
With a third consecutive NBA Championship squarely in their sights, the Los Angeles Lakers opened the 2001-02 regular season much like they ended the 2000-01 campaign, with a flourish. Despite injuries to Derek Fisher (stress fracture; right foot) and Mark Madsen (fractured left wrist and abdominal strain), the team registered victories in their first seven games and 16-of-17 to start the season. The Lakers became only the 11th team to start a season with wins in 16 of their first 17 games and the first since the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls.
Gone from the 2001 Championship team were Ron Harper, Horace Grant, Tyronn Lue and Greg Foster, to be replaced by Lindsey Hunter, Samaki Walker and Mitch Richmond. Led by Richmond, a six-time All-Star, the Lakers acquired three veterans who had combined for 28,040 points and 26 seasons of experience. Those new faces would be relied upon early as Walker was immediately installed into the lineup at power forward and Hunter was counted on to replace Fisher until he recovered from injury.
After their quick start, the Lakers pace slowed as they went 17-12 over their next 19 games and with a mark of 33-13 at the All-Star Break, trailed the Sacramento Kings by 2 ½ games in the Pacific Division standings.
Shaquille O'Neal, who had been battling a foot injury throughout the season, returned from a stint on the injured list shortly after the All-Star break and earned Western Conference Player of the Week honors in two of the first three weeks after his return. He and Kobe Bryant finished third and sixth respectively among league leaders in scoring and propelled the Lakers to a 58-24 regular season mark, second best in the NBA.
The Lakers entered the postseason as the number three seed in the Western Conference and met up with the Portland Trail Blazers for the third consecutive season. Up two games to zero, Robert Horry connected on a three-pointer with 2.1 seconds remaining to give the Lakers a three-game sweep. In the Western Conference Semifinals, Los Angeles defeated the San Antonio Spurs 4-1 to set up a series between the teams with the league's two best regular season records, the Lakers and the Pacific Division Champion Sacramento Kings. In one of the most exciting playoff series in recent memory, the Lakers emerged victorious, 4-3, after a 112-106 overtime victory at ARCO Arena in game seven.
Los Angeles faced the New Jersey Nets in the 2002 NBA Finals and won the series in four games. Averaging 36.3 points and 12.3 rebounds, O'Neal was named NBA Finals MVP for the third consecutive season, joining Michael Jordan as the only players to have accomplished that feat. O'Neal and Bryant were both named First Team All-NBA, becoming the first tandem to receive that honor since Chicago's Jordan and Scottie Pippen in 1996. Phil Jackson earned his ninth NBA Championship as a head coach and surpassed Pat Riley for most playoff wins all-time.
After celebrating back-to-back-to-back NBA championships, there appeared to be no end to the Lakers impressive run of titles. And if a Robert Horry three-pointer from the wing in the final seconds of Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals had gone in-and-out and back in again, perhaps the run might not have ended, at least this season. Opportunity, for the first time in three years, had passed the champions by.
The Lakers title defense ran into a number of obstacles abnormally early in the season. From Shaquille O'Neal missing the first 12 games due to off-season toe surgery to Mark Madsen straining a hamstring to Rick Fox being suspended for six games after a preseason fight, the new campaign began somewhat precariously for the three-time defending champs. Shorthanded throughout the first half of the season while players were out or just returning to form, Kobe Bryant carried the team early on. Bryant, who entered the season adding fifteen pounds of mass to his frame over the summer, became youngest player in NBA history to reach 10,000 career points. Night in and night out, Bryant seemingly rewrote the record books. He established a new NBA record with 12 three-pointers in a game, tied the NBA record for most three-point field goals in a half with eight 3/28 vs. Washington, established a new franchise record with 42 points in a half 3/28 vs. Washington and tallied an NBA season-high 55 points in the same game, recorded nine consecutive games scoring 40 or more points, the 4th longest streak of its kind in NBA history (Wilt Chamberlain - 14 twice, Chamberlain - 10, Michael Jordan - 9), recorded 13 consecutive games scoring 35 or more points, the fourth longest streak of its kind in NBA history with all three others belonging to Wilt Chamberlain, by averaging 40.6 points in the month of February, became only the third player in NBA history to average 40 or more points in a month and became the first Lakers player since Magic Johnson in 1991 to record triple-doubles in consecutive games. Named Western Conference Player of the Week five times while being named Western Conference Player of the Month for January, Bryant elevated his play in pursuit of a fourth straight championship.
If the team had developed one trademark after three championship runs, it was that of resiliency. Never more apparent was the Lakers never-say-die attitude than when the team came from 27 points down in the fourth quarter to defeat the Dallas Mavericks in a December 6 showdown at STAPLES Center. Yet following a Christmas day defeat that dropped the team to 11-19, the Lakers had never seemed more vulnerable. Robert Horry, however, boldly predicted the Lakers would rise above .500 before the All Star break. True to form, by February 6th, the last game before the break, Los Angeles was 24-23. The Lakers, in fact, posted a 39-13 record after Christmas, the second best record in the league.
While Shaquille O'Neal had rejoined the team towards the end of November, it took time for him to reestablish his position as the most dominant force in the NBA. If January and February belonged to Bryant, March belonged to O'Neal. With the playoffs looming just around the corner and the team back in the hunt, O'Neal began to resemble the dominant force he had been in the previous season's NBA Finals when he garnered his third consecutive NBA Finals MVP award. He averaged 31.6 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.88 blocks while leading the Lakers to an 11-5 mark in their toughest month of the season, earning Western Conference Player of the Month honors along the way. Although he missed the first 12 games of the season, O'Neal managed to remind the NBA that he was still its most imposing force in the middle. On the way to 2002-03 First Team All-NBA and All-NBA Defensive Second Team selections, O'Neal celebrated major career milestones such as recording his 9,000th career rebound 4/15 vs. Denver and recording his 20,000th career point 3/20 @ Sacramento. In addition, O'Neal made his 10th NBA All Star appearance while Bryant, who also was named First Team All-NBA and garnered an All-NBA Defensive First Team nod, started in the midseason classic for the fifth time.
The Lakers concluded their season with a 50-32 record, the team's 26th 50-plus win season since moving to Los Angeles. As a franchise, the Lakers improved to 2671-1648 (.618) all time, the most victories and best winning percentage in NBA history.
After knocking off the Minnesota Timberwolves in a hard fought six game series and splitting the first four games of the Western Conference Semifinals with the Spurs, the Lakers hopes of a fourth straight championship hinged on a pivotal Game Five in San Antonio. Already missing one of their tri-captains in Rick Fox, who had torn a ligament in his left foot during the Minnesota series, and in a game in which San Antonio led by as many as 25 points, 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 4.7 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. In, and then, out. Playing for the first season since the Lakers moved to Los Angeles without the legendary Chick Hearn as their voice, it was indeed Chick who would have called it best, "In and out, Heartbrrrrrrreak!" This shot seemed to redefine the phrases' very meaning and symbolically sealed the Lakers fate. The Lakers lost the Western Conference Semifinals in six games as the San Antonio Spurs advanced and went on to claim their second NBA title.
2003-04: A season unlike any other
Purchasing the Los Angeles Lakers franchise in 1979, last season marked the 25th year of Dr. Jerry Buss' ownership of the Los Angeles Lakers, a season falling just three wins shy of the perfect anniversary gift. Losing in five games to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, the 2003-04 Lakers enjoyed their share of spectacular highlights despite battling both injury and the treacherous Western Conference night in and night out.
Teaming future Hall-of-Famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone along with perennial All-Stars Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant gave the Lakers one of the most decorated starting line-ups in league history. Starting the regular season as winners of 20 of their first 25 games, Los Angeles entered a December 21st meeting with the Phoenix Suns as the most dangerous team in basketball. The Lakers defeated the Suns that night but lost Karl Malone to a sprained right knee, an injury that would keep him out of the next 39 games. The Lakers could not rid themselves of the injury bug as players seemed to fall nightly over the next few months of the NBA schedule.
Prior to his injury, Karl Malone notched his name in history once again by surpassing Robert Parish for 6th all-time in career rebounds November 19th against the Knicks. In addition, he became the oldest player (only player over the age of 40), to register a triple-double in a regular season game November 28th against the Spurs at STAPLES Center. With Malone sidelined, the Lakers were never quite the same but maintained their course, making easy prey of the Atlanta Hawks by defeating the visitors 116-67 in front of the hometown faithful. The Lakers' 46-point victory tied for the fifth largest margin of victory in franchise history as the golden clad Lakers held the Hawks to franchise lows for points in a first quarter (7) and half (28).
Entering the All-Star break with a 31-19 record, the Lakers sent two representatives to the midseason classic held at STAPLES Center while the rest of the team finally had a chance to catch its collective breath before embarking on the home stretch of the season. Kobe Bryant, voted as a Western Conference starter for the sixth-consecutive time, represented the Lakers well by scoring 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the floor to lead all starters. Shaquille O'Neal, entering the game as a reserve, proved to be the most dominating player, tallying 24 points and 11 rebounds while earning his second All-Star MVP award in front of the hometown crowd at STAPLES Center.
Following the All-Star break, the Lakers entered the second half of the season poised to regain their championship luster of prior years, winning seven of their first eight games after the layoff. During that stretch, Kobe Bryant recorded his ninth career triple-double with 25 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in a 122-110 win over the Washington Wizards.
The Lakers entered the playoffs as winners in 14 of their final 17 regular season games and with a great deal of momentum thanks in large part to the heroics of Kobe Bryant on April 14th in Portland. Behind a pair of Bryant buzzer-beating three-pointers, the first to send it to overtime and the second for the win in double-overtime, the Lakers clinched their 18th Pacific Division Championship with a 105-104 victory over the Trailblazers, finishing the season with a record of 56-26.
After recording their 27th 50-win season in Los Angeles, the Lakers defeated the Houston Rockets (4-1), San Antonio Spurs (4-2), and Minnesota Timberwolves (4-2) before falling to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals. Although falling three games shy of their ultimate goal, this team for the ages left us with the memory of Karl Malone and a torn jersey in Houston, of Kobe Bryant posting 42 points against San Antonio after arriving at the arena late and of 0.4 seconds and Derek Fisher answering Tim Duncan's improbable buzzer beater with one of his own. While the ending was indeed disappointing, the ride was one basketball fans will remember for years to come.
With a new coaching staff headed by two-time NBA Champion Rudy Tomjanovich and a starting line-up returning only one player from last season's Western Conference Championship team, the 2004-05 Lakers figured to be a work in progress. The team had new faces such as Lamar Odom, a starter on the 2004 U.S. Men's Olympic basketball team, and Caron Butler, a 2002-03 All-Rookie First Team selection, mixed with the veteran leadership of Vlade Divac returning home to where he began his career. Early on, however, an ominous tone was set when Divac, penciled in as a starter before training camp, was lost due to a herniated disc in his back that would ultimately keep him out for a majority of the season. Nonetheless, the Lakers opened the year with a convincing 89-78 victory over the upstart Denver Nuggets before a sell-out crowd at STAPLES Center on November 2. While unable to put together a three-game win streak throughout the opening two months, Los Angeles still built a 15-12 record at the turn of the calendar. Of their 12 losses before January 1, five came by five or fewer points.
One of those games included the most anticipated regular season basketball game in recent NBA history, matching the Miami Heat and former Laker Shaquille O'Neal against the Lakers and Kobe Bryant on Christmas day. In a game that lived up to its billing, Bryant scored a game-high 42 points while O'Neal posted a double-double (24 points, 11 rebounds) in their first ever meeting. Los Angeles, however, couldn't hold a seven-point fourth quarter lead and lost in overtime 102-104.
Despite the close losses and losing Bryant for a month to injury after suffering a severely sprained right ankle against Cleveland on January 13, the Lakers continued to improve and moved to six games above .500 (22-16) by January 21. Los Angeles closed out January and opened February with consecutive victories before the season would take a dramatic shift.
On February 2, Tomjanovich stepped down from his head coaching post due to health reasons, leaving long-time Lakers' assistant coach Frank Hamblen to man the ship as Los Angeles entered the toughest part of their schedule. Exactly one month after injuring his ankle, Bryant returned to the Lakers' lineup February 13 at Cleveland. While dropping his first game back to the Cavs, the Lakers rebounded by winning their last game before the All-Star break, to which Bryant was selected a Western Conference starter, and reeled off their first three-game win streak of the season with two wins immediately following the break, improving to 28-24.
The team continued to see-saw, however, dropping their next four games following its three-game surge. Fittingly enough, Los Angeles then won four of its next five including back-to-back road victories at Dallas and Charlotte. In the game against Dallas, Bryant saw his franchise record streak of 43 consecutive free throws made come to an end, surpassing the previous mark of 40 held by Hall-of-Famer Gail Goodrich. With four games in the next five nights, Los Angeles dropped each of them, falling below .500 for the first time since they were 1-2 on November 5. In the process, the Lakers lost their leading rebounder and second leading scorer when Lamar Odom suffered a strained left shoulder March 18 against Indiana, an injury that would sideline him for the remainder of the season. The Lakers continued to slide, ultimately dropping eight consecutive games, the second longest streak in franchise history. In the process, Los Angeles dropped nine straight road games, tying the 2003-04 Lakers mark for second longest streak in franchise history.
Despite the Lakers struggles down the stretch, third-year forward Caron Butler was a bright spot, averaging 22.8 points for the month of April to go along with 7.6 rebounds and 2.22 steals. In addition, as a team, the Lakers established new franchise records for both three-point field goals made (644) and three-point field goals attempted (1813). Also, entering the year, no Lakers' team had shot 100 percent from the foul line since the 1991-92 season when the team converted 27-of-27 from the charity stripe in a January game against Denver. In their March 8, 2005 contest with the Clippers, the Lakers converted 23-of-23 free throws, marking the second time during the season that the Lakers shot 100 percent from the foul line. Earlier in the year, the Lakers converted 20-of-20 free-throws in an 89-87 road victory over the Clippers December 11.
Entering the Lakers regular season finale needing just three points to become the 115th player in NBA history to amass 14,000 points, Kobe Bryant scored 37 points against the Portland Trail Blazers to bring his career total to 14,034 at the end of his ninth NBA season. Already the youngest player in league history to reach 10,000 points, Bryant surpassed Michael Jordan as the youngest player to reach the 14,000 point benchmark.
While playing just 46 games (23-23) with their opening night starting lineup of Chris Mihm, Odom, Butler, Bryant and Chucky Atkins, the Lakers season culminated in April with the team missing the playoffs for the first time since the 1993-94 season.
2005-06: Jackson and Playoffs Return to Los Angeles while 81 Becomes a Household Number
The 2005-06 season saw the return of Phil Jackson - and with him, the return of the Lakers' winning tradition. Following six seasons, four NBA Finals appearances and three consecutive championships, Phil Jackson took one year away from the team before signing on once again to coach the league's most storied franchise.
A Jackson return meant a reunion with Kobe Bryant, two of the key components from the Lakers 2000, 2001 and 2002 Championship seasons. And despite the return, as well as significant off-season moves by the franchise, fans and media alike remained skeptical as to whether the Lakers would even challenge for a spot in the postseason. After missing the playoffs in 2004-05, the Lakers used their first lottery pick since 1994 to select high- school center Andrew Bynum, the youngest player ever selected in the history of the draft. In addition, the Lakers brought back a familiar face from the Showtime era in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to mentor the newly acquired Bynum at center. Los Angeles acquired forward Kwame Brown from the Washington Wizards via trade and signed free-agent Smush Parker to help add depth in both the front court and at guard.
Combined with a few new faces and influx of young talent, the franchise was poised for a new start. United once again, Jackson and a rejuvenated Bryant wasted no time in getting the Lakers back to their traditional winning ways. The Lakers emerged victorious in their season opener at Denver with a 99-97 overtime thriller in which Bryant connected on the game-winner with 0.6 seconds remaining in the extra period. Although the team's first extensive road-trip in November proved to be treacherous for the team as they experienced their first three-game losing streak of the season, the Lakers opened eyes around the league by going 5-1 on a six-game trip in early December which included wins at Chicago and Dallas.
While the team's youth led to inconsistency early on, it was clear that Bryant would need to shoulder more of a scoring burden in the early going. On December 20th at STAPLES Center, Bryant displayed just how up to the task he was at the expense of the Dallas Mavericks as he single handedly outscored the entire Mavericks squad 62-61 through three quarters. Bryant's 30-point third established a new franchise record for points in a quarter while tying for the fourth best period in NBA history as the Lakers went on to lead by as many as 35 in the contest as Bryant sat out the entire fourth period.
Despite a four-game losing streak in late December that seeped into early January, the Lakers bounced back January 6 at home against the Philadelphia 76ers when Bryant and Smush Parker combined for 12-of-12 shooting from 3-point territory as Los Angeles won easily 119-93. In the victory, Bryant established a new franchise record for 3-pointers made without a miss, connecting on all seven of his attempts. Parker made all five of his attempts, marking the first time since the introduction of the 3-point shot in 1979 that two teammates have been perfect from behind the arc with a minimum of five attempts each.
Scoring 40 of his game-high 50 points in the second half the following night on the road against the Clippers, Bryant helped the Lakers overcome a 13-point third quarter deficit to win 112-109. Two days later, on January 9, Bryant became the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in November of 1964 to record four consecutive games scoring 45-plus points. His 45-point, 10-rebound, five-assist performance propelled the Lakers to a 96-90 win over the visiting Indiana Pacers as they moved two games above .500 at 18-16.
Later in the month, the Lakers avenged a disappointing Christmas Day loss to the Miami Heat with a 100-92 victory at STAPLES Center on Martin Luther King Day. Bryant led all scorers with 37 points while Lamar Odom narrowly missed a triple-double with 19 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists in the victory.
Following a disappointing road loss to the Sacramento Kings in which the Lakers surrendered a five-point lead with 35.5 seconds remaining in regulation and a one-sided defeat to the Suns in Phoenix a night later, Los Angeles aimed to end their skid in a January 22 contest against the visiting Toronto Raptors. The Lakers once again opened the game sluggishly, falling behind by as many as 18 points beginning the third. From that point, however, the rest, as they say, is history. In one of the greatest performances in NBA history, Bryant took control of the game, scoring 55 points in the second half alone and amassing a staggering 81 points on the night to carry the Lakers to a 122-104 victory. Bryant's totals for points in a half and game became the second highest totals in NBA history, bettered only by Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game (59-point half) back in March of 1962.
Bryant's milestone season, however, was only beginning to gather steam. Entering the team's March 3 match-up at Golden State, Bryant needed just 10 points to become the youngest player in NBA history to reach 16,000 career points. Bryant more than reached the mark as his 42 points propelled the team to a 106-94 victory over the Warriors. Nearly one month later on April 2, Bryant tied Elgin Baylor's Lakers franchise record with his 23rd 40-plus point game of the year - leading his squad to a104-88 victory over Houston. Just four days later at Denver, Bryant surpassed the Baylor mark with his 24th 40-point game of the season, but the Lakers would fall to the Nuggets in a 108-110 overtime thriller. Bryant once again took aim at another Lakers' record prior to their April 14 contest versus Portland. Needing 16 points to surpass Baylor's franchise record of 2,719 points established more than four decades earlier during the 1962-63 season, Bryant erupted for 50 points en route to a 110-99 victory.
To top off a magical regular season highlighted by brilliant individual performances and an end of the season playoff push, Bryant helped lead the Lakers to their fifth straight victory and 11th win in their final 14 games with a 115-95 victory over the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets. In the process, Bryant scored 35 points to finish the season with 2,832 points - the 7th greatest scoring season of all-time and 8th greatest scoring average (35.4 points) in league history. With the win, the Lakers finished with the sixth best record in the Western Conference and secured a seventh seed in the Western Conference Playoffs.
Facing the heavily favored Suns in the First Round, the Lakers dropped Game 1 at Phoenix 102-107 but came away encouraged that they could indeed get a desired split on the road. Los Angeles controlled the tempo from the outset of Game 2 and behind Bryant's 29 points, 10 rebounds and five assists and Lamar Odom's 21 points, seven rebounds and five assists, the Lakers evened the series at one game apiece with a 99-93 victory heading back to STAPLES Center.
After winning Game 3 99-92 to take a 2-1 series lead, the Lakers looked to take a commanding 3-1 advantage entering Game 4. Despite playing just 10 first-half minutes due to foul trouble, Kobe Bryant came up big late in one of the most memorable playoff games in Lakers history, connecting on a game-tying driving lay-up with 0.7 seconds to force overtime after Smush Parker stole the ball from Steve Nash along the sideline, leading to the break and lay-up. In the overtime period, Luke Walton tied up Nash to force a jump ball with Los Angeles down one with just a few seconds remaining. The tip went in the Lakers' direction and into Bryant's hands. With the clock winding down, Bryant took the ball up court and fading away from the right elbow, knocked down the jumper to secure a miraculous 99-98 victory, giving the Lakers a 3-1 series lead.
After dropping Game 5 in Phoenix, the Lakers returned home looking to close out the series. With Bryant scoring the team's final five points of regulation to put Los Angeles up three with 29.3 seconds remaining, Tim Thomas connected on a game-tying three-pointer off of an offensive rebound with 6.3 seconds, ultimately sending the contest into an overtime in which the Suns scored 21 points to force a Game 7 with a 126-118 victory. Having been just seconds from the Western Conference Semifinals, a seemingly stunned Lakers team succumbed to the Suns momentum in the deciding Game 7 at Phoenix and were eliminated from the postseason with a 90-121 loss at US Airways Center.
Despite a disappointing end to the season, the return of Jackson coupled with the historic brilliance of Kobe Bryant and a memorable playoff series against Phoenix made for one of the more memorable Lakers seasons of all-time while providing new-found momentum for future success to come.Return to top of page
2006-07: Another Playoff Loss to Phoenix
Only five times in the 62-year history of the Lakers had the team not made the playoffs, with the 2004-05 season - with Phil Jackson taking what he now calls a "sabbatical" standing out as the only blemish since 1993-94.
But Jackson returned the following season, leading the Lakers back to the playoffs in a deep Western Conference despite a roster short on elite players, ultimately losing a tough First Round matchup with the Phoenix Suns. Kobe Bryant put forth one of the greatest scoring seasons in league history, averaging 35.4 points, and returned in 2006-07 no less determined to win despite a team still lacking experienced, talented players.
Bryant actually began the season on the bench, taking two games to further recover from an offseason knee injury before returning to steadily get back into form, but then scoring 52 points in the final game of November to help the Lakers open the season at 9-5. Lamar Odom, L.A.'s only other elite player, posted 34 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in the season opener and was a consistent producer until he spraining his knee in mid-December. The injury would keep Odom out for 21 games, of which the Lakers would win 12 largely due to Bryant carrying a heavy load, starting alongside an inexperienced group including Luke Walton, Brian Cook, Kwame Brown and Smush Parker.
Odom finally returned on Jan. 26, but the Lakers would go only 7-17 in their next 24 games, suffering respective losing streaks of six and seven games as frustrations grew. On the heels of that second losing streak (Mar. 2 - 15), Bryant went on an absurd scoring tear, reeling off consecutive games of 65, 50, 60 and 50 points (becoming the 2nd player in NBA history to do so alongside Wilt Chamberlain) in wins over Portland, Minnesota, Memphis and New Orleans. It was enough to steer the Lakers back on a winning course, allowing for the seven best record in the West and 12th best in the league to pit themselves back into the playoffs, again against the 2nd-seeded Phoenix Suns.
Maurice Evans, Andrew Bynum, Ronny Turiaf, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Vladimir Radmanovic found ways to contribute off the bench here and there, but it was Bryant upon whom the burden of winning rested.
Kobe did manage to deliver one playoff victory to L.A. with a 45-point performance in Game 3, but Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Co. were too much for the Lakers, earning a 4-1 First Round victory to end the purple and gold run.
For the season, ultimately impressive considering the lack of talent on Jackson's roster, Bryant was named First Team All-NBA, to the NBA All-Defensive First Team and MVP of the All-Star game, while Bynum became the youngest Laker to record a double-double a season before he'd begin to make a much larger impact. Bryant and Odom were about to receive quite a bit more help.Return to top of page
2007-08: The Addition of a Spaniard Sends Lakers Back to Finals
A fascinating year in Los Angeles began in the offseason, when Kobe Bryant, pining for more talent on the roster, went as far as to request that he be traded before returning his focus to the Lakers and opening the season with a 45-point performance in a last-second loss to Houston.
Derek Fisher had come back to the Lakers after two years in Golden State and one in Utah, joining Bryant, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, Vladimir Radmanovic, Luke Walton, Jordan Farmar and Ronny Turiaf in L.A.'s rotation ... at least to start the season.
After an average November (9-7) impacted by Lamar Odom's comeback from offseason shoulder surgery, the Lakers went 10-4 in December before reeling off six straight victories in January to bring their record to 25-11. Bynum, who'd entered the starting line-up after 10 games and announced himself nationally with a 28-point, 12-rebound performance in a Christmas day win over Phoenix, averaged 19 points and 12.8 rebounds in January before suffering what turned out to be a season-ending knee injury against Memphis on Jan. 13. The Lakers had amassed the league's best record at that point, but had also suffered a significant injury to Trevor Ariza, whom they'd acquired in late November from Orlando.
Stung by the injury bug, L.A. finished the month at 3-5 before GM Mitch Kupchak pulled off a masterful move in acquiring 7-foot center Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies, a trade that immediately changed the fortunes of both the Lakers and the NBA. Gasol's skill set couldn't have fit better into Phil Jackson's triangle offense, and he proved himself capable playing slightly out of position on defense at center as well as L.A. finished the season 22-5 when the Spaniard played (going 5-4 when he sat with an ankle injury). Included in that stretch was an 11-game winning streak just after Gasol joined the team, and a 7-1 spurt to finish the season that vaulted L.A. into the top spot in the Western Conference.
The wave of good play continued into the playoffs as L.A. swept Denver 4-0 in Round 1 and outlasted a tough Utah team 4-2 in Round 2. Then came the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in the Western Finals, whom the Lakers handled in five games thanks in part to Bryant's 39-point performance in the clincher and fantastic play up front from both Gasol and Odom.
But the dream finally ended in the NBA Finals against the hated Boston Celtics, who won Games 1 and 2 and rallied from a 24-point deficit in Game 4 to put L.A. in a 3-1 hole, ultimately winning Game 6 back in Beantown in blowout fashion to secure the title.
Bryant averaged 30.1 points, 5.7 assists and 5.6 rebounds in the playoffs, Gasol was good for 16.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.9 blocks while Odom averaged 14.3 points and 10.0 rebounds.
As disappointing as the end result was, 2007-08 was a terrific if unexpected year for the Lakers, who would enter 2008-09 full of expectation, optimism and revenge on the mind, armed with Bryant, Gasol, Odom and Fisher, not to mention the return of a healthy Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza.
2008-09: The Larry O'Brien Trophy Returns to Los Angeles
In Los Angeles, winning championships is always the goal. Period. But for the first time since 2003-04, the Lakers entered the season with a team that knew it was more than capable of winning the whole thing.
With the combination of elite talent featuring Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum and the mental motivation circulating amongst the team from L.A.'s 131-92 Game 6 loss to Boston in the previous season's Finals, the Lakers were a team operating with a single goal.
The season opened with that premise in mind, as the team won its first seven games, went 14-1 in November, beat Boston by nine on Christmas Day and carried a 42-10 record into the All-Star break, establishing a wide lead in the Western Conference. Yet for the second straight January, L.A. got some bad news when Andrew Bynum went down with another knee injury, once again against Memphis, though the 7-footer did return with four games left in the regular season and played throughout the playoff run.
Bryant had scored 48 points in the game after Bynum went down in the previous season, and this time went off for 61 points in a remarkable performance at Madison Square Garden on Feb 2. Then - with some notable help from Gasol and Odom - Bryant led the Lakers to key wins at Boston and Cleveland as L.A. established its supremacy on the road. The Lakers concluded the season by going 7-1 in April to run away with the top seed, rolling into the playoffs for a First Round matchup with Utah.
The Jazz managed to win only Game 3 as L.A. advanced with a 4-1 series win, but the plucky Ron-Artest-led Houston Rockets forced the Lakers to seven games, L.A. winning Game 5 by 40 and Game 7 by 19 to set up a Western Finals matchup with Denver. The Nuggets stole Game 2 with a 106-103 win at STAPLES Center, but Bryant scored 41 points to help L.A. regain home court advantage with a 103-97 Game 3 win. The Lakers dropped Game 4, but won Game 5 by nine at home before closing the series out with a dominant 119-92 Game 6 win in Denver, highlighted by Bryant's 35-point, 10-assist gem.
Awaiting the Lakers in the NBA Finals were the Orlando Magic, whom L.A. disposed of in Games 1 and 2 before the Magic struck back in Game 3 with a 108-104 victory. Then came the tipping point of the series, when Orlando held a five-point lead in the final minute of Game 4, but fell victim to a huge crunch-time performance from Derek Fisher that featured two dagger three-pointers, the first tying the game to force OT and the second putting the game away. Then came L.A.'s championship-winning Game 5 performance, a 99-86 victory that produced the 15th title in franchise history.
Bryant took home Finals MVP honors for the first time, on the strength of 32.4 points, 7.4 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game, while Gasol, Odom, Fisher, Bynum as well as Trevor Ariza, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown and Luke Walton all offered a hand in a true team effort.
With that, the goal was achieved: the Lakers were champions again.
As had already happened 15 times in franchise history, the Lakers entered an NBA season as the champions of basketball, returning all but one player from the 2008-09 title-winning squad with the solitary goal of defending their throne.
The lone roster move saw Trevor Ariza go to Houston and Ron Artest - still arguably the league's top on-ball defender - join Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the starting line up.
Riding their superior size and Kobe Bryant's superior skill, the Lakers overcame an early hamstring injury to Gasol to open the season 23-4, 11 of those wins coming in consecutive fashion when the Spaniard returned. The Lakers headed into the All-Star break at 41-13, comfortably atop the Western Conference, with Bryant and Gasol representing the team in Dallas.
It wasn't all rosy as the regular season continued, however. Bryant was still battling an avulsion fracture to the index finger of his shooting hand that he'd suffered in December, in addition to tweaks to his ankle and knee, while Bynum suffered a late season Achilles strain, injuries which kept the two out for a combined 25 games (17 for Bynum). That contributed to the team winning just four of its final 11 games to finish at 57-25, a mark still good for the No. 1 seed in the West and No. 3 overall behind Cleveland and Orlando.
But thanks in no small part to the experience of Phil Jackson, the Lakers never lost their confidence, which was soon exhibited in the postseason. Two straight road losses allowed Oklahoma City to tie L.A.'s first round series at two, but the defeats seemed to wake up the Purple and Gold, who promptly ran off 10 straight postseason wins to beat the Thunder 4-2 (winning the series on Gasol's last-second put-back layup), sweep the Jazz 4-0 and go up 2-0 on the Suns in the Western Finals. While Phoenix battled back to win two games at home, Artest tipped in Bryant's last-second miss to give L.A. a Game 5 victory, and Kobe offered up a motley crew of deadly shots in Game 6 to send the Lakers to the Finals for the third straight season.
With their return to the big stage came a chance to avenge the team's painful 2008 Finals loss to the Boston Celtics, and thought it took seven hard fought games, L.A. ultimately emerged with an 83-79 Game 7 victory that saw purple and gold streamers rain down from the STAPLES Center rooftop.
The Lakers opened the Finals with an impressive 102-89 Game 1 win, but fell 103-94 in Game 2 when Boston's Ray Allen hit seven first half three-pointers. Home court advantage was quickly regained, however, with a critical 91-84 victory in Game 3 at Boston thanks largely to Fisher's 11-point fourth quarter. Boston battled back to narrowly win Games 4 and 5 in Boston, before the Lakers pounded the Celtics with a terrific 89-67 Game 6 effort, until finally overcoming a 13-point third quarter deficit in Game 7, capped by late three-pointers from Fisher and Artest and the all-around play of Gasol and Bryant.
Bryant concluded the playoffs with averages of 29.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists, while Gasol added 19.6 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.09 blocks of his own, while the contributions of Artest, Fisher and Bynum - who gamely played through a meniscus tear that would need postseason surgery - plus Lamar Odom, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujacic off the bench all proved critical at various points of the playoffs.
Finals MVP for the second straight season, Bryant had scored at least 30 points 12 times throughout the playoff run, while Phil Jackson had won his 11th championship as a coach and the Lakers were champions of basketball for the 16th time.
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2010-11 Lakers Season Review
When the Lakers raised the 2010 NBA trophy after defeating Boston in seven games, it wasn't long before visions of a potential three-peat took hold.
Even though no team had made it to four straight Finals since Magic Johnson's Lakers (1982-85) and Larry Bird's Celtics (1984-87), L.A. was returning its unmatched size alongside Kobe Bryant, thinking the 2011 trophy was theirs to lose. And the greatest coach of all-time, Phil Jackson, already owning a ridiculous three three-peats and more rings than he could wear on his fingers, was coming back to boot.
"After a couple weeks of deliberation, it is time to get back to the challenge of putting together a team that can defend its title in the 2010-11 season," said Jackson when announcing his return in July. "It'll be the last stand for me, and I hope a grand one."
But there was a bit of knowing hesitancy even then for Jackson, who recognized the minefield his players would have to navigate.
"It's an impossible task," he said before training camp. "You just go about it and don't think about how difficult it is, and play each game and don't worry about anything but that. It takes remarkable talent to be able to do it."
The talent was certainly there for L.A., who managed to win 57 regular season games for the second consecutive year. Bryant and Gasol were again named to the All-Star team, Lamar Odom had his best season as a Laker (as shown with Sixth Man of the Year honors), Bynum dominated on defense and the glass for the first extended period of his career, Derek Fisher was steady as ever while steering the ship, Ron Artest remained among the league's very best perimeter defenders and the "Killah Bee's" bench trio of Matt Barnes, Steve Blake and Shannon Brown showed early-season promise.
Signs of mental and physical fatigue throughout the season are telling with the benefit of hindsight, but they occurred for a team that had already earned the benefit of the doubt. Until someone actually beat the Lakers four times in a playoff series, overreaction was, perhaps, hasty. They'd won too many big games together to overanalyze a rough preseason in Europe, to let concern about Bynum (missed the first 24 games) or Bryant's respective knees reign supreme, to sweat losing streaks that reached as many as five games for the first time since Gasol came over from Memphis in 2008. They were too big, too long, too strong ... it seemed regardless of their regular season travails, they would figure it out in the playoffs.
There were some, most notably Bryant, that weren't even willing to pick against the Lakers when they were down 3-0 to the Mavericks in the Western Conference Semifinals.
But Kobe, unable to really gain full strength in a knee that was operated on the previous summer, didn't have the same burst. Gasol's struggles in playoffs were as foreign to the team as his Spanish passport. Meanwhile, the team chemistry just was not the same, shown on the court through a lack of cohesive defensive rotations and only a passing resemblance of the pretty triangle offense that marked Phil Jackson's Lakers at their best.
After Dallas - who played fantastic team basketball throughout the playoffs - blew L.A.'s doors off in Game 4 to shockingly cut the season well short of the only acceptable goal, Lakerland had a chance to decompress, to try and explain, to attempt to and understand how a team that still felt itself the league's best had been swept. But the best answer may not have come from Bryant, Jackson, or GM Mitch Kupchak. Instead, head trainer Gary Vitti, who had spent more individual time amongst both the players and the coaching staff than anyone, offered his insight.
You can feel the fatigue even from 2008 to 2009, but there was a psychological push because you lost (to Boston in the Finals) that you push through that fatigue. From 2009 to 2010, you saw more fatigue, but it was Boston again, so we had something to prove. That's a psychological advantage. And then this season, we just ran out of gas. It's normal. When you play through June, it doesn't give you a lot of time to get your body and your mind right before you're back in training camp. It just doesn't, that's the way it is and it's why so few teams repeat, let alone three-peat. There just wasn't enough left in the tank. There was just no way to refill it ... and we tried.
Consider that the lowest moment of the regular season came on Feb. 16 at Cleveland, when L.A. lost its third straight game prior to the All-Star break to the league's worst team, one it had beaten by 55 points on Jan. 11, then heard about it throughout All-Star weekend. This was a tired bunch of Lakers.
With just four days away from one another to find some collective energy, L.A.'s response was to go 17-1 once the break was over, unleashing controlled fury against many of the league's best, including San Antonio, Dallas twice, Oklahoma City, Portland, Orlando and Atlanta. The defending champs were back. Right?
But the fatigue was not a mirage, and it returned in a hurry. L.A. dropped five straight games in April and limped into the playoffs. And after needing six games against the Hornets in Round 1 came the ignominious sweep at the hands of Dirk and Co., and now a long, drawn out summer to think about it (imagine the look on Kobe's face when the Mavs raised Larry O'Brien...).
Phil Jackson's premonition turned out to be accurate, as a fourth trip to the Finals was simply too much to ask.
2011-12 Lakers Season Review
The 2011-12 Lakers campaign almost never got off the ground, with the NBA lockout that began on July 1 extending into late November until an agreement was finally forged.
As such, new coach Mike Brown – hired over the summer to replace Phil Jackson – had quite a challenge, afforded only a two-week preseason to put in an entirely new system. Adding to the difficulty was a trade that ended up not going through, with reigning Sixth Man Lamar Odom an ultimate casualty of the process as he ended up in Dallas in exchange for a trade exception and a second round pick.
The season began on Christmas Day, with the Lakers opening the year playing unprecedented back-to-back-to-back games because of the compressed 66-game schedule. L.A. opened without the services of center Andrew Bynum, who was serving a 4-game suspension stemming from a second-round sweep to Dallas in the 2011 playoffs, and narrowly lost its first two contests.
The purple and gold struggled to string together consistent performances early on, especially on the road, where they posted just a 2-7 record during the first month of the season. But thanks to Kobe Bryant, they still managed to win a lot of games. Despite battling through a torn ligament in his wrist, the longtime All-Star strung together four games of 40+ points in early January, carrying a Lakers offense that was still trying to adjust to the new system.
Looking to upgrade a roster that posted a 27-16 record before the trade deadline, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak traded for Cavs reserve point guard Ramon Sessions, while sending Derek Fisher to Houston in a separate deal that also brought big man Jordan Hill to Los Angeles. With Sessions adding a pick and roll game to the offense, the Lakers looked a more dangerous team heading into the postseason, highlighted by a 17-point, 9-assist performance at Dallas a week after he was acquired in mid March.
The Lakers closed the season with a 14-9 mark to finish at 41-25, enough for third place in the Western Conference, their play slipping a bit after the No. 1 spot was no longer in reach. Among the major positives from the regular season was the play of Bynum, who missed only one game due to injury and averaged 18.7 points and 11.8 boards — both career highs — with 1.9 blocks on 55.8 percent shooting. That was good enough to earn the starting center slot on the Western All-Star team, where he joined 14-time All-Star Bryant.
In mid-April, Bynum pulled down a career-high 30 rebounds at San Antonio. Only four other Lakers in franchise history had previously accomplished that feat: George Mikan; Elgin Baylor; Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Bynum's game was absolutely aided by the play of Gasol, who moved away from the basket despite maintaining the NBA's best low post skills in order to accommodate his younger, bigger teammate. One week after Bynum’s 30-rebound game, Gasol put up his fifth career triple-double on the road at Golden State with 21 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. Gasol's play down the stretch helped the Lakers go 5-2 while Bryant missed seven games due to a painful shin injury.
The Lakers drew the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs, taking a commanding 3-1 lead despite playing without Metta World Peace, suspended seven games for elbowing James Harden in the second to last regular season game. Denver rallied to win the next two games, forcing a Game 7 at Staples Center, but the Lakers won out behind a combined 39 points, 35 rebounds and 10 blocks from Bynum and Gasol, plus 17 points and eight assists from Bryant.
Next up for the Lakers: the Oklahoma City Thunder. L.A. faced an early 1-0 deficit and found themselves within two minutes of sending the series back to Los Angeles all knotted up. Up seven points down the stretch of Game 2, L.A. couldn't hold on for the victory, and faced a 2-0 deficit heading home for Game 3.
L.A. won Game 3 in front of its fans, but again blew a lead in the final moments of Game 4, OKC closing the game on a 22-8 run to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. The Lakers were fatigued against the younger Thunder, since Games 3 and 4 came on a very rare playoff back-to-back, due to the condensed schedule forced by the lockout.
Bryant went off for 42 points in Game 5, but it wasn't quite enough, the Thunder winning 106-90 to send the Lakers home before the Western Finals for the second consecutive season.
The answer from Kupchak and Dr. Jerry and Jim Buss? Get Dwight Howard and Steve Nash for the coming season.