NBA.com takes a look back at the top moments that define the history of the NBA.
When Pat Riley trademarked the phrase “Three-Peat” in 1988, he anticipated it would be for his two-time defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The Riley-coached Lakers were swept by the Detroit Pistons in the 1989 NBA Finals, however, and Los Angeles would have to wait 14 years for Riley’s vision to be realized.
Starting with the George Mikan-led Minneapolis Lakers (1952-54) to Bill Russell’s legendary Boston Celtics that won eight consecutive titles (1959-1966), through the Jordan era Chicago Bulls (1991-93, 1996-98) only four times had an NBA team won three or more consecutive championships before the Lakers in 2000-02.
Since Riley coined the phrase “Three-Peat,” only four major professional sports teams have won three consecutive championships. The “Three-Peat” has become the pinnacle of accomplishment in American team sports. Of the Big Four — NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL — the Lakers remain the last team to have completed the feat.
However, when future Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal joined the Lakers in 1996, it would take the duo several years, and the end of the Michael Jordan era, to fully realize their potential. But at the turn of the century, the pair would dominate the basketball world in a way few ever have.
Of course, without general manager Jerry West at the helm none of this would have happened. West acquired Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets for center Vlade Divac during the 1996 draft and convinced O’Neal to leave the Orlando Magic and become the new centerpiece of the Lakers franchise during that same offseason.
Also during the 1996 draft, West would use the Lakers 24th overall pick to select guard Derek Fisher. In the ensuring seasons, West would add forwards Robert Horry and Glen Rice. But perhaps the biggest piece to the puzzle West put together wasn’t on the court, but off it.
Prior to the 1999-00 season, amid pressure from a fanbase longing for postseason success, West hired former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson to take over on the sidelines. Jackson, who’d won six championships with the Bulls, immediately added to his growing legacy.
In the first season of the O’Neal-Bryant-Jackson era, the Lakers finished the regular season with a record of 67-15 — second-best in franchise history behind the 1971-72 Lakers who went 69-13.
O’Neal was named the league MVP and the Lakers would go on to win their first championship since 1988. The road didn’t come without its bumps though. After beating Sacramento and Phoenix in the first two rounds of the playoffs it would all come down to Game 7 of the Western Conference finals against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Down 15 points with just over 10 minutes to play, Los Angeles would mount the greatest Game 7 comeback in NBA history to defeat Portland 89-84. The Lakers went on to win the NBA Finals in six games over the Indiana Pacers.
After the season, West would retire after one of the most prolific careers as a player, coach and manager in professional sports. In 2000-01, the Lakers wouldn’t dominate the regular season quite like they had the previous year — posting a record of 56-26 — but when the postseason rolled around, Los Angeles bulldozed the competition in historic fashion.
The Lakers swept the first three rounds of the playoffs, lost in overtime in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, and then went on to win the next four games to claim their second straight championship. Their 15-1 postseason record is the greatest in NBA history (Update: Golden State went on to break the record in the 2017 playoffs after going 16-1).
The 2001-02 season will forever be remembered for its controversial playoffs. In the opening round of the Eastern Conference finals, Reggie Miller was awarded a game-tying 3-pointer off a half-court shot against the New Jersey Nets that shouldn’t have counted. In the Charlotte Hornets Game 4 matchup against the Orlando Magic, a buzzer-beating 3 by Baron Davis should have counted but was waved off.
However, it was Game 4 of the Western Conference finals between the Lakers and Sacramento Kings that ultimately influenced the NBA’s decision to institute instant replay the following season. At halftime, Lakers forward Samaki Walker hit a 3-pointer that was counted by the referees. Television replay showed that the shot clearly should not have counted and the Lakers went on to win the game 100-99 on a buzzer-beating three-pointer from Robert Horry.
The Lakers won the series in seven games, finishing the Kings off in a Game 7 overtime thriller that featured 16 ties and 19 lead changes.
In the 2002 NBA Finals, the Lakers easily dismantled the New Jersey Nets 4-0 en route to their third consecutive championship. The “Three-Peat” Pat Riley had sought to bring Los Angeles all those years before finally arrived.
O’Neal was named Finals MVP following all three of the Lakers championships, becoming the only player besides Michael Jordan to win the award three consecutive times.
During the Lakers championship runs, O’Neal was named All-NBA First Team each year, with Bryant being named to the All-NBA Second Team twice and the All-NBA First Team once.
The duos relationship, which soured over their eight-year partnership, reached a boiling point after the 2003-04 season, however, when O’Neal demanded a trade following the Lakers messy breakup with Jackson. Mired in personal differences and ever-growing arguments over their respective roles with the team, it reached a point that Bryant and O’Neal could no longer remain teammates.
O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat, Jackson would take a year off from the game and Kobe would become the face of the new-look Lakers that eventually won two straight titles in 2009 and 2010 with Jackson returning to the sidelines.
But despite the unceremonious ending to the era, nothing will ever take away from the brilliance O’Neal and Bryant displayed together on the court. To this day the pair still stand as the on-court leaders of the last “Three-Peat” in major American professional sports.