History of the Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers franchise has a long and storied history, predating the formation of the National Basketball Association (NBA).
Founded in 1946, the Lakers are one of the NBA's most famous and successful franchises. As of 2010, the Lakers hold the all-time records for wins (3,027), winning percentage (61.9%), and NBA Finals appearances (31). The Lakers have won 16 NBA titles, second only to the Boston Celtics' 17. Their rosters have included some of the game's greatest players, including George Mikan, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal.
- 1 Detroit Gems
- 2 Minneapolis Lakers
- 3 The move to Los Angeles
- 4 The wait is over
- 5 Kareem comes to town
- 6 A bit of Magic
- 7 Showtime
- 8 End of an era
- 9 The lean years
- 10 A new sheriff
- 11 Return to glory
- 12 The end of the run
- 13 Overhaul
- 14 Kobe/Phil Part II
The Laker franchise began its existence as the Detroit Gems basketball team of the National Basketball League (NBL). The team owned by Dearborn, Michigan, entrepreneur C. King Boring. The team played only one season in the NBL under the Gems name, posting a 4-40 record on the court and equally dismal results financially.
In 1947, Ben Berger and Morris Chalfen bought the Gems from Boring for $15,000. Boring would go on to own the Vagabond Kings, a professional team that found much more success barnstorming in the late 40's and early 50's than the Gems had found playing in the NBL. Nonetheless, with the ultimate success that befell the Gems franchise in Minneapolis and Los Angeles, Boring's granddaughter claims that Boring later lamented that he did not maintain a minority ownership interest in the team for himself.
Berger and Chalfen relocated the team to Minneapolis, with home games being played at the Minneapolis Auditorium. The "team" - all that Berger and Chalfen had actually purchased was equipment; since the team had appeared it was going to fold, all of its players had already been assigned to other NBL teams - was re-christened the "Lakers" in reference to Minnesota's fame as the home of literally thousands of lakes. Berger and Chalfen brought in Max Winter, later to become a founder and owner of the Minnesota Vikings franchise of the National Football League, to become the Lakers' new general manager. Winter also took an ownership stake in the team, which he would maintain until he left the Lakers in 1955.
As the Gems had by far the worst record in the NBL, the Lakers had the first pick in the 1947 Profesisonal Basketball League of America dispersal draft, which they used to select George Mikan, later to become the greatest center of his time. With Mikan, new coach John Kundla and an infusion of former University of Minnesota players to replace those lost prior to the relocation, the Lakers won the NBL championship in their first season.
The next year, the Lakers switched to the 12-team Basketball Association of America (BAA), and proceeded to win its championship in that first season. (As the BAA is considered more of a direct precursor to today's NBA than is the NBL, this 1949 BAA championship is recognized today as an official NBA championship; the 1948 NBL championship is not.)
The next year saw the merging of the BAA and NBL to form the NBA and the Lakers won their third consecutive championship on the backs of Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen, and future National Football League coach Bud Grant. The Lakers' streak of championships came to an end in 1951 when they lost to the Rochester Royals in the NBA Finals. Nevertheless, they rebounded from that defeat to capture the title for the next three consecutive years, thus becoming the NBA's first "dynasty", having won five NBA/BAA championships in six years (and six championships in seven years, if their 1948 NBL title is included). In addition to Mikan and Mikkelsen, the Laker teams of these years also featured future Hall of Famers in Jim Pollard, Slater Martin, and Clyde Lovellette.
Injuries forced Mikan to retire after the 1954 season, and the Lakers missed him dearly. Not only that, but the NBA introduced rule changes (the 24-second shot clock and a limit of six personal fouls per team per quarter), which forced them to play an entirely new style of basketball to which they were unaccustomed. Lovellette led the team in scoring, but the Lakers fared so poorly in the 1955 season that Mikan was persuaded to come out of retirement for the 1956 season. His play was not up to his former standards, however, and halfway into the season, he retired again, this time for good. The 1956 Lakers would go on to make the playoffs, only to lose to the St. Louis Hawks.
The Lakers found their way back the NBA Finals in 1957, where they lost to the Hawks once more. The following year was disastrous, however, as Mikan became head coach and found he wasn't suited to the task. After compiling a 9-30 record, he stepped aside and was replaced by Kundla, but the Lakers found themselves last in the league that year with 19-53 record.
Last place, however, meant the first pick in the draft, and the Lakers chose wisely, picking Elgin Baylor who went on to win the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. Baylor and Mikkelsen were able to lead the team past their recent nemesis, the Hawks, and into the Finals, where they fell to the then-emerging Boston Celtics.
1960 saw the Lakers start poorly, but they managed to make the playoffs with a meager 25-50 record, where the Hawks defeated them once more.
The move to Los Angeles
Since Mikan's retirement, the Lakers' attendance had dropped off sharply, and not even the outstanding play of Baylor could lure audiences back. The team had nearly been sold to Kansas City interests and relocated there in 1957, before local interests, headed by a businessman named Bob Short, stepped up to purchase the team from Berger and keep it in Minneapolis. The new ownership was unable to cure the team's financial ills, however.
Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Dodgers Major League Baseball team had just moved to Los Angeles and had become a huge financial success in so doing. Short did not fail to notice this, and before the 1960-1961 season, the Lakers joined the Dodgers in Los Angeles, and in so doing, became the NBA's first west coast team.
Another big change to the team was the addition of point guard Jerry West; a third was the hiring of West's college coach Fred Schaus to helm the team; and a fourth was the late-season addition of Francis Dayle "Chick" Hearn as the Lakers' play-by-play announcer. Hearn would go on to hold that post for the next 41 years.
The new Los Angeles Lakers improved on the previous year's results before losing once more to the Hawks in the Western Conference Finals. The duo of Baylor and West proved to be lethal and they both finished among the NBA's top 10 scoring leaders for the next four years.
Baylor was called to active military duty in the 1961-1962 season following the Berlin crisis and was only available on weekends, but the Lakers were able to pull together and make the NBA Finals, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion to a now-dominant Boston Celtics team. Baylor, however, set a record for most points scored in a playoff game, which stood for 25 years until Michael Jordan topped it. The Celtics defeated the Lakers twice more in the finals over the next three years.
1965 saw another team upheaval when Short sold the team to Jack Kent Cooke for $5 million, putting the Lakers on par in terms of value with any Major League Baseball team. Meanwhile, Gail Goodrich joined the team as a rookie.
On November 20 of that year, the Lakers played the San Francisco Warriors in Las Vegas. The game was notable because Chick Hearn was not present to announce it. He had gone to Fayetteville, Arkansas to announce a college football game, and inclement weather had prevented his flight from being able to leave in time for him to make it to Las Veags for the Laker game. It was only the second game he had missed for the Lakers since starting with the team in 1961. It was also the last game he would miss for the next 36 years. Beginning on November 21, 1965, Hearn announced the next 3,338 consecutive Laker regular season and playoff games.
As for the team that season, the Lakers would find themselves in finals once again in 1966 - promptly losing to the Celtics once again.
The Lakers moved to its brand-new arena, The "Fabulous" Forum, in 1967 with new coach Bill van Breda Kolff. That year saw the team repeat its now-bitter pattern, losing to the Celtics in the 1968 NBA Finals.
It had become clear that the Lakers needed to counter Bill Russell, and thus Cooke obtained Wilt Chamberlain from the Philadelphia 76ers, hoping to supplement the aging and ailing Baylor. The move seemed at first to have worked, as the 1968-69 Lakers proceeded to compile a better record than did the Celtics. The two clubs met once again in the NBA Finals, but for the first time the Lakers had the advantage and also for the first time were clearly considered the better team entering the series by most observers. However, they once again couldn't get past their rivals and the Celtics emerged from the series with their 11th NBA Championship in 13 seasons. However, that 1969 championship series is notable in that Jerry West was named the first-ever Finals MVP; this remains the only time that a member of the losing team has won the award.
1970 saw the Los Angeles Lakers return to the finals, and for the first time did not have to face the Celtics - this time it was the New York Knicks, a team which included future Lakers coach Phil Jackson. West made a memorable 60-foot shot as the 4th quarter buzzer sounded in Game 3, forcing that game into overtime and helping West earn the nickname Mr. Clutch. But the Knicks recovered from what might have seemed a crushing blow and took the game in overtime.
In Game 5, Knicks' center Willis Reed tore a muscle in his leg and it looked as if he would not play again in the series. However, the Knicks found a way to win Game 5 without him. After the Lakers took Game 6 to force a seventh and final game back in New York. With everyone speculating as to his status for the game, Reed created one of the most memorable moments in NBA history as he came out of Garden tunnel and onto the court to start Game 7. To the roar of the crowd, Reed scored the first two baskets and the Knicks were off and running. Reed left the game for good at halftime, but the inspired Knicks already had 24-point lead at that point, and went on to rout the Lakers-Los Angeles'seventh NBA Finals failure in the last nine years.
The next year would not be the Lakers' year either. Baylor played in only two games due to injuries, and the Milwaukee Bucks, led by Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), defeated Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals. That year, however, did see the Laker debut of their future coach Pat Riley.
The wait is over
No one could have foreseen the team's domination the next season, however. Bill Sharman had been installed as the new head coach, and on the afternoon of November 9, 1971, just nine games into the season, the legendary Elgin Baylor retired, finally accepting that his injuries would no longer allow him to play professional basketball. That very evening, the Lakers proceeded to win the first of what would turn out to be a 33-game winning streak, before losing to the Bucks on January 9, 1972. The streak shattered the previous NBA record of 20, which happened to have been set by the Bucks the year before. To this day, the Lakers' 33-game winning streak remains the longest winning streak in the history of any major American professional sport.
The Lakers amassed 69 regular season wins that year, which was also an NBA record, one which stood for nearly a quarter of a century (Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls won 72 in 1995-96). The team led the league in scoring, rebounds, and assists, and Sharman was named Coach of the Year. Not only that, but the Lakers at long last shook the monkey off their back, conquering the Knicks in the 1972 NBA Finals to claim their first NBA title since 1954 and first since their move to Los Angeles.
The Lakers would fall to the Knicks in the Finals in 1973, and Chamberlain, who had set a record for field-goal percentage that year, making 72.7% of his shots, announced his retirement. West followed suit a year after that and 1975 saw the Lakers end with their first losing season in eight years, and miss the playoffs for the first time in 17.
Kareem comes to town
Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, wanted out of Milwaukee, and the Lakers obtained him in a trade. His first year in Los Angeles resulted in his fourth NBA Most Valuable Player Award, but the Lakers failed to make the playoffs yet again (meanwhile, Milwaukee went from last to first in their division despite finishing the season with a losing record). The Lakers finished atop the Pacific Division the next year, only to be swept in the Western Conference Finals by Bill Walton's eventual NBA champion Portland Trailblazers.
December 9, 1977 saw one of the ugliest moments in professional sports history. Future Laker coach Rudy Tomjanovich, then of the Houston Rockets, ran onto the court in an attempt to break up a fight between the Lakers' Kermit Washington and the Rockets' Kevin Kunnert. Washington, in the corner of his eye, saw that there was an opposing player rushing toward. Instinctively thinking that he was going to be attacked, Washington turned and landed a devastating blow to Tomjanovich's face, with the unsuspecting Tomjanovich running headlong directly into the punch.
Tomjanovich was hit so hard, he has said that his first thought upon waking up was that the arena's scoreboard must have fallen from the ceiling onto him. The punch had cracked Tomjanovich's skull and nearly ended his career. He sat out the rest of the season, needing reconstructive surgery to repair his jaw, eye, and cheek. Some of those who witnessed the event said that the blow was so crushing that until they saw Tomjanovich moving as he lay on the floor, they feared that he might literally have been killed.
Washington received a punishment of 60-game suspension and a fine, and the incident marks a dark chapter in Laker history. The shocking scene became the defining moment of not only the Rockets' 1977-78 season (a conference finals team the previous year, they collapsed into last place with a 28-54 record), but also of two players' professional careers. Tomjanovich, displaying the "heart of a champion", spent the next five months in rehab, eventually returning to play as an NBA all-star.
A bit of Magic
Before the 1979 season, Cooke sold the team to Dr. Jerry Buss, a Santa Monica real estate developer. That year also found the Lakers holding the top overall draft pick in the Western Conference, compensation for Goodrich's departure via free agency three years earlier to the New Orleans Jazz. At the time, the overall top pick in the draft was decided by a coin toss between the two teams with the top picks in each respective conference. The Eastern Conference team was the Chicago Bulls. The Lakers won the coin toss and selected Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who had just led Michigan State University to the NCAA championship.
Just 14 games into the season, the Lakers' rookie head coach, Jack McKinney suffered a serious head injury in a bicycle accident. Assistant coach Paul Westhead stepped in as the team's new head coach. Officially, Westhead began his head coaching term serving as the "interim" head coach. But the severity of McKinney's injury meant a long convalesence, and that combined with Westhead's subsequent success in the job ultimately meant that McKinney would not return to the Lakers. Westhead's promotion to the head coaching position also meant there was an assistant's post open, for which the Lakers hired then-TV commentator Pat Riley to fill in.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a fantastic year (earning his sixth and final MVP award), and the Lakers defeated Julius Erving's 76ers to win the NBA championship, behind an incredible Game 6 performance by the rookie Magic Johnson, who scored 42 points, pulled 15 rebouds, and dished 7 assists, while starting at center for an injured Abdul-Jabbar. That alone won Johnson the first of his three Finals MVP awards.
The accomplishment would soon be followed by ugliness for the team, however. In a season that was marred by Johnson missing a large portion of time due to injury and a general state of unrest and dissention in the locker room, the Lakers stunningly fell in the first round of the 1981 NBA Playoffs to the Houston Rockets, who went on to the NBA Finals despite a 40-42 regular season record. The next season also began in rocky fashion, as Coach Westhead attempted to restructure the offense in a way that Magic Johnson opposed. Johnson was so upset that he demanded to be traded. Buss, however, sided with star player over head coach, and he fired Westhead just 11 games into the season. The fan reaction to Johnson for having triggered his head coach's firing was immediate and Johnson found himself roundly booed, even by the Lakers' home crowd in Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, under the tutelage of new head coach Pat Riley, the Lakers returned to the finals that year and secured their second championship in three years, once again toppling the 76ers in six games. Furthermore, they found themselves again with the top overall draft pick, thanks to a trade two years earlier with the last-place Cleveland Cavaliers. This marked the first time that a reigning NBA champion also had the first pick in the draft. The Lakers used that pick to select James Worthy. Worthy had a strong rookie campaign, but he broke his leg at the end of the season and could only watch helplessly as the Lakers, also hobbled by injuires in the post-season to Bob McAdoo and Norm Nixon, were swept by the powerful 76ers, led by regular season and Finals MVP Moses Malone, in the 1983 NBA Finals.
Byron Scott joined the team the next year, in a trade for the popular Norm Nixon, and the Lakers got off to a roaring start. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar set the NBA all-time scoring record against Utah on April 5, 1984, topping Wilt Chamberlain's 31,419. The Lakers returned to the finals to face Larry Bird's Boston Celtics. Just as it had been in the 1960's, Boston came out on top, with the Celtics claiming a 111-102 victory in Game 7 at Boston Garden.
By the 1984-85 season, the Lakers' so-called "Showtime" era was in full swing. The team won the Pacific Division for the fourth straight year, this time by an NBA-record 20 games. They also set team records for field-goal percentage (.545) and assists (2,575). For the ninth time, they faced the Celtics in the finals. The championship series got off to a horrid start for the Lakers, losing Game 1 of the NBA Finals by a lopsided score of 148-114, in what is now remembered as the "Memorial Day Massacre". But the Lakers were resilient and behind 38-year old Finals MVP Abdul-Jabbar, they were finally able to topple Boston in six games. The team gained an extra measure of satisfaction from winning the title in the Boston Garden, the site of so many past agonies for the Laker franchise, thus making the 1985 Lakers the only visiting team to ever win an NBA championship on the famed parquet floor.
The Lakers were expected to meet Boston in the finals again the next year, and started the 1985-86 season on a tear, going 24-3. They finished with 62 wins and topped the record they set the year before by winning their fifth-straight division title by 22 games. However, the Houston Rockets had their own plans for the playoffs. Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson proved to be too much for Abdul-Jabbar (in his NBA-record 17th season) to handle, and the Lakers fell in five games in the Western Conference Finals. The Rockets won the series when Sampson hit a 20-foot jumper as time expired in Game 5 at The Forum.
Abdul-Jabbar turned 40 the next season, but Pat Riley had changed the focus of the offense to fall on Magic Johnson's shoulders. The strategy worked, and the Lakers accumulated 65 wins, the second-most in franchise history up to that point. Johnson also won his first MVP award. It should be noted that although the Showtime Lakers were famous for their scoring, they were also a great defensive team. Michael Cooper won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1987. Johnson then notched his first Finals MVP award as the Lakers defeated their archrival Celtics in the finals, higlighted by Johnson's running "baby hook" shot to win Game 4 at Boston Garden with two seconds remaining. This time, the decisive game was at home, giving the Los Angeles fans their first-ever chance to witness in person their team conquer the hated Celtics.
At the victory celebration afterward, Riley boldly guaranteed that the Lakers would repeat as champions the next year, something no team had done since the Celtics had done so in 1969.
With every team in the league now gunning for them, the Lakers still found a way to win, taking their seventh consecutive Pacific Division title, and subsequently meeting the physical Detroit Pistons in the 1988 NBA Finals. The series went seven games and the Lakers were only able to squeak out a victory because of an injury to Isiah Thomas as well as James Worthy's Game 7 triple double, which earned him a Finals MVP award and cemented his nickname of Big Game James. By the narrowest of margins, the Lakers had delivered on Riley's guarantee.
End of an era
It didn't look to be the beginning of the end, as the 1988-89 Lakers won their division yet again and Magic Johnson collected his second MVP award. The team then swept their first three playoff series to set up a rematch with the Pistons in the Finals. But the "three-peat" was foiled, as Johnson and Byron Scott both were injured and the Pistons won the series in four games. Following the series, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar announced his retirement at the age of 41, after 20 spectacular years in the NBA.
The Lakers seemed to adapt well to Kareem's absence. New center Vlade Divac helped the team to a 60-win season in 1989-90 and their ninth consecutive division title, and Johnson took another MVP award. However, the Phoenix Suns had the Lakers' number that year in the second round of the NBA Playoffs, defeating the Lakers in a surprisingly easy five games. Pat Riley decided to leave and was replaced by Mike Dunleavy as head coach. Michael Cooper, another great from the Showtime years, also retired.
Johnson became the NBA's all-time assist leader, surpassing Oscar Robertson the next season, as Dunleavy's new philosophy incorporated a slow and deliberate style, instead of the fast breaking Showtime style of the Pat Riley era. After a slow start the Lakers finished with a 58-24 record, defeated the strong Portland Trailblazers 4-2 in for the conference championship and returned to the NBA Finals. Unfortunately for the Lakers, though, a new dynasty was just beginning elsewhere, as Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls under second-year coach Phil Jackson won the first of their six championships by ousting the Lakers four games to one.
The lean years
On November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson shocked the world with his announcement that he had contracted HIV and would retire immediately. Despite his retirement, he was selected to the 1992 NBA All-Star Game, where earned the MVP award.
The 1991-92 Lakers struggled with the news of Magic's retirement and serious injuries to key players. They did manage to win 43 games and qualify for the playoffsf or a then-NBA-record 16th consecutive time, thanks in no small way to the offseason recruitment of guard Sedale Threatt. However, playing without the injured James Worthy and Sam Perkins, the Lakers were overmatched by a powerful Portland Trailblazers team and lost the first round series three games to one. That series featured one of the Lakers' "home" games being played in Las Vegas due to the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Dunleavy decided to leave the Lakers prior to the 1992-93 season to take charge of the Milwaukee Bucks' organization. Long-time Laker assistant coach Randy Pfund was promoted to replace him. The 1992-93 Lakers fought off an early injury to guard Byron Scott and posted a respectable 33-29 record over the first 61 games. The Lakers then traded Sam Perkins to the Seattle Supersonics for Benoit Benjamin and the rights to rookie Doug Christie. The trade upset an already fragile team as they closed the season with a poor 6-14 run, but did manage to qualify for the playoffs. The Lakers surprised the basketball world by winning the first two games of the series against the powerful Phoenix Suns on the road, including a 35 point performance by Sedale Threatt in Game 1. However the Lakers lost the final three games of the series, including an overtime thriller on the road in the fifth and final game, with Phoenix prevailed over the Lakers 3-2.
Vlade Divac and draft pick Nick Van Exel led the team in scoring the next year, but it was rough going. After losing veteran players Byron Scott and A.C. Green to free agency and with James Worthy in the twilight of his career, the team posted a miserable 33-49 record and failed to qualify for the playoffs. The Lakers did make a late playoff push when Pfund was fired and Magic Johnson took over as head coach. But went on to lose the final ten games of the season, the worst losing streak in franchise history. Realizing that he was not cut out for coaching, Johnson stepped aside and the Lakers appointed Del Harris as their head coach going into the 1994-1995 season.
The Lakers were one of the most improved teams in 1994-95, posting a 48-34 record and returning to the playoffs. The vast improvement was due to several reasons, including the coaching of Harris, the improved play of second year guard Nick Van Exel, the maturing of veteran players Vlade Divac and Elden Campbell, and the offseason signing of Cedric Ceballos and drafting of rookie Eddie Jones. Ceballos went on to record the first 50-point game by a Laker player in over 20 years. The Lakers won their first playoff series in the post-Magic era, beating the talented Seattle Supersonics 3-1 before losing to the Western Conference's number one seed San Antonio Spurs 4-2. Harris was named Coach of the Year and Jerry West won the NBA Executive of the Year Award.
The Lakers bought back essentially the same team in 1995-96 and had posted a 24-18 record after 42 games. On January 30, 1996 Magic Johnson returned to the Lakers as a reserve power forward and registered 19 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds in his first game back against the Golden State Warriors. Johnson played well in the first few weeks of his return and sparked the Lakers to a 29-11 record while he was back in uniform. However, as the season progressed the wheels began to fall off as Johnson's age and time away from the game began to effect his performance. Team captain Cedric Ceballos was suspended by the team, Nick Van Exel was suspened for seven games for shoving a refere, and Johnson even lost his cool, getting ejected from a late-season game for bumping an official. The imploding Lakers lost in the first round of the playoffs 1-3 to the defending champion Houston Rockets. Magic Johnson retired again following the season.
A new sheriff
During the 1996 off-season, Jerry West pulled off one of the great signings in the history of the NBA when he landed free agent Shaquille O'Neal. Additionally, he traded Vlade Divac for 18-year-old draft pick Kobe Bryant. During the season, the Lakers also traded Cedric Ceballos to the Phoenix Suns for Robert Horry. Injury limited O'Neal to 51 games, however the Lakers went on to win 56 games and defeat the Portland Trailblazers 3-1 in the first round of the playoffs. But despite Horry's NBA-record 7-for-7 three-point shooting, the Lakers lost to Karl Malone and John Stockton, at the height of their careers with the Utah Jazz.
The next year, the Lakers were the only team without a player over the age of 30, and their youth and energy showed, helped by the addition of Rick Fox from the Boston Celtics. They finished with a 61-21 record, losing the division championship only on a tiebreaker to Gary Payton and the Seattle Supersonics. O'Neal was dominant, finishing only second to Michael Jordan in scoring, and leading the league in field-goal percentage (.584). The Lakers defeated the Portland Trailblazers 3-1 in the first round and the Seattle Supersonics 4-1 in the conference semi-finals. But once in the Western Conference Finals, they were once more flattened by Utah.
The 1998-1999 season was shortened due to a lockout, but the shorter season didn't mean there would be any less drama for the Lakers. Nick Van Exel was traded to the Denver Nuggets, Del Harris was replaced by Kurt Rambis, prolific scorer Glen Rice was picked up in a trade for Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell, and the flamboyant Dennis Rodman joined the team, though he was cut after just 23 games. The Lakers played poorly at times and finished the 50 game long season with a 31-19 record. They defeated the Houston Rockets 3-1 in the first round of the playoffs, but were swept in the second round by the eventual champion San Antonio, closing the series by losing the last two NBA games ever played at the Great Western Forum (as The Forum was known at that time).
Return to glory
The 1999-2000 season brought upon three huge changes: a new home floor at Staples Center (which they share with the city rival Los Angeles Clippers), a new coach in Phil Jackson, and a new system: the triangle offense. The new philosophy proved to be potent, as the Lakers started off strong, winning 25 of their first 30 games. They also were able to string together winning streaks of 16, 19, and 11 games, becoming only the third team in NBA history to have three double-digit streaks in one season.
Despite topping the league with a 67-15 record in the regular season, the Lakers found themselves struggling in the playoffs, needing all five games to knock off the Sacramento Kings and coming back from 15 points down in the fourth quarter of a Game 7 against Portland. The Indiana Pacers, coached by the Lakers' old nemesis, Larry Bird, proved to be slightly less of a problem, however, and in six games, the Lakers claimed their first NBA championship since 1988. Shaquille O'Neal picked up both MVP and Finals MVP awards in 2000. Having also shared the 2000 All-Star Game MVP award, he was only the third player in NBA history to win all three awards in the same season. Kobe Bryant was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team, the youngest player to earn the honor. Bryant had blossomed under Coach Jackson, as had Lakers role players such as Derek Fisher, Rick Fox and Robert Horry.
The Lakers certainly looked the favorite repeat the following year, but they had a tougher time of it, accumulating 16 losses by the All-Star break, one more than they had had the entire season before. Nevertheless, they pulled together and were able to edge Sacramento for the division title. Then the team went on a tear, sweeping the first three playoff series. The Lakers-Spurs series in the conference finals was the most lopsided conference finals series in NBA History, with the Lakers winning by an average of 22 points per game. The Lakers lost the first game of the NBA Finals to Philadelphia, but that only proved to be a temporary blip, as they swept the next four games to claim their second consecutive championship. O'Neal collected his second Finals MVP and Derek Fisher set a playoff record with 15 three-pointers an earlier series against San Antonio. The Lakers concluded the 2001 playoffs with a staggering 15-1 record, the best single season playoff record in NBA history.
Would a third consecutive championship be possible? The Lakers certainly thought so, and they started strongly in the 2001-2002 season, winning 16 of their first 17. But an arthiritic toe hobbled O'Neal for much of the season and The Lakers lost the division crown to Sacramento. Thus began a memorable post-season for Robert Horry, who sealed the first series against Portland with a buzzer-beater three-pointer enabling the Lakers to sweep. The Lakers followed with a 4-1 defeat of San Antonio in the second round.
In the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers faced the immensely talented Sacramento Kings, a team many believed was ready to finally make it over the hump and get to the NBA Finals. The series, which will most likely go down as one of the most exiting Conference Finals in NBA history, was neck and neck throughout. The Kings were only seconds away from taking a commanding 3-1 series lead before a miracle 3-pointer at the buzzer by Robert Horry saved the Lakers and enabled them to push the series to a seventh and deciding game in Sacramento. Game 7 proved to be as dramatic as the previous games in the series, with the Lakers eventually defeating the Kings in overtime and advancing to the NBA Finals.
The championship series against the New Jersey Nets was a mere formality, as the Lakers won all four games in one of the most lopsided NBA Finals ever. By securing their third straight NBA Championship the Lakers of 2000-2003 earned their place in NBA history. O'Neal won his third consecutive Finals MVP award joining only Michael Jordan as players to have achieved such honors, and Jackson won his ninth championship as a head coach, coming within one of Celtics legend Red Auerbach, while surpassing Pat Riley as the coach with the most playoff victories.
The end of the run
The Laker juggernaut seemed unstoppable, and a fourth consecutive championship was definitely in their sights. However, they started off poorly, with Shaquille O'Neal missing the first 12 games while recovering from toe surgery, and then taking time to get into game shape. At Christmas, the team was 11-19, but then Kobe Bryant turned in the best sustained performance of his career, setting NBA records for youngest player to reach 10,000 points, most three-pointers in a game (12), most three-pointers in a half (8), and most consecutive three-pointers in a game (9). Additionally, he set a team record for most points in a half (42), scored 40+ points in 9 consecutive games (joining Chamberlain and Jordan), scored 35+ points in 13 consecutive games (trailing only Chamberlain), became the third player to average 40 points in a month, and became the first Laker to record a triple-double in consecutive games since Magic Johnson in 1991.
The Lakers finished the season with a 50-32 record, their 26th 50+ victory season since moving to Los Angeles. In the playoffs, the pivotal moment was a familiar one. With the series tied at two games apiece, the Lakers were already missing one of their tri-captains in Rick Fox, who had torn a ligament in his left foot during the Minnesota series. San Antonio led by as many as 25 points in the game before the Lakers' poise and confidence once again emerged down the stretch. Down 18 in the final period, Los Angeles dug deep and rallied, leaving themselves a two-point deficit with a mere 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. It was a moment that legendary Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn, who had died shortly before the season after 42 seasons the only play-by-play announcer the Los Angeles Lakers had ever had, would probably have described by exclaiming, "In and out, heartbrrrrreak!"
Rather than rejoicing in another last second victory that would have given them a 3-2 series lead and a chance to finish the Spurs off back home in Los Angeles, the Lakers instead faced the dejection of having been so close, but now facing a 3-2 deficit and now being on the brink of elimination. The Spurs did not waste their chance to finish off the Lakers. They swarmed the Lakers in Game 6 and put an end to the Lakers' dreams of a fourth concecutive NBA championship.
Determined to reclaim the title in Dr. Buss' 25th year of ownership, the Lakers brought in free agents Karl Malone and Gary Payton, and started the 2003-2004 season with a bang, winning 20 of their first 25 games, during which time Malone became the oldest player to record a triple-double. But then Malone went down with a knee injury, and other ailments to Shaquile O'Neal and Kobe Bryant soon followed, leaving Payton to lead the younger players in an offensive system with which he wasn't particularly familiar. Additionally the team faced the on-going distraction of Bryant's sexual assault case and the sniping between O'Neal and Bryant which had ensued after Bryant was charged.
Still, the team managed to keep things together long enough for everyone to recover, closing the season in style with 14 victories in 17 games, and a Pacific Division title thanks to Bryant's two buzzer-beating three-pointers against Portland: one to tie the game at the end of regulation, and the second to win it in double-overtime. Without Horry in the playoffs, it was up to Fisher to save the team with a game-winning buzzer-beater. Again the Lakers found themselves tied two games a piece with San Antonio. Again the were down as Game 5 drew to a close. Fisher's miraculous basket, coming off of an inbounds play that began with just 0.4 seconds left in the game, will stand for years as one of the NBA's most amazing playoff moments. This time, the Lakers returned home for Game 6 indeed relishing the joy of their improbable win, and they took advantage of their chance to finish off the Spurs, taking the game to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
After storming through the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers were expected to run roughshod over their NBA Finals opponents, the Detroit Pistons. But it wound up being the other way around, with the Pistons winning the series easily in five games, playing a team-oriented game featuring a particularly stingy defense.
The following summer, the Lakers imploded. Jackson was burned out, and the Lakers' management was unwilling to pay the kind of salary that he wanted to continue. The long-simmering tensions between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant finally came to a head. When Jackson was not retained as coach (a move many believed to have been orchestrated by Bryant), O'Neal demanded a trade and it was granted; he went to the Miami Heat in return for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and Brian Grant. Bryant tested the free-agent market, apparently coming very close to signing with the Los Angeles Clippers before deciding to stay with the Lakers. Jackson retired to his ranch in Montana and Rudy Tomjanovich came in as the new head coach.
Gary Payton was dealt to Boston and Karl Malone retired after undergoing knee surgery, but not before the possibility of his return was eliminated when he and Bryant had a falling-out. As expected, the team struggled, and injuries to Bryant and Odom certainly didn't help, nor did Tomjanovich's unexpected departure midway through the season due to health concerns.
Despite all of this, Bryant continued to set records, including becoming the youngest player to reach 14,000 points, and setting a franchise record with 43 consecutive made free throws. The team also made 100% of their free throws three times, the first time since 1991-92. But all of that amounted to little, as the Lakers ended the season below .500 and missed the playoffs.
Kobe/Phil Part II
The 2005-06 season would see the Lakers reunite with Phil Jackson. Jackson's year off, including vacationing in Australia, left him rejuvenated, whereas the Lakers' struggle in 2004-2005 caused Jerry Buss to reconsider his willingness to meet Jackson's salary demands. Although many have felt Kobe Bryant desired Jackson's departure in the first place, and though Jackson was subsequently critical of Bryant publicly, Bryant indicated that he welcomed Jackson's return, and the move left fans very optimistic about the Lakers season. Indeed, no public disagreements between the two surfaced throughout their first season reunited, and the player-coach relationship appeared to remain solid.
In the off-season, the Lakers' most significant player personnel moves had been the acquisition of Kwame Brown from Washington in exchange for Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins, and the drafting of Andrew Bynum straight from high school.
After last seasons's poor showing, most felt that simply making the playoffs would be an accomplishment. The new Laker team is, in many observer's eyes, somewhat modeled after the Jackson's 1990's Chicago Bulls dynasty which had garnered 6 championships. Lamar Odom, a gifted facilitator forward, is also seen by some to be a "Scottie Pippen" type of player to complement Kobe Bryant's talents.
After a shaky start, the team's chemistry appeared to improve dramatically during the latter half of the season. The Lakers managed to put forth more consistent efforts as the regular season drew to a close. The team's late season surge was enough to secure a playoff berth and allay some of their fans' immediate concerns about the team. They played the second seeded Phoenix Suns, and after Bryant hit two clutch shots to win Game 4 at Los Angeles, they appeared to be en route to an upset with a 3-1 series lead, which would set up a "Hallway Series" in the second round against the Los Angeles Clippers, who had already advanced by ousting the Denver Nuggets. However, Phoenix, led by 2006 MVP Steve Nash, was able to rally, winning at Los Angeles 126-118 in overtime of Game 6, and routing the Lakers 121-90 in Game 7 at Phoenix.
The Lakers trailed 60-45 at halftime of Game 7. Bryant had 23 points at halftime but would score only one point on three shots in the second half. A number of critics, such as Bill Simmons suggested that Bryant, with his team trailing by so much, should have attempted more shots in the second half; some, such as Charles Barkley even suggested that Bryant refused to shoot to "prove a point" about the inferior scoring ability of his teammates. Bryant and coach Phil Jackson denied this, with both stating that Kobe was following the halftime gameplan by getting others involved.