Regular contributor here Chris J. sent this in, a fantastic look back at a team that was a lot of fun, in part because there was no pressure.
Sometimes the most enjoyable gifts we receive are those which we never expected.
When I think back over the 25+ years I’ve followed the Lakers, like any other fan I’ve got countless memories of great teams, great players and great games. Some came with championships or Hall of Fame resumes; others were memorable for the heartbreak they caused.
But in all my years of watching the purple and gold, I’ve probably never enjoyed a non-Finals season more than watching the “Lake Show”-era Lakers in 1994-95. Few, if any, fans expected anything of that team, and perhaps no Lakers team ever delivered more unexpected pleasure than those guys did during that memorable season.
NOTHING TO LOSE
The scene in Inglewood wasn’t pretty in the summer of 1994. After a 63-win effort in 1989-90, the Lakers had posted just one Finals appearance in their past five seasons. Magic Johnson led L.A. to 58 wins in his last full season in 1990-91 before losing to the Bulls in that season’s Finals. And then the losses began to mount.
L.A. won just 43 games in its first post-Magic HIV announcement season, then slipped to 39-43 the following year. In 1993-94, head coach Randy Pfund was fired late in the season, with Magic taking over as head coach for a disastrous final 16 games in which the Lakers finished 5-11. For the first time in 18 seasons, the 33-win Lakers missed the playoffs in ‘94.
Heading into the following season, Sports Illustrated’s annual NBA preview called for a Suns-Magic Finals in June 1995 (which proved to be half correct), and predicted the Lakers would finish fifth in the seven-team Pacific Division, behind Phoenix, Seattle, Golden State and Portland.
SI’s outlook noted the Lakers’ offseason hiring of “low-profile” head coach Del Harris, criticized center Vlade Divac for his frequent outside shooting, and noted the absence of a solid frontcourt rebounder. The story concluded that, “Laker fans can console themselves in these lean times with memories of the Showtime days.”
Unbeknownst to SI, however, general manager Jerry West and the front office had already begun the rebuilding process. That unwanted playoff absence meant a trip to the NBA Draft Lottery, and there West tabbed a winner in Temple G/F Eddie Jones.
In September, West rescued F Cedric Ceballos from the Phoenix bench for a future first round pick, and in October Doug Christie (and his wife’s purse) were unloaded to the Knicks for a pair of future second-round picks. The latter move was pure addition by subtraction.
James Worthy began the campaign on the injured list, and on Nov. 10 retired without playing a game that season. Aside from PG Sedale Threatt, who was entering his 12th campaign, the Lakers were committed to a youth movement. By June, they’d become the youngest team in the playoffs with an average age of just 26.
YOUTH IS SERVED
Behind the rookie Jones, second-year guard Nick Van Exel, third-year SG Anthony Peeler and Divac, who was in his sixth-year, the Lakers featured a versatile lineup which could run, pass and shoot with great proficiency.
The team’s regular season scoring average jumped by nearly 5 points per game from the prior season, while its three-point attempts nearly doubled (in part because the NBA moved the line closer to begin the ’94-‘95 season). The team’s assists also increased by more than one per game.
Beyond the numbers, however, was the team’s unquestioned style. Van Exel was as cocky as they came, throwing shadow boxer’s punches in the air after he knocked down a big basket. Jones was a high-flying act Lakers fans hadn’t seen since Michael Cooper’s heyday. Ceballos had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time, as good a “garbage” scorer as anyone in the league. And Divac was, well, Divac.
The Lakers ended the ’94-’95 regular season with 15 more wins than the prior year. Only Dallas showed more improvement, at +23, thanks in large part to its addition of rookie Jason Kidd.
The “Lake Show” Lakers didn’t quit, coming back from a 13-point or greater deficit to win nine times that season. The “Lake Show” Lakers didn’t back down in close contests, either, taking a dozen games decided by three points or less. They also beat the defending champion Rockets all four times they met.
Key players were hurt, but others stepped up. Jones missed 18 consecutive games in one stretch after straining his shoulder on Feb. 19. L.A. kept rolling. Ceballos, a newly named All-Star, also tore a thumb ligament on Feb. 3 and missed 22 games. Yet L.A. stayed above .500 while those key starters were out.
Other examples: down 16 to start to the fourth quarter in Orlando, L.A. fought back to pull within a basket with 27 seconds to play before falling to the eventual Eastern Conference champions. Three nights later, the Lakers overcame a 14-point deficit at the end of three to top the Bulls on the road – and did so without Van Exel, Jones or Ceballos.
Guys like Divac, Threatt, Peeler, Tony Smith, Elden Campbell — and even rookies such as Pig Miller and Antonio Harvey — found a way to play hard and contribute for Harris. You simply never knew who was going to step up that season.
A POSTSEASON RUN
The Lakers finished fifth in the Western Conference, and the playoffs brought even more fun including a first-round upset of the SuperSonics that featured a memorable 22-minute delay when the lights went out at the team’s temporary home court in Tacoma.
After sending Seattle packing from the first round for a second consecutive year, L.A. met the favored Spurs in the Western Semis. Old-school fans will remember this series for two reasons.
In Game 3, Chick Hearn lost his voice due to laryngitis, and for the first time in 2,781 games a different voice was heard on the Lakers basketball network. (Chick completed the first half, then Stu Lantz finished the game as play-by-play man with Magic taking a seat as Stu’s color guy.)
Game 5 was truly one to remember. First, Van Exel hit a three-pointer with 10.2 seconds to play, sending the game in San Antonio to overtime. Minutes later he nailed a running three with a half-second to go that utterly silence the Alamodome as L.A. won 98-96. In terms of excitement, it was one of the greatest playoff wins I’ll ever remember as a fan, right up there with the Junior Skyhook, Horry’s Sacramento dagger in 2001, Fish’s 0.4 in 2004 and Fish’s bombs in Orlando last June.
In the end, the Lakers failed to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs, losing to the Spurs in six. San Antonio was subsequently upset by the Houston Rockets, with Hakeem Olajuwon & Co. next moving on to defeat a young Shaquille O’Neal and Orlando in the Finals.
While the Lakers failed to come home with a title, I frankly found that season’s team so much more enjoyable than many of those which did win it all come June. I’ll look back on 2009 with fondness because the Lakers won it all, but the journey was so much more arduous as a fan because there were so many expectations. It was hard to enjoy the journey watching last year’s team struggle against a devastated Rockets squad, for example. Some expected 70 wins, and a romp through the playoffs. Anything less, and we fans were ready to revolt.
Even in the Shaq-Kobe years, the wins came with so much drama, be it the feuding stars, Shaq taking half the season to “play himself into shape or the events associated with Eagle, Colo. Those Lakers just weren’t as easy to love.
But in ’94-’95 there were no high expectations, no unyielding pressure to live up to the hype. Instead, each game had a surprise in store, a young player who’d suddenly mature; an improbable comeback vs. a tough opponent; or guys giving their all to make up for the absence of an injured teammate.
Those little things made watching “Lake Show basketball such a fun experience – we never saw it coming, but oh what a ride it was.
Fate changed the Lakers’ course soon after, and the “Lake Show” wound up with a limited run thanks to Magic’s brief 2006 comeback, an upset Ceballos’ decision to skip out on the squad to go jet skiing at Lake Havasu, and then the fateful events of summer 1996 that brought a new direction – and the high expectations – that came with the signing of O’Neal and trade for Kobe Bryant. Peeler and Divac were traded, and the Lakers were no longer a band of young, overachieving stars.
Shaq-Kobe ultimately brought a title back to L.A. so we can only mourn the Lake Show’s closing to a degree – the goal is still to win it all, and I’ll take a championship season over any other. But part of me wishes we’d see the guys having more fun on the court – that unexpected, basketball joy – like we witnessed in 1994-95.
Perhaps this coming season will be that year.