Dueling Three-Peats

Jeff Skibiski —  August 19, 2010

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As the Lakers look ahead to a possible second three-peat in the last 11 years, ‘Forum Blue & Gold’ plays a game of compare and contrast between the 2000-2002 Lakers and the current back-to-back defending champions. Who would win in a head-to-head match-up of these two teams (assuming we could clone Kobe and Derek Fisher, of course—scary thought for the league)?

The game has changed a lot since the glory days of Shaq + Kobe and Co., especially when it comes to the parity that exists in today’s NBA. During the Lakers’ last three-peat, the tandem, along with a venerable cast of role players, simply overpowered opponents with Shaq’s unmatched size and Kobe’s freakish athleticism. To that end, I vividly remember a Sports Illustrated cover circa 2000 that depicted Kobe and Shaq, with a giant headline that simply read: “Steamrolling.” NBA teams—the current L.A. squad included—still have the ability to dominate the league, but in recent years, the number of teams capable of doing so has drastically increased. Gone are the days when one NBA superpower is head and shoulders better than the remaining 29 teams.

The Lakers opponents in the Finals the past two years—Boston and Orlando—would likely have their way with the opponents that the team faced in the 2000-2002 NBA Finals. Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers club represented a solid, well-balanced opponent in the 2000 NBA Finals, but the Philadelphia 76’ers and New Jersey Nets nary offered a fight in the ensuing two Finals, winning a combined one game. In fact, you can make a case that in the championship runs from 2000-2002, the Lakers Western Conference Finals opponents—Portland, San Antonio and Sacramento—would have had their way against the Pacers, Sixers and Nets too.

From a player standpoint, the league has never been more competitive, with an influx of prominent players like Yao Ming and Tony Parker from overseas becoming mainstays on NBA rosters, along with All-Star teams. Sure, the Lakers from the previous three-peat team had to go up against the likes of vintage Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, but today’s NBA is chalk-full of like-minded athletes capable of leading their teams to titles (LeBron, Wade, Howard come to mind). While the NBA has historically been a superstar-heavy league, the pure global talent on rosters in 2010 is uncanny.

Whereas the Shaq and Kobe Lakers struggled to find a reliable third scoring option—excluding a brief cameo by Glen Rice—the current Lakers have an offensive arsenal that rivals any of the great L.A. lineups. Assuming Pau Gasol is cemented as the default number two option on offense, who even knows what the 2000-2002 Lakers could have accomplished with a player like Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest or Lamar Odom to fill the void as a third scoring option.

While the Lakers of yesteryear boasted several proven veterans like Robert Horry, Ron Harper, Rick Fox and Brian Shaw, they lacked the scoring punch that the 2010-2011 Lakers figure to have off their bench. By 2002, aging role players like Robert Horry and Rick Fox had moved into the Lakers starting lineup, leaving their bench exposed. After an offseason overhaul of the current team’s bench, the Lakers figure boast several weapons off of their bench, which should help dramatically in their bid to three-peat. Moreover, the 2000-2002 Lakers never had a sixth man anywhere near the caliber of Odom. The Lakers won their previous championships in large part due to the sheer magnificence of Shaq and Kobe (and some timely shooting from Horry, Fisher, Fox and Shaw, etc.), but this year’s title-contender will offer a much more balanced attack. Unlike the past two seasons, the Lakers will also throw proven veterans like Steve Blake and Matt Barnes at opponents, which was a key difference between the old and current Lakers prior to this offseason.

From an offensive standpoint, the ever-present triangle offense remains key, though this current Lakers squad strays from it on a more regular basis. The principle inside-out game is still central to the Lakers offense, maybe even more so on the current team thanks to its superior size over the 2000-2002 Lakers. Both teams make defense a priority, as evidenced by the Lakers latest display in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals.

Through it all, one thing that has remained unchanged between this year’s Lakers quest for a three-peat and the 2000-2002 Lakers has been the brilliance of Kobe Bryant and clutch shooting of Derek Fisher. As staples of the team’s past five title campaigns, Bryant and Fish have anchored the team’s focus and chemistry. While Bryant showed signs of greatness during his first three-peat, he is personifying it in this second attempt. His evolution as a leader is, in my opinion, the greatest difference between the 2000-2002 dynasty. If this current team joins the 2000-2002 team in NBA lore, Kobe figures to be the primary reason why.

Unfortunately, barring an epic NBA LIVE duel, we’ll never get to find out what kind of magic would go down if these teams faced off against one another in a best of seven series, so we’ll have to leave the result to our imaginations. Who wins in your ultimate battle of these (possible) three-peat teams?

Jeff Skibiski