The 1990s gave us a new era of basketball as Michael Jordan’s Bulls dominated the decade and won three titles in a row on two separate occasions with Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets managing to win back-to-back titles in between the Bulls’ three-peats.
Then, the 2000s hit, and Shaquille O’Neal’s Los Angeles Lakers also won three titles in a row and were then followed by Kobe Bryant’s Lakers who won titles in consecutive years to close out the decade.
It wasn’t always this way though. Repeating as champions had become seemingly impossible since the Boston Celtics had done it in 1969. But ultimately one team had to break through and do it.
Clocking in at the fifth spot in the Los Angeles Lakers title teams countdown…
The 1987-88 Los Angeles Lakers
Fresh off a title run at the end of the 1987 postseason, Lakers head coach Pat Riley decided to throw a monkey wrench into the celebration plans of his team by going on the record and guaranteeing that his team would repeat the following season.
Although winning the championship is usually enough to serve notice to other teams about which unit is the one to beat, it almost feels as though Riley wanted to make sure that everyone was well aware not only that his band of players had reached the mountaintop, but that they would do it again and that there was nothing the rest of the NBA could do about it.
How’s that for a bull’s eye?
And yet, with a roster loaded with talent and future Hall of Fame caliber players, it’s easy to see why the charismatic and fierce head coach could go on the record and make such a proclamation.
The Lakers had not only the best point guard in the league, but the player that many agreed was the best in the NBA. In addition, the purple and gold also had arguably the best player in the history of the sport in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing next to a do it all forward in James Worthy and terrific finisher and shooter in Byron Scott.
And just for good measure, the Lakers had possibly the best defensive player in the association in Michael Cooper (he won the DPOY the year prior) as well as a terrific pair of big men in Mychal Thompson and A.C. Green that were versatile enough to run the floor, play in the half court and apply pressure on defense with Riley’s zone trap.
All the talent in the world.
Really, the only thing that could potentially derail this unit would have to be injuries and they would have to come in bunches to truly become problematic for Riley. Luckily for the Lakers, they faced some concerns on that front, but nothing truly major. Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Michael Cooper combined to miss 38 games during the course of the season.
They had a few minor bumps in the road, but the Los Angeles Lakers finished with a 62-20 record, tops in the league during the 1987-88 season.
Indeed, they finished the regular season second in offensive efficiency and ninth in defensive efficiency. Also, they sported a plus-5.8 average scoring margin during the regular season but this says very little about how they treated the 82-game grind despite the little bumps and bruises.
To know how good the Lakers were, one can point to their win streaks. Indeed, although they had some small five and six-game stretches where they always emerged victorious, they also knew when to turn it on and seize control of the regular season.
The 1987-88 Lakers started out the season with an eight-game win streak and then in early December went on a rampage until the middle of January, winning 15 games in a row. And just when things became dull for the team after a few losses, they turned things up once again in late January and won 10 consecutive contests and saw their streak end near the end of February.
The Lakers rounded up into form for the postseason with some good momentum and dispatched the San Antonio Spurs in three games in the first round.
The remainder of their playoff run would be the toughest one for any championship team in league history as the Los Angeles Lakers needed the full seven games in the Western Conference semifinals as well as the conference finals to advance to the title round.
With the NBA Finals set to take stage, the Lakers would have to dispatch a team that many saw as a bunch of basketball hooligans given their antics, physical play and intimidation tactics: the Detroit Pistons.
The team took their identity from their leader.
Isiah Thomas was a scrapper that never relented and that did anything and everything possible to gain an advantage over opponents and his teammates followed in bruising fashion. Their style of play earned them the moniker of Bad Boys.
The Pistons hit you on every drive to the basket, fought for every rebound and made sure to inflict as much punishment as possible when opponents went in for lay ups. With no flagrant fouls being called at the time, it gave Detroit a license to do everything short of murdering players in the paint.
Thus, the NBA Finals became the battle of Showtime versus the Bad Boys.
Detroit drew first blood by winning Game 1 at the Forum and then the Lakers bounced back by winning consecutive games by double digits. With the purple and gold now seemingly in control of the series, the Pistons went on to win Game 4 by 25 points and Game 5 by 10 points to take a huge 3-2 series lead back to Los Angeles with a chance to clinch the title on the road.
Detroit would come close to getting champagne poured on them as they led Game 6 by three points with just about a minute left in the game but failed to close out the contest and instead watched the Lakers execute down the stretch with championship poise and steal the contest from the Bad Boys and set up a winner take all Game 7.
The finale would be a seesaw battle that would eventually lead the Lakers to the brink of a blowout but Detroit would claw back in the fourth quarter and make things interesting but ultimately falter down the stretch.
James Worthy would earn the Finals MVP with a monstrous triple-double performance in Game 7 in which he scored 36 points, snatched 16 rebounds and dished out 10 assists.
The Los Angeles Lakers became the first team in nearly 20 years to repeat as champions and they did it with a flair for the dramatic.
Their regular season performance combined with their postseason run makes them one of the greatest Lakers teams of all time and thus worthy of the fifth spot in our countdown.
Why “only” fifth though?
The ’88 Lakers finished with an unimpressive 15-9 playoff record — no team has ever won the title with as many postseason losses — and were defeated by double figures a whopping six times during their playoff run. In addition, two of those six double-digit losses were by 25 points or more; which partly explains their seemingly low playoff average scoring margin of plus-2.5.
Nonetheless, Magic Johnson and his teammates will be remembered in the history books as the first team to repeat in 19 years as well as the franchise that paved the way for it to become a reality for the rest of the NBA.