Lakers Countdown: At #3…

J.M. Poulard —  August 29, 2012

The NBA has seen its fair share of dominant guard and center tandems that managed to reach the mountaintop. Indeed, Oscar Robertson and Lew Alcindor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain and perhaps the most famous one, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were not only great pairings, but they made their teams great and helped them win championships.

Consequently, the idea of putting a do it all guard next to a dominant center has always made perfect basketball sense given what the players could for each other, although one group would lead many to question if their union would ever truly be harmonious.

Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant will forever be linked to one another given their accomplishments as well as their public disagreements. But make no mistake, they could at times complete each other as teammates like very few have done in the history of basketball.

Clocking in at the third spot in our Los Angeles Lakers title teams countdown…

The 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers

With Phil Jackson joining the franchise in 1999, many assumed that the Lakers would finally get a chance to fulfill their true potential and win a championship with Shaquille O’Neal leading the way.

And although the team faced some tough playoffs tests during the 2000 playoffs, they not only delivered, but they were good enough for the FB&G panel to vote them in as the eighth best L.A. Lakers title team.

Considering the purple and gold were armed with the most dominant player in the league and a superstar guard in the making, it only made sense to assume that these Lakers would become a dynasty.

However, they would have to do it the hard way.

Shaquille O’Neal showed up for training camp out of shape after celebrating his first title and the rest of the roster seemed to follow his lead as well. Kobe Bryant on the other hand not only showed up in shape, but he had improved his game both offensively and defensively.

With the big man playing himself into shape, Bryant sought to assert himself more on offense, somewhat at the expense of his teammates. O’Neal was not fond of the approach, figuring instead that he should be the first option on the team since the unit had won a title the season prior by using that formula.

Although the logic made sense, O’Neal was in and out of the lineup with minor injuries due to his poor conditioning while Bryant was playing with a chip on his shoulder, eager to prove to his teammates as well as the league that he was perhaps the best all around player in the NBA.

The perception out in the public was that the Diesel thought that the guard was selfish and that Kobe saw his teammate as fat and lazy.

Rumors started to come out that Bryant might get traded and the masses began to question which player was more important at this juncture to the franchise.

For all of the turmoil brewing around the team, they played well in stretches during the regular season and had a pair of five-game winning streaks as well as three different four-game winning streaks.

The team was good but they were not the same crew that won the title the year prior. Indeed, O’Neal’s defensive effort paled in comparison to his MVP season; which was his way of pouting for not getting what he felt was an adequate amount of touches.

The Lakers finished the 2000-01 regular season 14th in defensive efficiency, a far cry from their mark from just a year before, where they had the best one in the league. Luckily, their sixth best offensive efficiency would help carry the team and keep them afloat.

Late in the season, Kobe missed 10 games and the team won seven of those contests with O’Neal once again playing his dominant brand of basketball. Bryant returned to the team with a new resolve, asserting himself only in key stretches when the situation called for it. The guard and center combo helped the Lakers win eight games in a row to close out the season.

The Lakers ended the regular season with a respectable 56-26 record and a plus-3.4 average scoring margin; which really is hardly the stuff of legends. But it looked as though they were peaking at the right time.

Phil Jackson’s squad opened up the playoffs against the Portland Trail Blazers (50-32) and took them out in three games, winning every contest by an average of 14.7 points per game.

Next up, the Lakers faced off against the Sacramento Kings (55-27), who proved not to be much of a match for a Lakers team that was clicking on all cylinders. The purple and gold dispatched the Kings in four games, winning by an average of 9.3 points per game and setting up a terrific Western Conference Finals against the league leading San Antonio Spurs (58-24).

Many expected this series to be one for the ages, but the Lakers had no interest whatsoever in keeping things interesting.

With the Spurs alternating between double-teaming O’Neal and playing him straight up, it created lanes for Bryant to get shots off and create havoc for San Antonio’s defense.

The superstar guard was simply unstoppable as he put up 33.3 points per game, 7 rebounds per game and 7 assists per game on 51.4 percent field goal shooting in the conference finals. His dazzling scoring combined with his playmaking would destroy the Spurs’ defensive game plan and not only allow O’Neal to do damage on the interior, but also set up the likes of Rick Fox, Robert Horry and a scorching hot Derek Fisher to convert open jumpers.

What was supposed to be a series for the ages between arguably the two best teams in the league ended up being a cakewalk for the Lakers, as they thoroughly dispatched San Antonio in four games, winning them by an average of 22.3 points per game.

And just like that, the Lakers made it to the NBA Finals with a perfect 11-0 postseason record, ready to take on the Philadelphia 76ers (56-26).

Game 1 would provide great theatrics as Allen Iverson exploded for 48 points and led Philly to a victory at Staples Center despite Shaq’s almost outrageous line of 44 points and 20 rebounds.

Facing a must win situation at home in Game 2, O’Neal dominated the 76ers frontline and provided one of the most hidden gems as far as finals performances are concerned with 28 points, 20 rebounds, nine assists and eight blocks.

With O’Neal playing like an all-time great, Philadelphia just could not do anything to stop him despite the presence of Dikembe Mutombo — he won the Defensive Player of the Year award that season — as the Diesel would run roughshod through the Sixers as Los Angeles went unbeaten in the remainder of the title round.

Shaquille O’Neal won the Finals MVP award on the strength of his 33 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 4.8 assists per game 3.4 blocks per game on 57.3 percent field goal shooting in the five games in the NBA Finals.

Although the Lakers would “only” sport a plus-6.8 average victory margin in the 2001 Finals against the 76ers, their performance has to be considered as perhaps the best postseason run ever seen in the NBA.

The ’01 Lakers’ defeated four teams that won 50 games or more and also managed to take down three of the four — the purple and gold would be the fourth one obviously — best teams in the league and did so while only losing one game.

Their 15-1 playoff record still stands as the best postseason record in league history and their plus-12.8 playoff average scoring margin is the best of any of the Los Angeles Lakers title teams.

Should we compare this team to any of the Lakers from the 1980s, they might not match up favorably in terms of star power and Hall of Fame caliber talent available on the roster; but if we simply look at what this unit did in their own right on their way to the title, it’s awfully tough to not come away impressed with the way they outclassed the best teams in the NBA on their way to the title.


J.M. Poulard

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