”I don’t think there will ever be another 6’9” point guard who smiles while he humiliates you.”
–James Worthy on Magic
“Only God can stop Kobe Bryant. That boy is the best player in the world.”
– Charles Barkley
“Me shooting 40% at the foul line is just God’s way to say nobody’s perfect.”
– Shaquille O’Neal
#2 The Magic Lakers
Titles: 5 (’80, ‘82, ‘85, ‘87, ‘88)
The Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980’s were a textbook dynasty, and I say “textbook” because they were built around a great point guard and a great centre – the two traditional spots on the floor to anchor a basketball team. The fact that it was the greatest point guard in NBA history and a top five all-time centre meant this team featured in an astonishing nine Finals series between 1980 and 1991. That means over a twelve year period there were only three summers when Magic and the Lakers didn’t suit up for the Finals (see the chart). That makes a mockery of even Chicago’s Finals run, and the Lakers would be #1 on my list if not for one single fact – of those nine Finals appearances they “only” won five championships. They were beaten by the 76ers, the Celtics, the Pistons and the Bulls, and in two of those Finals they were convincingly swept. Can you imagine a Michael Jordan team ever being swept in the Finals, let alone losing?
I’m not going to lie to you. When this Lakers team won their 5th title in 1988 I hadn’t even started following the NBA. And when their dynasty began in Magic’s rookie year I wasn’t even born yet. So it would be silly for me to recount the days of 80’s Lakers glory as if it unravelled before my own eyes. But I’ve seen enough of their games (the Lakers Dynasty Box Set is a centrepiece in my collection, as are the entire ’88, ’89 and ‘91 Finals series) and read enough books about Magic and Bird to understand why this team is so great. You don’t have to be Einstein to figure that out. Even a 5-minute YouTube clip probably gets the message across (just watch how many plays involve four or five passes before the bucket). If you want to watch one game to understand how this colossal dynasty came into power, look no further than game six of the 1980 Finals in Magic’s rookie year (it’s in the Box Set). It’s difficult to describe the epic performance Magic pulled off to single-handedly win the Championship in that game. The best way to explain it probably with an analogy, and even that is difficult…
Imagine if in Lebron’s rookie year, instead of the Cavs failing to reach the playoffs they had recorded a 60 win season and marched into the May as 1st seed in the Conference. Oh, and you also have to imagine Ilgauskas as an All-Star centre who averaged 24 points and 10 rebounds (wait, Ilgauskas was an All-Star… my God). The Cavs reach the Finals to play against the Los Angeles Lakers featuring two of the game’s most talented and dominant players Shaq and Kobe (the 76’ers Darryl Dawkins and Doctor J, remember this is an analogy). The Finals contest is a classic, but thanks to the unstoppable play of Ilgauskas (remember, he’s an All-Star) and the continuing rise of Lebron James (remember, he’s a rookie) the Cavs find themselves perched to record a historic Finals victory. Then the unthinkable happens. Their All-Star centre and team leader Ilgauskas (by the way he was also league MVP for the season, I know it’s hard but just try) goes down with an ankle injury and is forced to miss game 6 with the Cavs up 3-2. The Cavs have to face mighty Lakers on the road, against the odds, with a deciding game-7 looking like a certainty. But Lebron doesn’t let it happen. He starts at point guard, and ends up playing forward and centre as he rakes up 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists, including all the big shots down the stretch, while Kobe and Shaq are all but helpless. The Cavs are world Champions, their All-Star centre (who is still in the prime of his career) just watched the young rookie win the Championship without him, and realises that nothing is going to stop them over the next 10 years.
That is essentially what transpired in that famous Game 6 seventeen years ago. And as good as Lebron is, I’m sure you’d admit that even that hypothetical situation is beyond anything he could have achieved. There really has been no other scenario quite like it since then. You think Lebron’s 48 against Detroit was good? It has nothing on Magic.
Following that historic game 6 the Lakers went on to win four more titles with Magic at the helm, Kareem as an aging yet serviceable centre, and supporting players such as the dynamic Byron Scott (now coach of the Hornets), the defensive-minded Michael Cooper (whom Larry Bird said was the toughest guy he ever played against), and the all-round unassuming James Worthy (voted one of the top 50 NBA players of all time). These are not your Steve Kerr/Rick Fox kind of role players – these guys were superstars in their own right. Cooper was an 8-time All-Defensive First team member and DPOY winner, and Worthy was a 7-time All-Star and lead the Lakers in scoring twice. It’s no wonder these Lakers featured an unusual dynasty trait (some would say luxury) of sharing Finals MVP honours. Jordan won all six of Chicago’s Finals MVPs and Shaq won all three during the recent Lakers three-peat. But these Lakers had three different players – Magic, Kareem and Worthy – all stepping up to the biggest stage the NBA has to offer and walking away with a Finals MVP. No other dynasty can claim to have shared such an accolade in this way.
It all came to an end in 1991, when fittingly, the torch was passed to Michael Jordan whose Bulls ran over the Lakers 4-1 in the Finals. It was the beginning of a new dynasty, and the end of an old one. A reign that lasted twelve years, featured a set of back-to-back titles, and was anchored by Magic Johnson for the entire time easily meets my (and anybody elses) dynasty criteria. Of all the dynasties in the past 30 years, this was the biggest.
#3 The Shaq-Kobe Lakers
Titles: 3 (’2000, ‘01, ‘02)
Anyone who witnessed the Shaq-Kobe hurricane that ripped through the NBA during the millennium changeover and beyond will have to prepare themselves for the following situation sometime in the next twenty years (cue orchestral swell)…
You’re at home, the second half of Friday night footy is just about to start, and its time to tuck your son into bed. Just as you say goodnight he asks you to tell one of his favourite stories… again, about the old days in the NBA and all his favourite players from the basketball encyclopaedia you bought him for Christmas. There’s the story about little Allen Iverson, the high-flying Vince Carter and of course his favourite story, the dynamic duo of Shaq and Kobe. “Just how good were they dad?” he asks, pointing at the photo of them holding their third championship trophy. “Well son, they were the best, and that’s why they won three championships”. He points to a photo of Kobe on the adjacent page dunking on Todd McCullough’s head… “How good was Kobe dad?”, the same question he asks every other night. You sigh and respond “Well son, he was the best scorer ever … some people think he was better than Michael Jordan”. Your son sticks his tongue out like Jordan in the photos and giggles, then points to the photo of Shaq dunking on Todd McCullough’s head. “How good was Shaq dad?” You turn the page to a double-spread poster of Shaq and Kobe in arms, confetti falling from the ceiling… “He was the best big man to ever play the game son, no one could stop Shaq, no one ever”. Your son’s eyes widen as he stares at the Shaq-Kobe photo, clearly in deep thought, and then he turns to you. “So how come dad, if Kobe was the best ever scorer, and Shaq was the best ever big man… how come they only won three trophies?” The question throws you off guard for a bit, then you calmly reply, “Well, it’s not easy to win a championship son, and its certainly not easy winning three in a row. You have to be a great team to do that, and they were one of the greatest ever”. Clearly unhappy with your response he pushes himself under the covers and defiantly whispers “but they only won three”.
You kiss him on the head and close his door, only to find yourself walking down the corridor puzzled, trying hard to remember the old days, muttering to yourself in disbelief “they only won three?” You think back to Shaq at his dominant best, the earth-quaking dunks, the brute power and deceptive quickness, and you think about Kobe and his 81, the endless stream of fifty-point games, the impossible buzzer-beaters he hit. “They only won three” you finally acknowledge. But it still doesn’t seem right.
That in a nutshell (without all the extra fluff) is the line of thinking that will pervade every NBA fan’s brain when they look back on the 90s and 00s and the Shaq-Kobe dynasty. Right now you might not realise it, but mark my words in ten, twenty, even fifty years time, it will seem absolutely ludicrous that Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant played together yet only won three championships. When Shaq’s legacy as the Most Dominant Ever is set in stone, and when Kobe has long since retired, even closer to MJ’s mark than he is now, the thought of both of them suiting up for the same team will be the stuff of video games. Despite all the feuding and conflict towards the end of their reign, time will not tarnish the Shaq-Kobe legacy… it will only embellish it.
Strictly speaking in terms of my dynasty commandments, many will point out that Shaq and Kobe were only a force for five years tops and thus aren’t worthy of the “dynasty” term. But as I explained in Part I they were a 61-win team in 97-98, sent four players to the All-Star game, and won 22 of their last 25 games. Make no mistake about it, they were a dominant team building the foundations of a dynasty. Just like Jordan and the Bulls, they were teetering on the edge of championship success for at least a couple of seasons before they finally tasted glory, and just like Jordan and the Bulls it only took a change of coach (acquiring Phil Jackson) to make it happen. In my book, the Shaq-Kobe Lakers are a legitimate dynasty as ever, and the fact they won three titles – in a row – puts them ahead of the next team on my dynasty list (coming soon).
Such was their dominance that there was almost zero doubt going in to the ‘01 and ‘02 Finals that they’d walk away with the trophy. Could you honestly see any way, ANY way, that the Iverson-lead 76′ers or the Kidd-lead Nets could have upset them in those Finals? It was a formality, beyond anything I can recall in the past 20 years. Even when Chicago faced the Suns, Sonics or Jazz in the 90’s there was a decent argument for picking the side Michael Jordan wasn’t playing for. Not for these Lakers. At their best they were simply dominant, so dominant that most of the time it seemed they weren’t even trying. I think that “turn it on when it counts” kind of attitude stemmed from Shaq’s nonchalant, casual mentality that he seemed to adopt while waltzing through the regular season. Nevertheless, he was right. When it mattered, he dominated, and three championships and three Finals MVPs prove it.
But despite the lofty heights they achieved the question we’ll always be asking, just like the kid in my story above, is how did Shaq and Kobe fail to win more championships? How did they get swept out of the playoffs in successive years in ‘98 and ‘99? How did they fail to get past San Antonio in ‘03 after Kobe completed his finest season yet? (2nd in the league in scoring, 5th in steals, 15th in assists) How did they not get past the Detroit Pistons in ‘04 with the Hall-of-Famer-decorated squad including Gary Payton and Karl Malone? And how did arguably the greatest duo to ever play the game disband in their title-winning prime? How did this Lakers team not win like, 6 or 7 titles? I know the answers to these questions centre mostly around the Kobe-Shaq feud and brewing resentment within the Laker camp, but you can’t honestly tell me that if those two had sorted it out, they wouldn’t still be winning titles today. Look what Kobe is doing now with a team full of turd. Even an old-man Shaq would be enough to put the Lakers as title favourites now.
The Shaq-Kobe break up was both an inevitability and a tragedy, and its effects are still echoing through the league. Think about it. Without Shaq going to Miami Dwayne Wade would never have had the chance to carry his team to a title and elevate himself into elite status (propelling himself past Lebron James). Without Shaq leaving Kobe would never have had the chance to average 35 for a season, score 81, hit 50 in four-straight, and cement himself as arguably the greatest scorer ever. Shaq and Kobe are still in the game today, they’re still trying to win titles, still adding to their own trophy cabinets. But something tells me no matter what happens from here on, their careers will always be defined by that dynamic duet that soared effortlessly above the NBA world below them, but crashed before their journey was supposed to end.