This past season was incredibly exciting. So many interesting storylines spawned out of the Cavs’ comeback in the Finals and Kevin Durant’s defection to the Warriors. While the Warriors raced out to an incredible tart and a sterling 67-win record, the defending champs took it easy during the regular season. Even though everyone knew the Cavs would be a major contender for the championship, their record didn’t match the respect they rightfully deserved as a contender. Last season’s Cavs had several parallels with the 3rd team on my list, the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers. The Cavs were dominated by their big three of Kyrie Erving, Kevin Love, and LeBron James, while the Lakers had their dynamic duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers in 2001 had nothing to prove. They were the defending champs, having just won 67 games and beaten the Pacers in the 2000 Finals. Everyone knew they were going to be in the mix for the championship in 2001. The Lakers “slumped” to a 56-26 regular season record in 2001, the lowest win total for a Lakers championship team since the move from Minneapolis. While the Lakers’ offensive rating remained elite, their defensive rating, which had been number one in the league in 2000, fell to 21st in 2001. With most of the players returning from 2000, it was presumed the Lakers were coasting through the regular season.
The Lakers roster was built to accentuate the talents of their two best players, and Shaq and Kobe both averaged over 28 points per game. In fact, the team was so reliant on those two that only one other player (Derek Fisher) averaged over double figures, and fisher only played 20 games due to injury in 2001. While they might have gotten little scoring from the rest of the team, players like Horace Grant, Robert Horry, Brian Shaw, and Ron Harper all had won championships before their time with the Lakers and knew how to conserve themselves during the season so they could be fresh for the playoff grind.
By the time the playoffs started, the Lakers were locked in. They closed the season on an 8 game winning streak, which they would extend significantly in the playoffs. In fact, the Lakers would pull off perhaps the most impressive postseason run of all time. The Lakers swept their way through the Western Conference, beating some incredibly impressive teams. First up was the Blazers, the team that took them to 7 games in the Western Finals the previous year. The Lakers dominated the series, with only game 2 being decided by single figures, and the series ending in a sweep, 3-0. Next up was the Sacramento Kings in another rematch from the year before. This time instead of the series going the distance, the Lakers swept the Kings in 4. This series was more competitive than the Blazers series, with 3 out of the 4 games decided by 10 points or less, but the Kings had no answer for the Black Mamba, who averaged 35 ppg in the series. The Lakers’ conference finals opponent would be the Spurs, but they would be an easy out for the Lakers in another sweep with Kobe leading the way again with a 33/7/7 series average. The Lakers altogether had won 19 straight games dating back to the regular season, and had just swept the Western Conference. To put into perspective, this run is undoubtedly the best conference run in the history of the league.
Never before had a team swept such quality opponents as these Lakers had just done. The Blazers had Scottie Pippen, Rasheed Wallace, and Damon Stoudamire. The Kings had a team which would make the conference finals the next year featuring Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, and Peja Stojakovic. The Spurs had Tim Duncan and David Robinson, as well as Shaun Elliot and Terry Porter, and these spurs would win the title a few years later. The Lakers opponents featured 6 possible Hall of Fame Players, and the Lakers rampaged through each and every one of them.
By the time the finals rolled around, the only question still to be answered was whether the Lakers could end the playoffs undefeated. Standing in their way was League MVP Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers, who were themselves experiencing what would end up being Iverson’s best season in his Hall of Fame career. Game 1 has gone down as one of the most iconic games in Finals history, where Iverson nearly single-handedly took down the defending champs and stepped over the bamboozled Tyronn Lue on his game-icing jumper. Despite the disappointment of losing game 1, the Lakers would win the next four (including games 3,4, and 5 on the road) to complete the most impressive playoff run in NBA history, finishing with a 15-1 playoff record.
The 2001 Lakers are both one of the best teams of all time and one of the great “what-if?” teams. What if they could translate that playoff focus into the regular season? Could they have challenged the single-season wins record? The 2001 Lakers’ potential, both realized and unrealized, makes them the third best team since 1980.