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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Robert Marvi

10 greatest Lakers championship teams: No. 7

Over a span of several decades, the Los Angeles Lakers became the gold standard of basketball by winning championship after championship. They did so with a formula that consisted of transcendent leaders, star players, selfless supporting contributors and a healthy team concept.

The Lakers are one of very few teams in sports that have had multiple dynasties. They had one in their embryonic years in Minneapolis, one during the Showtime era of the 1980s and yet another one in the first decade of the 21st century. As such, not every one of their championship teams can be put on a top 10 list, but we will do our best to rank the 10 greatest Lakers teams to win it all.

Coming in at seventh on this list is a team that restarted a dynasty after several years of turbulence and turmoil.

From purgatory to the penthouse

In 2004, the Lakers, despite the presence of four future Hall of Famers in Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, lost the NBA championship to the Detroit Pistons in five games. The series wasn’t close at all, and the team seemed to come apart at the seams as it progressed.

That process continued that summer as O’Neal and Payton were traded, Malone retired and head coach Phil Jackson decided it was time for a sabbatical. They also nearly lost Bryant, who had wanted throughout the 2003-04 season to join the Los Angeles Clippers only to be talked into remaining with the Lakers by former executive Jerry West after O’Neal’s departure.

For the next three seasons, the Lakers were in a deep malaise. The roster around Bryant was very weak and lacked character, and they missed the playoffs in 2005, then lost in the first round of the postseason each of the following two seasons to the Phoenix Suns. Even after Jackson returned in 2005, the outlook was very bleak.

Bryant infamously demanded a trade during the summer of 2007, but an improbable fast start coupled with the miraculous trade for Pau Gasol during the 2007-08 campaign made L.A. a title contender again. It returned to the NBA Finals, only to run into a buzzsaw in the Boston Celtics as the league’s greatest rivalry opened up its third chapter.

That finals loss was brutal, but the Lakers came out of it realizing their future was very bright. They went into the 2008-09 season united and on a mission to make things right. The Purple and Gold won their first seven games and 21 of their first 24, and they were making quick work of just about all opponents, to the point where it was almost too easy.

Even after emerging center Andrew Bynum suffered his second knee injury in a year (he had sustained a season-ending subluxed kneecap and bone bruise in January 2008), the Lakers continued to win and win. He returned in April, and they finished with a 65-17 record, which was just one win shy of the league’s best mark. Finishing in the top six in both offensive and defensive rating, they had established themselves as an outstanding team.

They went into the playoffs as the prohibitive favorites to win it all, but the question was if they had matured enough to finish the job.

Back on top

The Lakers got past the Utah Jazz in five games in the first round, only to run into trouble in the second round versus the Houston Rockets. The Rockets were clearly an inferior team, as they possessed All-Star center Yao Ming, two-way stud Ron Artest and little else. Yet they surprised the Lakers by winning Game 1 in L.A., and the Lakers made things difficult on themselves by essentially not showing up for Game 4 or Game 6. They ended up putting Houston to sleep in Game 7, but the series seemed to accentuate the doubts some had about them.

They would have an opportunity to start to get rid of those doubts in the Western Conference Finals versus the talented and chippy Denver Nuggets. Led by Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, the same Billups who had torched L.A. in the 2004 finals, Denver emerged as a trendy favorite to win the series and take the NBA title. It played the Lakers to a standstill for nearly five games until they found a way to break through and triumph in six games. Bryant played some of the best ball of his career by averaging 34.0 points on 48.1% shooting and 5.8 assists a game in the series.

The Lakers wouldn’t get their desired rematch with Boston in the 2009 NBA Finals, or even a matchup with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But they would face the Orlando Magic, a very good team that finished first in defensive rating. Orlando had not only Defensive Player of the Year and rebounding and blocked shots leader Dwight Howard, but also a group of deadly 3-point shooters.

As such, the Magic were a solid opponent for the Purple and Gold. Yet Bryant wouldn’t let them even have a shot at winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy. He set the tone with 40 points, eight assists and eight rebounds in a Game 1 rout, then he took over in overtime of Game 4 to give L.A. a 3-1 series lead. By Game 5, Orlando had nothing left, and Bryant’s 30 points, six rebounds, five assists, four blocks and two steals sealed the world championship for the Lakers in a 99-86 win.

Bryant was awarded the NBA Finals MVP award, the one major individual award he had lacked to that point. But neither he nor his team was done, as more glory would be ahead for L.A. the following season.

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