2. 1979-80: Let the Magic Begin
In 1976, the New Orleans Jazz signed Gail Goodrich from the Lakers. The Lakers and Jazz also arranged a swap of several picks as compensation for the loss of Goodrich. The Jazz might not have felt the impact of the first two picks in 1977 and 1978, who never panned out. However, it was the selection in 1979 that changed Laker history forever.
The first and second picks in the draft were awarded to the two teams with the worst records in each conference. That year, the teams were the Utah Jazz and the Chicago Bulls. To determine who got the first pick, a coin was flipped. Since the Jazz traded their pick, the lost their chance at a legend. As we all know, the Lakers won the flip; and drafted Earvin “Magic” Johnson from Michigan State University. The Bulls settled for David Greenwood of UCLA.
Immediately the Lakers would become the favorites to win the NBA championship. Not only did the Lakers already have Kareem to anchor the squad, but now they had perhaps the best guard in the league (at the time), who formed one of basketball’s greatest duos of all time.
But that was yet to be seen at the time. Fans were forced to wait until October 12, 1979, when the Lakers opened on the road in San Diego against the Clippers.
The game went down to the wire before Kareem hit a game-winning sky hook. Magic ran and jumped into the arms of his center. However, he was quickly reminded that he had 81 games left to be played. Johnson had just won the NCAA championship just seven months ago, and was seemingly on top of the world.
Magic averaged 18 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists in his rookie year.
It would not be long before Johnson would get to celebrate again as the Lakers would defeat “Dr. J” Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers in six games of the NBA Finals. It would be the start of the “Showtime” era, and just the beginning of Laker domination throughout the decade.
1. 1996-97: The Beginning of Kobe and Shaq
The 1995-96 season was filled with criticism and power struggles for Shaquille O’Neal. His impending free agency rose much debate about whether or not the Orlando Magic would be able to keep their young superstar, or if they could even keep him at all. It all did not matter when the Lakers signed him to a seven-year/$121 million contract on the first day of Team USA’s training camp.
As if that was not excitement enough, another move the Lakers made would excite Laker fans for many years to come. The problem is that fans did not know to what extent they would be excited. At least not at the time. With Shaq manning the center position, the Lakers no longer had room for Vlade Divac. Thus, on the night of the 1996 NBA Draft, the Lakers traded Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for the rights to the 13th pick, Kobe Bryant from Lower Marion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. Bryant was seen as a tremendous gamble being the first guard to be drafted out of high school.
The Lakers did not know it yet, but also in that draft, the team selected Derek Fisher from Arkansas-Little Rock. Those three players would form a core that would be responsible for much Laker history.
On the first day of November in 1996, the Lakers hosted the Phoenix Suns. But the excitement was not for Kobe and Shaq, like many fans might have expected at present day; it was all about the diesel.
He did not disappoint. The Lakers jumped in front of the Suns by 17 points at halftime.
But perhaps the lead was too big, and the Suns crept back into the game. By the end of the third quarter, the Lakers’ lead had fallen to just three points. Still, this was Shaq’s night. In Orlando, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway pushed the notion that he was the leader, not Shaq. Clearly, O’Neal proved that theory to be false. In the fourth quarter, the Lakers reverted back to their first half form, and outscored the Suns by 11 to cruise to a 96-82 victory.
Shaq led all players with 23 points on the evening. He also contributed with a game-high 14 rebounds. Rookie Derek Fisher contributed with 12 points off of the bench.
Kobe averaged just 7.6 points that season while he played behind Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel. Meanwhile, Shaq averaged 26.2 points and 12.5 rebounds.
The season culminated in a semifinal defeat against the Utah Jazz in five games. But this team was just getting started. Fans would slowly begin to understand just how important this season was as important pieces were put together towards the eventual six championships won over the next fifteen years.