Michael Jordan was officially gone from the Chicago Bulls for the 1999-2000 NBA season. It was the first full season after Jordan’s last game as a Bull. The lockout shortened season of 1998-99 had seen the San Antonio Spurs win their first championship led by David Robinson and Tim Duncan. However, a great deal of the Chicago Bulls legacy had been re-located to Los Angeles. Phil Jackson took his six championship rings to the City of Angels and with them brought new life and excitement to the Lakers.
The game plan was simple for coach Jackson. “The ball is going into Shaq,” Jackson said as training camp opened. “And he’s going to have a responsibility to distribute the ball. It’s going to be good for the team, and good for him.” Good is an understatement! Shaquille O’Neal would go on to average 29.7 points per game while operating out of Jackson’s triangle offense. That led the league in scoring and helped the big man earn his first Most Valuable Player Award. Of course, it also helped that the Los Angeles Lakers would go 67-15 on the season.
It would be hasty to think the triangle offense and all its fireworks were all the 67 wins were about, however. Phil Jackson, in typical coaching fashion, constantly sent the message of defense and how much that would distinguish the Lakers. In order to play defense, he would need Shaquille O’Neal “in shape and filled with desire to block shots and defend the basket.” O’Neal would finish third in the league in blocked shots behind only Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo at 3.03 blocks per game.
At first glance the season didn’t appear to get off to a great start. A preseason injury forced Kobe Bryant to miss the first 15 games on the schedule. However, that gave the coaching staff the opportunity to see what other options they had and tinker some. Once Bryant returned in December, the team’s identity was established and there was no stopping the Lakers. Kobe would average a new career-high in scoring at 22.5 per game and his all-around game and defense were key. The sharp-shooting Glen Rice was added during the previous season but gave a third offensive option with 15.9 points per contest. The rest of the core group were a mix of great veteran pieces that played their roles to perfection. Ron Harper had followed Phil Jackson from Chicago and played the same role he played in the Windy City with the Lakers. Rick Fox was a solid shooter and underrated defender for the team. Derek Fisher became one of the team’s leaders and improved game-by-game. Then there was Robert Horry or “Big Shot Bob” as the team referred to him. He always seemed to make the big shot when the team needed it most. Two core bench players most people tend to forget were A.C. Green and Brian Shaw, but both displayed quiet leadership and did whatever the team needed to win.
Besides the Lakers, the West featured a great deal of competitive teams, especially the Portland Trail Blazers, who were aided by the addition of Scottie Pippen in a trade with Houston. Pippen’s leadership along with a strong cast of players such as Rasheed Wallace, Steve Smith, Damon Stoudamire, Detlef Schrempf and Arvydas Sabonis gave the Blazers and excellent shot at beating the Lakers. Portland posted a 59-23 record which was second best in the league behind the Lakers. Their showdown with the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals proved to be a classic. The Lakers would open up a 3-1 lead in the series only to see Portland come “blazing” back to even it up at 3-3. In Game #7, the Blazers held a 15-point advantage early in the fourth quarter, but the Lakers staged a miraculous comeback to advance to the NBA Finals.
The defending champion, San Antonio Spurs, finished second in the Midwest division with 53 wins, behind the Utah Jazz with 55. The Spurs showed during the regular season that they could pose some problems for the Lakers. However, an injury to Tim Duncan forced him out of the playoffs and the Phoenix Suns upset San Antonio in the first round. The Spurs became the first team since the 1986 Boston Celtics to not repeat as champions.
In the East, New York broke the Miami Heat’s hearts again by overcoming a 3-2 deficit to beat Pat Riley’s group in the semifinals. However, it was the Indiana Pacers turn to shine advancing all the way to the NBA Finals for the first time. In Larry Bird’s last season of his three-year run as coach of the Pacers, he watched his hot shooting team led by Reggie Miller battle the mighty Lakers. Indiana had a solid cast of players, along with Miller, in Jalen Rose, Rik Smits, Dale Davis, Mark Jackson, Sam Perkins and Chris Mullin. However, the Lakers were just too much winning the title with a 4-2 victory over Indiana.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant would not be done at one championship, however. The Lakers would continue their championship run with a three-peat winning in 2001 and 2002. The 2000 cast, however, had the most wins of their title teams. There was a special feeling in Hollywood during that season. The addition of Phil Jackson as coach was the final nail that embedded the title and set up yet another three-peat for Jackson (his third). Jackson’s special touch with all the players was apparent and was the driving force for improvements, especially for Kobe Bryant. Bryant’s growth would be part of his destiny, but Jackson helped speed it along. It was truly one of the special seasons in NBA history, and would help change the career paths of O’Neal and Bryant. Beyond that, it would help establish Phil Jackson as one of the best coaches ever.