EDITOR’S NOTE: This week, Mike Prada of SB Nation is doing a big breakdown of the best teams in NBA history to never win a title. Today, he reveals “the overachievers” of his bracket, which includes the 1997-98 Los Angeles Lakers, who were swept in the Western Conference Finals by the Utah Jazz.
Everyone knows about the famous “Shaq and Kobe” Lakers that won three consecutive NBA championships from 2000 to 2002, but there were three different “Shaq and Kobe” teams before their peak, one of which surprisingly made the Western Conference Finals in 1998.
The surprising part wasn’t that they made the Finals — I mean, they had Shaquille O’Neal, the most dominant center in the league, and an All-Star guard in Eddie Jones. They also had a pair of exciting young guards in Kobe Bryant and Nick Van Exel. If everything went right, they were going to go the distance. The only problem was that almost nothing went right, which is why they’re considered overachievers.
After the Lakers started their season 11-0 —their best start in franchise history to this day — O’Neal suffered an abdominal strain that kept him sidelined for 20 games. The Lakers went 13-7 without O’Neal, which, all things considered, isn’t terrible, but injuries can easily disrupt a team’s rhythm, especially when the injured player is a star of O’Neal’s magnitude.
Despite the obstacles they faced early in the season, they were able to go into the All-Star break with the second-best record in the Western Conference and third-best record in the NBA. Additionally, they had four players — Bryant, Van Exel, Jones and O’Neal — selected for the All-Star game in New York. It should be noted, though, that Bryant, who was 19 at the time, still wasn’t the All-Star player he’d grow to be — he wasn’t even a starter. For the season, Bryant averaged 15.4 points per game on 42.8% shooting from the field.
The truth is, a lot of the players on the team were just scratching the surface of their potential. They were fun, but they were also really young, and their raw talent wasn’t enough to get them past the battle-tested Utah Jazz, whose 1-2 punch of John Stockton and Karl Malone carried them to the Finals in the year prior, too.
On paper, the Lakers were more talented than the Jazz, but Utah was well-coach and played an up-tempo style of basketball that Los Angeles — specifically O’Neal — had a difficult time defending. They were also a talented defensive team, and had enough strength in the front court with Malone and Greg Osterag to keep O’Neal honest — or should I say, as honest as humanly possible.
It obviously wasn’t the result that the Lakers or their fans wanted, but it was a necessary step in their development, and it inspired the front office to make a few win-now moves in the following seasons. This chapter might be sad, but the story has a happy ending.