Back during the years when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were leading the Los Angeles Lakers, the purple and gold had multiple memorable playoff battles with Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Mike Bibby and the Sacramento Kings.
Those Kings teams were great, but every year ran into the buzzsaw that was the threepeat Lakers. It’s kind of their fanbase’s one claim to fame, that their team was the closest to knocking out arguably the most dominant roster in NBA history (while arguing that they would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those meddling refs).
Two of the key players on those Lakers teams apparently don’t agree, however, as Shaq and Rick Fox told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that the 2000 Portland Trail Blazers were the best team they ever faced:
“It’s probably the best team I’ve ever faced playing basketball, period,” says Robert Horry, who won seven championships in his 16-year career, including three with the Lakers.
“They were the toughest team,” Shaq says, “and they were the only team that wasn’t scared of us.”
Now, this was in a story about the Blazers, so maybe this wasn’t meant as a Kings troll, but come on, even if it’s not intentional, how could it not be a slight. “The only team that wasn’t scared of us,” even without mentioning Sacramento, is an incredible and subtle dig by The Big Aristotle, especially when considering that in addition to owning the Kings on the floor, Shaq now literally owns part of the team.
This is Shaq and Big Shot Rob giving the quote version of this bucket:
Some of their Lakers teammates from the time didn’t go quite as far, but also had a lot of praise for that Blazers team, further adding to the “not afraid” narrative that can’t help but feel like a bit of a shot at the Kings — and their other opponents during those years, for that matter — even if they’re not directly mentioned:
Rick Fox, Lakers forward: To this day, I’m hard-pressed to find a team that was more stacked when it comes to true quality of player, over the course of their entire careers. You just felt they had an answer at every position, twice. And the bench crew would be a 50-win team in the league.
Derek Fisher, Lakers guard: They just had some guys who weren’t afraid of the mystique of Phil or Shaq. And Kobe had not yet placed that level of fear in the opponent, at that time. They felt like they were capable of beating us, for sure.
But the real question is this: Were those Blazers actually the best team those Lakers ever played? Or is this just one more instance of the Lakers’ old bad blood with those Kings cropping back up?
The 1999-00 Blazers were the only version of that organization that challenged the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, pushing them to seven games, and only losing when they blew a 15-point lead in the final game of the series. They won 59 games that season, and had the third-best offense and fifth-best defense in the NBA. They made trades that summer and were swept by the Lakers the next two years.
The Kings, meanwhile, managed five games against the Lakers in 2000 (the max for the first round at the time), got swept by L.A. the following year, and then pushed the Lakers to seven games in 2002, losing in overtime to finish blowing their 3-2 series lead. Those 2001-02 Kings won 61 games, and had the third-best offense and sixth-best defense in the league that year.
It’s hard to look at those results and not conclude that the Kings were the bigger threat, especially when considering how hard they pushed the Lakers in two of those seasons, even getting a series lead in 2002 (something those Blazers never managed). Still, it’s worth pointing out that the 2002 Lakers were a bit more weary from two straight Finals trips than the hungry, 2000 version of the team that was still looking to break through, which may have factored into giving the Kings more of a chance.
In the end, we can never definitively prove which of those teams was the tougher test for the Lakers. Everyone will have arguments, but like with most sports arguments concerning teams from different years, they’re just unprovable hypotheticals.
What is really hysterical about this though, in the end, is that these beautifully petty Lakers legends won’t even let the Kings have their one achievement in franchise history: pushing the Lakers harder than any other team, and now the organization’s constant, unacknowledged attempts to troll the Lakers on Twitter are even sadder in retrospect. The Blazers have at least won a title; getting close to beating the Lakers is literally all the Kings have. It’s honestly surprising they haven’t hung a banner that says “almost beat Shaq and Kobe.” So yeah, even with them barely fielding an NBA team since, this has to be up there among the worst moments for Kings fans since the Horry shot, and you almost have to feel bad.
Or at least you would, if it wasn’t so funny. Stay petty, Shaq.