The Los Angeles Lakers could have had a fantasy lineup for the ages.
Many things changed in two years for the Los Angeles Lakers at the end of the 90s to get to the championship. From the 1998 lineup that boasted four young rising All-Stars in Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel, they apparently downgraded in 2000 to Shaq, Kobe and three aging veterans.
It is not so easy, obviously. Those three veterans were brought in because they represented a (more or less) better fit next to the golden couple in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. While the impact and production of Bryant and O’Neal had grown and earned a cumbersome role in the offense, they needed a shooter to spread the floor and open the area and the lanes.
So, general manager Jerry West made once more a risky but, in the end, rewarding move, trading fan-favorite Eddie Jones for All-Star sharpshooter Glen Rice.
Phil Jackson, on his side, needed to add some veteran leadership with championship experience and/or expertise in the triple-post offense, wherefore Ron Harper and A.C. Green.
Nothing to object. The team fulfilled its duty and won the championship. More, it went on winning three straight.
But a closer look at LA’s history reveals to us that between the end of the 90s and the start of the 2000s they could have shown off a different lineup, an intriguing one, with so much star power to rival the 2004 Lakers.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ fantasy lineup:
Let’s start with the “easy” part.
In the 1999 lockout season, the Lakers signed Dennis Rodman, released by the dismantling NBA Champion Chicago Bulls, as a free agent, while they traded Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell in order to obtain former All-Star Glen Rice. And it is exactly in that 1999 season that things could have converged into something historical.
For a little over a month, Rice and Rodman were teammates in Los Angeles before The Worm was cut in April for his usual behavioral issues.
Moving to an earlier time, a few years before Magic Johnson had done his glorious return to the NBA. In 1996, he rejoined the Lakers as the final act of his HIV triumphant battle, and man if he did perform. He showed us that he still had it.
In just 30 minutes, playing the backup power forward, he averaged 14.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.9 assists. At the end of the season, he initially declared that he would be back for the 1996-97 season, but he later decided to definitively retire.
Had he opted to return he would have been just two seasons away from meeting all the other stars we previously talked about. Of course, he would have been 39 years old, but he played until 2002 with his Magic Johnson All-Stars. If he had remained with the Lakers and committed to staying in shape, some remnants of his impactful game would have earned him a job.
Obviously, it would not be easy to handle all those stars and egos, but if they had made it through the season, they would fare enough to see the coming of Phil Jackson in 1999-00. Who better than him to handle a locker room with all those personalities? Rodman in particular, whom he managed to tackle in Chicago. And if he made Dennis’s addition work with Jordan and Pippen, no way he would not have with Magic.
As far as playing style, we already know Rodman would have been a great fit for the triangle offense, while Magic, not in his 30s and able to run up and down the court for 40 minutes anymore, would have probably accepted his role in a slower, brainy offense, exploiting his vision and IQ.
Anyway, he could have kept leading the fastbreak with Bryant and Rice on the receiving end of his assists. Furthermore, in an NBA that still valued big men and the post-game, he could have also played an invaluable role as Shaq’s backup in his eight-minutes-per-game rest.
Magic, Kobe, Rice, Rodman, Shaq. A lineup of five legends, four Hall of Famers. The best in history in what they did. On top of that, the Lakers could have still acquired A.C. and Harper, given their low price, and probably maintained their historic cast of Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Derek Fisher on the bench.
I know… the butterfly effect — change a variable and there is no guarantee the events will unfold the same way. But those Los Angeles Lakers would have great chances at the championship with an MVP Shaquille O’Neal in his only season in shape of his career, a rising Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson to mesh this unlikely ensemble of players from different backgrounds and eras.