The 1997-98 Los Angeles Lakers: A forgotten team

The Los Angeles Lakers were stacked with talent and known for producing all-star caliber players in the late ’90s.

As the 2021 All-Star Game takes place this Sunday, I wanted to take a look back at this super talented team that wasn’t able to reach its full potential.  Out of all the teams in the 1998 NBA All-Star game, the Los Angeles Lakers were the most decorated squad in Madison Square Garden with 4 all-star selections – Shaquille O’Neal, Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel and a young Kobe Bryant.

They started the season 11-0, however, Shaquille O’Neal strained his stomach muscle and would end up sitting out for 21 games. In Shaq’s absence, the Lakers went 14-7 under Kobe Bryant, who was able to show off his skills as a formidable player in this league. LA went 22-3 in their last 25 games and finished the season with a 61-21 record as a third seed in the Western Conference.

They cruised past the Trail Blazers and Supersonics to face the powerhouse of the west, the Utah Jazz, led by John Stockton and Karl Malone with the great Jerry Sloan leading the charge.

The Los Angeles Lakers could not get to the coted NBA Finals matchup vs Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

In their previous playoff matchup, they lost in 5 games to the Jazz. A series where Kobe Bryant shot 3 airballs in a row. In ’98 it was another disappointing result as the Jazz swept the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

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While researching this team the one thing that stuck out to me was Nick Van Exel, a quirky left-hander who would always let it fly. I was unaware of the events at the end of practice after a game 2 loss to the Jazz in the WCF.

The team gathered for their usual ritual at mid-court putting their hands together and chanting, “Lakers.” Van Exel instead chanted “Cancun” via the Los Angeles Times. Implying that the series was a wrap and showing that he had given up on his teammates. It was reported that Shaq was quite upset with the comments as was Jerry West, the Lakers GM.

“Everyone who was in that locker room with me knows I’d never give up on the team. But finger-pointing happens. I never meant anything wrong” Van Exel said to the Los Angeles Times. The Lakers ended up trading him in the off-season to the Denver Nuggets for Tony Battie and Tyronn Lue.

The following season their other all-star, Eddie Jones, was traded as well. As Kobe Bryant was coming into his own the Lakers opted to use Jones to acquire sharpshooter Glen Rice along with J.R. Reid and B.J. Armstrong from the Charlotte Hornets in 1999.

From there the Lakers would go on and become a dynasty in the new millennium, however it was those tough losses to Utah that really helped them succeed along with tweaking their roster and adding coach Phil Jackson. It just shows you how quickly things can turn from having 4 all-stars in 1998 to winning an NBA championship in 2000.