The Los Angeles Lakers have fallen on tough times lately, but this is likely a small lull in their reign as league royalty. They are unique in that their identity is emblematic of what America pictures when they think of where they play – big-name stars, money, and fame all come standard in the California package. Decades of success while playing aesthetically pleasing basketball (Showtime, anyone?) made them the most popular team in the NBA, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
But around the turn of the century, they had stiff competition for the affection of hoops heads, and they didn’t even have to leave their home state to find it.
The Sacramento Kings of the early 2000s exist in a sort of weird place in history, overshadowed by the title-winning Lakers and having played their best ball in the dying embers of old-school basketball coverage. Unlike in today’s sports media landscape – when Twitter and various digital outlets can share brilliant moments instantly – the national television schedule played a big part in establishing players and teams in America’s consciousness. Sacramento never traditionally got the same love as stalwarts like the Lakers, Knicks, and Bulls.
And yet they were the perfect foil to the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal-led Lakers, diametrically opposed in so many ways. Northern California versus SoCal. Purple and gold versus purple and black. The glitz of Staples Center and Jack Nicholson presented next to the ruckus and cowbells of Arco Arena.
On the court, the teams were polar opposites aesthetically. With all due respect to contributors like Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, and Robert “Big Shot Bob” Horry, the Lakers were a two-man tag team. Prime Shaq and youthful Kobe are still one of the most awe-inspiring combinations to ever hit NBA hardwood.
O’Neal’s brute strength was so great that opposing defenders flew off of him like rag dolls, his dunks out of post moves often barely asking him to jump. He was so talented and so large that he made it look as if he was a kid forging his birth certificate to play little league against younger competition. His girth was immense to the point that referees were at a catch-22; either they let opposing defenders get away with too much because their hacks bounced off him, or they let O’Neal bowl over competitors past the point of reason.
That force of nature was paired with Bryant, a gifted scorer whose spectacular athleticism carried him while he refined his game. It’s easy to forget now, with Bryant relying more on learned craftiness than his top notch genetics, but he was a Slam Dunk champion and high flyer who featured in the highlight reels on a frequent basis. Before the clutch buckets added up, there were alley-oops and fast-break tomahawks.
Standing on the other side was a Kings team that relied less on individual dominance and more on the ethos that propels the Spurs today. Before it became popular to eschew iso-heavy offenses in favor of constant ball and player movement, the early 2000s Kings blazed a trail. Under the guidance of Rick Adelman and Princeton offense creator Pete Carril, the Kings utilized what was seen at the time as a more “European” style of play.
Perhaps that’s because the Kings had several notable European-born players – Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic were the prime figures in that department – but it’s more crucial that the Kings were populated by a bevy of great passers. Rather than being led by players whose primary objective was to get buckets, the Kings most pivotal players enjoyed the flash and flare of a great pass.
Jason Williams often bordered on caring about flash a little too much, but there are worse things for an athlete to be than a showman. “White Chocolate” attempted passes that most players wouldn’t even think of, and the results often left defenders shaking their heads in disbelief, unable to react. He would eventually be traded for Mike Bibby, as the Kings were in search of more stability at the position, but his legacy lives on in the form of no-look passes and rainbow three-point attempts.
And in Chris Webber, Sacramento had the perfect leader for this group. He was brilliant in his own right, but going back to his days as the ringleader for the Fab Five, he thrived as part of a talented group. For a man of his size, he was a remarkable passer, which allowed him to catch opposing defenses off guard as they tried to stop him from scoring. During his seven seasons in Sacramento, C-Webb averaged a cool 23.5-10.6-4.8, impacting the game emphatically while accentuating the talents of his teammates.
The Lakers dynasty was peaking just as the Kings had turned themselves into a league darling, and so of course a Western Conference power struggle was born. While Los Angel-ites have disputed that it was a “rivalry” – the Kings never triumphed over L.A. in the playoffs – three consecutive playoff bouts bred animosity. Ever the wordsmith, Shaq took to calling Sacramento’s finest the “Queens” in order to prove he wasn’t afraid of them.
Perhaps the joke’s on him – he’s now a Kings minority owner! – but there was no doubting that this was the fiercest rivalry in the league at the time. It got to the point that the two teams were fighting during preseason games, contests that are usually so meaningless that even diehard fans don’t tune in.
There were plenty of reasons for the Lakers to be fearful of the Kings. After bowing out to L.A. in 2000 and 2001, the Kings stormed to the best record in the league in 2001-02, going 61-21 while winning 36 of 41 games at home. Homecourt advantage at ARCO, a notoriously loud arena, looked to be the upper hand the Kings needed to vanquish the Lake-show.
Minor miracles kept the Lakers alive even when things looked to be on life support. Down two and on the verge of going down 3-1 in the series, Los Angeles looked finished when Divac poked the ball harmlessly out to the perimeter with time ticking down in Game 4. Unfortunately for Vlade, someone was waiting for it.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the Kings had the Lakers on the verge of elimination in Game 6, only to be on the receiving end of an infamous “officiating” performance. Los Angeles shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone, a monumental total in what ended in a six-point win for L.A.
A lesser team may have folded after such an injustice, but the Kings went to the wire with the reigning champs in Game 7. Behind a near triple-double from Webber and 29 points from Bibby, the Kings nearly derailed their arch rivals, but 65 points from Shaq and Kobe proved to be too much to overcome. Nineteen lead changes in the penultimate game left basketball fans with a clear verdict – these teams were near equals, despite the difference in style and setup.
Unfortunately for Sacramento, the 2002 series was their last real chance to usurp their nemesis. Second in the conference in ’03, the Kings lost centerpiece Webber to a catastrophic knee injury in the second round, and their do-it-all forward was never the same. The bounce that C-Webb used to set up the rest of his game was gone, his athleticism snatched too soon. The Kings gradually fell apart without peak Webber, resulting in the power forward being traded to Philadelphia in 2005.
Kobe and Shaq’s uneasy marriage disintegrated around the same time, and just like that, the two best teams in the league’s superior conference were gone. The “What If?” questions are limitless surrounding the rivalry and the league’s landscape as a whole. Wondering if the Kings could get over the hump had C-Webb stayed healthy remains one of the great NBA mysteries, a fact which is made doubly intriguing by the San Antonio Spurs-sized monster that was waiting in the wings.
Though the rivalry was snatched away sooner than most would like, it provided some of the greatest moments and best basketball the 21st century has offered. The inklings of the NBA’s future style were introduced by a free-flowing team, while two all-time greats established their legacies and came away better having competed against stiff competition.
There have been some hard-fought battles in both conferences in the years since, but I’m not sure we’ve seen one with the same mix of rage, talent, and familiarity. The two franchises are in vastly different places in 2014, but with the Lakers hosting the Kings tonight at the Staples Center, we all can reminisce on better days.
The Webber Kings and the Shaqobe Lakers are two of the league’s most memorable teams, and NBA fans can only hope that another future rivalry blossoms into a similarly glorious struggle.
Follow Kyle on Twitter at @kyleneubeck