Los Angeles Lakers: Shaquille O’Neal, Center (1996-04)
Throughout their history, the Los Angeles Lakers have set a standard of success higher than most, if not all, other teams in the NBA. With 16 championships, they expect to be in contention every year, which is what made a five-year stretch in the mid-1990s all the more disappointing.
From 1992 to 1996, they made the playoffs in four of five seasons, but had just a single second-round appearance to show for it. During the 1995-96 campaign, Los Angeles was led in scoring by Cedric Ceballos at 21.2 a game. Though a good player throughout his career, it was clear he was not capable of leading the Lakers to where they wanted to go. Upgrades would be required.
In the summer of 1996, the NBA saw one of the best young superstars hit the market named Shaquille O’Neal. This was at a time before the salary cap, allowing teams to write blank checks that gave an inherent advantage to those with more money.
To make a long story short, the Lakers managed to draw O’Neal to Los Angeles after the Orlando Magic lowballed their franchise superstar. They had their guy, and the path back to the top was clear.
It would admittedly take the new couple a few years to find their footing. Eventually, O’Neal would go on one of the greatest three-year stretches ever, elevating his status from a great player to a legend of the game.
He led the Lakers to three consecutive NBA championships, an NBA Finals MVP in all of them. He averaged a ridiculous 35.9 points along with 15.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.9 blocks per game. O’Neal shot 59.5 percent from the field, treating each opposing center as if they weren’t giving their all to slow him down.
Prior to his championships, many had questioned his ability to win at the highest level like so many superstars before and after him. Both he and the Lakers needed each other to get to where they ultimately wanted to go. One three-peat later and they clearly arrived at their destination safely.