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A Global Game (1998-2004)

With their second NBA championship three-peat, the Chicago Bulls’ G-Michael Jordan announced his retirement for the second time.  With that, the Bulls dumped many of their players in beginning the rebuilding process.  Prior to the 1998-99 season, the Bull’s other star, F-Scottie Pippen signed a contract to play for the Houston Rockets.  The Bulls’ coach, Phil Jackson, also left the coaching ranks.  With the breakup of the Bull’s dynasty, many teams felt confident that they had a legitimate shot at the NBA championship.  That is, if there was a season to be played.

In the summer of 1998, the NBA and the NBA Player’s Association met to discuss a new collective bargaining agreement and salary cap restraints.  When the players refuse to sign onto the new deal, NBA owners declared a lockout for the season.  All early season games were cancelled, and there was a general feel that the NBA season would be doomed.  However, owners and players reached an agreement in early January 1999, which also salvaged the season, but limited it to a 50-game schedule.  

So basketball was back on, and there were plenty of surprises in the league that was infused with younger, flashier players ready to take over the mantle carried by such established stars.  In Toronto (23-27), a rookie G-Vince Carter was electrifying crowds with his gravity-defying, jaw-dropping slam dunks.  He would go on to win Rookie of the Year for the season.  In Sacramento (27-23), the Kings had their first winning season in 14 years led by newly acquired F-Chris Webber, although they lost in the first round of the playoffs.  The Kings played with a flashy-but-yet-team-oriented style that made them the most entertaining team to watch that would continue for years to come.  

In the Eastern Conference, the Indiana Pacers, Orlando Magic, and Miami Heat emerged as the teams with the best record in their conference, each with 33 wins and 17 losses.  Although each of these team would experience disappointment in the playoffs.  The Magic and Heat were eliminated in the first round and the Pacers, with probably their best chance to win a championship, was beat in the Conference Finals by the New York Knicks.  The Knicks (27-23) were the surprise team of the playoffs.  As the 8th seeded team, the Knicks beat the Heat, the Atlanta Hawks (31-19), and Pacers to make the NBA Finals, led by a balanced attack from G-Allan Houston, G-Latrell Sprewell, and C-Patrick Ewing.    

In the Western Conference, the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs, had the best record in the league with 37 wins and 13 losses, but San Antonio proved to be the stronger of the two, although the Jazz’s F-Karl Malone was outstanding, being awarded the NBA MVP for the season.  The Spurs were led by the Twin Towers of all-star C-David Robinson, and second year player F-Tim Duncan.  The established Robinson actually deferred to Duncan, who was the Rookie of the Year last season, as the team’s go-to guy, realizing the brilliance that the young man possessed.  Robinson wasn’t wrong, as the two of them steamrolled over their competition in the playoffs beating Minnesota, the Los Angeles Lakers, and Portland to meet the Knicks in the Finals.  It was no contest in the Finals as the interior presence of Robinson and Duncan proved to much to handle.  The Spurs won their first NBA championship, and in the process lost only two games in the playoffs.  Duncan was named the NBA Finals MVP.            

The 1999-2000 season saw the return of former Bulls’ coach Phil Jackson, this time taking the helm for the Los Angeles Lakers.  The Lakers, who possessed immense talent behind C-Shaquille O’Neal and G-Kobe Bryant, always seemed to disappoint during the playoffs.  It was Jackson’s job to ensure that they would succeed there.  Under Jackson, the Lakers (67-15) went on to have the best record in the season and Shaquille would go on to become the MVP of the season.  In the playoffs, the Lakers were hard pressed by other talented teams.  They were pushed to the brink by the Sacramento Kings (44-38) and Portland Trailblazers (59-23) in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but managed to get by them, before cruising past the Phoenix Suns (53-29) in the Western Conference to make it to the NBA Finals.    

In the Eastern Conference, the most exciting team to watch was the Toronto Raptors (45-37) solely because of the G-Vince Carter and F-Tracy McGrady.  Carter became the league’s most exciting player with his explosive play.  He won the Slam Dunk Competition, arguably the most memorable in history, with his insane dunks that excited both fans and other players.  The Raptors made the playoffs for the first time but lost in the first round.  The Indiana Pacers (56-26), led by the guard tandem of Reggie Miller and Jalen Rose, were the best team in the conference, as they attempted to make a run at the NBA championship that had eluded them for the better part of a decade.  The Pacers defeated the Milwaukee Bucks (42-40), Philadelphia 76ers (49-33), and New York Knicks (50-32) to meet the Lakers in the NBA Finals.  

In the Finals, Shaq proved to be unstoppable.  Shaq finished with three 40-point games.  In Game 2 of the series, Shaq had an NBA-record 39 free-throw attempts, as the Pacer’s coach, Larry Bird, employed the Hack-a-Shaq strategy to exploit Shaq’s weakness – free-throw shooting.  When all was said and done, the Lakers defeated the Pacers in six games, and Shaq was named NBA Finals MVP, averaging 38 points and 16.7 rebounds a game. 

Before the start of the 2000-01 season, the Lakers boldly proclaimed that they would win the championship again.  They would have stiff competition in their conference though as seven teams in the West boasted 50-wins or more – San Antonio (58-24), the Lakers (56-26), Sacramento (55-27), Dallas (53-29), Utah (53-29), Phoenix (51-31), and Portland (50-32).  Despite that, the Lakers picked up their level of play in the playoffs, as they swept Portland, Sacramento, and San Antonio to reach the NBA Finals again.

In the Eastern Conference, the story was the Philadelphia 76ers.  The Sixers, who was led by G-Allen “The Answer” Iverson and Coach Larry Brown, played inspired basketball all season.  The team was not the most talented, but had an immense talent in the 6’1” Iverson who seemed to be able to score at any time.  The Sixers (56-26) had the best record in the Eastern Conference and entered the playoffs with much confidence.  They had also traded for Defensive Player of the Year C-Dikembe Mutombo to make a championship push.  The Sixers were challenged in the playoffs after beating Indiana (41-41) in the first round.  They had to the decisive 7th game against Toronto (47-35) and Milwaukee (52-30), but managed to starve of defeat, to set a date with the Lakers in the NBA Finals.       

The stage was set for a classic David (Iverson) vs. Goliath (Shaq) Final.  However, it proved to be no contest, as the Lakers had far more talent and power than the Sixers.  The Lakers were stunned in the first game as they loss for the first time in the playoffs.  Mutombo, who was largely brought over to contain Shaq, was largely ineffective as Shaq had his way, dunking numerous times on the dejected Mutombo.  The Lakers went on to win the next four games easily to win back-to-back NBA Championships.  Shaq averaged 33 points and 15.8 rebounds a game in the Finals to claim his second consecutive Finals MVP award.  Kobe Bryant averaged 24.6 points and 5.8 assists.      

The beginning of the 2001-02 season was highlighted by the news of Michael Jordan’s second return to the NBA after retirement.  After his second retirement, Jordan had become part owner of the Washington Wizards, but after watching his team struggle last season, he felt that he could make an impact, thus he suited up for the Wizards.  Although, he was clearly not the player he once was, Jordan was still an above-average player in the league.  He was averaging 22.9 points for the Wizards, who were playing .500 ball and had a legitimate shot to make the playoffs.  However, Jordan came down with a knee injury towards the end of the season and the Wizards failed to make the playoffs. 

In the Eastern Conference, the story was the rise of the New Jersey Nets.  The Nets, whom had always been a bottom-dweller for the existence of the franchise, made a blockbuster trade in the off-season that saw the addition of all-star point guard Jason Kidd, with Stephon Marbury going to Phoenix.  Kidd instantaneously made the Nets (52-30) a significantly better team as they went on to the best record in the East.  The Nets went on to make it to their first NBA Finals after defeating Indiana (42-40), Charlotte (44-38), and Boston (49-33).        

In the Western Conference, the Lakers once again vowed that they would three-peat the NBA Championship.  However, competition in the Western Conference was increasingly getting stiffer as the Lakers (58-24) finished second in their Pacific Division to the up-and-coming Sacramento Kings (61-21).  Perennial powers, the San Antonio Spurs (58-24) and the offensive juggernaut Dallas Mavericks (57-25), also felt they had a great chance of capturing the title.  Similar to last year, the Lakers stepped up their play in the playoffs sweeping Portland (49-33) in the opening round and beating San Antonio in five games in the next round to meet Sacramento in a memorable Conference Final.  The Kings appeared to be in control of the series leading the Lakers 3-2, before the Lakers came back to beat the Kings.  It was heartbreaking for the Kings, whom many analysts felt gave away the series. 

In the NBA Finals, the disparity of talent between the two conferences was clearly evident.  The Nets, who lacked a legitimate center, had trouble with Shaquille O’Neal all series.  O’Neal was a monster all series long as he had his way with the Nets as the Lakers swept the Nets for its third consecutive NBA title, and Shaq won his third consecutive NBA Finals MVP.  The title was also especially sweet for coach Phil Jackson, who never had swept an opponent in the Finals.  Jackson tied the legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach with his ninth title and overtook Pat Riley as the all-time playoff wins leader with 156.

The biggest news entering the 2002-03 season was the entrance of the 7’6” C-Yao Ming.  Yao, became the first foreign player to be drafted first overall in the NBA Draft.  Yao was selected by the Houston Rockets, and entered the league with much fanfare, and became a cultural icon for his native China.  Even before he played a game, his popularity exceeded that usually reserved for already established NBA superstars.  This was most evident with his selection by fans to start the NBA All-Star game, ahead of the game’s most dominant player, Shaquille O’Neal.  Although Yao’s season was deemed successful (he averaged 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds), he would finish second in Rookie of the Year voting to the Phoenix Sun’s F-Amare Stoudamire, who had entered the league directly from high school.  

Yao was symbolic of the internationalization of the NBA.  The league was enjoying immense popularity outside of the United States, and this helped in developing talent around the world.  In addition to Yao, the NBA already had established and rising international stars in the Dallas Maverick’s F-Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) and G-Steve Nash (Canada); the Sacramento Kings had F-Peja Stojakovic and C-Vlade Divac (both from Serbia Montenegro); the Memphis Grizzlies’ F-Pau Gasol (Spain); the San Antonio Spur’s G-Tony Parker (France); the Utah Jazz’s F-Andrei Kirilenko (Russia); the Cleveland Cavaliers’ C-Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Lithuania); Milwaukee Buck’s F-Toni Kukoc (Croatia); the Philadelphia 76ers’ C-Dikembe Mutombo (Congo) and C-Todd McCulloch (Canada); and the New Orleans Hornets’ C-Jamaal Magloire (Canada).  The influx of international players continues to this day at a high rate, proving that basketball is increasingly becoming a global game.   

The Lakers (50-32) would begin the season looking for a four-peat, a feat that had only been accomplished by the great Boston Celtic team of the 1960s.  Although winning 50 games, the Lakers struggled as Shaq missed 15 games due to injuries, and there was an escalating feud between the team’s superstars – Shaq and G-Kobe Bryant.  In addition, Western teams were still improving and were determined to stop the Lakers.  The San Antonio Spurs (60-22), Dallas Mavericks (60-22), Sacramento Kings (59-23), and Minnesota Timberwolves (51-31) all had better regular season records than the Spurs.  But the Lakers had always been able to elevate their play for the playoffs.  This would not be the case this year, as the Spurs ended the Laker’s remarkable title run by defeating them in six games in the second round.  The Spurs would then defeat the Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals to reach the NBA Finals for a second time. 

In the East, Michael Jordan’s Washington Wizards traded for Detroit’s all-star G-Jerry Stackhouse for G-Richard “Rip” Hamilton.  This trade would prove disastrous for the Wizards as their were team chemistry problems between Jordan and Stackhouse.  The Wizards (37-45) would miss the playoffs again, and Jordan would retire for the third and final time at the end of the season.  Meanwhile, Hamilton proved to be a perfect fit in Detroit (50-32) as he helped lead the team along with Defensive Player of the Year C-Ben Wallace to the best record in the East.  The Pistons would go on to meet the New Jersey Nets (49-33) in the Eastern Conference Finals, but would lose in six games to the Nets and their cohesive team play led by G-Jason Kidd and F-Kenyon Martin. 

The Finals had San Antonio as overwhelming favorites over the New Jersey Nets.  The Nets battled to make each game relatively close, but Tim Duncan proved to dominant.  The Spurs ended up capturing their second NBA championship with Duncan being named the Finals MVP to go along with his second consecutive league MVP award.  It was a fitting end for the Spur’s leader, C-David Robinson, who retired after the season.          

The Lakers made big news prior to the start of the 2003-04 season when they acquired two future Hall-of-Famers in G-Gary Payton and F-Karl Malone to join an already formidable lineup with C-Shaquille O’Neal and G-Kobe Bryant.  With the additions, the Lakers were once again the preseason favorites to reclaim the NBA Championship after their disappointing season last year. 

The 2003 NBA Draft was also notable as it had one of the most talented pool of players in recent memory.  The crown jewel was Lebron James, who had already become a household name even before he played an NBA game.  James had been touted as the next great player in the NBA when he was a sophomore in high school!  He had already signed lucrative multi-million dollar endorsement deals and had his high school games televised on pay-per-view!  James was selected first overall by the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers.  A 17-year old 7-footer named Darko Milicic from Serbia-Montenegro was selected second by the Detroit Pistons.  Carmelo Anthony, who led his Syracuse Orangemen to their first NCAA title as a freshman, was selected third by the Denver Nuggets.  Chris Bosh, who was outstanding as a freshman with Georgia Tech, was selected forth by the Toronto Raptors.  And Dwayne Wade, who led his Marquette team to the NCAA Final Four, was selected fifth by the Miami Heat.  It would be Lebron and Carmelo that would gain the most media coverage, as each became instant contributors with their respective teams, leading their team in scoring.  Lebron would take home Rookie of the Year honors as he led the Cavaliers to 35 wins – 18 more than the previous year. 

The Lakers (56-26) went on to capture the Pacific Division but it was the Minnesota Timberwolves (58-24) that had the best record in the conference.  The T-wolves was led by the spectacular all-round play of F-Kevin Garnett, who would win the NBA MVP award.  Both of these teams would meet in an exciting Western Conference Finals with the Lakers being the victors in six games.  The Lakers would play in their forth NBA Finals in five years.      

In the East, the Indiana Pacers (61-21) wound up with the best record in the NBA led by the dynamic duo of F-Jermaine O’Neal and G-Ron Artest.  The Pacers would play the Detroit Pistons (54-28) in the Eastern Conference Finals, but would be unsuccessful in reaching the NBA Finals.  The Detroit Pistons were characterized by their selfish team play behind new coach, Larry Brown.  The Pistons beat the Pacers in six games to reach the NBA Finals and face the overwhelming favorites, Los Angeles Lakers. 

The Pistons were the tremendous underdogs against the Lakers, who boasted four future Hall-of-Famers (Payton, Malone, Shaq, and Kobe), while the Pistons had no glaring superstars except for perhaps defensive specialist C-Ben Wallace.  What they did have was a crafty coach in Larry Brown and a deep bench.  The Lakers, probably expecting a cakewalk, were stunned in the first game as the Pistons won 87-75.  The Lakers rebounded back to win Game 2, and many expected the Lakers to carry this momentum to win the title.  Almost everybody expected this except for the Pistons, who displayed amazing toughness and determination to go on to win the next three games in convincing fashion to complete an extraordinary upset, and capture the NBA Championship.  Piston G-Chauncy Billups was named the NBA Finals MVP, but a case could be made for any of the Piston’s starters - C-Ben Wallace, F-Rasheed Wallace, F-Tayshaun Prince, and G-Rip Hamilton.