The greatest rivalries in basketball originate in the playoffs. Regular season records are great, but real legends are born when championships are on the line. The rivalry then becomes legendary when each team has had success against the other, constantly forcing each other to raise their level of play thus creating an environment where we get to see the highest form of basketball.
That’s why the rivalry I want to focus on is between the LA Lakers and Sacramento Kings. This rivalry was short-lived and pretty one-sided, but it did have championship implications and was very eventful. As a Laker fan all my life, it was interesting to see this rivalry start out. Both teams had incredible talent. In fact, the Kings were one of the teams that truly challenged the three-peat Lakers of the early 2000s.
It began in 2000. The Lakers finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA going 67-15 while the Kings finished the regular season as the eighth seed going 44-38. This was the first meeting between both teams in the playoffs and the six-game series would serve as an appetizer of what was yet to come.
The very next year the defending champion Lakers finished the regular season second in the West, beating the improving Sacramento Kings for the Pacific Division title by just one game. The Lakers would meet the Kings in the playoffs again, this time in the conference semifinals with the Kings’ improvement evident. We weren’t treated to a great series like the previous season as the Kings would be swept in four games.
In 2002 the Kings were the favored team, winning the Pacific Division and clinching the top seed in the West by winning 61 games, only losing five times at home. The defending champions were seeded third in the West. This was gonna be Sacramento’s season, as this team was built to dethrone the back-to-back champs with the core of Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, and Peja Stojakovic.
In today’s pace and space NBA, a power forward who can’t space the floor isn’t very useful to a team. That wasn’t the case in the early 2000s because if you were a big man and you didn’t play in the post you were labeled soft.
Webber was anything but soft, coming from someone who always hated watching him excel playing against the Lakers. He was able to use his brute strength and bully defenders in the post, but was skilled enough to bring the ball down during fast break situations, things big men are doing so much of today. When NBA fans often talk about the best big men of that era, Webber’s name isn’t always brought up with the likes of Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and Dirk Nowitzki. A lot of that is because the Lakers kept him from winning a championship, but make no mistake CWebb was so good, and was ahead of his time.
Webber’s set-up man was Bibby. When he arrived in Sacramento replacing the very popular Jason Williams back in 2001, some fans were puzzled by the move considering the success the team had with the flashy White Chocolate running the show. But this move was actually exactly what the Kings needed to get them to another level.
The Kings would win six more games and finish with the best record in the NBA with Bibby manning the point. His ability to play on-ball or off-ball was so key to unlocking the true offensive potential that the Kings had. I would be remiss if I also fail to mention how much of a big shot maker Bibby was and just how he always seemed to raise his level of play in the playoffs and turn into a stone-cold killer. Which usually happened against the Lakers.
Completing the trio for the Kings was Stojakovic. He spent his first 2 years in the NBA in a reserve role, but as soon as he took over the starting small forward spot he never looked back. He immediately averaged 20 points per game as the designated shooter in Sacramento. He gave the Kings so much front court size at a legit 6’10” and he was a sharp-shooter that had to be accounted for at all times on the court. He won the 3-point contest twice and was an All-Star three times in a row. That’s how good Stojakovic was.
These three made the Kings a very dangerous team, especially on the offensive end. Sacramento’s offense was based on the pass and off-ball movement heavy Princeton Offense. This offense was very effective with players skilled as passers and shooters, but it was next level with very smart players who knew how to move without the ball.
Webber was the perfect big man for this offense being a highly skilled passer at the high post. He was able to find cutters and shooters, but also a threat to score from that position with a jump shot or a dribble attack which many bigs of that era weren’t able to do.
Bibby was the perfect point guard for this offense because he was a scorer at heart, but not in the traditional isolation heavy style many of the guards of that era used. The ball never stopped moving because there wasn’t a ball-dominant point guard on the floor that had to slow down the offense. Bibby thrived in a catch-and-shoot role and had a deadly one-dribble pull-up jumper, one that broke the hearts of all Laker fans including myself in Game 5 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals.
Stojakovic was arguably the most talented player on the team not named “Webber.” His ability to score anywhere on the floor with his unlimited range and lightning quick release was unmatched on the team. Without him, the Kings would have lacked the spacing needed to balance the floor and create room for the cutters that benefited from the pinpoint passing of Webber from the high post.
Led by Webber, Bibby, and Stojakovic, the Kings pushed the Lakers to the limit in 2002. The setting was deep in the playoffs, in the Western Conference Finals. This series was the virtual Finals as the winner was heavily favored to win the NBA Finals.
The seven games that this series took had everything. Superstar performances, big surprises from role players, game-winning shots, name-calling, and of course, tough playoff basketball. Which is why I consider this the best basketball series ever played.
It took the Kings' Big 3 to make the rivalry between LA and Sacramento a memorable one. Webber, Bibby, and Stojakovic made the Greatest Show On Court as special as it was.