Since the NBA adopted the 3-point in 1979, only two teams have pulled off the highly-coveted three-peat: the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Bulls were able to three-peat on two separate occasions in the 1990s (1990-93, 1995-98) thanks in no small to the contributions made by Michael Jordan. They likely would have won four in a row if Jordan didn’t retire to play Minor League Baseball during the 1993-94 season.
At the turn of the decade, the Lakers emerged as the new dynasty, winning three consecutive championships with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Ironically, Phil Jackson coached both the Bulls and Lakers.
Jordan’s Bulls and the “Shaq and Kobe” Lakers met a few times, but neither teams were in their primes when they faced off. Between 1996 and 1998, the Lakers were still a team on the rise. In Jordan’s final two season from 2001 to 2003, Jordan was past his prime.
The closest the Bulls and Lakers got to playing each other at their full potential was in 1998, when they made the Eastern and Western Conference Finals respectively. While the Bulls did their part and beat the Indiana Pacers in seven games, the young Lakers were swept by the Utah Jazz in four games.
Had the Lakers matched up with the Bulls a few years later — when O’Neal and Bryant started to realize their potential — Shaq thinks Los Angeles would have come out on top (via ESPN):
“Of course, yes. Easily, because I would have killed Luc Longley, Bill Winnington, Cartwright … yeah.”
That being said, the Big Diesel did acknowledge there would be two X-Factors:
His free-throw shooting. For his career, O’Neal was a 52.7% free-throw shooter.
Whether Jackson was the head coach of the Lakers or Bulls. Prior to Jackson’s arrival, the Lakers didn’t make the Finals with the duo of Bryant and O’Neal. Granted, Bryant wasn’t the superstar player he’d grow to be, but Del Harris wasn’t the coach that was going to get Lakers over the hump, either. For context, Jackson coached the Lakers to the Finals in his first year in Los Angeles.
But even with those two factors in mind, it’s a debate worth having. Like, we’re talking about arguably the greatest playoff series of all time.