Beyond the Celtics, the top player isn’t Jordan either; Kobe Bryant edges out his mentor because his title teams were never as strongly favored as Jordan’s. For instance, the 2000-01 run, in which the Lakers set a record (at the time) with a 15-1 playoff mark, is even more astonishing in retrospect. Despite nearly full regular seasons from Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, those Lakers had the point differential of a 51-31 team, and their playoff opponents were all superior: Portland (53-29 Pythagorean record), Sacramento (57-25), San Antonio (63-19), and Philadelphia (54-28). Maybe the 2000-01 Lakers simply underachieved in the regular season. But that one title was part of a trend: Bryant’s teams regularly advanced farther in the playoffs than expected.
None of his titles were faits accompli—judging only by the quality of playoff opponents, his Lakers teams faced some of the toughest slates any champion has ever navigated.