I haven’t watched L&O in a few years. To me the best years were the first several.
I liked the earlier eps better overall too. I preferred Michael Moriarty to Sam Waterstone as the prosecutor, and the earlier eps had a grittier feel to them.
That said, my favorite cop combo came on the later shows with Jerry Orbach (Briscoe) and Jesse L. Martin (Green). Those two seemed to have the best chemistry, plus anything with Orbach is worth watching, IMHO. Never cared too much for Chris Noth, liked George Dzunda okay.