In the depths of the NBA off-season, fans and former players turn their thoughts to the what-ifs. Specifically, last week, Kobe Bryant, speaking off-the-cuff at a convention in Las Vegas, expressed admiration for Shaquille O’Neal’s ability (“[t]his guy was a force like I have never seen”) but regretted that Shaq didn’t always work as hard as Kobe did. Bryant opined that “I would’ve had f——– 12 rings” if O’Neal would have been so dedicated to working hard.
These statements woke Shaq, who predictably complained about Kobe being a ball hog. Bryant backed off the comments, which were clearly hyperbole. But Kobe raised an interesting question: should Kobe and Shaq have won more titles?
It’s impossible to know for sure. Winning titles depends on a lot of factors that aren’t always within control of the parties (GM decisions, injuries, and luck). Still, for fun, I thought we’d go year-by-year of the Kobe/Shaq partnership to determine when they could have, and should have, won more titles.
–1996-97: The Lakers signed a 24-year old Shaq as the prize of the 1996 free agent class. He wasn’t quite in his prime but was, already, as good as any center in the NBA. Kobe was an 18-year old rookie and not good enough to displace the starter (Eddie Jones) just yet. The Lakers were good (56-26) but were not nearly as good as the Michael Jordan Bulls (69-13), the Stockton/Malone Jazz (64-18), or even the Sonics (57-25). The season ended via 4-1 trouncing at the hands of Utah and Kobe put up a ton of air balls at the end of the deciding game.
-1997-98: The Lakers were better at 61-21 and Kobe continued to be a potent scorer off the bench (though advanced stats found him to be less valuable than the starters Jones and Nick Van Exel). The Lakers were genuine title contender. They were only one game behind the best teams (Bulls and Jazz again). Moreover, the Lakers had the second best SRS (6.88) behind the Bulls (7.24). The Lakers made the Conference Finals but were swept by Utah. Shaq was really good and Kobe’s offense remained weak (11-30 from the field in 22 mpg against Utah). In all, the Lakers underperformed against Utah but the Lakers didn’t exactly blow a title (the Bulls were still better) and the loss had little to do with anything Shaq did wrong.
-1998-99: With MJ retired, it seemed that the Lakers were poised to take the mantle as best team in the NBA. It was not yet to be. The Lakers were okay but this was a mess of a season. The Lakers were in transition. It became apparent that Kobe might be the future and they traded Jones in the middle of the season for Glen Rice. The Lakers were good but not great, mainly because of terrible defense (23rd in the NBA). They were so desperate that they even took a flier on a 37-year old Dennis Rodman, who they had to cut after too many nutty incidents. The Lakers finished 31-19 (it was the lockout shortened season), a four-seed behind three clearly better teams in the West. The Lakers made it to the second round before being swept by the Spurs, led by a young Tim Duncan. Shaq and Kobe could have been better in that series but, again, it’s hard to say that the problem with the Lakers that season was Shaq.
-1999-00 through 2001-02: After 1998-99, the Lakers finally hired a great coach in Phil Jackson. Kobe became more efficient and the Lakers jumped from 23rd in defense to the best in the NBA in 1999-00. Yes, Kobe and Shaq had tiffs but they trounced most comers when focused and won three straight titles.
-2002-03: Here’s where things get interesting. After the three-peat, Shaq took the summer off and opted to have surgery on his toe right before the season, guaranteeing that he would miss some of the season (the immortal Soumaila Samake had to start on opening night). The Lakers struggled to 3-9 before Shaq returned. L.A. finished the season 47-23 the rest of the way. The Lakers were a five-seed in the playoffs, as the West was loaded with great teams (the Spurs, Mavs, and Kings all won 59 or 60 games). The Lakers’ defense had regressed to 19th that year too. Despite all this, the Lakers beat a tough T-Wolf team in the first round before facing the Spurs again. The Lakers hung tough and Kobe and Shaq were both great but they could not overcome the Spurs’ home court advantage or the erosion of the Lakers’ role players (notably, Robert Horry shot 0-18 from three in the series). It’s hard to say that the Lakers would have won a fourth title that season, but Shaq’s belated decision to have the surgery killed their chance at home court and, as a result, certainly hurt the chances of another title significantly.
-2003-04: The Shaq-Kobe relationship had deteriorated quite a bit at this point but the Lakers felt that the lack of a supporting cast was a big problem (and it was). The role players: Horace Grant, Rick Fox, Horry, Brian Shaw, appeared to have little left. The Lakers attacked this problem by signing Karl Malone (age-40) and Gary Payton (Age-35), to make a “super squad.” The signings weren’t a crazy idea but age became an issue. Payton had slowed down defensively and didn’t fit Jackson’ Triangle Offense perfectly. Malone played well but missed half the season with a knee injury. The Lakers went 56-26 and were in the mix for the title, if not an favorite (despite the record, there were only 7th in the NBA in SRS).
The Lakers had some heroic (and lucky) moments in the playoffs. First, they stole home court advantage against the Spurs in Round Two on a crazy Derek Fisher push shot. The shot was somewhat lucky but the Lakers took care of business and clinched the series at home in Game 6. Next, against Minnesota, Sam Cassell injured himself and was replaced by the immortal Darrick Martin. The Lakers prevailed again and faced the Pistons in the Finals. In the Finals, the Lakers’ luck changed. Malone re-injured his knee (ending his career) and wasn’t great even when he did play. Payton was dominated by Chauncey Billups. Shaq had some really good moments but the no-frills Pistons were clearly the better team (they had a better SRS, and that didn’t take into account that Sheed was only on the team for the last few months of the season). The Lakers won only one game in the Finals and it took Kobe hitting a few crazy shots just to do that. After the season, the Lakers traded Shaq under the pretense that he couldn’t play with Kobe anymore but there were whispers that the Lakers just didn’t want to pay huge bucks for a banged up center entering his mid-30s. It doesn’t appear that the Lakers would’ve paid Shaq even if they had won the 2003-04 title (though that is speculative) and Kobe-Shaq partnership was dissolved.
Summing it all up
So, did Kobe have a point last week? Yes and no. Before 1999-00, the Lakers were not a slam dunk contender and Kobe wasn’t good enough to make the title difference yet anyway. The only title they didn’t win that they had a nice chance of winning was in 2002-03. Shaq killed the team with his late surgery. But no team in the modern NBA has ever won a four-peat anyway, so it’s hard to say that a healthy Shaq would’ve done it that season either. The 2003-04 team didn’t win because they weren’t nearly deep enough. The fact that they even got to the Finals was impressive.
Still, the above analysis does not deal with how hard Shaq played at all times. It is certainly possible he coasted and could’ve have been greater. We can never know all the backroom drama that Kobe referenced. In all, it seems that the most likely conclusion is that Shaq, at most, cost Kobe one potential title (2002-03) and even that is tenuous. You can’t fault Kobe for wanting more titles but the facts don’t totally bear out the statements (a fact that Kobe seemed to understand when he backtracked quickly).