Kobe Bryant vs. Shaquille O’Neal. Even more than a decade later, the topic of who was more valuable to the Lakers dynasty during the 2000s is still one that has merit for discussion. With both players now retired (though who knows if Kobe will pull a Jordan and return after some time off), the fact that the drama between the two legendary teammates created for a better reality show than Kardashians could ever imagine ("Kim, Tell Me How My A** Tastes” would have been a great rap!) makes this an interesting debate to this day.
While the pair have mended their differences as of late, there was more than one reason why the Lakers were “Must See TV.” Married by contract and uniform starting in 1996, the duo of Kobe and Shaq, or Shaq and Kobe, depending on which side of the fence you stand, was a toxic unity from the start. As a prep to pro, Kobe felt that he would become the best player in the league (questionable) and Shaq, who just signed a seven year, $121 million contract, had just left Orlando after a spat with budding superstar Penny Hardaway and, as stated to the Lakers head office, “was not gonna be babysitting.” For the first three years, the Lakers, despite their regular season successes, could not muster more than a trip to the Western Conference Finals, sandwiched by a pair of losses in the Conference Semi Finals. Enter Phil Jackson and the beginning of the Lakers Dynasty and the eventual demise of one of the greatest duos the league has ever seen.
16 Kobe - Jersey Sales
Does selling jerseys mean that you are worth more to your team? Indirectly, yes. When you consider that from 1998-2008 Kobe was the second most popular in terms of jersey sales (behind that Jordan guy), it also meant that he was a major reason why the Lakers were filling seats in the Great Western Forum and Staples Center. Although Shaq was popular with fans, maybe the most “popular” big man ever, basketball fans have never really been captivated by those who plant in the paint, but rather the high flying, ball handling, scoring wings/guards who fill up the highlight reels on a nightly basis. Wearing a BRYANT jersey, whether it was accompanied by an 8 or 24, was the hottest trend for Lakers fans for two decades.
15 Shaq - Free Agents
When the Big Fella left LA, very few big name free agents signed with the Purple and Gold. Following their failed effort at capturing a fourth straight title, the Lakers went out and signed both Gary Payton and Karl Malone, two future Hall Of Famers, both in search of an elusive championship ring. Shaq made it known to Kobe that there was only one person who was the reason why they both signed with the Lakers, not two. One rumored reason why superstar free agents avoided signing with the Lakers when Kobe was the alpha dog could trail back to his betrayal of the bro-code when he publicly called out Shaq for his own lack of marital commitment, offering side-chicks up to $1 million hush money. Maybe D’Angelo Russell did learn something from the Mamba...
14 Kobe - He Could Hit Free Throws
While the “Hack A Shaq” strategy was a hit and miss concept (pun intended), there were times in which the Lakers and fans were hesitant to have O’Neal in the game during crucial moments. A 53% free throw shooter throughout the regular season during his time in Hollywood, Shaq did manage to improve his percentage at the line to a decent 64.9% during their third title run. Bryant, on the other hand hit, 82.9% from the stripe during the 82 game schedule and 75.9% during their championship run. For his career, Kobe only hit below 80% from the free throw line once and it was in his second yard in the league. He finished his career going for 83.7% from the line.
Never once did the Lakers faithful chant MVP, MVP, MVP when O’Neal stepped to the line.
13 Shaq - Kobe Needed a Star Big Man
There hasn’t been a better true big man in the league since Shaq. We are not talking a new age hybrid type seven footer who steps out for three pointers, we are talking plant in the post and bang the inside game pure big man. Shaq demanded triple and double teams on a nightly basis and when he wasn’t dominating the paint, Shaq was averaging three assists a night to his Laker teammates. When Shaq took his talents to South Beach via trade, the Lakers found themselves absent from the playoff season for the first time since the 93-94 season. It wasn’t until the arrival of Pau Gasol and the maturity of Andrew Bynum that the Lakers would claim back to back championships. While Kobe could fill the bucket, he did need a big man down low to help.
12 Kobe - Shaq Also Needed A Sidekick
Everyone that says Shaq brought the three rings to Kobe tends to forget that, throughout his illustrious career, he too needed a Robin to his Batman. In Orlando, he had Anfernee Hardaway, who despite their successes as a young 1-2 inside/outside combo, could not last long enough for either player to hit their prime. Superman replaced Penny with the Mamba, teaming up for a three-peat. Next up was a trip to Miami and a partnership with Dwyane Wade, followed by Steve Nash in Phoenix, LeBron James in Cleveland and eventually the Big Three in Boston. Maybe it was his prime health, maybe it was the coaching staff, maybe it was the supporting staff, or just maybe Kobe was actually more valuable than Shaq gave him credit for.
11 Shaq - Injuries / Missed Games
During the Lakers three-peat run, when Shaq was sitting in street clothes, the Lakers had a worse win/loss record than when Kobe was regulated to the sidelines. Throughout their dominating three year run, the Lakers were able to muster a regular season record of 12-11 (52%) when #34 wasn’t in the lineup. Counter that with a 25-7 (78%) record when Bryant was on the injured list and this could give fans a reason to lean towards Team Shaq when fans debate who is the better of the duo. Realistically it is hard to judge such a fact based on such a small number of games and if one were to take into consideration other x-factors such as travel, opponents and teammates production, it could give reason when the stats favor O’Neal. The one noticeable point is who Shaq was replaced with, Greg Foster, Travis Knight and Stanislav Medvedenko, all less than desirable starting big men, as opposed to Kobe, who the Lakers were able to replace with Devean George, Rick Fox or Brian Shaw, three more productive role players.
10 Kobe - Durability
Kobe Bryant celebrated his final season in the league last year, suiting up for the Lakers for twenty straight seasons. During that time, Bryant played 1346 games (starting 1198) and tallied 48,637 minutes. It wasn’t until his Achilles and shoulder injuries caught up with him that the Mamba missed any significant amount of time and, even at 37 years old, he still played in 66 games.
Shaq, on the other hand, recorded eight years in LA, playing 514 games (509 starts) and 19,329 minutes. O’Neal did suit up for an impressive 19 seasons, 1,207 games (1197 starts) and 41,918 minutes during his Hall of Fame career. While the Lakers may have had a better record when Shaq was out with injury, as opposed to Kobe (see the above slide), it is well documented how Bryant was able to play through many nagging aches and pains that would have sidelined mere mortals.
9 Shaq - Shooting Percentages
Sure, he only shot the ball within three feet of the basket for most of his career (1-22 from downtown), but the fact remains that when teams and, for sake of this argument the Lakers, fed the ball inside, The Big Aristotle made the most of his possessions. During his time in LA, Shaq paced the Lakers, hitting 57.5% (5462 makes, 9489 attempts) from the field. People ragged on Shaq because they said all he does is layups and dunks. Well, what more would you want than a high percentage shot from one of the most unstoppable forces the game has ever seen?
On the flip side, Bryant, during the duos time together, hovered in the 41-46% (4,317 makes, 9,506 attempts) field goal range. Overall it isn’t that bad for a guard, but there were plenty of nights that fans saw the Mamba hoist up some questionable attempts over multiple defenders. Sometimes you just have to let the big fella eat.
8 Kobe - Dedicated to the Game
There are legendary stories of Bryant’s live, eat and sleep commitment to the game of basketball. On the flip side, there was Shaq, who more than a few times came into camp out of shape and had to play himself into form throughout the year. One of the more memorable examples of this came in the 2002-03 season when O’Neal was sidelined with arthritis in his toe. While the team had just come off winning their third straight title and earned some well deserved rest, Shaq decided to pass on off season surgery, stating that he “got hurt on company time, so he’ll rehab on company time.” Had Shaq visited the doctor’s office shortly following the championship parade, he could have had a more invasive surgery, one that could have put him out of action an additional period of time, but may have not only helped him later that season, but also prolonged his career. Sometimes Kobe wasn’t always the selfish diva on the team.
7 Shaq - Can’t We All Just Get Along
By all accounts throughout his time in LA, Shaq got along with nearly all of his teammates, coaches and team staff. Rarely did one hear a story of Shaq ostracizing his squad on or off of the court. Stories of O’Neal’s involvement in the community and with his running mates appeared to be genuine and not forced.
Meanwhile, Bryant notoriously kept his distance from many team activities and while his time putting up shots and working on his game led him to become possibly the greatest Laker and potentially a top 10 all time player in the league, it also caused major rifts between himself and teammates. While not everyone has to be besties, when you avoid sharing team events on the road, forgo attending a teammate’s wedding (Kobe did not attend Shaq’s wedding) and fail to send an invite to your own (Kobe didn’t invite Shaq to his wedding) one has to question Bryant’s social skills.
6 Kobe - Numbers Game
When it comes to sports, the amount of mileage on a body has a big impact on a player’s value. When the Lakers brass decided to keep Bryant over O’Neal, one key factor was the age of their two superstars. Entering the 2004 season, Kobe would turn 25 years old, while Shaq would celebrate his 32nd birthday. At this point in his career, Kobe was already a multi-time All Star and a staple on the All-NBA team. Shaq, at that point in his career, would only play more than 70 games twice and appeared in only four more All-Star Games and three more All-NBA teams. One other important factor when crunching numbers were the ones involving dollar signs. Shaq famously demanded to get paid, yelling at Lakers management after an in game dunk, already brining in over $20 million a season. Bryant on the other hand was still relatively modestly paid at around $14 million and wouldn’t receive Shaq sized cheques until four years later.
5 Shaq - Size Matters
One would be hard pressed to find a better big man to play in the NBA in recent history. Standing 7’1” and 325 pounds, Shaq’s moniker of the Most Dominant Ever may hold true, as he changed the way opposing coaches and teams played the game. Throughout the 90s and 2000s, before the run and gun and three point game started to take over the league, Shaq had to battle the gauntlet of NBA pivots, including Patrick Ewing, Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Rik Smits, to name but a few. During that period, having a presence in the paint was a recipe for success, one that would evade Kobe and the Lakers until Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum came aboard once O’Neal wore a different jersey.
4 Kobe - Lover and a Fighter
Everyone knows that basketball fights rank second worst only to baseball fights, but you have to give Kobe some credit when it comes to standing up for himself. Over the years, Bryant found himself in altercations with everyone from role players to star players, it didn’t matter. Sure he may have been on the losing side of a Chris Childs combo, but the Lakers guard had a memorable performance against Reggie Miller (Indiana). While punches weren’t thrown, Bryant also had no problem getting in the face of opponents. Before they were teammates, Kobe went nose to nose with Matt Barnes (Orlando) and Ron Artest (Houston) and former teammate Dwight Howard (Houston). Add in moments against Scottie Pippen (Portland), Vince Carter (New Jersey), Allen Iverson (Philadelphia) and Rajon Rondo (Boston) to Kobe’s brouhaha resume.
3 Shaq - Off Court Issues
The summer of 2004 was a horrible memory for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers organization. While Shaq had his own distractions away from the game, none were of the severity that his teammate was dealing with. Sure Shaq enjoyed his time in the clubs, movies and music and had his fair share of being a man-child, but the matters that Kobe found himself dealing with became a bigger story than what the Lakers presented on the court. Although eventually the matter would be dealt without any time away from the game, the impact that the drama imposed on his teammates was something of a bad Hollywood movie. Yes, worse than Kazaam! For our younger fans, Shaq was once the star of a movie entitled Kazaam! If you're curious, here's the synopsis from SlashFilm.com:
"After finding a boom box that happens to contain a magic lamp, Max (Francis Capra) awakens a rapping genie named Kazaam (Shaquille O’Neal) who offers to change the young boy’s life by granting three wishes. But what Max seems to want more than anything is a relationship with his estranged father…"
2 Kobe - Magic Certified
When conversations of the greatest Lakers player of all time comes up, rarely do you hear Shaq’s name on top of the list, despite three championships and multiple playoff MVP awards. The top two names that consistently come up in the debate are Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson. On a recent episode of Jimmy Kimmel, Johnson admitted that Bryant had taken the title that #32 had held for many years. If Magic Johnson himself can admit that Kobe is the best player in Lakers history, then it has to be a point on this list. Possessing numerous franchise records including Most Points, Games Played, Minutes Played, Field Goals Made/Attempted, Three Pointers Made/Attempted and Steals along with his five championship rings, two Finals MVP’s and a NBA MVP gives merit to Johnson’s proclamation.
1 Shaq - Replacing Kobe
Kobe Bryant was a free agent at the end of the 2004 season, which meant that the Lakers were rolling the dice on whether he would return or not, a decision hinging on what happened with O’Neal. Still a dominant big man who managed to play 73, 59, 40, 61, 75, 53 and 37 games to finish his career after leaving LA, the Lakers “may” have been able to hang on to the majority of their starting five including Gary Payton, Rick Fox and Karl Malone for another run at a title. If they had taken a chance and traded Kobe either before that season’s trade deadline (hypothetically of course) or convinced another club to engage in a sign and trade, imagine filling the shooting guard/small forward spot with either Gilbert Arenas (Golden State), Vince Carter (New Jersey), Tracy McGrady (Orlando, a team-up with D12!) or Dwyane Wade (Miami). Chances are any of those four could have filled in for the vacant position and helped lead the Lakers to another championship.
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