Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant? Who was the most important player in the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty?
It is a question that has been debated for almost two decades, and it’s one that will certainly surface again now that Bryant has re-opened the feud (well, kind of) by saying he would have had 12 rings had O’Neal kept himself in shape.
It’s also a question that was always silly from the get-go.
The answer is Shaq, and anyone who says otherwise needs to take the blinders off.
Look, Lakers fans: I get it. Kobe is your guy. He spent his entire career with your franchise. He won five titles. He is to Los Angeles what Derek Jeter is to New York (maybe even moreso).
But at some point, you need to come to grips with reality.
This is not to disrespect Kobe Bryant. Bryant is one of the greatest players who has ever played the game. He is the second-best shooting guard ever. He is a top 10-15 player of all-time, at worst. He is one of the most feared scorers to ever step on the hardwood.
But he isn’t Shaq, and he never was.
And that’s not a knock.
When it comes to O’Neal, we are talking about the most dominant physical force since Wilt Chamberlain, and Chamberlain was not playing against guys as big as O’Neal was.
David Robinson? Dikembe Mutombo? It didn’t matter. Shaq ragdolled all of them.
Sure, he was tattooed by Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1995 NBA Finals, but Olajuwon is one of the few players in the history of the game who was arguably better than Shaq.
But other than that? A legitimate argument can be made that O’Neal is the best player of the post-Michael Jordan era. Personally, I think it’s Tim Duncan, but if Shaq isn’t No. 1, he is certainly No. 2.
Go back and watch some film of O’Neal from the playoffs in 2000 and 2001. If he didn’t drop 40 and 15, you were shocked.
Yes, Bryant was a phenomenal player who, at that time, played both ends of the court at an elite level and was certainly a major reason why the Lakers three-peated, but he was not the engine.
Remember: Shaq played at a time when big men were en vogue. You couldn’t win without a good big back then. It wasn’t like today’s game, where you have a lot of centers that are 6-foot-9 and below. No. Back in the ’90s and early 2000s, it was a big man’s game, and if you didn’t have one, you probably weren’t going to win a championship (unless you were Jordan).
Of course, that doesn’t take away from everything Bryant and a whole lot of other wings in the league around that time accomplished. There were some great ones. But they were never the driving force behind a banner (again, unless you were Jordan).
During the 1999-00 campaign, the Lakers’ first title during that run, O’Neal averaged a monstrous 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds and three blocks per game while shooting 57.4 percent from the floor. During the playoffs? Those numbers jumped to 30.7 points, 15.4 boards and 2.4 blocks while making 56.6 percent of his shots, and the 2000-01 season, when Los Angeles won its second championship, was more of the same.
The Lakers could literally dump the ball into Shaq every time down the floor and get a mismatch. It didn’t matter who was guarding him. There was always a mouse in the house when it came to O’Neal.
His baseline spin move was electric. His passing out of the low box was incredible. His quickness as unmatched and unnatural for a man his size.
People, we are talking about a man who was probably the most amazing physical specimen and athlete to ever play the game of basketball.
But Shaq was a 7-foot-1, 350-pound behemoth who could run the floor like a guard and jump out of the gym. It was absolutely insane, and we will almost certainly never see anything like it again.
Let me ask you this: if you were a general manager during the late ’90s, is there a player other than O’Neal that you would have picked first to build your team around?
If you say “yes, Kobe,” you’re either lying to yourself or you’re delusional.
The Lakers couldn’t have won those titles without Kobe Bryant. No one is disputing that. But to think that Bryant was somehow more crucial to O’Neal to Los Angeles’ success is just flat out wrong.