So, Kobe said some things. Were they justified? Where they realistic? Did they need to be said? In Part I we looked at his use of the word “I”. Here in Part II we dig deeper into how realistic 12 rings really was for Shaq & Kobe.
Are you ready to explore this possibility? I hope so because I had a really good time creating it. In this universe Shaq works harder. To be honest, even writing that feels offensive. I believe Shaq worked hard. There is no way he does what he did without hard work. Diesel says it best when he said:
“You don’t get statues by not working hard.”
We present the following under the assumption that Kobe meant Shaq would have stayed dominant longer. That he would have worked on his game in some magical way. In short, Shaq stays Shaq longer is how we are deciphering Kobe’s “work harder” statement as it relates to O’Neal.
Other assumptions relate to players the Lakers had. Remember that without trading O’Neal, which in this universe, they did not, they lose out on Lamar Odom and very likely Pau Gasol. Both were instrumental in Lakers championships. Determining what the Lakers might have looked like if they had kept both Bryant and O’Neal was a fun part of this exercise.
Ok, with this assumptions spelled out. It’s time to push the time travel button, or switch, depending on your time machine and go back to 1996 when the duo was formed. Was 12 rings possible? It’s time to answer that question definitively.
We start with a look at the time they were together first.
From 1996-2004 the Lakers won three Finals and lost one. They had eight seasons together so that’s a Finals winning percentage of 38% over those eight seasons. Not bad, but not good enough if you want to get to 12 total.
This was the first season for the Bryant & O’Neal pairing. Of course, at this point, it was much more O’Neal than Bryant. In fact, the best all around player on this team was Eddie Jones. He led this squad in Win Shares. This team was good, but not Championship material.
This team got to the Western Conference Finals against the Jazz. Might this season be a viable candidate for one of the 12 Finals Kobe felt he could have won? No, not really. Especially not when you factor in the Shaq not working hard angle. In 1998 Shaq was 25 and entering the peak of his career. He was not the issue here. Kobe’s four air balls in 5 minutes might have been though.
This is the season Kobe first started to look like Kobe. He averaged almost 20 points per game in a shortened season. This was a season of some turmoil as the Lakers revamped their roster. They lost to the eventual Champion Spurs. This was not a team destined to win it all, but you could tell they were getting closer.
1999-00 – Finals win #1 (1-0)
2000-01 – Finals win #2 (2-0)
2001-02 – Finals win #3 (3-0)
This is where things started to get really interesting. Kobe was now 25 and entering his peak. Shaq was 31 and ending his peak. By all accounts, this should have been a perfect pairing. O’Neal could have acquiesced to Bryant, who led the team in scoring, and the two could have flourished. In reality, that didn’t happen. In Bryan’ts mind, this may have been a Championship that got away.
In reality they lost to the eventual Champion Spurs, again. But here in our alternate universe we are calling this Finals win #4 (4-0) in the quest for 12.
This of course is the season the Lakers lost to the Pistons. Even in our alternate universe that outcome stands. So the Lakers Finals record now stands at 4-1.
Now things start to get even more interesting. After the 2004 loss to the Pistons the Lakers traded O’Neal. In hindsight, it was a good trade. Not only because he and Kobe weren’t getting along, but also because, as Branch Rickey used to say, “It’s better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late”.
However, this doesn’t help us get to 12 and we need to get to 12!
So, in this scenario Shaq stays with the Lakers. In the 2004-05 season Shaq was 32 and averaged a very respectable 23ppg/10rpg for some other team. Of course, in our scenario he is still 32 but averaging numbers closer the 25ppg/11rpg he averaged his final two seasons with the Lakers because, well, he worked harder.
After losing the 2004 Finals to the Pistons this team comes back strong. They beat the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals and easily dispatch of the Pistons in a much anticipated re-match for Finals win #5 (5-1)!
In reality last seasons team was led by Rudy Tomjanovich after Phil Jackson departed. In our scenario, Jackson never left. By now Shaq is more comfortable in his role as Beta to Kobe’s Alpha and Kobe is in full Alpha mode. He averages over 30ppg with O’Neal chipping in another solid 20ppg/10rpg season. The Pistons are anxious to prove their victory in 2004 was no fluke, but in the rubber match against the Lakers they lose again.
Lakers win Championship #6 (6-1) in the Kobe & Shaq era.
Shaq is now 34 and starting to feel the rigors of all the basketball he has played to this point in his career. His amazing work ethic however is paying dividends. While certainly not the player he was his nutritional habits and constant drive to improve leads him to one of his best seasons in recent memory. He averages 25ppg and 12rpg and leads the Lakers to another three-peat against the upstart Cavaliers led by LeBron James. Finals win #7 (7-1).
Desperately in need of revitalization the Lakers front office trades several draft picks and players including Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar and Ronny Turiaf for 28 year old Lamar Odom. Odom averages 15 ppg, 10 rpg and 5 apg while perfectly meshing with Bryant and O’Neal. The trio nicknamed LA-X lead the Lakers to the Finals where they match up against the Boston Celtics.
The now revitalized Lakers beat the Celtics and in so doing revitalize the NBA. This was a match-up of two of the most celebrated franchises in NBA history. The Lakers at this point had 18 Championships to the Celtics 16. Finals victory for Kobe & Shaq #8 (8-1) made the total after this season Lakers 19, Celtics 16. A rivalry was renewed!
This was a hard season for the Lakers. They were led once again by Bryant who turned 30 and Odom who was 29. It was only on the strength of the incredible work ethic and drive to win of Bryant and O’Neal that the Lakers made it to the Finals yet again. They barely survived the tough Western Conference. Once they made it to the Finals however they had no problem dispatching the Orlando Magic for Finals win #9 (9-1).
In the most heavily anticipated rematch in NBA history the Lakers met the Celtics again. The Celtics were heavily favored after dominated the Eastern conference and the NBA on their way to a 70 win season. The Lakers played well despite an injury plagued season for the now 37 year old O’Neal. While Bryant and Odom carried the load the Lakers were pleasantly surprised by the development of 25 year old Marc Gasol who they never traded for his brother Pau.
Gasol was able to provide O’Neal with the rest he needed in the regular season. That was key as the Lakers met the Celtics in search of their six Finals victory in a row. In the end, it was a hard fought seven game series that went the Lakers way. For the second time in franchise history the Lakers raised the Larry O’Brien trophy on Bostons home court for Finals win #10 (10-1)
The story of this season was the play of 38 year old Shaquille O’Neal. Despite rumblings from NBA fans that the Lakers were making a mockery of the Association fans everywhere were awed by O’Neal’s dominance at this age. He didn’t quite match former Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record of 23/4ppg at this age, but he did surpass his rebounds total of 6.1. This season O’Neal was a force on the boards averaging an incredible 11.4 rebounds!
NBA fans outside of Los Angeles were ready for a team to challenge the Lakers. Most felt certain that team was the Miami Heat after adding LeBron James to a squad that had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Heat made it to the Finals, which some were now calling the finLALs after the Lakers dominance. The Heat were no match for Bryant, O’Neal, Odom and Gasol however losing 4-1 for Lakers Finals win #11 (11-1).
Bryant and Odom were aging. Aging gracefully, yes, but aging nonetheless. They had played more minutes in their time together than anyone else in the Association and it started to show in their play. They were mentally and physically exhausted. O’Neal was still a force, but no longer able to dominate consistently. Marc Gasol saw more minutes and improved to a career high 18ppg and 7rpg season.
To say they limped to the Finals would be an understatement. However, they made it for the eighth time in a row. Once there they met the formidable Miami Heat that they beat last season. The Lakers were used to beating teams that wanted revenge. They dispatched the Celtics and the Pistons before them; the Heat were different though. They were not only hungry, they were young and they wanted this Championship bad. In the end, they got what they wanted.
The Lakers lost. Los Angeles wept.
Shaq & Kobe Lakers Finals record now stands at (11-2).
Shaq had made it his personal goal to play at 40. Thanks to his incredible work ethic, his nutritional diet and overall hard work, he made it. He wasn’t at his best, but he was still Shaq in spurts. The development of Marc Gasol allowed Shaq to play limited minutes leaving him healthy enough to play in 80 games. The return of Derek Fisher, who as you recall was traded in the 07-08 season as a package for Odom returned to the Lakers as a free agent signing. This gave the Lakers a mature, but hungry starting five of Fisher and Bryant at the guards, O’Neal at center and Gasol and Odom at forward.
The West continued to be tough, but the Lakers were on a mission. They wanted to send Shaq out a winner in what many believed to be his final season. They finished 3rd in the West but made it to the Western Conference Finals against their old nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs were hungry for revenge, but much like the Knicks of Patrick Ewing that never got past the Bulls of Michael Jordan, the Spurs were never able to best the Lakers. The Lakers made it back to the Finals to face the Heat for the third straight season.
The Heat had home court advantage and were up two games to one with a commanding lead in game four. A victory in this game would make it very hard for the Lakers to recover. They never led in this game, until it mattered. Down by two points with the ball Kobe drove and missed a contested layup. Shaq got his hands on the ball but couldnt put up a clean shot. LeBron James, anxious to end the game and take a commanding three games to one lead batted the ball towards mid-court, hoping to run out the clock. Instead, the ball ended up being a clean pass to Gasol who was situated at the top of the key. He let the ball go just as the clock showed :00.
Swish. Lakers win!
That victory energized the Lakers and broke the backs of the Heat. It wasn’t just a Game four victory it was the catalyst to a sweep for the Lakers the rest of the way. They beat the Heat four games to two for Finals win #12 (12-2)!
Shaq retired during the off-season. Kobe played three more seasons, but without his partner things weren’t the same.
That takes us to the present. After a few down seasons the Lakers re-tooled by adding Anthony Davis and LeBron James. The duo know they will never match Shaq & Kobe’s incredible total of 12, but they are anxious to get their first together.
Was 12 possible? Theoretically, sure. In every other aspect though, no. No matter how hard Shaquille O’Neal worked there is little to no chance the Lakers win 12 Championships from 1996-2013.
But, it sure was fun to imagine the possibility!
Jose has written for Bleacher Report, Clipperholics, OC Weekly and wrote a series of articles covering the 2010 NBA Finals for the LA Times. He lives in Southern California and is excited to watch thePeachBasket grow!