I know this is a very controversial topic and we’re all here to argue, but if we’re going to have this debate, we’re going to have to do it right. Let's lay down some ground rules before we get to the topic:
1) Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant were on the same team at a specific period so…
a) I'm not saying Shaq and anybody else would have been a great duo; he only played with a handful of players and he only won with Kobe as the co-“Alpha Dog”
b) Well this is the same (sorta) as "a," but don’t say Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain would have been a better duo, because, once again, they didn’t play together.
Speaking of Alpha Dogs, this is how each significant teammate performed with Shaq and no, we won’t bother with the Cleveland and/or Phoenix days:
i. Penny Hardaway w/ Shaq: 19.5p pg, 4.7 rpg, 7 apg, 1 Finals appearance
ii. Nick Anderson w/Shaq: 16.6 ppg, 5 rpg, 3.7apg, 1 Finals appearance
iii. Kobe w/ Shaq: 21.8 ppg, 5.0 rbg, 4.3 apg, 4 Finals appearances, 3 NBA Championships.
iv. Dwyane Wade w/ Shaq: 25.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 6.9 apg, 1 Finals appearance, 1 NBA Championship.
You can make the case that Wade was better with Shaq and I won’t argue, but keep in mind that Wade was 23 and Kobe was 18. If we look at Kobe without his first two years in the league, he’d still be three years younger than Wade. This isn’t an argument about who’s better between D-Wade and Kobe; it’s why Shaq and Kobe were the best duo.
c) We’ll assume that the prime for a player is roughly, give or take, between the ages of 27-33. Some players' windows are open longer: Kobe, Kareem, Duncan, and "The Mailman," for instance, while some are shorter: D-Wade, Dwight Howard, T-Mac. If Kobe and Shaq played together when they were both 27-33, they would obviously have averaged insane numbers.
But, that’s just cheating, and I refuse to do it. So, for this argument, I’ll only focus on years when both were either top-5 in shots or top-10 in PPG, which was almost every year they played together save Kobe’s first three. This signifies a collective prime for both players because it also means there were two “Alpha Dogs” on the same team.
What is an "Alpha Dog" in Basketball?
This is where the argument gets tricky. Some people consider Alpha Dogs anyone averaging 20 points per game, but it gets confusing when looking at a team like the 2007 Boston Celtics, where there was no single Alpha Dog present. Why is this important? Well, when we’re looking at the greatest duos to ever play together, it’s interesting to see how many of them were able to score at high clips together.
An Alpha Dog, in my mind, would either be a player top-5 in the league in field goal attempts per game or average at least 24 points per game. This essentially means that he must take at least 20 percent of all his team's shots, which should mean you feel as though you deserve those shots, or you score 25 percent of your team’s total points.
We’ve all played basketball with this guy; it’s that one guy who demands the ball and is getting it no matter what, but this becomes a problem when two players think they should be the one with the ball in their hands. Now this becomes an even bigger issue when both players think they should be the one scoring with that ball.
Russell Westbrook, for example, wouldn’t be an Alpha Dog based off points per game, but his field goal attempts per game (18.7) were the third highest in the league last year. He might not be an Alpha Dog in my traditional use of the term, but he sure thinks he is deserving of the title.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar headlines the scoring list, yet Magic Johnson had the ball in his hands no matter what, mainly because he was a point guard, but there was a clear understanding there: I facilitate, you score. Neither star was going to complain about the number of shots they received. If I were building a team and I could only have one player out of those two, I’d take Magic Johnson, but that's an argument for another day.
The potential when you combine Kobe and Shaq together on the same team is vastly more explosive, but with Magic, you’re always going to compete because everyone will be happy. As Mike D'Antoni once said, "When the ball moves, it finds energy.”
However, this argument isn’t about consistency. It’s about Shaq and Kobe, in their primes, playing together. It's not about Shaq and Kobe on different teams, nor Shaq and anyone besides Kobe — maybe Dwyane Wade and Penny Hardaway for supporting arguments, but no one else! They're going against every other incredible duo to ever exist. Ready? Set. Go!
(And, because I’m already anticipating what your argument in the comment box will be, just fast forward and see)
Shaq's numbers by team:
Number of Games
Los Angeles Lakers
While Dwyane Wade’s numbers looked great in Miami with Shaq, we have to combine the totals to get a better understanding of their Duo-ness.
Shaq w/ Wade
Shaq w/ Kobe
The numbers are almost a wash. Kobe and Shaq averaged 2.8 ppg and 2.7 rpg more while Wade and Shaq had two more assists per game. During the 1998-1999 lockout shorted season, Kobe started all 50 games after only having started seven games in his previous two years. This is what the numbers looked like during their time together after Kobe became a full time starter:
Shaq w/ Kobe
Kobe and Shaq had 6.6 ppg and 3.8 rpg more and just 1.1 apg less. I’m taking Kobe and Shaq’s eight-year window over Shaq and Wades three-and-a-half years together. Specifically, I’m taking that five-year window where Kobe and Shaq made it to four Finals, won three and dominated the league more than any single season of domination from Shaq and Wade.
The Chicago Bulls Duo
The Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen dynamic is an interesting one. I think this should be the first thing we knock out. I’d rather have an inside-outside threat. Jordan and Pippen would lock down the perimeter, but how, who, and when would they stop Shaq? This is where I hope you’ve been paying attention. If you didn’t read anything I said earlier, go back and read the Alpha Dog section.
There was clearly only one Alpha Dog on those Bulls teams. One. Keep in mind Pippen’s best scoring season was 22 ppg, which he did when Jordan was retired and his second best of 21.4 occurred in the 1994-1995 season when Jordan came back to only play 17 games.
You can’t have an Alpha Dog on defense simply because no one ever says, "dude, you're hogging up all the charges." Alpha Dogs only exist on offense. Pippen, Kerr, Rodman, and Grant were all guys who understood their roles: play defense, hit timely threes, and grab boards. The scoring was Michael’s job.
In LA, you had a scenario where you had no idea who was going to explode. Teammates began choosing sides -- no, teammates had to pick sides. Stopping the two-headed monster was impossible. Only the two-headed monster was capable of stopping itself, which it eventually did, but not before bottling that anger and running through the playoffs at a 15-1 clip and collecting three straight championships on the way.
MJ w/ Pippen
Shaq w/ Kobe
Just as we gave Kobe the benefit of the doubt, we must also give it to Pippen, who didn’t become a full-time starter until the 88-89 season.
MJ w/ Pippen
Shaq w/ Kobe
Once again, I’m taking Shaq and Kobe. More points, more boards, yes, less assists, but more opportunities. Plus this:
The Other Lakers Duo
This is where the argument gets tricky and Lakers fans win no matter what. Magic came into the league with an already established dominant center in Kareem on his team. Kobe became a starter at age 20.
Magic w/ Kareem
Shaq w/ Kobe
12.2 points per game and the 5.3 assists per game difference is kind of a wash. The assists per game means Magic’s game is more reliant on others hitting shots. The stats don’t account for the 100 pounds Shaq has over Kareem. Once again, I’m going with Shaq and Kobe.
I don’t think Magic would be able to stay in front of Kobe and if he did, Shaq would eat up Kareem down low. The Lakers made history with an 11-0 run through the West bracket, but injuries to Magic and Byron Scott in the Finals prevented them from touching that 15-1 run later set by the 2001 Lakers.
The Modern Day Miami Heat
Shaq and Kobe spent eight years together, and Jordan-Pippen and Magic-Kareem both had ten years playing at a very high level. Dwyane Wade’s knee is already falling apart the third year in with LBJ. Longevity, and WHEN they played with each other, is what hurts them in this conversation.
I have to give credit to LeBron James for pulling a Michael Jordan and turning one of the best players in the NBA into a far lesser version of what he could be. We’re starting to see the decline in opportunities D-Wade faces and just like Pippen’s splits with and without Jordan, Wade's with and without LeBron are similarly affected.
During the two years without Jordan, Pippen put up numbers. He averaged 22 and 21.4 points, grabbed 8.7 and 8.1 rebounds, dimed out 5.6 and 5.3 assists, and averaged 2.9 steals both seasons.
72-10 vs 15-1
Bryant put a 26 point, 12 rebound, 6 assist line on Philadelphia in Game 5 of the 2001 Finals to lock up a second title, setting his playoff averages at 29.4 points, 7.3 boards and 6.1 assists in 16 contests. A near-untouchable Lakers squad (15-1) lost but one game when Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers stole Game 1 of the Finals. Bryant was deadliest in a four-game sweep of San Antonio in the Conference Finals, posting 33.3 points, 7.0 boards and 7.0 assists in 42.0 minutes.
Keep in mind: those are numbers for the person everyone thinks to have been the second best player on his team.
15-1 takes precedence over the 72-10 because it happened in the playoffs. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen had good runs -- 15-2, 15-7, 15-4, 15-3, 15-4, and 15-6 -- but 15 and 1 is 15 and 1. The greatest team is arguable, but a 15-1 playoff run? That’s tough, especially in a league where you are only as good as the star(s) on your team.
Basketball isn’t like baseball's Moneyball concept: four quarters don’t equal a dollar. James Harden can’t be replaced in value by adding Martin, Lamb and other scrubs.
As I said before, Shaq and Kobe were the greatest duo ever, but does that mean I would pick them over having Magic and Kareem or Magic and anyone? Probably not, because we don’t play in a vacuum, and things like the number of shot attempts someone is getting can bizarrely affect how he plays on defense.
Do you people not remember how that whole Shaq and Kobe thing played out in the media? When Kobe began taking over, Shaq said, “If you feed the big dog, he will guard the yard. If you don't feed him, he's just going to walk around and get bored, and he ain't going to do s***.”
Offensively, Shaq and Kobe were so much better than any other combo was. There’s an argument to be made for Pippen and Jordan as better defenders, but you can’t discredit Shaq’s size and Kobe’s reign as the All-NBA First Team Defensive shooting guard.
Just look at the series against the 76ers where, yes, Allen Iverson scored 32 per game, but he averaged 47 minutes per game and 40 percent shooting (39 if you don’t count that fluke overtime Game 1). Or, look at Reggie Miller, who shot 47 percent during the 2000 Playoffs and then 40 percent against Kobe. When Shaq and Kobe were both locked in, it was a wrap on both sides of the floor.
Ultimately, Shaq and Kobe are going to put enough pressure on you defensively where you can’t just keep them on the perimeter. They can beat you inside, outside, athletically, over the rim, under the basket, on pick-and-roll, isolation, in the post, outside the post, in the high post, in the triangle, outside the triangle, ducks, cuts, flares or wherever else you can possibly think of.
No team has ever had the league's current best two-way shooting guard with the best center in the league. The closest thing is Magic and Kareem, and the perception of them is that they played at a fast tempo with so much talent that no one could keep up. The Shaq and Kobe Lakers had to bear down and make stops. You could argue that that for all three titles, they played with lesser talent at the third spot than any other Big 3 ever.
They made you so tired on defense that when you made it back on offense, you had to deal with pesky Kobe picking and poking at the ball on the perimeter, only to get in the paint to face the biggest, baddest, baldest force to ever play the game.
I’m taking Shaq and Kobe over any other duo, ever. They went 15-8, 15-1, and 15-4. That’s 45 and 13 before the drama occurred, adding up to 77.5 percent. Jordan and Pippen? 90-26, also 77.5 percent. But, I’ll take size any day.
By: Mike Barbosa
NOTE: The author has decided not to include duos like Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain because they failed to win multiple championships. The same goes for The Big O and Kareem. Combos like Bill Russell and Bob Cousy weren't reliant on one star, but rather multiple stars and the sharing of the basketball. The same can be said for the recent San Antonio Spurs teams while the recent Celtics only won one championships and spread the scoring among a Big 3, rather than having two Alpha Dogs.