The summer of 2004 was a harsh one for Lakers fans. After suffering the first NBA Finals loss of head coach Phil Jackson’s career, getting upset by the Detroit Pistons, drastic changes were coming. Three days after the Lakers’ season ended, Jackson left the Lakers organization. One month later, superstar Shaquille O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat. His relationship with the Lakers’ other young superstar, Kobe Bryant, had become unsalvageable, having deteriorated over the last few seasons due to differing styles and personalities.
After the trade, Kobe and the Lakers toiled in mediocrity, missing the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons. The following season, Jackson returned to the Lakers, and after a couple of warm-up seasons, the Lakers won back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. Following a few injury-ridden seasons, Kobe finally retired in 2016.
Shaq, on the other hand, found immediate success in his post Lakers life. In his second season with the Heat, after signing a 5-year $100-million-dollar contract (which was considered a bargain at the time of the deal), Shaq was able to capture his fourth ring before Kobe, as the Heat triumphed over the Mavericks in the Finals.
While both Shaq and Kobe had great post break-up careers, neither ever truly duplicated the level of success they achieved together while donning the purple and gold. Kobe in particular, while undoubtedly one of the greatest of all time, will always fall just a little bit short in comparison to the legend himself, Michael Jordan. The sheer dominance of these two players both together and on different teams begs the question, “What if Shaq and Kobe were able to get along?”
Setting the Stage
For Shaq and Kobe to have any chance at reconciliation, any efforts would have to be led by someone who knew them best. Cue the Zen Master. After all, Phil Jackson himself had experienced some tension with Kobe in the past. This considered, his involvement would be necessary to appease the two squabbling superstars. While he considers walking away, Jackson ultimately decides that he just can’t go out this way. Faced with arguably the biggest challenge of his career, Jackson sets his sights on retaining two of the greatest players to ever play the game.
Jackson, using every shred of credibility he had (which was a lot back then) convinces both Shaq and Kobe to meet him at his Montana Lake home. Away from all of the outside noise, the three men talk for hours behind closed doors. While Kobe’s extreme competitiveness and pride were at the root of many of his issues with Shaq, it is these same character traits that make him realize that his desire to win overrides his opinion of his teammates. The three men emerged from the solitude of Montana together, stronger than ever. Shaq and Kobe had reached an agreement. Best friends or not, they were going to stick it out and rule the NBA. Jackson remains as well, never taking the time off to write his book The Last Season, which created a rift between him and Kobe that took years to repair.
The Lakers had been to four out of the last five NBA Finals, winning 3 championships. It turns out they were only getting started.
The Lakers’ Legacy: A Four-Peat
With their three key figures all intact, the Lakers remain title contenders for years to come. After a rare off-year, the Lakers are ready to compete again after the 2005 season. They are able to sign the top free agent that summer, Ray Allen, away from the Supersonics. Not only did the Lakers acquire a key piece for their future, they prevented their main rival, the Boston Celtics from acquiring Allen two seasons later (More on that in a bit). Allen’s first year with the Lakers was successful, but the team ultimately lost to the revolutionary Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals. The Suns would go on to lose to the Pistons in the Finals, as they never had to worry about a Miami Heat team that included Shaq, standing in their way. This will be the last time the Lakers lose in the playoffs for many years.
The following season, Shaq and Kobe walk into training camp with the same look in their eyes. They both want to win. Five years removed from their last championship, both superstars are determined to end the drought this season. The Lakers steamroll through the regular season, but know nothing matters except a ring. With the Suns once again standing in their way, the Laker slow down the pace, limiting the number of possessions for the Sun’s fast moving offense. That, plus a heavy dose of the Big-Diesel, was enough to take down Phoenix in a grueling seven game series. Finally, the only team standing between the Lakers and a championship would be the Cleveland Cavaliers. In one of the most anticipated Finals matchups in years, Kobe and Shaq would be up against a young LeBron James. With no reliable secondary options on the Cavs, the Lakers would cruise to a 4-1 series victory. Shaq was named Finals MVP, but with another championship, neither is concerned with individual awards.
The following season, while the Lakers remain a top NBA team, Shaq’s age finally begins to show. In an effort to keep him fresh for the playoffs, the Lakers pull off a trade that lands them Paul Gasol. With Gasol eating crucial minutes, Shaq is ready to go in April. The Lakers coast to another Finals where they meet the Boston Celtics, another premier matchup for fans. The Celtics give it their all but just can’t keep up with the Lakers. With a rested Shaq dominating Kevin Garnett and a veteran Ray Allen keeping the Celtics honest around the perimeter, the Celtics are no match. Most importantly, this series would mark the passing of the torch in the Lakers organization. Following near-supernatural play, Kobe is awarded Finals MVP, cementing his position as the leader and core of the team. Shaq could not be more thrilled. He loved Kobe by this point and just wanted to be part of a winning team in Los Angeles. This time, Kobe would receive Finals MVP, but he was a little busy, being wrapped in a bear-hug by Shaq, himself.
The Lakers would go on to win the next two titles, defeating the Magic and Celtics again, respectively. The Lakers had just won their fourth title in a row, a feat not accomplished since the Celtics of the 1960s. Phil Jackson could not think of a better way to go out. Neither could Shaq. Both men announced their retirements together in a joint press conference. Kobe is right there with them. A fitting send-off to what goes down as the greatest and most dominant dynasty in modern NBA history.
Shaq & Kobe’s Legacies
If Shaq and Kobe were able to air out all of their grievances with one another and then move past it together, the two of them would have forever altered their legacies.
Firstly, Shaq would have been seen in a completely different light. While most NBA fans over the age of 30 place Shaq squarely among the greatest to play the game, his reputation among younger fans has become defined by his role as an outlandish TV personality, tasked with comic-relief and antagonizing Charles Barkley. We are long removed from the early 2000s where Shaq was the most dominant player in the game. After Shaq had won a ring in Miami, he started looking real old, real fast, and was never the same player again. Had he stayed with the Lakers, they inevitably would have planned for a gradual reduction in minutes. This would have kept Shaq dominant for additional years, giving him a shot at more rings, and giving younger fans a taste of just how incredible of a player Shaq once was. The combination of more visibility in the Twitter age and additional hardware would have further bolstered Shaq’s position among the greatest of all time.
Secondly, Kobe would arguably have had the most to gain from reconciling with Shaq, an unfortunate twist given that he is believed to have been the source of much of their disagreements. Had the two patched up all of their differences, the Lakers may have very well won four championships in a row, with Kobe leading the way for must of that period. In doing so, Kobe would have achieved something Jordan never had: seven rings and a four-peat. Suddenly, the debate over the greatest player of all time doesn’t seem so clear cut. Jordan’s six rings are among the first arguments raised by those dismissing LeBron’s greatness. If Kobe had seven, LeBron might fall out of the conversation all together.
Fortunately for Heat fans, and just about every other franchise that wanted a shot to compete in the mid-2000’s, Kobe and Shaq’s fairy-tale ending would never come to be. Today, both men have conceded that staying together would have improved their careers for the better. Looking back, it is very hard to disagree. Fans may be forever left wondering what might have been achieved had the two stars gotten along. Then again, there is always the BIG3 League…
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