Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant are easily one of the greatest duos in NBA history. Perhaps only Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are obvious rivals among the all-time greats who played together. Even they weren’t as close in age or both as close to their peaks when they played together. What the Lakers had with Shaq and Kobe was a Dynasty that in a 5 year period won three championships and went to another final before it all collapsed.
Shaq was 32 and Kobe 26 when they parted ways. Shaq had a few more good years left in the tank and each would win the championships independently. We won’t rehash the reasons why they couldn’t put their differences aside as most fans know the personal issue. In this alternate history, exercise will just assume they did, as both expressed regret in later years not making it work. It would have been harder for Kobe at the time who wanted to make his mark as a true lead dog but he was nearly ready to step out of Shaq’s shadow. Had he waited another couple of years there is likely no doubt whose team it would have been from that point on. Shaq for his part did give way to Dwyne Wade and likely would have for Kobe.
As we know in 2003-04 the Lakers would add Gary Payton and Karl Malone after losing to the Spurs the season prior. This season they would make it back to the NBA Finals but would suffer one of the biggest upsets on paper in NBA history losing to the Detroit Pistons 1-4. Shaq would be traded away that off season for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and a 1st Round Pick. Phil Jackson would be replaced by Rudy Tomjanovich but it was a disaster as the Lakers would go 34-48. Shaq in Miami would have a good season and help lead the Miami Heat to a title with another talented young guard in Dwyane Wade just 2 seasons later.
2004-2005– Spurs Championship
Let’s assume Shaq and Kobe work through their problems, and Phil Jackson remains. This was still a team in line for major changes that off season regardless after losing so unceremoniously. Karl Malone would retire after the season, and Gary Payton, Rick Fox, a 1st Round Pick (Rajon Rondo later selected) were traded for Chuck Atkins, Chris Mihm, and Jumaine Jones. Long-time Laker mainstay Rick Fox was done and would never play another minute in the NBA. Payton was 36 years old at this point and quickly on the decline. He would average 11ppg 6apg with a 15 PER in Boston, so it’s not as bad of a trade as it sounds on the surface years later with Atkins having similar value. The Lakers would select Sasha Vujačić in the draft before the season.
Kobe would miss time this season with a sprained ankle only playing in 66 games. He was also not at the peak level he would reach in the following seasons. Shaq would have a great season that year playing 73 games and helping the Heat get to the eastern conference finals where they would lose to the Pistons.
Even with Kobe missing some games I think with Shaq and Phil the Lakers easily make it to the playoffs. The supporting cast of Chuck Atkins, Chris Mihm, and Jumaine Jones isn’t great but with Kobe back by the playoffs this team would have had a chance to contend. Ultimately I believe the Spurs still come out of the West this season and win their 3rd championship.
2005-2006– Lakers Championship
This season would see big changes with Phil Jackson returning. Andrew Bynum would be drafted 10th that summer before the seasons which wouldn’t have happened if the Lakers were in the playoffs in 2005. We’ll assume drafting in the 20’s the Lakers don’t find anyone particularly impactful. The Lakers would add Kobe whipping boy Smush Parker and Kwame Brown although Atkins and Caron Butler were used to trade for him Brown. That doesn’t happen in our alternate timeline. The supporting cast would be much the same as the season before with Luke Walton, Devean George, Chuck Atkins, Chris Mimhm etc. What did change is this was the season Kobe Bryant would truely take his game to the next level. It was his peak season in the NBA.
Shaq for his part was still a highly productive player that season, but this is the first season Kobe would have undisputedly been the star of the team. Shaq also had less health only playing in 59 games, and his minutes had dropped to 30 a game for the first time. This of course was the season the Miami Heat would win their first championship. Shaq would only average 13.7ppg in those finals, he was however much better in previous rounds and more the 20 and 10 guy he had always been. He also still rebounded very well in the finals and made his mark on defense.
Kobe nearly took his 7 seed Lakers to an upset of the 2 seed Suns in 7 games which was an impressive feat with his surrounding cast. Phoenix would lose to Dallas in the conference finals that season in 6 games. I think Kobe was just too good this season. If he still had Shaq as his running mate I think they find a way to get out of the west and into a likely rematch with the Pistons in an alternate timeline.
Kobe was more than capable of having a Dwyane Wade type playoffs that season as well, and I think could have carried a team to the championship the same way Wade did with Shaq by his side. Luke Walton had become a valuable player by the playoffs and Shaq was very good vs Detroit for the Heat in that series averaging 21.7ppg and 10.5rpg who the Lakers would have likely faced instead of a Shaq-less Heat. He would have also likely had a better finals. I think Kobe and Shaq win it all this season getting their revenge over Detroit and their 4th title together with Kobe getting his first Finals MVP. He doesn’t have the all-time 35ppg scoring season we all remember now, but he probably would have still had a crazy scoring season and gotten a league MVP this year on a better team.
The Lakers would again face the Suns in a 2 seed 7 seed match up only this team being handled pretty easily 1-4. The team was made up of mostly of the same supporting cast as the prior season with only Maurice Evans being the biggest difference. The Heat also had problems of their own with Shaq only playing 40 games that season and Wade 51. They were healthy for the playoffs but would be swept by the Chicago Bulls in a 4/5 seed matchup despite having home court.
Shaq would have a solid playoff averaging 18.8ppg, 8.5rpg in 30 minutes a game giving some hope that the Lakers could make a run. Unfortunately, Kobe wasn’t quite as good as the previous season and I believe nothing really changes here. The Spurs are likely to win another title as a dynastic champion themselves more in their prime.
This is probably the first season Lakers management would have to look in the mirror and start to think about moving on from O’Neal. He was still a pretty good player that could have brought back good assets. We’ll assume it was to soon to pull the trigger and too much risk to potentially take a step back with Kobe playing the way he was as they move forward.
2007-2008– Celtics Championship
This is the season the Lakers would make the infamous trade of Kwame Brown for Pau Gasol and end up in the finals. What many people forget to mention was that Marc Gasol was also traded in that deal for Pau. He had been drafted as the 48th pick in the 2007 draft by the Lakers. I think even if the Lakers had to pick a few spots later in the 2nd round they are likely to end up drafting Gasol as well as much variance as there is in the 2nd round draft boards that late.
If Shaq is on the Lakers they never get Kwame Brown to trade for Pau Gasol in the scenario. They had used Caron Butler to trade for Brown who they got in the Lakers trade. I suppose there is some possibility they could have packaged Luke Walton with Trevor Ariza who they had traded Maurice Evans for and still have gotten Pau Gasol from Memphis. The money works but it’s probably more likely they never get him without Kwame Brown. Brown strangely still had some value around the league at that point.
The Heat would struggle that season and trade Shaq to Phoenix for Shawn Marrion. This is a good indication of what kind of talent moving on and trading Shaq could have brought the Lakers back around this point. The Suns would win 55 games but face the Spurs in the first round where they lost 1-4. Shaq would have a good series vs the Spurs averaging 15.2ppg, 9.2rpg, but he had slipped significantly in the regular season by this point. The Lakers would beat the Spurs with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, but I don’t think a Lakers team with just this version of Shaq and Walton, Ariza would have gotten past the Spurs this season in our alternative timeline. They certainly wouldn’t have beaten the Boston Celtics that season.
2008-2009 Lakers Championship- (With or Minus Shaq)
This is the point I feel like the Lakers would have traded Shaq for a Shawn Marion-type player that offseason. This seems like where a more natural end to Kobe/Shaq likely would have come. If they could have stomached each other a few more years by this point it was probably time for all parties to move on. I guess it’s even possible they trade him with Marc Gasol for Pau Gasol. Memphis seemed to want Marc Gasol as the center of the future as well as a current center to bring back in the trade. The Lakers valued Pau Gasol so we can envision that as the trade they could make. I can also envision Marion still being available for Shaq a few months later. Unfortunately, the Lakers still would not have had Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum. They would have had to try to win with just Kobe and Pau or a Kobe/Marion-type pairing and significantly worse options in the 3rd and 4th spots.
What is interesting is I think had they just kept Shaq this season everything lines up for the Lakers to win one last title with Kobe and Shaq. Shaq had a renaissance season and the path to the championship opened up with the Spurs losing to the Mavs and Boston losing to Orlando.
That would be the perfect opponents for experienced war dogs like Kobe and Shaq to have gone through the western Conference finalist Nuggets with Carmelo and Orlando with Dwight Howard in the finals who took out the Celtics. I think a Shaq/Kobe duo would have won the title this year had they still been together, but it’s probably unlikely they are still together at this point.
A Kobe and Pau Gasol pairing could still have been enough this season even without Odom and Bynum, but it would have been much tougher than what happened. There is also some chance that it’s possible Carmelo Anthony or Dwight Howard have a championship of their own and finals MVP in this scenario. I could see any of those teams realistically winning, but I’m going to go with experience and give it to Kobe and whoever his All Star running mate a Shaq trade brought back, or Shaq who was an All Star that season. Experience matters.
2009-2010 Celtics Championship
I don’t think Kobe gets that 2nd championship the following year with Shaq, or just a Pau Gasol or a Marion type running mate without Bynum and Odom. Shaq had become a 23-minute-a-game role player after signing with the Cavs this season. The Celtics likely get this title regardless in 2010 and then the Heat would form their dynasty and the rest is history.
Marc Gasol was starting to make his mark by this season and could have started to help towards that third star to keep the Lakers as a contender the next couple of seasons had they traded for Marion or someone else. Perhaps the Lakers could have challenged the Heat the year the Mavs beat them if they had Marrion, but the way the Mavs destroyed the Lakers I don’t see that one going any differently either really. I think the winning championships was done after 2009.
If Shaq had not been traded in 2005 a lot of changes for Kobe. Shaq’s legacy is very similar winning the 1 championship, essentially the same one he won in 2006 with Wade anyway. I think winning another title with another team probably is viewed as stronger, but winning another with the Lakers in a dynasty probably has more overall clout too. There is a case for both outcomes being better, but his career is mostly unchanged.
I think Kobe’s legacy is worse if Shaq remains. It’s unlikely we have the 35+ppg scoring season if Shaq is still there and that’s an all-time famous season. Gone likely as well is the 81 point game and the number of 60 point games he reaches. He still probably only wins one league MVP, and he wins 1 less championship and finals MVP if the team isn’t rebuilt with Odom and Bynum in a better supporting cast for those years. All in all things probably ended up better for both and NBA fans got the 81 point game and 35ppg season the way it did. Especially Kobe.