What if: Shaq and Kobe never split
Would it mean more rings or more fights … or both?
HoopsVibe's Very Quick Call: The Lakers would have had a similar amount of success between now and then, but would be better off in today's NBA.
Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant formed one of the most dynamic duos in NBA history when they were both Lakers in the early 2000s. We all know they won back-to-back-to-back championship from 2000-2002 and that they reached the Finals again in 2004 only to fall short to the heavy underdog Detroit Pistons. We also know that things went drastically sour afterward, leading to the Lakers choosing Kobe as their face of the future and dealing Shaq for far less than he was worth to the Miami Heat, who won a championship in 2006 with Dwyane Wade and Shaq leading the way. We know that those first few years after Shaq's exit were rough on Kobe and the Lakers and that they rebounded since by winning back-to-back titles in 2009-10.
But it's what we don't know that is intriguing. What would have happened with the Lakers had Shaq and Kobe's relationship never soured so agressively?
The general opinion would probably say that the Lakers would have continued in dominance for the next several years, with the duo winning at least two or three more titles after 2004 and potentially winning as many as five or so.
The fact of the matter is that Shaq only had two relatively dominant seasons with the Heat without missing too many games. The second of the two was the Miami championship season in 2006 in which Shaq averaged 20.0 points and 9.2 rebounds per game in 59 games that season. After that season, the most productive campaign Shaq had was in 2008-09 with the Phoenix Suns when he averaged 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game over 75 games. Other than that, Shaq was a relatively injury prone center who was vastly overpaid in the latter stages of his career after signing a five-year $100 Million contract with the Heat prior to the 2005-06 season. This contract would run through the 2009-10 season, the second of the back-to-back championship seasons for the Lakers without Shaq.
My opinion is that if Shaq had stayed with the Lakers, they would have had to have won titles in the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons because after that point, Shaq would not be the same, and with the stranglehold his contract would have had on the Lakers, it is unlikely that they would have been able to build around Kobe and the ultra-expensive Shaq to win titles at any point after the conclusion of the 2006 season.
Although Kobe was hitting his prime during these seasons (he scored 81 points in a game in 2006) it is unlikely that he would be able to carry a team that would consist of himself, a washed up Shaq and a cast of potentially old and cheap parts to an NBA championship.
As disappointing as this may sound to a Laker fan, here's the positive side of things. After the 2010 season, Shaq's enormous contract would come off the books. This is the very offseason that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer, and David Lee all were free agents.
Los Angeles is a very prestigious NBA franchise that is located in a beautiful climate in Hollywood. This would have undoubtedly piqued the interest of guys like LeBron and Bosh. This would have enabled the Lakers to reload and would probably have them sitting in a similar position to the Heat right now: back-to-back reigning NBA champions who are looking to three-peat.
In sum, the reality is that Shaq and Kobe split. Since this happened, the Lakers were a fringe playoff team for a few years before acquiring Pau Gasol and winning titles in 2009 and 2010. Now they have found themselves back on the fringe in the current landscape of the NBA.
Had the Lakers kept Shaq, the best case scenario is that the Lakers win titles in the 2005 and 2006 seasons before falling to a slightly better than fringe team through 2010 when they would reload and potentially win a few more titles between 2011 and now.
Keeping Shaq and Kobe happy in Los Angeles may not have led to many more championships at the time, but given Shaq's contract situation, the Lakers would probably be better off in today's NBA had they been able to keep Shaq and Kobe's relationship in check.
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