Editor’s Note: This week is “What If?” Week at SB Nation, so we’ll be taking a look at various hypothetical scenarios involving the Lakers. Today, we think about what could have happened if Kobe and Shaq had stuck together a little longer.
In 2004, the Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, which marked the end of the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant era. A few months later, O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat in exchange for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a future first-round pick, while Bryant signed a seven-year, $136 million contract to stay in L.A.
But what if that didn’t happen? What if the Lakers managed to convince Bryant that after the 2004-05 season, they would let O’Neal walk in free agency and the team would be his? What if the Lakers had their own “Last Dance”?
Who would still be on the team?
Going with the assumption that Bryant signed a new deal under the same terms, the Lakers would have their superstar tandem of Bryant and O’Neal for at least one more season. If Bryant and O’Neal returned, Phil Jackson likely would have too, as he was a big reason Bryant and O’Neal were able to co-exist at the height of their rift.
Outside of Bryant and O’Neal, the Lakers only had a handful of other players under contract for the 2004-05 season. Those players were: Rick Fox, Devean George, Kareem Rush, Stanislav Medvedenko, Luke Walton and Brian Cook. The two other players we can safely added to the equation are Gary Payton, who picked up his $5.4 million player option in 2004, and Sasha Vujacic, who the Lakers selected with the No. 27 pick in the 2004 NBA Draft.
So, to recap, they would have had:
PG: Gary Payton
SG: Kobe Bryant, Kareem Rush, Sasha Vujacic
SF: Rick Fox, Devean George
PF: Stanislav Medvedenk, Luke Walton
C: Shaquille O’Neal, Brian Cook
That’s not exactly a deep roster, and with $51.9 million committed to just Bryant, O’Neal, Payton and Fox, that’s the roster they were married to beyond players who were willing to take veteran’s minimum contracts. The Lakers did have their mid-level exception that summer, though, and they used it to sign Vlade Divac to a one-year, $4.9 million deal. Considering O’Neal is still on the team in this scenario, the Lakers probably would have used their MLE on someone else. Ideally, that someone else would have been Derek Fisher, but he was unhappy with his role and signed with the Golden State Warriors for just slightly more than the MLE.
For our sake, we’re going to assume the Lakers used their MLE on Mike James, a veteran point guard who, like Fisher, had a knack for knocking down the 3-ball.
How do these Lakers stack up with the rest of the West?
In the 2003-04 season, the Lakers (56-26) finished as the No. 2 seed behind the Minnesota Timberwolves (58-24). With Karl Malone and Derek Fisher out of the picture, it would be foolish to think there wouldn’t be some fall off, but O’Neal and Bryant alone likely would have kept them in the top-five, if not the top-three. The real question is whether or not they would have been better than the team with the best record in the Western Conference at the time, the Phoenix Suns. The answer is probably not — at least not as constructed.
The Suns were stacked with talent during the 2004-05 season, led by Amar’e Stoudemire, Steve Nash, Joe Johnson and Shawn Marion. Stoudemire, Nash and Marion were voted into the All-Star game in 2005, and Nash won his first league MVP at the end of the year.
The Suns were a deep team, and with the league’s revamped hand-checking rules, Nash would have made life a living hell on the Lakers in the pick-and-roll. That’s not to mention the Suns’ 3-point shooting.
Now, would it have been a sweep? Absolutely not. I mean, we’re talking about roughly the same team that made the Finals the season before. But the Suns were great, and they didn’t even win the west — the San Antonio Spurs did, and they beat the Detroit Pistons, the team that beat O’Neal, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals that same year (not to mention the Lakers with Malone and Fisher the year before).
So would this have changed anything?
Yes and no.
If you’re asking if the Lakers would have won another championship if Shaq and Kobe stayed together for one more year, the answer is probably not. With the financial bind they were in, it would have been hard to build a team as good as the one from the season before, and the problems in the locker room likely wouldn’t have become any better.
If you’re asking if it would have changed the course of NBA history, the answer is yes. Had the Lakers let Shaq walk for nothing in 2005, they would have never gotten back Lamar Odom in that trade, and Odom was a crucial part of the team’s title runs from 2008-2010. They also may never have had the right combination of contracts to trade for Pau Gasol. As far as impacts outside of the Lakers, O’Neal might have not ended up in Miami, where he won a title in 2006.
Would Shaq and Kobe have won a few more titles if they stayed together for a few more years? Hell yes they would have, but the 2004-05 season just wasn’t their year to do it.