While watching LeBron James and Anthony Davis dominate the NBA playoffs as the league’s best duo, it’s been hard not to think about the two players who previously stood as the (purple and) gold standard for a Lakers pairing — Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
Yes, the Lakers have had other great duos, from Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, among others. And yes, the Lakers have even had a great twosome even more recently than Shaq and Kobe (the latter’s magical and symbiotic chemistry with Pau Gasol). But for this author, Kobe and Shaq are the ones I still can’t stop thinking about while watching LeBron and AD.
Why? Well, Shaq and Kobe were my (and probably many Lakers fans who read this blog’s) introduction to what a Lakers team having success in the playoffs look like. Of a dominant big man destroying overmatched opponents in the paint while his wing counterpart wreaks havoc off the dribble. Sound familiar?
The comparison between the two dynamic duos actually pretty much ends on that surface level, however, because the ways James and Davis are having success is showing us how much the NBA has changed since O’Neal and Bryant’s time, and how the Lakers have adjusted to create a duo that has the potential to be just as potent in all the new and different ways that matter.
When Shaq and Kobe came together, dominant dinosaurs ruled the league out of the post. Shaq was the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the time, rampaging over anyone put in front of him. To steal a phrase from him, the entire league was his barbecued chicken, and he was hungry.
But while the wing revolution had yet to fully take hold, Kobe Bryant wasn’t satisfied with just Shaq’s table scraps. It’s something that was obvious to anyone who watched those games, and has come into stark focus for me right now while reading Jeff Pearlman’s upcoming book, Three Ring Circus. If Shaq was the apex predator of the NBA’s dinosaur days, Kobe was a barely tamed Velociraptor, eating opponents alive as a lethal secondary attacker through his intellect, cunning and insatiable work ethic, thriving in the chaos left in Shaq’s wake, but still wanting to hunt for shots on his own (often to the chagrin of Shaq, their teammates, Phil Jackson and fans watching the game).
The kid was great, he knew it, and he wanted to make sure everyone else did, too.
Despite that, Shaq and Kobe unmistakably dominated their era from the inside out. But then, the meteoric rise of small ball came and killed the traditional, post-dominant big man as the centerpiece of teams, and led the full rise of the wings that Michael Jordan’s ascendence decades earlier foretold was on the way.
James and Davis are the modern-day interpretation of O’Neal and Bryant, built for this new game while clearly drawing influence from the past. While O’Neal was a dominant, veteran centerpiece in the big man spot, for the Lakers, it’s their wing who is the wizened leader of their two stars. It’s James who has all the accolades, all the experience, and all the proven skills as the centerpiece of a title contender, and Davis as the young big man who has something to prove. It’s a representation of both how much the game has changed, and how much it hasn’t.
Teams still (most of the time) need at least two stars to win in the modern NBA, just like they did in Shaq and Kobe’s day. And while the specific way they get there might be different, there are parallels between how James and Davis impose their will, and the way O’Neal and Bryant did so.
Davis could not dominate in a more different way than Shaq did if he tried. While Shaq brutalized opponents in the post, backing them down and throwing them out of the way like overpaid crash test dummies, Davis is a lithe, smooth, athletic marvel, a former high school point guard who had a massive growth spurt but is still at his best taking other big men off the dribble, shooting over smaller players and gliding his way to buckets. He’s also Hack-A-Shaq proof, such a strong free-throw shooter (84.6%) that the Lakers often choose him to take their technical free throws. He even takes threes, something Shaq likely would have endangered fans and the backboard had he done.
But while Shaq was the engine of everything the Lakers did offensively, James and Davis are an inversion of that style. It’s Davis who often plays off of James breaking things down from the wing, feeding him on the move rather than the post. They bully teams in the paint just like Bryant and O’Neal’s Lakers did, but it’s by driving there or getting the ball on the move on the way to the bucket, rather than just backing teams down. The game has changed the way those baskets are created, but — with apologies to the Houston Rockets — having your taller, stronger and more skilled players score on layups is still the most efficient way to rack up points.
The biggest difference between Kobe and Shaq and LeBron and AD, though, is that the latter two really, actually like each other. Shaq and Kobe may have grown to appreciate each other after they parted ways, and especially in retirement, but in the moment? Those two often wanted to destroy each other, and sometimes not just figuratively, with their feuds in the media occasionally spilling into physical altercations that had to be broken up (and are exhaustively and fascinatingly detailed in Pearlman’s book, for those in need of a refresher).
But on the court, when both were operating at their peak, they were as dominant a duo as the NBA has ever seen, thriving off of each other’s strengths, with Bryant’s lob to O’Neal in the 2000 Western Conference Finals symbolizing their partnership in many ways. On its surface, it’s an example of the two coming together, but looking deeper, it’s easy to see that it was already a somewhat begrudging effort of teamwork.
You had Bryant, dribbling, dribbling, dribbling at the top of the key, trying to channel his inner Michael Jordan and break down Scottie Pippen. He succeeded in doing so, showing how skilled he already was, and lobbed the ball to Shaq rather than taking the game-sealing shot himself only because the entire defense had collapsed upon him. Shaq flushes the dunk, but instead of celebrating with the kid who set up him, points to the rafters and runs straight past him back to the teammates he liked.
James and Davis don’t have a signature moment like that yet, they haven’t been pushed hard enough to this point. But if you had to pick a lasting image of the two up to now, it’s telling that it might come off the court. It’s of one waiting to celebrate, dance with and dap up the other after they finish their walk-off interviews, or James constantly cajoling Davis to finish up his postgame media scrum so that they can walk out of the building together. The two really, truly love each other’s company, like the big brother and little brother relationship that Shaq wanted with Kobe but was never fully able to embrace in their time together, and it’s translated to a seamless on-court chemistry.
If anything, Kobe and Shaq winning while having such obvious disdain for each other — the constant pot shots at one another in the media, the practice feuds, and more — just makes the fact that they were able to get it together and destroy teams the way they wanted to destroy each other on the court all the more remarkable, a testament to how singularly talented they both were, and how great their games fit together, despite neither of them wanting to admit it at the time.
They played in a different era, an NBA with no max contracts, where players were always fighting for money and control of a franchise, and where superstar team-ups were something shoehorned together by management, not something designed by players. Shaq and Kobe never wanted to play together, were at different stages of their careers, and had two diametrically opposed basketball world views. It’s honestly a miracle they lasted as long as they did, and were as effective as they were.
James altered how teams were built with The Decision to join the Miami Heat in 2010, voluntarily teaming with two other generational talents in free agency to combat the skill they’d seen assembled by Bryant, Gasol and the Lakers, ushering in the superstar empowerment era in the process. Today, his pairing with Davis — who forced a trade to Los Angeles using solely his leverage as a superstar — is the natural culmination and conclusion of that power shift that scared team owners so much, but the fact that the two actually wanted to play together is also something the Lakers have reaped the benefits of while treating them like partners instead of pawns.
Neither way of doing things was right or wrong. Both pairings and the strategies to assemble them were just products of doing things the correct way for that era of basketball. Shaq and Kobe, as both are fond of saying, were the best one-two punch in NBA history. LeBron and AD haven’t proven themselves to be on that same level yet, and really can’t until they rack up a few rings. What they have done, though, is shown that no matter how much things change, some things will always stay the same. Whether assembled by free agency or trades, whether they get along or not, and whether they get their dunks and layups by movement or post-ups, the Lakers don’t feel like the Lakers without two generational superstars leading the way. This team is just lucky to have had so many iconic ones.
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