Shaquille O'Neal says he and Kobe Bryant are the greatest Laker duo of all time. Is he right?
With 5:07 left in the second quarter of the Lakers' loss to the 76ers this past Monday night, Kobe Bryant hit a long jumper from near the top of the three-point arc. The shot moved Kobe up one rung on the NBA's career scoring list, to fifth, just past Shaquille O'Neal. Ever since they joined the Lakers within weeks of each other in the summer of 1996, Kobe and Shaq have been linked, sometimes happily but often not, and Kobe's milestone night supplied yet another occasion for hoops historians to reflect on his and Shaq's shared, unstable past. Shaq himself chimed in with a gracious tweet free of any references to ass-tasting:
Congrats to Kobe for being the greatest laker ever thanks for making us the greatest laker one two punch ever....
Kind words indeed from the man whose feud with Kobe has its own 6,000-word Wikipedia entry.
But is Shaq right? Not, I mean, about Kobe being the greatest Laker ever, which I think is a question that won't be answerable for some time. Kobe, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West all have viable claims to that title, and since Kobe's career still has a few years left to go, let's put that one on ice while history finishes writing itself.
Shaq's second proposition, though - that he and Kobe are the preeminent Laker duo of all time - is ripe for scrutiny. It's been nearly eight years since their dynasty smashed apart up in Detroit. Best I can tell, most Laker fans don't have large reserves of affection for Shaq, which is mostly Shaq's fault. His last couple years in Los Angeles he was in pretty terrible shape, and his petty beefing with Kobe over the years soured opinions of him within Lakerdom. Still, his time in purple and gold was more than occasionally transcendent. Together the pair hung three banners up at Staples Center. Should it have been more? No doubt, but three banners is still three banners.
Of course, we're talking about the Lakers here. The franchise has 16 titles to its name, so three doesn't obviously vault you ahead of the colossi who came before or after. The Shaq-Kobe partnership needs to be measured against some of the most feared pairings the NBA has ever seen. Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, West and Wilt, Kareem and Magic... these are just a few of the Laker duos who helped make not just the franchise but the game of basketball what it is today.
I've gone back and studied the performance records of all the top Laker one-two punches, stretching to the early days in Minnesota, and below I count down my top five. Everything was taken into consideration: excellence in the regular season, playoff dominance, durability, the quality of the supporting cast... everything. Longevity counts. Greatness counts even more. Winning titles is particularly important.
Before we get to the top five, a word about a couple omissions. You won't see Magic paired with either Byron Scott or James Worthy, and not because the latter two weren't awesome players. They were and Byron especially deserves more credit than he's ever received for being one of the all-time greats. The problem is that for most of Magic's career, he and Kareem were clearly the dominant figures on the Lakers' roster. And when age finally caught up with Cap, Byron and Worthy really shared the role of Magic's principal running mate. So as much as Big Game James and Byron deserve to be recognized as historically brilliant players, it's tough to identify any set of consecutive seasons that we can label the Magic-Worthy era or the Magic-Byron era.
But the most difficult choice was to leave off the Kobe-Pau Gasol pairing. Everyone's bearish on Gasol at the moment and there's a decent chance he'll be traded in the next month or so, but if this is really the end of the Kobe-Pau era, it was pretty damn good while it lasted. Since Pau joined the Lakers in the winter of 2008, they've won more than 71 percent of their regular-season games and about 65 percent of their playoff games, numbers that compare favorably to any combo you'd care to name. And of course, their two titles (with a pretty ordinary supporting cast in tow) will stand forever. Ultimately I left them off the list because they've played together less than four seasons and it really does seem like Gasol's productivity might be in long-term decline.
What we can all agree on is this: it takes two to make a thing go right, and it takes two to make it outta sight. So sit back, push play on this classic beat and soak in the Fishmore-approved five greatest Laker duos of all time.
5. George Mikan and Vern Mikkelsen
Seasons Together: 6 (1949-56)
Regular-Season Winning Percentage: 0.630
Playoff Winning Percentage: 0.678
Mikan, basketball's first great center, you're probably familiar with. Mikkelsen is less well known but was a crucial piece of the early Minnesota dynasty. He helped to pioneer the power-forward position and was an enforcer before that term existed in the sport. Charles Oakley and Kevin Love are his stylistic progeny. Vern made six appearances in the All-Star Game and would've won at least a couple Defensive Player of the Year trophies had the award been around back then. He and Mikan were a fearsome frontcourt tandem that bestrode the hoops world.
4. Elgin Baylor and Jerry West
Seasons Together: Not quite 12 (1960-1971)
Regular-Season Winning Percentage: 0.603
Playoff Winning Percentage: 0.544
Immortals both. Baylor was one of the elite rebounders of his age, West was a playmaker nonpareil, and each was a devastating scorer. Together they were fixtures on the All-NBA team throughout the 1960's. But a little like Shaq and Kobe, you look back and wonder why there wasn't more success at the team level. Twice they finished below 0.500 in the regular season, and they never broke through to capture a title. (Elgin played on the 1971-72 team that won it all but knee problems forced him to retire nine games into that season.) If you felt like switching this duo with the one that comes next, I'd get where you're coming from.
3. Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain
Seasons Together: 5 (1968-73)
Regular-Season Winning Percentage: 0.678
Playoff Winning Percentage: 0.595
Appearances in Conan the Destroyer: 1
Women Bedded: At least 20,000
Just five seasons together for Messrs. Logo and Dipper and they all came after Wilt's career peak. So why did they end up here in the coveted three hole? Because throughout this stretch they were both regularly hitting MVP-caliber heights and they were the core of maybe the greatest Lakers team ever, the 1971-72 edition that won 69 games (including a still hard-to-comprehend 33 straight) and the organization's first title in Los Angeles. I'm a sucker for meteoric greatness, which is why I've placed West and Wilt ahead of the more long-lasting West/Baylor combo that never quite took care of business.
2. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant
Seasons Together: 8 (1996-2004)
Regular-Season Winning Percentage: 0.697
Playoff Winning Percentage: 0.639
Kareem and Magic were together for two more years, were more consistently excellent in both the regular season and playoffs and won two more titles. In a reductive nutshell, that's why they finish atop this list. I do, however, think it's a closer call than many might suspect because of the differences in supporting cast. The Showtime Lakers had Byron and Worthy, two Hall of Fame talents, as essentially role players. Pair those two with Shaq and Kobe and how many more championships would the latter have won? Recall, please: the third-best player on the 2002-03 Lakers was either Derek Fisher or Robert Horry, both of whom had their moments but come on. The next season the front office made a bold effort to upgrade the roster with the signings of Gary Payton and Karl Malone, but those guys were by then diminished by age. On the other hand, the Kareem-Magic Lakers had to contend with the Larry Bird Celtics, Moses Malone 76ers and Bad Boy Pistons, all more formidable Finals opponents than anyone the Kobe-Shaq Lakers had to face.
1. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Seasons Together: 10 (1979-89)
Regular-Season Winning Percentage: 0.721
Playoff Winning Percentage: 0.698
Bow down, one and all. This is the only pair on the list who'll eventually both have statues outside Staples Center. There's an argument to be made that they're the best duo in the history of the game, although in fairness that nod probably goes to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Magic and Kareem, though... the names belong together as if magnetized. They played hoops more beautifully than any of us had ever seen and maybe ever will.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.