Shaq says he and Kobe are the best big-little duo ever. Can he be right?
I’m the big brother
who has everything and has done
everything. I’m trying to get Kobe
to my level. You ask me
why I don’t want
to get another MVP?
It’s because I want Kobe to get it.
— Shaquille O’Neal, 2002
He is not my quote-unquote
A big brother would have
called to lend his support
this summer. I heard absolutely nothing
Shaq’s own Uncle Jerome called
and left three messages.
like Webber, Bibby, and many others.
from my so-called big brother,
I heard nothing.
— Kobe Bryant, 2003
Kobe, you can’t do it without me.
Kobe, tell me now my ass tastes.
— Shaquille O’Neal, 2008
To follow Shaquille O’Neal around is much like pursuing a president or prime minister. Through good times and bad, sun and shadows, ebullient expositions, mopey mumbles, and succinct whispers, there’s always a spin.
Last week, twinkletoes O’Neal performed the biggest pirouette of his career, claiming that his long-running feud with Kobe Bryant was for show and implying that yes, all the world is a stage and the two of them—abetted by the NBA’s Alfred E. Neuman, Lakers coach Phil Jackson—were merely playing fans and media.
The Shaq-Kobe feud, running for about a decade now, always has been alternately fascinating and exhausting. On one level, it’s high comedy, two multimillionaires pouting, and politicking, shadow-boxing their way through exit polls that only the two of them seem to be tracking. On another, it is everything we hope sports will not be, a car crash impossible to scrape stares from. Moreover, recall that for half of this feud, Shaq and Kobe were teammates.
This trickles us right into Shaq’s second preposterous postulate of a week ago, that the pairing of himself and Kobe was the best big-little man combination in NBA history.
Reading that boast evacuates coffee out of mouth, via nose, no? We’re used to O’Neal’s deliciously wicked hyperbole, as well as all of his bullying, clowning, mumbling, and superheroing. But going rogue in comic-book panel fashion is one thing; claiming that he was one-half of the greatest duo in NBA history has to take the pastry.
Just a few days ago, when I wrote in to SLAM to check in with advance word on my next piece, Ryne received a confident e-mail stating in no uncertain terms that Shaq’s “outrageous” claim as half of the Best Big-Little Duo Ever would be devoured as wholly as a Chuck Brown kite by tree.
Best Big-Little Duo Ever is an intangible measure, to be sure, and Shaq certainly has a right to lay claim to the title on behalf of himself and his new BFF. But a note of caution: Measured by team success rate, Shaq and Kobe are not even close to the best duo ever to play together, mustering just one conference final appearance in their first three years together. Placed under the microscope, in their early years Shaq Daddy didn’t do diddly, and Kid Kobe hadn’t yet put the kick into sidekick. Then Guru Phil sauntered into town.
But even three titles later, the Guru would need more than a dream catcher to squeeze back into his Knicks kicks and bust himself back onto the hardwood to disprove Shaq’s claim. Ditto the regular run of hardscrabble old-schoolers (Big O, Kareem, Magic, Bird, et. al), all seemingly poised to quickly address the podium and chide the precocious 330-pounder.
I was also quick to scoff of the Notorious S.H.Q., but upon replay review, this old school scribe has been forced to contemplate the impossible: What if Shaq is correct?
My predictions and postulations are rarely pristine. There have been some lucky hunches: Before the 1999 NCAA Tournament began, I called a classic, final-second win for Rip and Khalid’s UConn over Elton’s Duke in the pages of Basketball News. After Shaq was dealt to the Miami Heat mid-feud in 2004, I wrote in Basketball Digest that the Lakers had traded the wrong player if they hoped to garner another O’Brien. And when I sat down for my first substantive interview with O’Neal in 2002 and attempted to wryly break the ice with the then-banged up big papi by handing him a jumbo “Crunch” Bar (Diesel was a Nestle spokesman at the time), I imagined by the time of our postgame visit, the Crunch bar wrapper would be empty.
Stats unseen, I would have bet a Sacagawea dollar that there was a more ethereal duo out there that could stand as the best big-little tag-team in basketball history. But none of the combos you can conjure from the Sporting News Official NBA Guide of your mind stand out as measurably better than Shaq-Kobe, from Cousy-Russ to Sam Jones-Russ to Clyde-Willis to West-Wilt to Greer-Wilt to Big O-Kareem to Big O-Lucas to Magic-Kareem to Clyde-Hakeem to DWade-Shaq to Wilkens-Pettit to Stockton-Mailman to Bing-Lanier to Thompson-Issel to Glove-Kemp to Roger Brown-Mel Daniels to Theus-A Train to Price-Nance to Starbury-KG to MJ-Cartwright to Moncrief-Tarpley to Miller-Smits to Westphal-Adams to Wondrous Willie-Zelmo to Parker-Duncan to Murphy-Moses to…man, I’m tired of scat-singing you these duos. Trust me, no one stands out.
By the team titles measure, Shaq and Kobe’s admirable but relatively meager three do not overwhelm. Judging by sheer jewelry, any big-little combo platter cooked up in Boston is delicious. Cooz and Russ forged the foundation of the Beantown dynasty with six titles. Sam Jones and Bill Russell shared in all 11. But Russ was never the two-way force of prime Shaq, and Cooz and Sam Jones, while terrific players in their own rights, were more complimentary superstars than the force of nature that is Kobe.
Conversely, consider the most famous pairing in basketball history, and certainly the longest-lived: Karl Malone and John Stockton. This pair can lay legitimate claim over Shaq and Kobe to best big-little of all time, yet their speed bump comes in the form of zero rings and a mere two conference finals appearances.
While no single statistic is a perfect measure of a player’s dominance, the best I’ve found is John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating. The catch is that key components of PER are blocks, steals, and turnovers, statistics that weren’t recorded prior to the 1973-74 season.
This limitation, rendering PER or any other comprehensive statistic over the first two decades of the NBA sketchy when juxtaposed with the stat reams at our fingertips today, forces the debate to leap out of the scorebook and onto the hardwood. And once there, it’s difficult to make an argument that any duo from the League’s first two decades, be it Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas, Hal Greer and Wilt Chamberlain, or any of the Boston duos, measures up as better than Shaq-Kobe when it comes to sheer performance or dominance.
And let’s be clear here, there has been no greater force in NBA history than Chamberlain. Say what you will about MJ, Big O, Dr. J, Kareem, or Shaq—there hasn’t been, and will not be, another Wilt. In truth, sitting next to the Lakers bench and seeing the monstrous advantage Shaq had over weaker and less-skilled pivots during his prime Lakers years, wondering how any coach could not insist Shaq touch the ball every trip down the floor to garner easy scores by the bucketful, you could almost but not quite envision Shaq Daddy as a second Wilt.
But while Wilt’s 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers may have been the NBA’s all-time best team, Wilt had no running mate to match Kobe. Arguments are made to dismiss the watered-down league of 35 years later (a premise easy to dispute, with apologies to Marty Blake, Harvey Pollack, and any other guardians of George Mikan’s sacred Grail), but consider that a league of 30 teams, rather than 10, makes it harder, not easier, to gather two otherworldly talents in one starting five.
And Shaq was nearly as dominant in his Lakers years as Wilt was in the 1960s: O’Neal led the league in PER for five straight seasons, and hit pristine 29 and 30 PER marks during L.A.’s title run. Meanwhile, Kobe was putting up a PERs consistently in the mid-20s—elite achievements by any measure.
Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won five titles together and come closest to surpassing the dominance of Shaq and Kobe. From a PER standpoint, however, Shaq is superior to Kareem and Magic-Kobe is a wash. From a titles standpoint, the Showtime Lakers won five, but boasted complimentary players who were stars in their own rights, including James Worthy, A.C. Green, Bob McAdoo, Jamaal Wilkes, Byron Scott, Norm Nixon, and Michael Cooper. And frankly, it’s a bit of a stretch to even term Kareem and Magic as a “big-little” duo given that Johnson was 6-9, and for all his PG wizardry, the guy jumped center in place of an ankle-sprained Abdul-Jabbar to secure the duo’s first title in 1980.
Ironically, for all the haranguing and bickering that went on between Shaq and Kobe about who was the “man” and what course the ball should take on its way into the basket, the turn-of-the-century Lakers boasted the most potent big-little combination in history.
I thought I was a pretty fair basketball historian. When I choked on my scone after reading Shaq-Fu’s proud proclamation about he and Kobe’s prominent place in history, I was certain that clicking on any number of superior pairs was just a few page flips and mouse clicks away.
In the end, Shaq has earned an M.A. in Smack and a Ph.D. in Hoops History. Let’s just hope he doesn’t freestyle off on his former writer-doubters anytime soon.