The NBA careers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant are going to be forever intertwined in the minds of basketball fans and sports media. They built a dynasty together in Los Angeles, publicly feuded before a nasty break-up, and then resurrected their careers with separate supporting casts. But who is the better basketball player in the course of history? Is it the dynamic, high scoring guard or the immovable, power dunking big man? Is it the guy who broke ankles or the one who broke backboard support systems? Only through the careful dissection of their statistics, their accomplishments in the league, and their impact on the game can an answer be found.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant complemented each other perfectly on the basketball court, but were less than complementary off of it. The combination of an elite scoring guard and a dominant post proved to be too much for the league in the early 2000′s. They led the Los Angeles Lakers to the playoffs in every year of their partnership and won three consecutive championships in four trips to the NBA Finals. However, the Lakers stars fought publicly and constantly struggled and competed to be seen as the centerpiece of the Lakers’ dynasty in the media. Shaq was the most important player in the franchise during his tenure in LA, and he carried his teammates, including Kobe to those championships. But, the Lakers chose to keep the younger Bryant rather than resigning Shaq. At first, it seemed like a bad decision to deal Shaquille O’Neal as he had a MVP caliber season and then won a fourth NBA championship with Dwayne Wade. But, Kobe put up the highest scoring year of anyone since Michael Jordan and scored the second highest total in NBA history in a single game with 82 points against the Toronto Raptors. Though the Lakers failed to make the playoffs in Bryant’s first year by himself, he showed the immense talent that prompted the Los Angeles Lakers to choose him as the player of their immediate future. Once the franchise procured more talent, Kobe’s Lakers won two more rings.
There is great difficulty in deciphering which player has had the most distinguished career. Shaq finished among the all-time leaders in points, rebounds, field goal percentage, and blocks. Kobe Bryant has recently surpassed Shaquille O’Neal on the all-time scoring list and now sits in the 5th slot with total points. Kobe has one NBA MVP, two Finals MVP’s, and 14 All-Star appearances with 4 All-Star MVP’s in 15 seasons in the NBA. He is a two-time scoring champ with 11 All-Defensive team selections. Kobe has career averages of 25.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. Shaq averaged 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, and 2.5 assists per game in his career. He was a 15-time All-Star winning 3 All-Star MVP’s. He won a regular season MVP, though it seems ridiculous that he has only one despite being the most dominant player in the league in excess of 12 years. He won four NBA titles in five trips to the NBA Finals. The first distinction between their careers is the rings. Kobe has five rings to Shaq’s four. They won three consecutive titles together with the Lakers in the early 2000′s and dominated the National Basketball Association as the league’s best one-two punch. But, each had success after they parted ways too. Shaquille O’Neal should have won his second Most Valuable Player Award in the first year that he left Los Angeles. He instantly made the Miami Heat a contender with averages of twenty points and ten rebounds while bringing along then burgeoning star, Dwayne Wade. In his second year away from LA he managed his 4th NBA championship title with the Miami Heat. Though Kobe won two more rings without Shaq, he struggled in the first few years without him. The Lakers failed to reach the playoffs in the first season without Shaq, despite Kobe putting up the highest scoring output of his career, 35 points per game. Once Pau Gasol joined the team, Bryant won his fourth and fifth title.
But, these two Hall of Fame careers can not simply be measured in statistics. The way that they played the game and the entire scope of their historical impact on the game of basketball is the only way to differentiate between the careers of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Kobe will enter the history books as the second best shooting guard to ever play the game behind only Michael Jordan. He has the second highest total points, the second most championship rings, and hit some of the biggest shots of any shooting guard in NBA history. Bryant had a stretch of 5+ years where he was easily the best and most prolific scorer in the league. He could score from anywhere on the court and seemed to always deliver in the clutch. Kobe’s strength of scoring versatility was the only real knock on Shaquille O’Neal’s game. He only scored from one place on the court, deep in the paint. However, no one could stop Shaq from getting position and then scoring against them. And that is the legacy of Shaq. No one could stop Shaq when he wanted to score. Shaq was a devastating force under the rim that intimidated opponents on the basketball court. He dunked on other teams so ferociously that eventually players just conceded points or hacked him mercilessly. Shaq was so dominant from 2000-2004 that the National Basketball Association allowed teams to play zone defenses in an attempt to slow the dreaded triangle offense that featured O’Neal in the post. Shaq brought three different franchises to the NBA Finals. All three teams, Orlando, Los Angeles, and Miami, had a promising star that reached All-Star level next to him. Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant, and Dwayne Wade, respectively all flourished next to Shaq. And all three of their careers middled after he left their teams. Many people thought that the reason that Kobe was so good in LA was because he was next to Shaq who rebounded and dunked any careening missed shot. Though Kobe is the second best shooting guard behind the best basketball player that ever lived and Shaq is probably only the fourth or fifth best center in NBA history, Shaq was the better of the two All-Stars. Shaq made Kobe better by being a security blanket on every play when they were teammates. Shaq cleaned up Kobe’s misses and made life on the perimeter easier for him too. He was always available for a quick dump pass to the post and commanded a double-team on every play so Kobe could never be doubled. Yes, Kobe assisted on many of Shaq’s buckets so there was a symbiotic relationship, but O’Neal was always the first and the best option when the Lakers needed a score.
Kobe is a great player and one of the best in the annals of the professional basketball, however Shaq was better through the course of history. He was more dominant, he brought three separate teammates to All-Star level, and he was the best player on teams that included Kobe. Kobe Bryant is a hell of a basketball player, but Shaquille O’Neal was better.