Mailbag Question #1: What if Shaq had Kobe’s Work Ethic?

Question #1: If Shaq had Kobe’s work ethic, how many tiles would the Lakers have won when they were together?

Answer: For those of you wondering why this question is relevant, Kobe was recently interviewed by Patrick Bet David, and in said interview, Kobe claimed that if Shaq had his (Kobe’s) work ethic, “then I would have had (bleeping) 12 rings.” Kobe also stated that if Shaq possessed such a work ethic, then the mammoth center would have been the greatest basketball player of all time.

First off, I have to get something off my chest regarding the early aughts Lakers. You ready for this? Are you sure your ready? I’m not sure you are. Too late, here it goes …

The Kobe-Shaq Lakers really only “won” one legitimate championship.

Don’t close this tab! Seriously! I’m not crazy! I mean, sane people typically don’t spend their Friday nights doing deep dives on below average college football teams, but that’s besides the point! Let’s examine their three title runs, shall we.

2000: The Lakers finished a phenomenal 67-15, this being Shaq’s only MVP season, as he threw up a near 30 points, 14 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. The Lakers had blown their 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals and were now in the midst of a game seven that the Trail Blazers led 73-58 with 10:28 left in the game. You know the rest. The Lakers rattled off a fourth quarter run that was capped off by Kobe’s lob to Shaq as the Lakers won 89-84, and two weeks later won a mundane Finals against past his prime Reggie Miller’s Pacers. I guess this one does count as deserved in the sense that the Lakers were able to dig themselves out of such a dire situation, but every way I look at this, it feels more like a Blazers choke job. In no setting should a high level team only score 13 points in the most important quarter of the season. More importantly, the Lakers won this game even though Shaq only registered 18 points, even in a game where he miraculously went 8 for 12 from the free throw line! Not to mention, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, and A.C. Green combined for 36 total minutes of play for the Lakers in that game and posted respective offensive ratings of 67, 53, and 40 (average offensive rating for that year was 104.1 for perspective). Overall, what I’m trying to communicate is that the Lakers couldn’t have done this on their own, they needed a surreal blow up courtesy of their opponents. And this wasn’t some all time team they were taking down on the Portland side. The Blazers starting five: Damon over matched Stoudamire, 800 year-old Arvydas Sabonis, post severe back injury Scottie Pippen, the human technical foul Rasheed Wallace, and Steve Smith. Amazingly, the Blazers should have won the 2000 title.

2001: No debate about this title. The Lakers underachieved all season due to internal bickering and sat at 48-26. They then won 23 of their last 24 games, with the one loss being the 48 point Iverson explosion in game one of the Finals. Pieces of Sixers’ centers Todd MacCulloch and decrepit Dikembe Mutombo may or may not be still hanging on rafters of the Staples Center from game two of that series after Shaq tore them apart with a machete. No gripes at all.

2002: Now this … this is the one. I don’t even know if I can do it justice. The 2002 Western Conference Finals have been chronicled countless times on Youtube. I’d recommend this multi-part series personally. I’ve already blabbered on long enough, so I’ll leave it to this.

The 2002 Sacramento Kings were robbed by horrid officiating in every way. Game six of the series lives in infamy as the Lakers attempted 40 free throws compared to the Kings 25, were rewarded 18 more foul shots in the fourth quarter alone, and the Kings four options at center (Vlade Divac, Scot Pollard, Chris Webber, Lawrence Funderburke) were either fouled out of the game or suffered major foul trouble. Even after all that the Kings might have escaped with a win had Kobe been called for his egregious elbow against Mike Bibby late in the game.

The series had several other questionable calls in games 2 and 4, both narrow Laker wins, as it seemed that the NBA was determined to avoid a ratings catastrophe (aka a Kings-Nets Finals). I don’t know how else to explain it, the series was flat out rigged.

None of that changes the fact that the Lakers did win three NBA titles with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, and given the pedigree of the two, probably could have won a lot more. But how do we approximate the value of something like increased work ethic? There’s no specific analytical stat in which we can accurately increase Shaq’s stats in some way and then determine how the Lakers may have performed better in the playoff matchups they lost. It’s why I hate completely subjective questions such as this. There will never be a definitive or truly convincing argument. However, it’s clear that this is something that the general public, and more importantly my readers, are interested in.

The best I can do is to go through the Lakers’ playoff exits and ponder if any trivial details could have been changed.

1997: Kobe was a rookie and the Jazz beat the Lakers easily in the 2nd round. This had nothing to do with Shaq “wanting it more”. No change.

1998: The Jazz beat the Lakers in even more dominant fashion in this post-season. No extra Lakers rings this year either.

1999: This one has a plausible case in that everyone was out of shape during this 50 game, lockout shortened season. Maybe if Shaq had stayed in shape he could have plowed through his competition at an unimaginable efficiency. However, the Lakers were pretty mediocre this year, finishing 31-19 and getting swept by Duncan’s Spurs. I don’t think an increased work ethic is enough to stop alpha dog, always-motivated Tim Duncan. No ring.

2003: Now we’re getting into the juicy part. Similar to the early 2000s in the NBA, all that matters here is the Western Conference, as Shaq could have eaten Big Macs on court and still mauled the ’03 Nets. I doubt that the Lakers would have finished with a better regular season record even if Shaq had been in prime motivation mode, seeing that almost every team relaxes after a few titles, and combining that with the fact that Shaq was prepared to maim Kobe for his ball hoggery. The Lakers lost in six games to the eventual champion Spurs in the second round, and after further investigation, I don’t think Shaq with a Peloton swings this series. For one, he actually played pretty well in this series, averaging 25 points, 14 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game while posting the best offensive rating of any Lakers player at 117. The bigger problem for the Lakers was lack of depth. Their fourth and fifth leading scorers in that series? Devean George and Stanislav Medvedenko. Claiming that any team relying heavily on those two players could have beaten peak Duncan and Poppovich is straight disrespectful. No rings for the Lakers this year either.

2004: Ah, the year we’ve all been waiting for. Interesting sub plot I thought of: If Shaq was 15-20% better, then the Lakers would have won the three more game necessary to take the top seed from Garnett’s Wolves, who probably would have lost to the Spurs in the semis. That means that the Lakers would never have played Minnesota, and therefore would not have lost Karl Malone for the rest of the playoffs. This also probably erases the Derek Fisher 0.4 second shot due to change in home court advantage, but I’d still take the Lakers to win that series.

The Finals against the Pistons is really hard to understand. Does simply having more motivation, potentially more athleticism, and just an overall upgrade in focus surpass how dominantly the Pistons beat the crap out of the Lakers that year? Does it recoup the fact that once again, Devean George and Medvedenko were key rotational players for LA? I don’t like to do this, but I think I’ll take talent over teamwork and historical precedent in this scenario (not to mention that hypothetical Karl Malone is active in this series). I just feel like a top of his game, pissed off Shaq should be able to feast on 6’7″ Ben Wallace, no matter how good of a defender he was. It’s not like that Pistons had won anything meaningful before that Finals. They were more recently known for being owned by Jason Kidd’s Nets of all teams, and had to upset the Jermaine O’Neal Pacers in the conference finals to even reach this pinnacle. How do you think they would have reacted to a Lakers team that was somewhat coherent trying to eviscerate them? I”ll award Shaq and Kobe their fourth ring of the this revisionist dynasty.

The big question that remains is whether or not Shaq would have still been traded after 2004. I personally believe that the two still would have hated each other, as no amount of reps in the gym changes the fundamental problem that both Kobe and Shaq were alpha dogs who preferred to score for themselves rather than create shots for others. In addition, it’s pretty well documented that neither was the greatest teammate no matter which team they played on, both tending to be immature, volatile, and in the end, somewhat selfish guys.

I’d bet that the Lakers would have to still break this up even after winning the ’04 title, either by dumping Shaq with the rationale that they’re “getting out before it’s too late”, or by acquiescing to Kobe’s demands to have his own team.

The other possibility: the Lakers hold onto Shaq for two more seasons before he got really old, really fast. This basically gives Shaq an upgrade over young Wade who he partnered with in ’05 and ’06, and won one title with. Once again, I can’t disregard the lack of chemistry between the two, as well as the deterioration of Shaq’s grace and skill, so I can’t assume they take both of those titles. However, I can at the very least be talked into a Shaq and Kobe Lakers team replacing the Heat as the 2006 champions.

Conclusion: This is an impossible question to properly answer. For example, if Shaq had a greater work ethic his whole career, including his beginnings with the Magic, does he stay in Orlando after 1996, feeling the urge to work hard enough to overcome Jordan’s Bulls? I think that definitely deserves some consideration. All things aside, the Shaq and Kobe Lakers probably did underachieve. It’s rare to get two top 15 all time players in their primes at the same time, and even more rare to get them during one of the weakest stretches in league history (the early 2000s). My gut tells me that Shaq’s work habits weren’t the main thing holding the Lakers back. Those Lakers won in spite of some poor schematic designs and less than efficient basketball strategy. I doubt a 30 pounds lighter Shaq was the key to unlocking those things. If Shaq had wanted to be the basketball player he should have been, the Lakers would have won four rings in five years, a feat only matched by Russell’s Celtics. That’s nothing to scoff at. But I simply don’t believe that Shaq’s appetite and disdain for running swung the course of multiple NBA titles. Maybe I’m in incorrect, but I don’t see any firm theory that could prove me wrong.

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