Were Shaq & Kobe Really the Greatest Laker Duo Ever?
Shaq and Kobe are the Lakers’ greatest duo.
A big, bad, bruising behemoth paired with an all-time finisher who barked orders from the perimeter? Sure sounds like the makings of the greatest Laker duo to hit the hardwood.
But there’s a lot of competition in Laker lore for that crown. Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain dominated the West during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then along came Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, leading the Showtime Lakers to five championships in the 1980s. Even after Shaq and Kobe, the Lakers grabbed a couple more championships with Kobe playing alongside another Hall of Fame-worthy big man in Pau Gasol.
There are certainly plenty of Laker duos to choose from, but the two that ultimately force their way to the top are Magic-Kareem and Shaq-Kobe. Each featured an exceptionally lethal combination of front and back-court play, whose full-court domination led to multiple NBA titles in a relatively short time span. But one of these duos has to finish first.
Many Lakers’ fans will cringe at the thought of the Showtime teammates taking home silver to any other version of the Lakers. And while it is true that the championship count favors Magic-Kareem (five rings compared to Shaq and Kobe's three), counting jewelry is just one piece of this era-traversing puzzle. Ultimately, this is about the individual duos and their contributions to the overall success and dominance of their respective Laker squads. Holistically speaking, the Showtime Lakers vs. the 2000s Lakers is an entirely different debate.
Without further ado, here's why Shaq and Kobe are the greatest Laker duo in NBA history.
The Supporting Cast
Showtime’s supporting cast was ridiculous. The Warriors of the 2010s were regularly credited with destroying the competitive nature of the league, but the Lakers were doing that decades ago in the 1980s.
First, they had James Worthy, a seven-time All-Star, a three-time NBA champion, and as legit a third option as anyone in NBA history. Worthy even won Finals MVP in 1988 during the last title of the Showtime era. And he’s also one of the 50 Greatest NBA Players in NBA History.
Shaq and Kobe had no one anywhere near as talented or versalite as Worthy. Once you look past their two stars, the 2000s Lakers had a sharp drop in quality when it came to their third best player. No disrespect to Derek Fisher, but there’s no competition here.
And then there was Jamaal Wilkes who was a multi-time All-Star during the first three championships of the Magic-Kareem era. There was Michael Cooper, who was an All-Defensive First or Second Team for practically every year during the 1980s, and was the Defensive Player of the Year in 1987. And then there was Norm Nixon’s All-Star turn during Showtime’s second championship in 1982. Shaq and Kobe had no other All-NBA players, no other All-Stars, and no All-Defensive Team players in their supporting cast. All of this is to say that Magic and Kareem had way more help in getting their rings.
An argument can be made, though, that Magic and Kareem faced better competition than what Shaq and Kobe had to face. This is a valid objection. There’s not really a case to be made that the Pacers, Sixers, and Nets teams that Shaq and Kobe beat during their three-peat were fiercer opponents than the Celtics and Sixers of the 1980s.
But consider this: during the 1987 and 1988 championship runs, James worthy led the Lakers in playoff scoring, Michael Cooper was the anchor of the defense for most of the championships, and Jamaal Wilkes and Norm Nixon were often first or second in scoring during multiple championship runs.
So even with stiffer competition in the Finals, there were critical areas of play that Magic and Kareem were able to offload to their teammates.
Shaq and Kobe had no such luxury; they were anchoring both the offense and the defense at all times. Kobe had the perimeter on lock, earning an All-Defensive team selection during each championship year. Shaq was doing the same in the paint, putting in All-Defense calibre work during two of their three championships.
On offense, in every playoff run, Shaq and Kobe led the team in scoring by a wide margin. Derek Fisher was the next highest scorer during their 2002 championship run; he averaged 10.2 points a game, compared to Shaq and Kobe averaging 28.5 and 26.6 points a game, respectively.
When sizing up the supporting casts of Showtime and the 2000s Lakers, Shaq and Kobe had paper thin help in comparison. They had no safety net on the roster that could pick up the slack on a consistent basis, and that makes Shaq and Kobe’s greatest accomplishment, their three-peat, all the more impressive.
The phrase was made famous by Lakers head coach Pat Riley following their back to back championships in 1987 and 1988. Winning three in a row was really the only thing that Showtime had not yet accomplished. In fact, no one had done so since the Celtics did it in the 1960s.
Ultimately, Showtime's goal went unfulfilled when they lost to the Detroit Pistons in the 1989 Finals. Winning three championships in a row is extremely difficult. Even Magic and Kareem couldn’t do it.
Shaq and Kobe could, though.
There is a certain mystique that comes with completing a three-peat, because it happens so rarely, and only by a certain category of winners. George Mikan, the original big man who piloted the NBA’s first dynasty with the Minneapolis Lakers, completed the three-peat in the 1950s. The most dominant stretch of winning in NBA history featured the Celtics in the 1960s completing the three-peat (well, they actually won eight in a row). Michael Jordan, the GOAT himself, did it twice.
And then Shaq and Kobe did it. That’s the entire list. It is indeed rarefied air.
And unlike Jordan’s Bulls who had Dennis Rodman, or the Celtics of the 1960s who were chock-full of Hall of Famers, the Lakers did not have a definitive third star. That three-peat was on the shoulders of Shaq and Kobe.
So when looking at their available weapons, the burden on the individual duos, and the resulting accomplishments, the one-two punch of Shaq and Kobe takes the belt over the rich history of Lakers’ duos that came before them.