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Even Superstars Have Regrets: Kobe and Shaq Talk Lakers

1999: Shaquille O'Neal, left, and Kobe Bryant on the bench during a Lakers game at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, CA. Mandatory Credit: John W. McDonough/SI/Icon SMI

When you think of the greatest basketball duo of all time, some of the pairings that may prop to the forefront of your memory are Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and John Stockton and Karl Malone. Aside from these wonder combos, there’s one duo that remains possibly the most dynamic and potent to ever form: Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

The success Kobe and Shaq garnered during their time in LA is well-documented. After all, the two players did win three straight championships together, and most fans can agree that the parting of the two superstars was a shame. Both Kobe and Shaq were arguably the two best players in the NBA by 2001, and they were on the same team. Their partnership was almost an injustice. Recently, even Kobe and Shaq themselves expressed regret about the way their pairing with the Lakers ended.

Bryant appeared on O’Neal’s podcast, The Big Podcast With Shaq, which will air this upcoming Monday on PodcastOne.com. This is the first time the pair openly discussed their unceremonious breakup in 2004. Kobe and Shaq were asked if there’s anything either player would take back from their time as teammates. Serena Winters from Lakers Nation transcribed their answers:

Shaq: A lot of things, you just played the clip where I said I wanted to be traded. I definitely did not want to leave L.A., but you know that’s how you’ve got to talk when you’re in business, especially when you think you’re in control. Definitely didn’t want to leave L.A. A lot of stuff was said out of the heat of the moment. I guarantee I don’t remember a lot of stuff that they said because I changed my thought process of, you know what we won three out of four, what the hell are you all talking about, this is not really even a story.

Kobe: Here’s the thing though, when you say it at the time you actually mean it and then when you get older you have more perspective and you’re like holy s—, I was an idiot when I was a kid. To me, the most important thing was really just keep your mouth shut. You don’t need to go to the press with stuff. You keep it internal and we have our arguments and our disagreements, but I think having our debates within the press was something I wish would’ve been avoided, but it did kind of create this whirlwind around us as a team with myself and Shaq and the press and the media that just put so much pressure on us as an organization.

If Kobe and Shaq realized that they were being “idiots,” as Kobe put it, while they were teammates, how long could they have kept the dynasty going? If they had put their differences aside and convinced management to keep them together, would they have added more championship rings to their résumés? Like Darius Soriano, fans worldwide will be forever haunted by these questions.

Shaq admitted that he said a lot of things out of the heat of the moment, and Kobe pointed out that the quotes they fed to the media only aggravated the turmoil. It’s interesting to note, however, that despite the friction and turbulence that circulated in the locker room, Shaq played the best basketball of his career and utterly dominated during his time playing with Kobe.

After getting traded, The Big Diesel was never the same player he was in LA, and his carelessness to stay in shape can help to explain why. Perhaps Shaq’s feud with Kobe pushed both of them to perform better on the court. Both players wanted to outshine the other and prove that they were the rightful franchise cornerstone. Though it eventually led to their demise as a tandem, the possibility of their enmity subtly playing a role in their dominance on the court is intriguing.

Bryant was quoted saying that people get more perspective as they age, and some fans speculated that when Kobe played with Dwight Howard in the 2012-13 season, he realized just how lucky he was to have Shaq. Thus, the meme below was born:

While Kobe never actually said these words, it’s likely that while he reminisced on his playing time with Shaq, he was reminded of that disappointing 2012-13 season. Stephen A. Smith even said that Kobe’s respect for Shaq “grew EXPONENTIALLY” during the Kobe-Dwight era.

The Lakers were widely thought of as the favorite to win the championship after acquiring Dwight and Steve Nash in the summer of 2012, and Howard was regarded as the next great Lakers big man. But we all know how that turned out.

To put it bluntly, when Howard played for the Lakers, he wasn’t even half the player O’Neal was in his prime. Granted, Dwight had a bad back, and he struggled to hold on to the ball and score in the post (he scored a putrid 0.77 points per possession and turned the ball over at an extremely high rate of 20 percent while attempting to post up that season). Yet he grumbled about not being the go-to option for the Lakers on offense. While turmoil festered in the locker room as a result, Howard failed to negate the drama that was created off the court by dominating on the court the way Shaq did.

Dwight’s back injury may have been a problem, but it certainly wasn’t the only one. The big man was still strong and athletic enough to finish with ferocity on pick-and-rolls (he scored an über-efficient 1.31 points per possession on pick-and-rolls that year). The real issue was that he hardly ever wanted to run the play that he prospered in the most, preferring touches in the post instead. Per Synergy, a lofty 53 percent of Howard’s possessions were post-ups, while only 7.1 percent came via the roll-man that season.

Even before the back injuries, Bryant didn’t seem convinced that a limited offensive big man could be a go-to player for the Lakers. Bryant had already become acquainted with Howard and his game before the big man was traded to Los Angeles. They were teammates during the Olympics and faced each other in the 2010 NBA Finals, and Bryant wasn’t exactly thrilled about the potential to play with the high-flying big man before Dwight had even become a member of the Lakers. Bryant witnessed firsthand how Dwight disappointed in the 2010 Finals. Howard averaged 15 points and four turnovers on a wretched 48 percent shooting from the field for a big man with little to no range, and he hardly knocked Pau Gasol off his game at all defensively.

Bryant also shared the court with Dwight when the big man was nonexistent during USA’s gold-medal game in the 2008 Olympics versus Spain. Consequently, Bryant realized what he had in the big man who, albeit frustrated him off the court, completely ransacked opposing teams on the court en route to multiple championships. It’s remarkable that Shaq managed 37 points and 16 rebounds per game in the 2000 Finals, which are numbers Dwight can only dream of averaging.

Nonetheless, just like the Kobe-Shaq era, the 2012-13 Lakers featuring Kobe, Nash, Pau Gasol and Howard trigger “what if” thoughts. What if Nash didn’t break his leg? What if the Lakers hired Phil Jackson instead of D’Antoni? What if Dwight hadn’t injured his back and humbly accepted his role as a killer pick-and-roll player? What if Kobe didn’t tear his Achilles?

The answers to these questions will never be known, but it’s always interesting to think about. Keep pondering on, NBA fans.

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