Let’s take a look at the statistics from 2005-11. This indicates every season from the time of the trade until O’Neal’s retirement from the NBA.
First, we have Shaq’s numbers;
Next, here’s Kobe’s for the same period of time;
It’s not even close, is it? And remember, this isn’t because Kobe played longer than Shaq purely because he was younger. These are just the years when Shaq was still in the league, and Kobe’s numbers do more than speak for themselves.
Bryant averaged over 12 more points per game, three more assists per game, 10 more minutes per game and just 2.7 rebounds less per game.
Take a minute to look at that last statistic, because I feel like that’s one of the most telling of them all. O’Neal, the 7’1″ center averaged only 2.7 more rebounds per game than the 6’7″ shooting guard that spent most of his time on the perimeter.
Oh, and Kobe played in 144 more regular season games than Shaq during that time period.
And one more thing. During that time span, from ’05-’11, Kobe’s teams won two championships. Shaq’s won one.
Eight years after the trade, there’s not a single person that will try and tell you the Lakers made the incorrect choice by choosing Bryant over Shaq. Because they didn’t. But do they have what it takes to make the same move again?
It may seem like a difficult decision, but in reality it’s anything but. Just like we did with O’Neal and Kobe from 2004, let’s take a look at some of the numbers now to try and give ourselves a clearer idea of what exactly we’re looking at here.
Kobe Bryant is in his 17th NBA season. Dwight Howard is in his ninth.
Kobe Bryant is 34 years-old. Dwight Howard is 27.
53,123 minutes of NBA basketball.
Dwight Howard has played 26,421 minutes of NBA basketball. Again, including the playoffs.
In that batch of numbers, there’s not a single statistic that goes in Bryant’s favor. And it’s nothing against Kobe. As Mos Def so poignantly pointed out in 1999, it’s simple mathematics.
In sports there’s only one undefeated entity – time. No player can play forever. Even Kobe’s impressive longevity, which admittedly is already leaps and bounds ahead of O’Neal’s, isn’t going to last forever. By sacrificing a year or two of Kobe’s production for the long-term benefits of the franchise, the Lakers put themselves in a place where they can still be relevant in 2020, rather than sinking to the bottom of the NBA abyss in 2017.
Regardless, the team can’t make a decision here that isn’t going to be criticized endlessly, by fans and media alike. Especially if they make the right decision and let Bryant go in favor of Howard. But this isn’t something the organization hasn’t experienced before. Just like the scrutiny they faced after trading O’Neal in 2004, the front office knew that in the long term, picking young over old was the right decision and would pay off in the long run. Even through the lean years when the Lakers struggled and were forced to watch Shaq hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in South Beach, they stayed the course and stuck by the decision they had made. And in the long run it paid off. Twice.
But that brings us back to 2013. Things are a lot different now than they were then. Kobe’s contributions to the franchise are something that will never be undone, and are unparalleled, once again, outside of Magic Johnson. It’s possible the organization gets gun shy, and becomes worried about the impact the move could have on public perception if they’re so quick to dump a player that has done so much for them.
The Lakers aren’t in the business of nostalgia or strolls down memory lane. They’re in the business of winning championships. And moving forward Dwight Howard is the player that gives them the best opportunity to do so. Whether you believe it or not, the numbers (and history) don’t lie.
It’s just business, right?