2000: The Lakers won their first championship in over a decade as Shaquille O’Neal finally established himself as THE MAN in the NBA and Kobe Bryant emerged as one of the elite shooting guards in the league. San Antonio had won the championship the previous year (sweeping an almost-identical Lakers team in the process). Tim Duncan was injured during the playoffs that season, if he had been healthy, who knows? Don’t forget the Lakers won the Western Conference Finals after a mental collapse by the Trailblazers that saw Portland give up a 15 point 4th quarter lead in game 7 of the series. If the Lakers didn’t win the championship in 2000, maybe the whole ShaKobe 3-peat dynasty wouldn’t have taken off.
2001: The Lakers were definitely less motivated during the regular season. Shaq and Kobe were openly feuding, with Shaq playing at less than 100% and Kobe becoming more and more of a ball-hog while at the same time becoming the best shooting guard in the league. Here’s a story which I think almost nobody remembers and some Laker fans may be too young to even realize. The reason the Lakers won that championship that year was because of Derek Fisher. And here’s the other thing people may have forgotten, before that season, Derek Fisher sucked. Here’s what happened. Before the 2000-2001 season, Derek Fisher was pretty much a perennial backup point guard who nobody paid attention to. Think of him as like Chris Duhon. Early in the season Fisher fractured his leg during practice and was thus sidelined for most of the season. Since he wasn’t very mobile, he started doing the two things which we know him for now: he lifted weights and practiced his shooting. When D-Fish re-joined the lineup with 20 games left, he became the 3-point bomber we know him as now.* After his return, he became a legitimate scoring option who spaced the floor and hit clutch shots. The Lakers overcame their lethargic regular season and eventually dominated the playoffs with a 15-1 record. The key to it all? Derek Fisher’s injury.
*Some interesting Derek Fisher records: He has the highest 3 point field goal percentage in NBA finals history, he has played in the 5th most playoff games in NBA history, his 15-20 performance against the Spurs in 2001 is the best 3 point shooting performance in a 4 game series in NBA history, and Fisher has the 2nd most 3 point field goals in NBA finals history, second only to the legendary Robert Horry.
2002: The Lakers won the championship on cruise control. Although there were some scares throughout the playoffs, no injuries, freak accidents, or suspensions could have stopped the Lakers. Don’t forget the “lucky shot” made by Robert Horry in Game 5 of the WCF against the Sacramento Kings, probably the greatest shot I’ve ever seen, and also the slanted officiating we saw throughout the series. The Lakers could have easily lost that series, but even with Shaq-Kobe at Defcon 3 the Lakers won that series and the finals for their third straight championship.
2003: Shaq-Kobe was at Defcon 2 (I’m assuming a lower number is worse in the Defcon system but I’m really not sure), and the Lakers could have STILL possibly won a championship. The Lakers were ousted by the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals in Game 6, but the Lakers could have won that series and possibly more. The series was tied 2-2, and Robert Horry (who went 0-18 on 3-pointers for the series) missed a potential gamewinner at the buzzer which rattled in and out. When he missed that shot, you could see the expression on his face. He felt cheated. His very existence was to make gamewinning three point shots, and he had just missed his opportunity to add to his legend. It’s as if Brad Pitt in the movie Troy, aka Achilles, didn’t get a single kill during the Battle of Troy. And then in the battle with Eric Bana, aka Hector, he had an opportunity to kill him but ended up blowing it because his leg cramped up. If that shot went in, the Lakers would have been up 3-2, and could have potentially won the series and eventually the championship. I’m not saying it would have happened (they were seriously starting to fall apart that year), but if you’re using Doc River’s logic, it’s possible.
2004: With Shaq-Kobe officially at Defcon 1 (with the rape charges ongoing and HoF teammates Karl Malone and Gary Payton joining the team and bringing their own sizable egos), the Lakers came short of the championship in the NBA Finals. Yes, the Lakers were totally disjointed, but they got to the NBA finals and could’ve won it all. The Mailman played injured in four games of the finals and missed game 5. With Karl Malone the Lakers would have had another scoring option to space the floor and try to keep Kobe and Shaq focused on the task of winning the championship. Would the Mailman’s presence have enabled the Lakers to win the championship that year? I don’t think they would have won it all, but it’s certainly possible. Without Karl Malone, the Lakers had to start Slava Medvedenko (no knock on Slava, I’m a huge Slava-fan, but you can’t win with Slava playing very many minutes.) The rest is history as we know it, Shaq demanded a contract extension and Kobe was a free agent. They both wanted to be the man, and in the end they couldn’t coexist with each other. Sha-Kobe breaking up was just about as traumatic as Arnold giving up movies to pursue his political career and Shawn Michaels being double-crossed by Mike Tyson and subsequently DX in 1998. What if they had been forced to stay together? What if Jerry Buss, Magic Johnson, and Jerry West could have talked to them and convinced them to stick together. They didn’t have to like each other, but they could’ve worked together. They could’ve been paid equally but then fought for the adoration of the fans or switched off trying to dominate ball games. Shaq and Kobe were two of the best players EVER and they had playing styles which both complemented each other and supplemented each other in a symbiotic synergy which the NBA will probably never see again. Even while hating each other’s guts they won three championships and came reasonably close to 2 more. Who knows what would have happened if they stuck together, but ShaKobe will forever remain in my mind as one of the biggest “what if” of them all.