A classic line used against Kobe Bryant is saying that he played second fiddle to Shaquille O’Neal during the Lakers’ three-peat from 2000-2002.
While this is certainly true for the 2000 championship season, it is not entirely accurate for the next two title years.
Even in 2000 playing the sidekick role, Kobe Bryant played a key a role in Game 4 of the Finals against the Indiana Pacers. After Shaq fouled out, Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with four clutch baskets to win the game in overtime—the team’s only win in Indiana.
Throughout the Kobe-Shaq era, it was common for the Lakers to run the offense through Shaq early in games. Then when the second half was played out and Shaq became a liability with his poor free throw shooting (remember Hack-a-Shaq?), Kobe was the go-to player as opposing team defenses clamped down.
How can Shaq be the clear-cut leader of the team when his own coach would bench him in fourth quarters because his play would actually hurt his team?
But let’s look at some stats since they tell the story in more detail.
During the 2000-2001 season, look at the averages:
Shaq: 28.7 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 3.7 apg, 2.8 bpg, 57% FG, 51% FT
Kobe: 28.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 5.0 apg, 1.7 spg, 46% FG, 85% FT
Both players made the All-Defensive and All-NBA teams.
Here are the averages for the 2001 playoffs:
Shaq: 30.4 ppg, 15.4 rpg, 3.2 apg, 2.4 bpg, 56% FG, 53% FT
Kobe: 29.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 6.1 apg, 1.6 spg, 47% FG, 82% FT
Just like in the regular season, both players’ numbers are very similar. Shaq had a dominating Finals series against the thin frontline of the Philadelphia 76ers and rightly earned the Finals MVP award.
But the toughest team LA faced en route to the Finals was the San Antonio Spurs—the team with the best record in the NBA. Most media analysts called this the “Real 2001 NBA Finals,” as whichever team survived would most certainly win the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Let’s look at that series averages for the two players:
Shaq: 27 ppg, 13 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.3 bpg, 54% FG, 52% FT
Kobe: 33.3 ppg, 7 rpg, 7 apg, 1.5 spg, 51% FG, 77% FT
More importantly, Kobe poured in 45 points in the most important game of the series: Game 1 played in San Antonio. Of what the media dubbed the “Real Finals,” that season, Kobe was the obvious MVP.
When discussing the 2000-2001 season, it becomes obvious that Shaq might have been option 1A and Kobe was option 1B, but it would be a stretch to say Kobe was a clear second option in a sidekick role.
Looking at the stats from the 2001-2002 season shows a similar trend:
Shaq: 27.2 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 3.0 apg, 2.0 bpg, 58% FG, 56% FT
Kobe: 25.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.5 apg, 1.5 spg, 47% FG, 83% FT
Shaq: 28.5 ppg, 12.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 2.5 bpg, 53% FG, 65% FT
Kobe: 26.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.6 apg, 1.4 spg, 43% FG, 38% 3FG, 76% FT
Overall, Shaq edged Kobe in points and interior play and Kobe held the advantages in playmaking, outside shooting and clutch play. Also, during that season one should note that while both players made the All-NBA team, Kobe also made the All-Defensive team while Shaq did not.
Clearly, the coaches in the league thought Kobe was better at slowing down opponents than Shaq was. Being that defense is half of the game, this is a significant distinction.
The following season shows a new trend:
Shaq: 27.5 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 3.1 apg, 2.4 bpg, 57% FG, 62% FT
Kobe: 30.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 5.9 apg, 2.2 spg, 45% FG, 38% 3FG, 84% FT
Kobe’s numbers seem kind of Jordan-like, don’t they? It’s amazing he didn’t win the MVP that year, but it was clear that Kobe was starting to surpass Shaq. Had it not been for a few Robert Horry missed three-pointers in the playoffs, LA probably would have won a fourth championship in a row that season.
Now let’s compare a true Batman-and-Robin scenario in analyzing Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. In the six championship seasons, Jordan averaged 30.5 ppg while Pippen averaged 19.4 ppg, a difference of 11.1 ppg. In the playoffs of those six seasons, Jordan averaged 32.6 ppg while Pippen only averaged 19.0 ppg, a whopping difference of 13.6 ppg.
See the difference between a player who plays “second fiddle” compared to a clear-cut leader?
Clearly, the Batman-Robin analogy does not hold up when looking at Kobe’s role with the Lakers starting with the 2000-2001 season.