Shaquille O'Neal vs. Kobe Bryant: Who's Higher on the All-Time Ladder?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistAugust 28, 2019

Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O'Neal, left, and Kobe Bryant share a laugh on the bench while their teammate take on the Denver Nuggets during the fourth quarter Tuesday, April 15, 2003, at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Bryant scored a game-high 32 points and O'Neal finished with 19 to help defeat the Nuggets, 126-104. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)
KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/Associated Press

Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant?

It's the debate that never dies. And this week, Kobe himself breathed new life into it, whether he wanted to or not.

"I wish he was in the gym," he said of Shaq in an otherwise complimentary answer to Valuetainment's Patrick Bet-David (h/t NBA Central). "I would have f--king 12 rings.”

It wasn't long before "Shaq," "Kobe" and "Shaq and Kobe" were all trending on Twitter.

"There is no beef with @SHAQ" Kobe later tweeted. "I know most media want to see it but it ain't gonna happen. Ain't nothin but love there and we too old to beef anyway #3peat"

"It's all good bro, when I saw the interview, I thought you were talking about Dwite, is that how u spell his name lol," Shaq replied

Leaving aside the Dwight Howard connection, Shaq and Kobe seem just fine with each other now. That wasn't always the case, of course. Lakers Nation has a tidy little timeline of their various dust-ups with each other.

But however their relationship stands in the wake of the new comments, they did get NBA fans talking. And NBA fans talking can get us thinking.

Who was actually better? Kobe had the insatiable hunger for winning. Shaq had physical traits and abilities that made him one of the most dominant players ever. 

Statistically, the big man also has a pretty overwhelming advantage. In a blind poll presenting each player's 10-year peak, Shaq's numbers dunked all over Kobe's:

A second poll featured their playoff numbers during their three straight title runs. If the first poll was a dunk, this one shattered the backboard:

But, as those of you who've followed this "A vs. B" summer series know, there's a lot more to reaching a conclusion than simply posting the polls.

Instead, we'll break this head-to-head matchup down into the following categories: scoring, playmaking, defense, overall impact and accolades.

Hold onto your butts...

Scoring

INDIANAPOLIS - JUNE 14:  Shaquille O'Neal #34 of the Los Angeles Lakers makes a pass against the Indiana Pacers during Game Four of the 2000 NBA Finals played June 14, 2000 at Conseco Field House in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly ack
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Former Indiana Pacers Jonathan Bender and Rik Smits once explained the joys of defending Shaq in a piece by the Washington Post's Kent Babb.

"The whole thing was just to manage Shaq," Bender said. "... The first thing was catching him above the free-throw line and putting a body on him, even though it was impossible to do that, he was still going to get anywhere he wanted to get.

"Put a body on him, just some kind of body on him. From that point, there's really nothing you can do."

Though that may have been the strategy for years, few (if any) bodies were able to do much with the Diesel.

"He'd just run through you," Smits said, "and he would never get an offensive foul."

During the 2000 NBA Finals when the Los Angeles Lakers defeated Smits' and Bender's Pacers 4-2, Shaq averaged an eye-popping 38.0 points, 16.7 rebounds, 2.7 blocks, 2.3 assists and 1.0 steals. Michael Jordan (1993) and Rick Barry (1967) are the only players in NBA history who had more points in a Finals that lasted six or fewer games.

That series was undoubtedly one of the high points of Shaq's career, but he was consistently among the game's most dominant scorers for well over a decade.

He averaged at least 20 points per game in each of his first 14 seasons, winning scoring titles in 1994-95 and 1999-00. He also led the NBA in field-goal percentage during 10 of his 19 seasons.

If you combine his playoff and regular-season games, he had an otherworldly 495 contests with at least 20 points and a 60-plus field-goal percentage. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (523) was the only player who had more, and the distance between Shaq and No. 3 Karl Malone (366) was about the same as the distance between Malone and No. 13 Kevin Garnett (236).

Nazr Mohammed, an 18-year NBA veteran, had some thoughts on guarding Shaq, as well. He shared them on The Players' Tribune:

"The morning after you played Shaq, it always felt like you were in a fight. You were sore from head to toe.

"This probably won't shock people, but Shaq was the most dominant big man I've ever faced. He's in a class of his own. Shaq's the player who kept me up at night wondering, 'How the hell am I going to stop him?' Or, more realistically, slow him down, because nobody could stop him.

"... Honestly, Shaq could have earned a foul call on pretty much every play of his career. I mean, the only way to guard the guy was to either push or hold him, which was usually considered a foul. It's almost like he was being punished for being stronger than his opponents. If a defender stood in there and took the hit, he could draw the foul on Shaq. Sometimes being the loser in a battle for position was rewarded.

"But refs couldn't call games with Shaq the same way they called other games. They just couldn't. Opposing teams would have fouled out all of their big men by the middle of the second quarter."

There was truly nothing that could be done to stop Shaq. Even when the league changed the rules to allow zone defenses, he continued to dominate.

"The NBA is for men, and a grown man doesn't need to play zone," O'Neal said before the rules went into practice, per Sports Illustrated's Phil Taylor. "Why do you think they call it man-to-man? If you can't play it, you shouldn't be here."

Over the next five years, a stretch that ended after his age-33 season, O'Neal averaged 23.9 points. It seemed time was the only factor that could slow the big man down.

If we go back to the 10-year peaks referenced in the blind polls, O'Neal's per-game scoring average of 28.1 ranked first during the relevant time frame, 1.1 ahead of Allen Iverson's second-place mark. Kobe's 28.2 points per game over his 10-year peak also ranked first, but they were just 0.1 ahead of Iverson.

Another way of looking at scoring prowess slightly favors Kobe, though. Shaq had a relative scoring average (the player's points per game minus the league average for the time) of plus-17.0 during his peak. Kobe's was plus-17.2.

If we just look at absolute peaks, it's also hard to ignore Kobe. In 2005-06, he averaged 35.4 points. That's the highest single-season average any player posted between Michael Jordan's 37.1 in 1986-87 and James Harden's 36.1 in 2018-19.

Of course, that season included Kobe's legendary 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors, which he discussed with ESPN's Arash Markazi:

"Lamar [Odom] was in my ear during one timeout telling me, 'You can't get 60.' And then he came back after the next timeout and he said, 'You can't get 70.' And by the next timeout he just looked at me and said, 'Ah hell, get 80!' I heard him, but I really wasn't paying attention. I was completely focused on what I was doing and being in my own bubble. I was just attacking."

Kobe's singular focus on destroying his opponents is what made him such a nightmare to defend throughout his career, and it was never on clearer display than during that unforgettable performance.

He could score in a variety of ways. He had a solid post game with a fadeaway that was in the same aesthetic realm as Jordan's. He could attack the rim. He could hit dribble pull-ups. He's even 15th in NBA history in career three-pointers made, though his three-point percentage was 2.6 points below the league average throughout his career.

But while Kobe was the more skilled and versatile scorer, it's hard to say he was better. No style points are awarded here, and there are no deductions for Shaq's overwhelming physical advantages.

When you factor in Shaq's efficiency edge (the relative true shooting percentages in the polls) with the other numbers that are so close (relative scoring average, ranks in points per game over their peaks), the scale tips in the big man's favor.

Shaq 1, Kobe 0

Playmaking

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

Believe it or not, Shaq is probably a little underrated as a passer and playmaker. Before players like Kevin Garnett, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Nikola Jokic came along, big men weren't generally known for their abilities to distribute.

Sure, there are the outliers like Wilt Chamberlain (an outlier for everything), Alvan Adams, Tom Boerwinkle and Bill Walton. For decades, though, bigs were mostly known for their scoring dominance.

But through the end of his 10-year peak (the 2002-03 season), Shaq was seventh in career assist percentage among 7-footers. During that peak, he averaged 3.0 assists per game, and he finished his career at 2.5.

Those are respectable passing numbers for a player who did so much of his damage as a scorer, but they're not close to Kobe's:

Shaq vs. Kobe: Assist Numbers
Shaquille O'NealKobe Bryant
AST/gm2.54.7
AST%13.924.2
Basketball Reference

Among the 64 players in NBA history who averaged at least 20 points throughout their careers, Kobe's 4.7 assists per game rank 19th. His 10 seasons with at least 1,000 minutes and a 5.0-plus assist average ranks in the top 30 all-time.

Neither of these players will ever be known for their passing, but Bryant certainly did a little more of it than Shaq.

Shaq 1, Kobe 1

Defense

LOS ANGELES - APRIL 23:  Vlade Divac #21 of the Sacramento Kings gets his shot rejected by Shaquille O'Neal #34 of the Los Angeles Lakers in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2000 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on April 23, 2000
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

If we simply look at accolades attained through a subjective voting process like All-Defensive selections, Kobe would win this section in a landslide. After all, he had 12 All-Defensive nods by the end of his career. Shaq had just three.

But those selections were made during a less analytically informed era, and Shaq had significantly more competition at his position. He played in the same period as all-time defenders like David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace.

Statistically, he has a pretty sizable advantage over Kobe.

Defensive box plus/minus has its flaws (Basketball Reference instructs, "Look at the defensive values as a guide, but don't hesitate to discount them when a player is well known as a good or bad defender"), but Shaq's advantage there is huge: 1.6 to minus-0.6 

Furthermore, play-by-play data, which dates back to the 2000-01 season, also backs Shaq's claim to this category. From 2000-01 to 2003-04 (their last season together), the Lakers allowed 104.94 points per 100 possessions when Kobe was on the floor without Shaq, according to PBPStats.com. When Shaq was on the floor without Kobe, L.A. gave up 102.08 points per 100 possessions.

Over the next three seasons, the Lakers surrendered 1.91 more points per 100 possessions when Kobe was in the game. During the same stretch, the Miami Heat allowed 0.65 fewer points per 100 possessions when Shaq was on the floor, and the Hall of Fame center was nearing the twilight of his career by then.

On top of all this, we've yet to mention Shaq's prowess as a shot-blocker and defensive rebounder.

Throughout his 10-year peak, his 2.5 blocks per game ranked seventh. For his career, he's 15th.

His 8.0 defensive rebounds per game ranked fifth during those 10 years. His career rank there is 23rd. And as plenty of coaches would tell you, a defensive possession isn't over until you secure the rebound.

Despite his sizable deficit in All-Defensive selections, Shaq was the more impactful defender.

Shaq 2, Kobe 1

Overall Impact

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Again, play-by-play data only tracks back to the 2000-01 season. Though most of his prime isn't included, Shaq still has a comfortable edge in net-rating swing (the difference in a team's net points per 100 possessions when a given player is on or off the floor).

From 2000-01 to the end of Shaq's career, his teams' net ratings were 7.7 points better when he was on the floor. Kobe's career net-rating swing is plus-5.6.

If we return to the four seasons for which we have the data and these two were teammates (2000-01 to 2003-04), the Lakers were plus-5.27 points per 100 possessions when Shaq was on the floor without Kobe. They were minus-2.33 points per 100 possessions when Kobe was on the floor without Shaq.

A handful of catch-all metrics also lean toward the big man:

Shaq vs. Kobe: Catch-All Metrics
Shaquille O'NealKobe Bryant
Box Plus/Minus5.03.9
10-Year Peak BPM6.55.1
Win Shares per 48 Minutes.208.170
10-Year Peak WS/48.241.201
Average Game Score18.917.5
10-Year Avg GmSc22.620.3
Basketball Reference

One or two slight advantages for Shaq could be explained away, but this evidence clearly points one direction.

Shaq 3, Kobe 1

Accolades

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Few players in NBA history can go toe-to-toe with Kobe Bryant in a battle of longevity, and Shaq isn't one of them.

Here's the list of accolades accumulated by both over their careers:

  • Shaquille O'Neal: 15-time All-Star, 14-time All-NBA, four-time NBA champion, three-time Finals MVP, three-time All-Star MVP, three-time All-Defensive, two-time scoring champion, 1999-00 MVP, 1992-93 Rookie of the Year
  • Kobe Bryant: 18-time All-Star, 15-time All-NBA, five-time NBA champion, two-time Finals MVP, four-time All-Star MVP, 12-time All-Defensive, two-time scoring champion, 2007-08 MVP

Some dismiss these accomplishments when discussing all-time legacies. Ultimately, they're subjective. And at least in the case of All-Star appearances, popularity is a big factor.

But they're good indicators of a player's standing in the league, and Kobe was near the top for over a decade.

Oh, and he won an Oscar.

Shaq 3, Kobe 2

Who You Got?

MARK J. TERRILL/Associated Press

In the interview with Valuetainment, Kobe was asked, "Who would Shaq be if he had your work ethic?"

"He'd be the greatest of all time," he responded.

Despite legitimate questions about Shaq's drive, he may have been the most physically dominant player we've ever seen. As Bender, Smits and Mohammed explained, there weren't any real answers for dealing with Shaq during games.

The answer here is fairly clear: Kobe is one of the greatest guards in NBA history, but he just didn't impact games at quite the same level as Shaq.

The better question regarding these two probably revolves around what could have been. Kobe may have thrown out "12 rings" pretty quickly in that interview, but the way these two complemented each other on the floor was almost perfect.

In terms of pure talent, it's hard to find many better duos.

          

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference. 

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