Get your popcorn ready, folks.
NBA Hall of Fame center and Inside the NBA analyst Shaquille O'Neal told Ariel Helwani of ESPN that he believes his Los Angeles Lakers—winners of three straight titles during his years partnering with Kobe Bryant—would have "easily" beaten the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls that won six titles in eight years.
"'Cause I would've killed Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, [Bill] Cartwright," he said. "The factor is me and my free-throw shooting."
Shaq then questioned which team Phil Jackson would be coaching, as he guided both teams. Helwani answered that Jackson would be with the Bulls since he coached in Chicago first.
"So he would've tried the hack-a-Shaq thing," O'Neal responded. "I still would average like 28, 29, but the key would've been free throws. With me, it's always 50-50. If I would've been on, we win. If I would've been off, we lose."
It's a fascinating debate. On one hand, Shaq has a point—the Bulls wouldn't have had much of an answer for him. They didn't in the 1994-95 Eastern Conference Semifinals, when O'Neal was with the Orlando Magic and averaged 24.3 points, 13.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.0 steals per game, leading the Magic to a 4-2 series win.
Granted, Jordan had only played an abbreviated season that year after a nearly two-year stint in baseball. He wasn't the same player that season, though the following year he led the Bulls to the first of three straight titles, the second three-peat of his career.
But the counterargument to O'Neal is that the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls are arguably the best team in NBA history. That squad won 72 games, then an NBA record, and went 15-3 in the postseason. Just look at some of the numbers those Bulls players posted in the regular season:
- Jordan: 30.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 4.3 APG, 2.2 SPG, MVP
- Scottie Pippen: 19.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.7 SPG
- Toni Kukoc: 13.1 PPG, 40.3 3P%, Sixth Man of the Year
- Dennis Rodman: 5.5 PPG, 14.9 RPG
- Steve Kerr: 8.4 PPG, 51.5 3P%
Jordan and Pippen were both All-NBA first-team selections, while Jordan, Pippen and Rodman were All-Defensive first-team selections.
While the Bulls centers wouldn't have had an answer for Shaq one-on-one, don't underestimate Rodman banging with him down low. Rodman was also one of the best rebounders in NBA history, averaging 14 or more rebounds in a season eight times. Shaq would have gotten his points, but he would have had to earn them.
And while Bryant was a fantastic player, Jordan was better by just about every metric:
- Jordan: six titles, five MVPs, six NBA Finals MVPs, nine-time All-Defensive selection, 11-time All-NBA selection, 30.1 PPG for his career, 10-time scoring champion
- Bryant: five titles, one MVP, two NBA Finals MVPs, 12-time All-Defensive selection, 15-time All-NBA selection, 25 PPG for his career, two-time scoring champion
Plus we've barely talked about Pippen, one of the best players of his era who often lived in the shadow of Jordan. Without question, a series between those two legendary dynasties would have been close, but it's hard to argue against a Bulls team that won 72 games in a season and had arguably the greatest player of all time.