There are two ways to determine how great a player is.
First, you can look at statistics and awards, which are easy to look at, but in reality this isn’t the best method.
The best example for why this method isn’t the best is because of players like Allen Iverson, who have had great career statistics, but ultimately did not make their teams better for most of their careers and sometimes even made them worse.
This can also work the opposite way if you look at a player like Chauncey Billups, who doesn't have as great stats as some players, but has more of an impact on his team than many of those other players.
Therefore the best way to figure out how great a player truly is, is to look at how much better a player makes his team and how much worse they would be without them. However, although this method is the best, it is also generally the hardest because there is no exact science behind it.
This becomes even harder when a player doesn’t miss very many games or doesn't change teams.
With the Lakers going 4-0 without Kobe Bryant, it has reopened up my eyes to address Bryant’s impact on his team now and over the years. To even further help my case, I’m going to compare Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal’s impact on their teams over the years.
If you look at Bryant’s history and compare it to the history of player like O’neal, it’s quite amazing how much one player has been more important to his teams than the other.
Before the Orlando Magic selected O’Neal in the 1992-93 draft, the team was 21-61 the year before. With O’Neal, they improved tremendously going 41-41 the next season and 50-32 the season after that. In O'Neal’s third season they made their first finals appearance in NBA history. After O’Neal’s departure from Orlando, the team didn’t make it pass the first round of the playoffs until last year.
In O’Neal’s first year with the Lakers, he had a significant impact which was easy to see because O’Neal missed 31 games. In the 51 games that O'Neal played in Los Angeles was 38-13. In the games O'Neal didn’t play in, the Lakers were 18-13. The team finished 56-26.
This was also Bryant’s first year but he only played 15.5 minutes a game and shot a pedestrian .417 percent from the field. Bryant, who was a young developing player, not only did not have much of an impact on this team, was sometimes even a hindrance on the Laker’s play.
Although Bryant showed flashes of brilliance, he was a young erratic shooter, who didn’t understand the team concept very well. Bryant clearly though had the fortune of being put with a great team already from the beginning of his career.
In O’Neal’s second year with the Lakers, the team started 11-0, then endured a stretch of 20 games that O'Neal missed because of an abdominal injury in which they went 13-7. The Lakers finished 61-21 and made it to the conference finals. Once again, the team had a much better record with O’Neal than without him.
Bryant, although still not a starter, saw his minutes increase to 26.0 minutes per game and his points nearly double to 15.4 points per game. Bryant’s FGP still however was not where it needed to be as he shot .428 from the field.
In the 1998-1999 short lockout season, the Lakers seemed to get a little worse, but it's very hard to point to specifically why. One day after signing Rodman, with the team sporting a 6-6 record, Los Angeles relieved head coach Del Harris of his duties. Assistant coach Kurt Rambis took over on Feb. 26 for the rest of the season.
The Lakers improved with Rambis and Rodman going 25-13 with them, so I would not point to the coaching change or the addition of Rodman as why.
Half way through the season, the Lakers traded Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell to Charlotte for Glen Rice, J.R. Reid, and B.J. Armstrong. However, Rice averaged 17.5 ppg compared to Jones’ 13.6 and the trade seemed not to be the reason for the regression.
The two reasons for the regression seem to be more related to the departure of guard Nick Van Exel before the season and the increased minutes of Bryant. Bryant was given a much larger role and became the starter averaging 37.9 minutes per game, 19.9 points per game, and shooting .467 from the field.
However, Bryant also averaged 3.14 turnovers and only 3.8 assists. The loss of Van Exel and the bigger role the inexperienced 21-year-old Bryant was given was a big reason for the slow 6-6 start and the regression of the team’s record overall to 31-19.
The next season, legendary coach Phil Jackson was added, O’Neal stepped up his game to become the most dominant force ever, and Bryant’s game improved each year. For the next three years, the Lakers went on to win three NBA titles.
However, what is important for us to focus on in this article are these stats. If you took O’neal off the Lakers during their title runs, the Lakers wouldn’t be guaranteed to make the playoffs. When O'Neal was injured during his three peat, the Lakers had a regular-season record of 12-11 (.5217 percent).
When Bryant was injured, the Lakers regular season record was 25-7 (.78 percent). Interestingly, the Lakers’ entire regular-season record during their three-peat was 181-65 (.735 percent), which is a lower record than when Bryant wasn’t playing. The Lakers therefore actually had a better record when Kobe wasn’t playing.
I know that 23 games and 32 games is a small pool to use. However, even with the small pool of games Shaq missed, it’s pretty safe to say that the Lakers would not have been a contender in the slightest bit without O’Neal, because in previous years the team’s record also dropped drastically without O’Neal.
What we need to focus on is what we can determine from the small pool of games Kobe missed. Although 32 games is small, it should be considered relevant, but not necessarily decisive. We cannot conclude that the Lakers were better without Bryant. I do however believe it’s safe to conclude that the Lakers were still a great team without Kobe, while they were not a great team without Shaq.
Before O’Neal was traded to Miami after the 2003-04 season, the Heat were 42-40 the year before and were not real contenders. With the arrival of Shaq and departure of three of their best players in Brian Grant, Lamar Odom, and Caron Butler, the team went 59–23 and made it to game seven of the conference finals where they would lose to the Pistons.
The next season, the Heat won the NBA championship just as O’neal had promised. Although Wade was the best player on the team, not surprisingly, O’neal’s absence was felt like it always had when he missed games. During the 2005-06 season, O’neal missed 18 games and the Heat recorded only a .500 record without O'Neal in the line-up.
The Lakers on the other hand before they got rid of O’neal were 56-26 and made the NBA finals.
Without O’neal and with Bryant leading the team, they went 34-48 and the Lakers missed the playoffs for the first time in years. If someone were to tell you that your team now would have Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, and Bryant, you would probably expect them to at least make the playoffs.
Although all three players were younger, Butler still averaged 15.5 points a game for the Lakers and was still a very good player. Odom also averaged around 15 points and ten rebounds a game and was a great player.
However, Bryant was still maturing as a team leader and hadn’t yet learned how to consistently win or make his teammates better yet. The Lakers would go 45-37 and 42-40 in the following years and lose in the first round of the playoffs both times.
The next season after the championship an aging O’Neal missed 40 games and the Heat had an under .500 record because of it for most of the season. After O'Neal came back, Wade was seriously hurt and many predicted the Heat would fail to even to make the playoffs.
However, lead by O’Neal, the Heat would go on to win 11 out of 14 games at one point. In that time, Miami posted a nine-game winning streak.
Don't forget that the Heat's roster without Wade wasn’t deep at all with past their prime players such as Jason Williams and Antoine walker on their team. Therefore, what O’Neal did was quite an accomplishment.
When Wade came back for the playoffs, he was out of sync and the team chemistry suffered, ultimately causing them to lose to the Bulls in the first round.
The next season, due to injuries and an aging body, O'Neal was clearly not the same player. At the age of 36, it would be hard to expect much from an aging big man. Just look at the end of Olajuwon’s and Ewing’s career and you’ll see a similar trend.
O’Neal was traded to Phoenix, where he did not have a large role and made the team worse due to conflicting styles of play.
Without O’Neal, Dwayne Wade has been unable to make the Heat contenders showing once again how valuable a younger O’Neal was to the team.
The next season O’Neal had a sudden rebirth, which he attributed to the Sun’s new age training staff and his larger role in the offense, and was considered by many to be the Sun’s best player last season.
Even so, his conflicting style of play with many of the players didn’t make their team better. To be fair to O’Neal though, Stoudemire was lost for the second half of the season, and the Sun’s record this year isn’t much better without O’Neal. This season he was added to the Cleveland Cavaliers and although they have won a similar amount of games as last year, they have been clearly better against the elite teams.
In Bryant's fourth season without O’Neal, due to the growing maturity of Center Andrew Bynum, the team showed improvement early on going 28-16 before acquiring Gasol. However, Bynum would hurt his knee and be sidelined for the remainder of the seasons.
Luckily for the Lakers, they had already traded for Grizzlies forward Pau Gasol. Gasol helped the Lakers finish the regular season with the best record in the Western Conference (57-25), with him in the starting lineup the Lakers went 22-5 and made it all the way to the NBA finals.
The next season the Lakers would go on to win the NBA championship with Gasol, Odom, and Bryant leading the way.
This year, the Lakers are 30-7 with Gasol, 12-6 without Gasol, and 4-0 without Bryant. The Lakers have almost as many losses without Gasol as they had the rest of the season. On the other hand without Bryant, the Lakers finally snapped a nine-game losing streak in Portland.
The next game they beat a very good team in the Spurs and ended the Jazz’s 9 game winning streak the next game. On Tuesday night, they beat the Warriors without Kobe, making it four straight wins without him, showing how great of a team they still are without Bryant.
From all of the evidence I have shown it is pretty apparent that O'Neal’s impact on his teams has always been far greater compared to Kobe’s impact on his team.
Bryant can put up 81 points every night, but at the end of the day, really great players make their teams a lot better. When Bryant has been absent, his teams have not missed a beat and sometime have even been better without him.
Without Gasol and especially O'Neal he has not been able to take his teams anywhere. On the other hand, when O'Neal, up until the age of 36, has missed time or left a team, his teams have clearly suffered, and when he has been added to a team, his team became immediate contenders.
However, why is that many people consider Bryant to be a greater player than O'Neal's career wise? Bryant was just voted player of the decade on TNT with over 50 percent of the vote.
TNT analysts Charles Barkley and Kenny thought O’neal should have won followed by Duncan and Bryant should have been third since O’neal was the main reason for the Lakers three titles and not Kobe.
Barkley said, “This is why fans should never vote." These are the same clueless fans who voted on an ESPN SportsNation poll that the Lakers wouldn't make the playoffs without Bryant.
These fans and many so called experts can’t see beyond Bryant’s flash and great scoring. Bryant is still a great player, but history has shown us that he is not in the same league career wise as a player like O'Neal.