Thursday, February 26, 2009
PER Diem: Feb. 26, 2009
By John Hollinger
The Suns play the Lakers tonight, so it's time to renew the decade's best ongoing drama: Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. One recent twist had Shaq declaring, "I was part of the greatest one-two punch in Lakers history. Hopefully they still remember that."
Which brings up an interesting question: Is The Big Aristotle speaking truth?
Together, Shaq and Kobe were three-time champions with the Lakers. Apart, each has been the centerpiece of contending teams -- though never quite as successful as when they were the league's best tag-team combo.
But the competition is stiff: Has any team had more two-man combinations of all-time great players than the Lakers? Even the Celtics, for all their storied success, would have trouble coming up with a single pairing that would crack the Lakers' top four (save the hate mail 'til you see the list, Bostonians -- it's true).
Perhaps that's why this franchise has played in a league-record 29 NBA Finals and could make it 30 this spring -- they've almost always had at least one all-time great in the lineup, and most of the time they've had two.
So in honor of the reuniting of "The Big Legendaries" -- a nickname Shaq coined for him and Kobe at the All-Star Game -- as well as the increasing success of another dynamic duo in L.A. (Kobe and Pau Gasol), let's take a look at the top five two-man combos in Lakers history. As you'll soon see, it's quite a list:
5. George Mikan and Jim Pollard (1948-1954)
Everyone knows about Mikan, the league's first dominant big man who led the Lakers to five straight titles in their Minneapolis days before the team departed for sunnier climes. A first-team All-NBA pick in all six full seasons he played and the scoring champ in three of them, his spot in the hierarchy of all-time greats is well established.
But he wouldn't have five rings without Pollard, a Hall of Fame forward who finished in the top 10 in scoring three times. Pollard was already 27 by the time Minnesota won its first title and was starting to fade by championship No. 5, but his teaming with Mikan still outranks a few other pairings for the last spot on the list.
While we're here, let's go through those honorable mentions -- one which would be the Pantheon for virtually any other franchise:
• Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol have been to one Finals and will perhaps win a ring as a pair, which would certainly elevate them into the discussion for the fifth spot.
• The Magic Johnson-James Worthy combo reached a Finals, sans Kareem, in 1991, and by the end of the Magic-Kareem run Worthy was at least as important as Abdul-Jabbar to L.A.'s success.
• Pollard wasn't Mikan's only Hall of Fame teammate -- late in the run it was another Hall of Fame forward, Vern Mikkelsen, who was doing as much or more to help prop up the Lakers.
• Less memorably, Mikkelsen got to another Finals as a Minneapolis Laker with Elgin Baylor in 1959, although that team was only 33-39 and lost in four games to Boston.
OK, on to the top four:
4. Elgin Baylor and Jerry West (1960-72)
Never before or since have two all-time great players had their prime years overlap so perfectly ... and never have two teammates gone on to become general managers in the same city with such divergent results. But let's focus on the playing days here. West was four years younger than Baylor, but both were so good for so long that they enjoyed a decade-long run as L.A.'s star combo before injuries forced Baylor out.
Both players were in every All-Star Game from 1961 to 1970. Baylor was first-team All-NBA eight times in that span; West seven times. Both finished in the top six in MVP voting on six different occasions, and both, of course, are in the Hall of Fame.
That the duo only ranks fourth owes mainly to its one failing: It never produced a title. West and Baylor got to the Finals seven teams as a tandem, but lost to the Celtics in six of them and to the Knicks in the Willis Reed Game in their last try together in 1970.
3. Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain (1968-73)
|The Logo and Wilt brought the Lakers their first title in L.A.|
West and Chamberlain weren't together as long as West and Baylor, but they produced one magical stretch of greatness that the West-Baylor combo never approached. In 1971-72, the West-Chamberlain combo ripped off 33 consecutive wins -- still an NBA record -- en route to what was at the time a record 69-13 season. The Lakers went on to crush the Knicks in the Finals that season, exorcising their demons by winning their first title since relocating.
West and Chamberlain were both first-team All-Defense that season, though Chamberlain had to settle for second team All-NBA thanks to playing the same position as a young Milwaukee Buck named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (more on him in a minute). West, meanwhile, was first-team All-NBA in their last four years together and second team in 1968-69.
And although West never won the MVP, he came in second in the voting for three straight years while he was Chamberlain's running mate. In fact, the two finished second and third in the MVP voting in that epic 1971-72 campaign.
2. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal (1996-2004)
Their tumultuous relationship produced some dramatic flameouts at both ends, from a young Kobe hoisting airballs in Utah to the mutual dislike that submarined the whole team in the 2004 Finals.
But in between, they were gold. Shaq and Kobe teamed up for three consecutive championships, the first one cemented memorably by Kobe's above-the-square alleyoop that Shaq slammed home late in the Game 7 conference finals win over Portland.
They also produced what was arguably the greatest playoff run in history, a 15-1 tour de force past four 50-win teams in 2001 that included several one-sided wins and just a single overtime loss. (Actually, they went 23-1 to close the season -- L.A. also won its final eight regular-season games).
Bryant was a teenager when he and Shaq first became teammates, so the first few years weren't quite as impressive as some of the other pairings on this list. But in their final five years together the two combined for an average of 57 wins a season -- as well as four conference titles, 10 All-Star selections, 10 All-NBA picks (eight first team) and eight top-six finishes in the MVP voting.
Unfortunately, two things keep them out of the top spot -- first, that their petty jealousy essentially forced a breakup while they were still in their prime, and second, that another combination of a flashy guard and a dominating big man had even more success in Laker uniforms.
1. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1979-89)
Their prime years weren't as well-timed as Kobe and Shaq or Baylor and West -- by the time Magic was a rookie, Kareem had already won five MVP awards and an NBA championship.
But maybe that was a good thing -- the exuberant Johnson is widely credited with restoring some of Abdul-Jabbar's passion for the game, helping the Lakers claim five more championships before Kareem hung up his goggles in 1989.
Kareem and Magic teamed up for a title in their first year together, with Abdul-Jabbar winning the regular-season MVP award before Johnson led L.A. in the Finals with an epic 42-point, 15-rebound effort in the clincher while an injured Kareem looked on. Abdul-Jabbar would return the favor in 1985, winning Finals MVP by dominating the clinching game at the Boston Garden after Johnson was second in the regular-season vote.
They were perfect complements to each other -- Magic, the Showtime point guard who was deadliest when orchestrating the fast break, and Kareem, the go-to guy in the half court with the unblockable sky hook. They won at least 54 games all 10 years they played together, won five titles and eight conference championships, and combined for four MVPs, 11 first-team All-NBA selections and 19 All-Star appearances in their decade together.
Ironically, they also had a few Kobe versus Shaq moments early on -- they lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1981 when Magic airballed a shot on a play designed for Kareem in the last seconds of the deciding game. But the differences were as much between Magic and coach Paul Westhead as they were with Magic and Kareem, and things sorted themselves out once Pat Riley took over.
Even among the great combos in Laker history, they stand out. And the only way they might not would be if Kobe and Shaq had put their differences aside, pushed past Detroit for ring No. 4, and then kept chugging along for another half-decade. Both Shaq and Kobe have been good enough to lead great teams apart from each other ... but together they might have challenged Magic and Kareem's legacy among all-time duos.
So when the Lakers meet the Suns tonight and everyone talks about the is-it-or-isn't-it-a-rivalry between Kobe and Shaq, think also of what might have been had they stayed together. Shaq won a ring without Kobe and Kobe may very well get one without Shaq; but that pales beside what they might have done had they remained teammates.
|Magic and Kareem won five titles together in the '80s.|
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.