It’s hard to watch LeBron James and Anthony Davis dominate the NBA Finals and not have your mind drift back to Shaq and Kobe — especially when the Lakers wear their Black Mamba jerseys as they did in Game 2.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant leap first to mind when thinking of dominant Lakers’ duos (with all due respect to Magic and Kareem). It was 20 years ago this year when Shaq and Kobe won the first of their three-peat titles together. The last time the Lakers were up 2-0 in an NBA Finals (as they are now) was 2002, when Shaq and Kobe swept the Nets.
That year was also the last time two Lakers teammates scored 30+ points in an NBA Finals game, as Davis and LeBron did Friday night (of course it was Shaq and Kobe who did it).
LeBron and Davis understand the comparison.
“He’s Kobe because he handles the ball, and I’m Shaq because I play in the post,” Davis joked.
The current Laker duo is also flattered by the comparison.
“Being in high school, watching the Kobe-Shaq duo was the most dominant duo that I have personally seen in my life from a basketball perspective,” said LeBron, who was a junior in high school when Shaq/Kobe won their third ring together. “Obviously we knew the force that Shaq brought to the table, but the elegance and force that Kobe played with, as well. They were very dominant in what they did on the floor, on both sides of the floor.
“So to be in the conversation with those two guys… myself and AD, is just very humbling, because I know I grew up watching those guys. I grew up admiring Kobe; obviously, a kid coming straight out of high school. Admired that, as a kid when I was young, and obviously got the opportunity. And the force that Shaq played with. It’s very humbling that we can be even mentioned with those greats.”
While both have been dominant, compare Shaq and Kobe to LeBron and AD on the court and it’s a study in how much the NBA game has evolved.
Shaq was a physically imposing force of nature who posted up on the low block, got the rock, and the rest of the league was barbeque chicken. Shaq was doing all this in an era before the defensive rules were changed to allow for zone defenses and front/back double teams before the ball arrives — it’s much harder to run a low-post halfcourt offense now, or enter the ball into the big in post. And the double gets there much faster.
Davis is the ultimate counter to that — he can get the ball on the wing, face up, drive right past his man for a layup or pull-up for a jumper. He can hit threes and is dominant on the glass. Davis’ game is more rounded than Shaq’s because it has to be to survive in the modern NBA, there’s a reason even the best low-post bigs of this era (Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic) can hit threes and make plays from the elbow as well as the low block. Plus, Davis did average 5.1 post-ups a game and scored a respectable 0.90 points per possession on those.
Kobe was as devastating a wing isolation player as the game as ever seen, and LeBron loves to hunt mismatches and go in isolation as well. But again, due to the evolution of the game, he is more deadly as a passer and fulcrum of the offense than as just a pure scorer (Kobe did some playmaking as well, but his strength was getting buckets). What puts LeBron in the conversation with the greatest the game has ever seen is his ability to both get points for himself and lift up teammates with his passing and playmaking to make the whole better.
Different eras require different kinds of superstars.
“Those two guys are obviously special. They are a duo that’s special together. They are the best duo we’ve seen,” Anthony Davis said Friday night. “Multiple championships. They both were so dominant. I know they had a little sit-down and they were talking about they were arguing because they both wanted to be so dominant, they both wanted to be great and they both wanted to win, and that’s why they jelled together outside of everything else that you might have heard that they were going through.
“But you know, those two guys were selfless. They both had a competitive spirit with themselves to will their teams to win. I think me and Bron are the same way. We are two guys who want to win, no matter the circumstance. We both want to make sure that we do whatever it takes to help our team win. When you have two guys that are selfless.”
Shaq and Kobe could be selfless on the court, but that is one other key difference with LeBron and AD — they get along and are not battling for alpha status.
“We’re not jealous of each other. I think that’s the best thing,” LeBron said before Game 2. “In professional sports, you have guys that join forces to become alpha males. That’s what they call them. Two guys that have been dominant in a specific sport on their own respective teams, and they get together and they talk about how dominant they can be and they talk about this is going to be this and that. I believe jealousy creeps in a lot.
“And that is the absolute contrary of what we are. We know who we are. We know what we’re about. We want the best, seriously, every single day, both on and off the floor, for one another. We’re just not jealous of one another. I think that you align that with respect, I think the sky’s the limit.”
LeBron and Davis appear headed soon to add a first championship to their combined resume. While they have a ways to go to reach Shaq and Kobe’s three, their legacy as a top Lakers duo grows game by dominant game.