Will This be Remembered as the Tim Duncan Era or the Shaquille O'Neal Era?After the L.A. Lakers traded Shaquille O'Neal to the Miami Heat prior to the 2004-05 season, I asserted that the deal would only be a success for Miami if the Heat won a championship. Otherwise, O'Neal, who is making $20 million a year, would be perhaps the most overpaid player in the NBA. While Pat Riley may have originally dreamed that the O'Neal/Wade duo would win multiple titles, it must be said that winning the 2006 championship makes the O'Neal trade worth it for the Heat, regardless of what happens subsequently. As for the Lakers, in theory they traded O'Neal in order to rebuild around Kobe Bryant and eventually contend for championships. While the Heat had a small window--which is most likely shut now--to win with O'Neal, the Lakers realized that they were taking a step back in order to (hopefully) take several steps forward. Needless to say, that plan has gone awry; the Lakers are not much better now than they were three years ago and Bryant is so disgusted by the team's direction that he wants out. If the Lakers don't trade him then he surely will leave as soon as he can become a free agent.
It would seem that O'Neal has "won" and Bryant has "lost" but the reality is a little more complicated. O'Neal certainly "won" the short term battle by capturing a ring without Bryant--but Bryant still has several more top level seasons ahead of him and will likely have an opportunity to win a ring as a leader of a team without O'Neal as soon as he is surrounded by a worthy supporting cast in L.A. or elsewhere. If Bryant wins a title without O'Neal, history is not going to care much that O'Neal got his fourth ring first. Meanwhile, a third party has actually emerged as the biggest winner in the aftermath of the O'Neal trade: Tim Duncan.
To understand why this is the case, we have to travel back in time to the summer of 2002. Duncan had just won his first regular season MVP award but O'Neal and Bryant led the Lakers to a 4-1 Western Conference semifinals victory over Duncan's San Antonio Spurs en route to their third straight NBA title. O'Neal finished third in MVP voting and Bryant placed fifth. The Lakers had beaten the Spurs 4-0 in the 2001 Western Conference Finals and at that time there seemed to be no reason to believe that Duncan and the Spurs were a big threat to the Lakers. The O'Neal-Bryant duo had already captured three championships while Duncan's lone title came in the lockout-shortened 1999 season when Bryant was just a third year player and the Lakers went through three different head coaches (Del Harris, Bill Bertka, Kurt Rambis); the hiring of Phil Jackson as the Lakers head coach during that offseason proved to be the decisive factor in molding the O'Neal-Bryant tandem into a championship winning machine.
It was no secret that O'Neal and Bryant were hardly the best of friends off the court but on the court they presented presented a formidable challenge: two of the top five players in the league, one a dominant inside presence and the other an unstoppable perimeter scorer who also played top notch defense. Then, at what should have been the peak of their partnership, it all began to unravel. O'Neal suffered a toe injury that could have been mended by surgery early in the summer of 2002 but O'Neal did not want to spend his offseason rehabbing, saying "I got hurt on company time, so I’ll heal on company time." He elected to have the surgery shortly before training camp, missed the early part of the season and was not in top shape even when he returned to action. Bryant stepped to the forefront with the best season of his career to that point, averaging 30.0 ppg (second in the NBA) and being voted to the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team while finishing third in MVP voting (O'Neal placed a distant fifth). O'Neal, who averaged 27.5 ppg in relinquishing the team scoring lead to Bryant for the first time, was not at all pleased to be the second option on offense and he publicly stated that if the big dog was not fed (the ball) then he would not guard the house (play defense in the paint). Bryant retorted that if O'Neal got himself in sufficient shape to run up and down the court then he would get the ball more often. While the two stars may have had a contentious behind the scenes relationship prior to that time, this is when their feud really became public. The issue was NOT Bryant refusing to accept a "sidekick" role--he did that very well during three title runs--but O'Neal getting hurt and out of shape and then being unwilling to serve, temporarily at least, as the second option on offense.
The Lakers got off to a bad start without O'Neal and did not look great initially even when he came back. They were only 21-23 at the end of January. Bryant averaged over 40 ppg in February--including nine straight 40-point games, during which the Lakers went 7-2--as the Lakers went 11-3 and made a late run for a playoff berth. They finished the season 50-32, which was only good enough for the fifth seed. That meant that they would not have home court advantage in any round of the playoffs as they embarked on their title defense. The Lakers beat the Minnesota Timberwolves in six games in the first round but the Spurs used the home court advantage to gain a 2-0 lead over the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals, took a close Game Five victory at home and then closed out the series in six. The Lakers' championship run was over, while Duncan and the Spurs went on to claim their second title.
In the aftermath of the disappointing 2003 season, the Lakers made several personnel changes; Robert Horry was not re-signed and ended up with the Spurs and the Lakers brought aboard aging veterans Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Malone proved to be a solid addition to the team but injuries rendered him ineffective in the later stages of the playoffs, while Payton never felt comfortable in the Triangle Offense and seemed to have lost several steps defensively. Unlike O'Neal the previous year, Bryant had surgery in the offseason so that he would be ready to play when the season began--but while Bryant was in Eagle, Colorado he became embroiled in an infamous and well documented situation that further complicated matters on the team. Bryant would have to fly back and forth to Colorado to deal with legal matters concerning a rape charge against him that was ultimately dismissed and he seemed to take it as a personal challenge to prove that he could play well despite everything that was swirling around him, delivering some amazing performances in games that were played on the same days that he traveled to Colorado. The Lakers were hardly a harmonious group but they beat the defending champion Spurs 4-2 in the Western Conference semifinals before eventually losing to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals.
After the 2004 season, Malone retired, the Lakers traded Payton and Lakers owner Jerry Buss elected to trade O'Neal to Miami instead of extending O'Neal's contract for maximum dollars and maximum years. Buss made it very clear that he did not want to spend so much money that he would have to pay the "luxury tax" and he also said that O'Neal's failure to stay in shape--which made him more susceptible to injuries as he aged--figured most prominently in his calculations.
What does this trip down memory lane tell us? One, even while O'Neal and Bryant feuded, they still combined to beat Duncan's Spurs twice in three playoff meetings between 2002 and 2004, winning one title and making it to another Finals, while Duncan's only championship during that time came in the season that O'Neal derailed with his late surgery and rehabilitation. Two, since the Lakers traded O'Neal the Spurs have won two championships in three seasons and came within an overtime loss in game seven to the Dallas Mavericks of possibly claiming a third championship; it should be added that Duncan was battling plantar fasciitis throughout those 2006 playoffs.
The bottom line is that the O'Neal-Bryant tandem is the only force that was consistently able to stop a healthy Duncan during his postseason career. Here is a look at how the Spurs have fared in the playoffs during Duncan's 10 seasons:
1998: Lost 4-1 in Western Conference semifinals to defending Western Conference champion Utah Jazz.
1999: Won championship.
2000: Duncan missed playoffs due to injury; Spurs lost 4-1 to Suns in first round.
2001: Swept by O'Neal-Bryant Lakers in Western Conference Finals.
2002: Lost 4-1 to O'Neal-Bryant Lakers in Western Conference semifinals.
2003: Beat O'Neal-Bryant Lakers 4-2 in Western Conference semifinals.
2004: Lost to O'Neal-Bryant Lakers 4-2 in Western Conference semifinals.
2005: Won championship.
2006: Lost to Mavericks 4-3 in Western Conference semifinals.
2007: Won championship.
O'Neal has won a title since leaving L.A. and Bryant has perhaps a five year window to lead a team to a championship--but Duncan has won two titles in three seasons since the O'Neal-Bryant duo was broken up and he may yet win more. If O'Neal had not waited to have his toe surgery five years ago would the Lakers have won enough regular season games to earn home court advantage over the Spurs in that year's playoffs? Would the Lakers have then beaten the Spurs and eventually "four-peated"? Would Buss have then decided to re-sign O'Neal, even if he had to pay the luxury tax--or would O'Neal have been more willing to sign the shorter contract extension that Buss offered? It is not inconceivable that instead of sitting on four titles that O'Neal could now have five or six. The championship program under Phil Jackson's direction was already in place; when O'Neal went to Miami the team had to shuffle its roster and change coaches before ascending to the top. Jim Cleamons, an assistant coach on those Lakers' teams, puts it best: "You look at how Shaquille handled the situation in Miami (with Dwyane Wade). If either (Kobe or Shaq) had been willing to be the people they are today, the Lakers probably would have been back and won two more championships. I wish I knew why Shaquille would bend to a second year player (Wade) and say, 'I'm going to help you and help this team win a championship and take a back seat.' Why he was unwilling to do that with Kobe, I have no idea. But from his behaviors and what he's said and done in Miami, I would have to surmise, not knowing the exact reason why, that it had to be the personalities. For some reason or another, he couldn't go to Kobe and say, 'I'm willing to play off you now. You don't have to play off of me. And we can still make a very viable one-two punch'" (that quote can be found on page 149 of Bill Woten's excellent book Game Seven: Inside the NBA's Ultimate Showdown). Instead, the "two more championships" referred to by Cleamons have been won by Duncan, who will now likely receive top billing for a period that would otherwise have been known as O'Neal's era. Ironically, while O'Neal mended on "company time" and fumed at the thought of sharing credit for winning with Bryant he enabled Duncan to slip past him on history's marquee.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:02 AM