Social media was abuzz all day yesterday in preparation for the NBA Finals. One of the quotes making it’s way around came from LeBron James before the game.
For some reason, this sent Lakers fans into a bit of a frenzy, seemingly offended that Kobe Bryant was not who LeBron regarded as his biggest adversary.
Not only is that not the case, I’d be even more confused if LeBron had said Kobe was his biggest rival. The two have never met in the Finals, leaving just two games a season since LeBron entered the league. Now, please tell me the greatest moment in the LeBron vs. Kobe “rivalry.” I’ll just wait right here.
Nothing? That’s what I figured. Hell, the thing I remember most about their “rivalry” is the puppet commercials that Nike put on in hopes the two would meet in the NBA Finals.
The rivalry talk yesterday did leave me wondering who Kobe’s greatest rival is. When you’ve played as long as Kobe has, few players match you in longevity. Even fewer match you in performance. And considering how great Kobe’s been, can anyone claim they’ve been at Kobe’s level for his career?
My first thought was players who dueled head to head with Kobe over time. Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, or Allen Iverson. All have come along, given Kobe some hard times, then faded into the darkness. Only Vince Carter even competes in the NBA anymore (no, I’m not counting T-Mac’s cameo with the Spurs during the playoffs) and Carter is a shell of a shell of his former self.
Then I thought about the “Kobe stoppers.” Ruben Patterson, Doug Christie, Bruce Bowen, and Raja Bell. But what do each of these guys have in common? Other than all being retired and long gone (or just irrelevant, in Bell’s case), they all have moments of Kobe dominating them and very little of the opposite. Kobe beat the Blazers (Patterson), Spurs (Bowen), and Kings (Christie) in the playoffs multiple times, and only Bowen ever got a ring. Bell was torched for 50 in a playoff game during the height of his Kobe stopping ability. And 15 years down the road, no one will remember these guys.
What about people who’ve matched him in longevity? Ray Allen, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki. We’re getting closer to rivalries. Allen and Kobe have shared some words in the past, Allen criticizing Kobe when he “ran” Shaq out of town in 2004. But save for the two NBA Finals series, there’s no memorable matchups between the two, and those matchups aren’t memorable because of those two battling. Nash had a couple of showdowns with Kobe, but rivalry talks ended when he joined the Lakers. Dirk matches Kobe in production and longevity, but again, there’s no great matchups with the two going toe to toe.
What about players Kobe can’t battle 1 on 1? Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. All three have a respect for each other, but can you consider two power forwards rivals to Kobe? Garnett’s Timberwolves only notably challenged the Lakers once in the playoffs before the Celtics showdowns with KG. And, like Ray Allen, those matchups aren’t known as “Kobe against KG” matchups, but Lakers vs. Celtics games. Tim Duncan does have a pretty strong case, though. Kobe and Duncan have battled in numerous playoff matchups as well as many regular season showdowns. But could you consider two players who don’t guard each other, have few battles on the court, and generally don’t have a moment that defines them to be rivals? In a general sense, Duncan could be Kobe’s rival, but we don’t want general.
Maybe Paul Pierce is the answer. If there were any two players squaring off in the Celtics-Lakers series, it was Kobe vs. Paul Pierce. Paul Pierce won the Finals MVP the first time around, Kobe the second. Each had prolific scoring nights in the Finals against one another. But save for those 13 Finals games, can you name me another Paul Pierce-Kobe Bryant game? In reality, most the time the Lakers played Pierce’s Celtics, the Celtics were plain bad and the Lakers ran over them. But Pierce is the closest we’ve gotten to a head to head rival for Kobe.
But who is someone that will forever be linked to Kobe and vice versa? Someone who battled Kobe on the court and possibly even off? Someone who, no matter what team they were on, his battles with Kobe were always high-profile? Maybe it’s someone who attacked Kobe personally and Kobe fought right back? Maybe it’s someone who won and lost with Kobe? Maybe it’s someone larger than life?
Maybe it’s Shaquille O’Neal.
Think about it. Whenever you mention Shaq’s name, the first player you think of is Kobe Bryant. And when you mention Kobe Bryant, one of the first things you think of is Shaq. No player will be linked to Kobe in his career more than Shaq will forever be. And you can name memorable Shaq-Kobe moments.
Outside of winning titles together, there was the Christmas Day matchup the year after Shaq left for Miami, which was the most watched Christmas Day game of all-time for four years. Then you have Shaq’s famous rap, where he said “Kobe couldn’t do it without me,” (referring to the 2008 NBA Finals) as well as the more famous “Kobe, tell me how my ass tastes” line. When Kobe won his fifth title in 2010, a reporter asked what it meant to win his fifth title. His answer? “I got one more than Shaq.”
Looking at the stats, it’s obvious the two got hyped up for the game against each other. Shaq had games of 24 and 11, 25 and 12, and 33 and 7 against Kobe. Kobe went off for for 30+ points eight times in their 11 meetings.
In more recent years, the rivalry and animosity seems to have died down. O’Neal has thrown all sorts of praise at Kobe, calling him the greatest player he’s played with. Most recently, Kobe recorded a speech prior to Shaq’s jersey retirement ceremony, where he called him the “most gifted physical specimen to play the game” and called their run together “historical.” Both have said they have a good relationship now and that the past was a learning experience, but that doesn’t change the past.
No man will be linked to Kobe Bryant more than the Diesel. His entire career has been predicated on Shaq. First, it was “He only won with Shaq”, then it was “Kobe can’t win without Shaq”, and then Kobe finally got his without Shaq in 2009 and 2010.
If that doesn’t define a rivalry, I don’t know what does.