The history and future of Shaquille O’Neal’s NBA Finals streak

AUBURN HILLS, UNITED STATES: Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers answers question before practice for game five of the NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons 14 June 2004 at The Palace in Auburn Hills, MI. The Pistons lead the best-of-seven game series 3-1. AFP PHOTO/Jeff HAYNES (Photo credit should read JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images)
AUBURN HILLS, UNITED STATES: Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers answers question before practice for game five of the NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons 14 June 2004 at The Palace in Auburn Hills, MI. The Pistons lead the best-of-seven game series 3-1. AFP PHOTO/Jeff HAYNES (Photo credit should read JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images) /

One of the most interesting, impressive, and straight-up mind-boggling fun facts in all of sports history is Shaquille O’Neal‘s teammate NBA Finals Streak. For those of you who do not know what I am talking about, ever since the 1983-1984 NBA season, every single NBA Finals matchup has featured a teammate of Shaq’s.

Every team in the NBA has a maximum of 15 players on their roster, 13 of which are active. If only two teams make the NBA Finals, that means that mathematically, any randomly selected player in the league only has a 6.67% chance to make the NBA Finals in any given year.

Obviously, the better of a player you are and the better your team is, the chances that you find yourself playing for a title increase. However, it is still very tough for any NBA player to find himself playing basketball into the month of June (or October, or July…who knows these days?).

When you take into account that each player had to have played with just one singular man at some point in his career, you realize how improbable it is that this has been happening every year since 1984.

To put it into perspective, LeBron James was born during the regular season of the first year the streak began.

After LeBron James, Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, and Jared Dudley made the 2020 NBA Finals (sorry, Avery Bradley), the streak reached its 37th year.

Remarkably, the team that won the championship featured a teammate of Shaq’s for 34 straight years, ending in the 2017-2018 Finals matchup when his only former teammate in the series was LeBron James. That year, the Cleveland Cavaliers fell to the Golden State Warriors in 5 games during the first of the Warriors’ back-to-back titles.

In the previous 2016-2017 season, the Warriors had two former teammates of Shaq’s, Matt Barnes (who played with O’Neal in Phoenix from ’08-’09) and Anderson Varejão (CLE ’09-10), but both of them were out of the NBA the following year, ending the champion portion of the Finals appearance streak.

For the two seasons following the 2018 Finals, the team that won the championship again had at least one of Shaq’s teammates on its roster.

Now, before we dive into where the streak is going, we must discuss how we got to where we are.

The history of the Shaquille O’Neal NBA Finals streak:

Let me take you back to nearly four decades ago, to the year 1984, during the season where the streak began. To give some more perspective, Michael Jordan was still playing in a baby blue jersey in Chapel Hill.

The Boston Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1984 NBA Finals, and Greg Kite, who would later backup O’Neal in Orlando once he was drafted by the Magic in 1992, began the illustrious streak.

The next 15 years saw the streak being carried by Greg Kite (ORL ’92-’94), as well as other future Magic and Lakers teammates including Byron Scott (LA ’96-’97), A.C. Green (LA ’99-’00), Dennis Rodman (LA 1999), John Salley (LA ’99-’00), Horace Grant (ORL ’94-’96, LA ’00-’01, ’03-’04), Robert Horry (LA ’97-’03), Steve Kerr (ORL ’92-’93), Ron Harper (LA ’99-’01), and Jerome Kersey (LA ’96-’97).

Shaq and the Orlando Magic made the Finals in 1995 but were swept by Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets. However, Robert “Big Shot Bob” Horry was a member of the Rockets, so the teammate winning the championship part of the streak was still kept alive.

In the next chapter of this distinguished streak, the Kobe and Shaq Lakers achieved a three-peat from 1999-2002, and O’Neal won Finals MVP in each series.

For the remainder of the 2000s, players including Steve Kerr, Elden Campbell (LA ’96-’99), Robert Horry, Shaq himself with the 2006 NBA Champion Miami Heat, the 2008 Celtics Big Three/Four (BOS ’10-’11), Kobe Bryant (LA ’96-’04), and Derek Fisher (’96-’04) continued the streak.

In the 2010s, LeBron James carried the streak on his back by making eight straight NBA Finals. In the championship matchups that he lost, Sasha Pavlović (BOS ’10-’11), Danny Green (CLE ’09-’10), Leandro Barbosa (PHO ’08-’09), and Matt Barnes extended the teammate winning a ring streak until its end in 2018.

After Danny Green and the Toronto Raptors won in 2019, and LeBron and Co. in 2020, the amazing streak has now continued for 37 years, and we look to the future to see how it can be extended.

Barring any team changes, let’s take a look at the current players who can keep Shaquille O’Neal’s streak alive:

First and foremost, LeBron James is the main candidate to continue the streak of Shaquille O’Neal‘s teammates reaching (and winning) the NBA Finals.

LBJ’s contract will have him in the purple and gold for two more seasons after this one, and there are multiple reasons to believe that the Lakers can, and even will, reach the Finals for the next three seasons.

Anthony Davis’ contract, if he doesn’t terminate it after the 2023-2024 season, runs through the 2024-2025 season, so regardless, LeBron’s number two will be with him for the rest of his current contract.

Whether LeBron stays, retires, or leaves to team up with his son Bronny (which I believe will happen unless the Lakers draft him), with LeBron continuing to play without decline, he and the Lakers should remain favorites to make it out of the Western Conference for the next three years.

Until the Clippers can figure it out in the postseason and Jamal Murray can be the best version of himself consistently, barring any seismic changes in the West, I believe the previous statement about the Lakers future as favorites will hold true.

In the Eastern Conference, Shaquille O’Neal should be delighted as his former teammates are very well-dispersed.

The new-look Brooklyn Nets are my favorites to make it out of the East, and they will bring Shaq’s former teammate in Jeff Green (BOS ’10-’11) with them if they were to make the championship.

Green is on a one-year deal so his future with Brooklyn’s big three is unknown.

Down in Miami, there is a guarantee that the Heat will be a top team in the East for the foreseeable future, but there is no guarantee that they will find their way back into the Finals.

However, if they do, Goran Dragić (PHO ’08-’09), Avery Bradley (BOS ’10-’11), and Udonis Haslem (MIA ’04-’08), as long as he keeps that roster spot, will keep the streak alive for The Big Aristotle.

Danny Green is playing out the final season of his current contract as a member of the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers squad, so he can continue the streak if Philly can have their best postseason run of the Simmons and Embiid era.

While the Nets and Sixers roster may not feature any of O’Neal’s teammates after this year, and there is no long-term promise for the future of his former teammates on the Heat, the chances of other players continuing the streak begins to dwindle.

Even though the Atlanta Hawks have an incredible amount of potential in their talented young core lead by Trae Young, they are likely still a few seasons away from competing for a title.

Unless Rajon Rondo re-signs later on with Atlanta as a locker room leader, it is possible that the 34-year-old veteran will not be a part of the team once they develop into true contenders.

The Hawks are a deep team with a lot of promise, but it would be a very tall task for them to make a Finals during Rondo’s current two-year contract.

In addition, Shaq’s old teammate in Robin Lopez (PHO ’08-’09) is currently on the Washington Wizards, but unless he is traded or signs with a contender after this year, there is no reason to believe he can help the streak continue.

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The players mentioned have an opportunity to continue one of the most unique streaks in sports. Outside of the Bucks and Celtics, Shaq is well represented by the top teams in the East, and he has LeBron in the West.

It seems highly likely that the streak of one of Shaquille O’Neal’s former teammates making the NBA Finals will continue on to year 38. On top of that, if LeBron continues to do what he does, there is fair reason to believe that the streak could last for a whopping 40 years, or even longer.

While Shaquille O’Neal did play for six teams over the course of his fascinating 19-year career, his teammate streak is beyond remarkable nonetheless.

The pieces are definitely in place to continue the streak, and it will be fun to watch the twilight of this improbable run over the course of the next half a decade.

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Or longer…?