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Column: Greatness is only thing Lakers’ talented twosome shares with Shaq and Kobe

The Lakers' LeBron James, left, talks with Anthony Davis after the Game 2 win over the Miami Heat on Oct. 2, 2020.
LeBron James, left, talks with Anthony Davis after the Lakers defeated the Miami Heat 124-114 on Friday night to take a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

In the wake of the Lakers’ NBA Finals domination, it has become trendy to link the tandem of LeBron James and Anthony Davis to their celebrated predecessors Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

Don’t.

Don’t compare them, don’t align them, and certainly don’t romanticize their connection.

The one and obvious similarity between the twosomes is that they both combined to lead the Lakers to greatness. Yet in every other way they are polar opposites, conducting their relationships in styles as different as AD’s sweet smile and Shaq’s sweaty scowl.

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LeBron and AD are a dynamic duo. Kobe and Shaq were a dynamic duel.

LeBron and AD are tight. Kobe and Shaq were taut.

LeBron and AD genuinely like each other. Kobe and Shaq genuinely did not.

The comparisons between the two pairings came into colorful focus Friday night when, during the Lakers’ 124-114 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 2, LeBron and AD became the first Lakers pair to score at least 30 points apiece in an NBA Finals game since Kobe and Shaq did it in 2002.

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As they prepare for Game 3 of the NBA Finals against the short-handed Heat, the Lakers are saying that the job isn’t close to being done.

The synergy was striking. The history was undeniable. Even the players themselves were in awe of this glorious association.

“I can’t even believe I’m up here talking about myself and AD with Kobe and Shaq,” James said in a rare moment of wonderment.

As one who covered that last Kobe-and-Shaq Finals barrage against the New Jersey Nets in 2002, I couldn’t believe it either. That long-ago game was nothing like the shared greatness of Friday night.

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In a three-point Game 3 victory in 2002, Bryant made two big shots in the final minutes and then walked off the court flexing his biceps in an imitation of O’Neal’s trademark move. He had outscored Shaq by exactly one point — 36-35 — and everybody knew exactly what he meant with the move.

“Subconsciously, yeah,” teammate Brian Shaw said at the time. “That’s the way it always is.”

Fast-forward to Friday night, when LeBron scored 33, AD added 32 and they both seemed sincerely happy for each other. A midgame argument ended in a postgame hug, with James whispering to Davis through a towel to hide his words.

“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,” Davis said. “When you have two guys that are selfless ... it’s rare you see it. We know we have something special with us two and this team.”

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It is, indeed, rare to find two superstars who wait for each other during postgame interviews to walk back to the locker room together amid nudges and quips. That’s how LeBron and AD roll, jokingly playing off each other in ways that they’ve said remind them of the characters in the movie “Step Brothers.”

When Anthony Davis joined LeBron James and the Lakers, there was only one goal: an NBA championship. They have been in lockstep during that pursuit.

Meanwhile, Kobe once called Shaq “fat and out of shape” while Shaq once wrote and performed a rap in which he explicitly told Kobe to kiss his butt.

It is also rare to find two superstars who empower each other on the court like LeBron and AD, both of them equally enhancing and unselfish. Sometimes it seems like they’re playing a two-man game, sharing the ball, sharing the defensive coverage, heartwarmingly sharing the glory.

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Meanwhile, Kobe and Shaq facilitated the Lakers’ loss to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals because they could barely stomach passing each other the ball.

Lakers teammates Kobe Bryant, left, and Shaquille O'Neal sit on the bench during the 2004 Western Conference finals.
Kobe Bryant, left, and Shaquille O’Neal, pictured in 2004, won three NBA titles together with the Lakers but also were known for not getting along.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

James and Davis have become so close, there is zero chance Davis leaves town this coming winter as a free agent, and a decent chance both men can stay motivated enough to equal Kobe and Shaq’s three championships together.

Meanwhile, Kobe and Shaq could have won six championships if they wouldn’t have essentially forced owner Jerry Buss to make a choice. Buss chose Kobe, and Shaq was sent to Miami. Only years later did they forge a civil relationship that culminated in O’Neal’s touching eulogy this year at Kobe’s memorial service.

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The Lakers relationship between Kobe and Shaq was filled with many memorable triumphs but also so much angst that the feuding eventually overshadowed the fun.

The Lakers relationship between LeBron and AD, while still new, has felt so much healthier even from the start. For example, when newly acquired AD attended James’ players-only camp last fall in Las Vegas, despite being a superstar in his own right, he kept his mouth shut.

“I just tried to follow his lead,” AD said of LeBron in a conversation with The Times’ Tania Ganguli.

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At the same time, James immediately let it be known that he was willing to defer.

“If we’re not playing through Anthony Davis while he’s on the floor, then it makes no sense to have him on the floor,” James said. “Because he’s that great.”

The dynamic was clear. With three rings, LeBron was secure enough to share. With no rings, AD was hungry enough to listen.

The relationship between Kobe and Shaq never enjoyed that built-in advantage. Shaq was an insecure veteran who had never won a title. Kobe was a brash kid who thought he could win that title on his own. They were an emotional accident waiting to happen. Their friendship was ultimately doomed by, among other things, a dangerous trait that belonged to Shaq, a trait that is noticeably missing from the LeBron and AD equation.

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“We’re not jealous of each other,” LeBron said in reference to a question about the flourishing of his relationship with AD. “I think that’s the best thing in professional sports — you have guys that join forces to become alpha males.”

He added: “I think jealousy creeps in a lot. And that is the absolute contrary of what we are.”

It shows in LeBron’s constant looks for the open AD, in AD continually following the energetic lead of LeBron, even to the point of AD always doing his postgame interviews after LeBron.

As they sit two wins from their first NBA title together, the current Lakers duo might never match the wondrous and enduring era of Kobe and Shaq.

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But enjoy this new ride and feel free to celebrate the difference.

Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.


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