Kobe vs. Shaq: Who is more valuable? (Kobe – Bellamy)

By and

If the pundits were always right, there would be another one every year. Jerry Stackhouse was one. So was his former teammate, Vince Carter.

Ray Allen was one. Grant Hill was one. Even Penny Hardaway was one. These guys-all of them-were “the next Michael Jordan.” All of them, despite varying degrees of professional success, never quite fit the bill.

If the pundits were right, Michael Jordans would be a dime a dozen.

The pundits aren’t always right-but sometimes they do get lucky. And when they predicted in June 1996 that Kobe Bryant would, in fact, be the man who would take the reigns from MJ, they were right on.

If only that big, offensive fouling, 400-pound oaf of a center would quit stealing his sunshine.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal are both great players. Both have been absolutely integral to the runaway success of the L.A. Lakers the last few years. Neither one could have won the title by himself.

That’s the way it always is, isn’t it? Every superhero needs his sidekick, especially when we’re talking NBA championships. Jordan needed Pippen. Russell needed Cousy. Bird needed McHale. Magic needed Kareem. Malone needed…OK, bad example.

The only debate for the Lakers is, who’s the real superhero, and who’s simply a sidekick?

Let me make it really simple for you: Think about what made Jordan so legendary. It wasn’t just the fancy moves, the tongue, the shoes or those massive scoring binges at Madison Square Garden.

What set Jordan apart was what went down when it really mattered: in the fourth quarter, when the team was down or when the Bulls needed a clutch basket or two in the waning moments of a tight playoff game.

It was all those improbable comebacks, those clutch moments when the team desperately needed a bucket, that Michael Jordan became the best player of his era.

If you’ve watched the Lakers in the postseason over the last four years, it’s clear that Kobe Bryant has been the biggest reason that L.A. pulled off a three-peat.

It’s been this way since the Lakers’ very first title run in the 1999-2000 season.

Shaq was already a grizzled veteran at that point-Kobe was still just 21. If anyone was expected to put the team on his back, it was O’Neal. But that’s not the way it turned out.

In the second game of the conference semifinals against Phoenix, the young Bryant hit a 15-footer with 2.6 seconds left to lift the Lakers to a one-point victory.

In the third game of the now-legendary series between the Lakers and Blazers, Bryant dished the game-winning assist to Ron Harper with less than 30 ticks to play, then went down to the other end and blocked Arvydas Sabonis to seal the deal.

In Game Seven of that series-the Blazers’ infamous choke job-Shaq was practically nonexistent, while Kobe was his usual self.

In the Finals that year, it was even more evident. Let me paint you a picture of Game Four against Indiana: Late in a closely contested game, Shaq fouls out. An injured Bryant, playing on a bum ankle that kept him out of Game Three (a Pacers win), hits three huge jumpers to quiet the Indiana crowd and lead the Lakers to a 120-118 OT victory.

In Game Six-the clinching game of the series-it was Kobe’s four free throws that sealed his and Shaq’s first championship.

Kind of makes you wonder how Shaq would have performed at the foul line with the same pressure.

That was three years ago. Since that time, Bryant has only gotten better. Shaq is, of course, the most physically dominant man in basketball, no question-in part because he’s a good player, and in part because his low post move is, by definition, an offensive foul.

But without a player like Kobe Bryant on the floor with him, Shaq might not have won a single title.

Good as he is, O’Neal has never proven he can consistently be a clutch player late in close games-and as Utah Jazz fans know, that’s a bit of a problem when the playoffs roll around.

He doesn’t completely fall apart late in games as he did during his early years-but he hasn’t exactly been the Lakers’ big-play guy, either. And teams have learned that the Hack-a-Shaq game plan works 9 times out of 10.

He’s generally not dependable when the going gets tough.

Kobe has been there to bail him out time after time after time-it’s he who has broken the hearts of countless playoff opponents.

I’m betting Kobe does opt out of his contract following the season. I’m betting he leaves the Lakers for good.

And when that happens, if he goes to the right organization, he will continue to win championships. He’ll find a couple of complementary players-guys like Pippen, Paxson, Cartwright-and he’ll dominate playoff games like he’s done for the past four years.

Shaq, meanwhile, will go back to whining and crying and laying all the blame on his teammates.

If I want someone who’s going to give me massive statistics, a physical presence and clever postgame sound bites, of course I’ll pick Shaq. But If I want a clutch player who’s going to win me a championship, give me Kobe any day.

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