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Two to Tango

Jordan and Pippen ... Kareem and Magic ...(Astaire and Rogers): A Case Can Be Made for Many Dynamic Duos, but O'Neal and Bryant Could Be Greatest Ever--if They Can Stay Together

April 21, 2001|MARK HEISLER

Why this is still possible:

Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

In sports, being good enough means never having to say you're sorry and being great means no one will care if you make sense or even speak the language.

Being the Best Ever, which the Shaq-Kobe tandem could become?

It means you can have a season-long snit, put everyone around you through hell, get it together a week before the playoffs, accuse the media of making it up and still have time to mount a meaningful defense of your NBA title, as the Lakers now hope to do.

At midseason, amid reports of their latest standoff, Turner's Danny Ainge likened it to asking Michael Jordan to play with Wilt Chamberlain.

Now that Shaq and Kobe seem to be in a better place the question becomes:

If Jordan and Wilt had gotten along, who could have possibly dealt with them?

Make no mistake, if Shaq and Kobe aren't already the best tandem ever, they're on the list.

"I think they compare very favorably," said ESPN's Jack Ramsay, whose NBA service dates from the '60s.

"The amazing thing about both of these guys is, they're both still in their prime," says new Wizard Coach Doug Collins, who arrived in the '70s. "They're still young. There's so much ahead of them."

What they have already done isn't bad. In Bryant's second season as a starter, he and O'Neal won a title. In this, Bryant's third, Shaq (28.7) and Kobe (28.5) combined for 57.2 points a game.

In 1961-62, the Lakers' second season here, Elgin Baylor (38.3) and Jerry West (30.8), generally considered the most explosive tandem ever, combined for 69.1.

That season, the Philadelphia Warriors' Chamberlain and Paul Arizin established the two-man record, 72.3. Of course, Wilt got 50.4 of those while Arizin, an aging jump shooter in his last season, added 21.9, which is why no one talks about the Wilt-Arizin tandem.

Factoring in the NBA's radical loss of offense over 39 seasons, Shaq and Kobe are within 0.4 of a point of basketball's Paul Bunyan and his helper.

Adjusting for the 20% drop from 118.8 points a game in 1962 to 94.7 this season, the Wilt-Arizin total becomes 57.6 and the Baylor-West total becomes 55.1.

However, a tandem's impact involves not only scoring but defense, the ability to complement each other and win titles, measured over time.

The one test O'Neal and Bryant haven't surmounted is that of time. As their history suggests, for Shaq and Kobe, basketball is easy and everything else is the problem. For what could be the greatest tandem of all, the challenge begins with remaining a tandem.

*

Until recently, the history of great NBA teams was not the history of great tandems.

The great Celtic dynasty of the '50s and '60s was more of an ensemble production.

So were Wilt's two overpowering teams, the '67 76ers and the '72 Lakers, which set records for victories en route to title romps.

The Showtime Lakers, who won five titles in the '80s, and the Celtics, who won three, had great 1-2 punches (Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale) but they also had such Hall of Fame No. 3 options as James Worthy and Robert Parish.

By the '90s, the salary cap began to bite and even great teams no longer brought first-line players like Michael Cooper, Bill Walton and Bob McAdoo off the bench.

The '90s marked the arrival of the first tandem-driven dynasty, the Bulls of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

They were succeeded by another tandem-driven champion, the Tim Duncan-David Robinson Spurs in 1999 . . . then by the Shaq-Kobe Lakers in 2000.

This isn't science but opinion, which is why I can suggest a list of the greatest tandems:

1. Jordan and Pippen. The champs, six times over.

Jordan was definitely the senior partner, but Pippen was a highly skilled assistant, establishing himself as the prototype of a new kind of player, the 6-foot-7, do-everything-including-run-the-offense forward.

Playing second fiddle was a problem . . . until Jordan left and Pippen learned he didn't like being The Man. After Jordan came back, they got along effortlessly.

How great were they? How about six titles in their last six full seasons, a 203-43 record in their last three and a 90-26 postseason record in their title runs, with journeymen manning the center position?

2. O'Neal and Bryant. The world should be their oyster if . . .

In size, athleticism and skill level, there has never been anything like them.

Shaq, 29, is the neo-Wilt. Ramsay, who was Chamberlain's general manager in Philadelphia in the '60s, says Shaq is better.

Bryant, 22, is generally considered the game's best all-around player.

"It's interesting," says Collins, "but you take Shaq and Kobe--first of all, two very talented players. Two very intelligent players. Two guys who want to win. And they're tailor-made for each other because Kobe needs the dominance of Shaq inside to be able to do the things he does.

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