The modern Warriors are making their mark as one of the greatest teams of all time… which means every sportswriter with a keyboard is happily pounding out think-pieces about how they’d measure up against the greatest teams of yester-year. This “Warriors What-If” series is how we’re doing ours.
In 2017, the Warriors went an unprecedented 16-1 in the playoffs… but that’s only unprecedented because you only needed 15 wins back in 2001, when the Lakers likewise swept the Western Conference and gave up only a single game in the Finals. So who’s better? Shaq and Kobe, or the four-headed beast of the Bay?
On the one hand, the Warriors have never seen anybody like Shaq, and in a post-handcheck world they’re unlikely to be able to slow down peak-athleticism Kobe. On the other side, though, the Lakers weren’t built to defend the kind of small ball sharpshooter lineups the Warriors specialize in; while Shaq could take away the paint and Kobe was perhaps at his defensive apex in 2001, the rest of LA’s lineup is made up of good-not-great defenders unlikely to contain MVP-caliber scorers like Curry and Durant.
So who’s got the bigger advantage? Let’s break it down.
Point Guard: Steph Curry vs. Derek Fisher
This is a Warriors beat down, no two ways about it, but Fisher’s job here isn’t to outplay Curry, or even really contain him. Fisher basically has one responsibility on each side of the ball: chase Steph off the three point line, and make his own open threes when the opportunity presents itself.
2001 era Fisher is capable of both; it’s easy to forget with memories of useless old-man Fish still fresh in our minds, but the vintage model was both athletic and a tenacious defender. Yes, he was still a flopper (which is probably good for at least one cheap foul against Curry per game), but he also had speed, strength, and young man’s fire.
That all said, Curry could (and would) roast him off the dribble. You’re not stopping Steph Curry with anyone, and definitely not with Fish; the only goal is to make him kill you with 2s instead of 3s. Fisher might be up to that task.
On the other end, young Fish is a strong shooter, and a famously clutch one. He won’t create much of his own offense, but when Shaq and Kobe set ‘em up, he can knock ‘em down.
Shooting Guard: Klay Thompson vs. Kobe Bryant
This one is rough on Golden State. Klay is great, but for my money, 2001 Kobe may be the very best version. He’d add more post moves, footwork, and range as he aged, but early-prime Kobe had the best combination of athleticism, skill, and mentality; this is the season where he perfectly walked the tightrope of being determined to score, but willing to pass. Still LA’s #2 guy, but also perhaps the NBA’s #2* guy.
*If we’re being honest, more likely #3 behind Tim Duncan.
As we discussed in the Bulls version of this article, a post-handcheck ruleset means guys like Jordan and Kobe are even more destructive than they were during their considerable primes. Klay Thompson is a great defender, but Kobe was torching guys like Bruce Bowen and Doug Christie back when they were basically allowed to mug him on his way to the rim. Kobe’s getting his against Klay, especially since Golden State doesn’t have a true rim protector to stop him.
On the other end, 2001 Kobe is probably apex defensive Kobe: experienced enough to know all the tricks, young enough that he still gives a damn, and athletic enough to recover from whatever mistakes Klay might bait him into.
Over a seven game series between these two teams, Klay would get the better of Kobe once, maybe twice. 2001 Kobe was a little streaky offensively and prone to the occasional dud, and on those nights when Klay is really feeling it, there’s not a defender in basketball history that could really shut him down.
But those other five or six games? Kobe’s eating his lunch.
Small Forward: Kevin Durant vs. Rick Fox
On paper, Rick Fox is exactly the kind of guy you want playing small forward for you. He’s athletic enough to switch onto 2s, strong enough to switch onto 4s, and plays hard on both ends. He can make open shots, and he plays D like his life depend on it. He’s not a star, but you can win titles with him as your fourth or fifth best guy (the Lakers did it three times, even).
That all said, he’s roadkill against Durant. Fox can probably check KD just enough to keep him from going full-on nuclear, but he isn’t stopping him, and he isn’t making him work terribly hard on defense, either. He’s a good enough shooter that he might keep Durant honest, and neuter some of his mighty weakside shotblocking game, but overall, this isn’t going to be Rick’s time to shine.
Power Forward: Draymond Green vs. Horace Grant
This matchup is less fun than the names involved imply. This isn’t Chicago All-Star Horace Grant, this is thirty-five-year-old-running-on-fumes Horace Grant. He’s still physical, he can still grab rebounds, and he’s even still a decent mid-range outlet… but he’s no match for Draymond Green.
Grant doesn’t have the footspeed to stay in front of Dray, so he’d have to play off him and dare him to shoot (usually the smartest way to play Draymond anyway), but he’d still be in trouble every time Golden State ran a pick-and-roll… and they run a lot of them. This matchup puts a ton of pressure on Fisher, Fox, and Kobe to slither around screens against three of the deadliest shooters who’ve ever lived.
The good news for LA, though? Grant’s not playing crunchtime. More on that in a minute.
Yeah… Zaza’s just six fouls and a post-game zinger to Shaq. It’s really hard to overstate how monstrous 2001 Shaq really was, but here’s a start: in the 2001 Finals he was guarded by reigning 4x Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo. Dikembe is probably one of the five best defensive big men ever, and he trails only Hakeem Olajuwon in career blocks.
Shaq put 44 points on him in Game 1. In Game 2—the most important game of the series, with the Lakers in danger of going back to Philly down 2-0—Shaq came within an assist and two blocks of the NBA’s fifth ever quadruple double (which would have been the first in playoff and Finals history) with a monstrous 28/20/9/8 stat line.
For the series: 33 points, 16 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3.5 blocks while shooting 57% from the field against Dikembe.
Zaza ain’t 2001 Dikembe.
The good news for Golden State? Zaza isn’t playing crunchtime, either.
Sixth Man: Andre Iguodala vs. Robert Horry
These guys are listed as the sixth men of their respective teams, but both can expect to play down the stretch in this matchup. Iguodala is Golden State’s do-everything Swiss Army Knife off the bench, the key substitution that unlocks their vaunted Death Lineup. Robert Horry is LA’s crunchtime secret weapon, a jack of all trades who might just be the scariest big time shot taker in basketball history. Subbing him in for Grant unlocks LA’s own deadliest lineup, allowing them to go with four shooters around Shaq.
Both players can guard four positions (1-4 for Iggy, 2-5 for Horry) and both have swung Finals series in their careers (Iggy with his Finals MVP defense on Lebron in 2015, Horry with his dagger against Detroit for the Spurs in 2005). These guys are the ultimate championship role players.
In his prime, Iggy was better. But 2001 Robert Horry is about as good as Horry got, while 2018 Iggy has lost a step. Horry’s clutch shooting and playmaking pedigree is a bit more valuable in this particular matchup than Iggy’s versatility, so a mild edge to the Lakers here.
The Rest of the Bench:
Golden State has the edge here, as the Lakers really only went eight deep. Brian Shaw and Tyronn Lue fill out their rotation as specialist guards, but the combined might of Livingston/McGee/Young/Bell/etc. is an easy win for Golden State on paper…but there’s a catch.
2001 LA didn’t really have to play many bench lineups. In the Finals that year, Shaq averaged 45 minutes per game. Kobe averaged 47. Golden State’s usual advantage of being able to play their stars with their bench guys while the other team is forced to rest doesn’t apply here; they only get one minute per game of no Kobe, and that minute comes with a whole lot of Shaq.
The bench depth favors the Warriors, sure, but the Lakers probably don’t care.
Coach: Steve Kerr vs. Phil Jackson
We went over this last time around, and gave the razor’s edge to Kerr owing mostly to his familiarity with Jackson’s system having played in it, and his willingness and ability to adapt as a series wears on. However, there is no adapting to Shaq. Popovich couldn’t figure it out, neither could Rick Adelman or Larry Bird.
This is especially true of Golden State’s roster. They have, theoretically, four options for covering Shaq: Zaza (starter), Draymond Green (death lineup), Javale McGee and Jordan Bell (bench lineups).
JaVale and Jordan are just foul-fodder. Putting them in hurts the Warriors on offense by taking a shooter off the floor and providing no real chance of slowing Shaq down beyond making him shoot free throws (we’ll come back to this). That leaves Zaza, who isn’t going to do much better, and Draymond Green.
Draymond Green is a tremendous defender. He’s won the Defensive Player of the Year award, he can guard five positions, and he’s the key to what the Warriors do. He’s also 6’7. Can even the most talented 6’7 defender meaningfully slow down Shaq?
The answer is no. We know this because in the 2004 Finals, an older, slower Shaq shot 63% against the 6’9 Ben Wallace, a 4x Defensive Player of the Year himself, and a much better shot-blocker than Draymond. Wallace even had help from an improbably better defensive team than Draymond does, and it still just didn't matter; the Big Dog eats.
“But what about double teams?” They don’t work on 2001 Shaq. He’s one of the best passing big men in basketball history. If you’re doubling him, that means you’re either leaving Fox (39% 3pt FG%), Fisher (40%, up to 52% in the playoffs), or Robert Horry (62% in the 2001 Finals and one of the deadliest clutch shooters of all time) open for an easy spot up shot… or you’re leaving Kobe alone. There is no right answer.
So, as far as coaching goes, Kerr might have the edge in theory, but he doesn’t really have the tools on his roster to do anything about Shaq, and Phil's still no slouch.
So, who wins?
Well, that really comes down to which team can slow down the other one’s offense just enough. The Warriors can’t stop Shaq at all (48/25/8 on 80% shooting isn't out of the question given that the Warriors have no credible option against him), so they have to figure out a way to stop Kobe and the shooters.
Unfortunately for them, there’s not really a way to do both. They could slow down Kobe some by packing the paint, but that opens up the shooters, and 2001 Kobe was a killer passer. The other option is to stay home on the shooters, but then Kobe gets to go one-on-one in a handcheck-free lane with no help. Look at the way Westbrook lights them up when they try to play him straight up, then remember that Kobe was a way better shooter, finisher, and ballhandler than Westbrook.
As for the inevitable “but what about Hack-a-Shaq” question… what about it? Either the Warriors put somebody on the court just to commit fouls, in which case they’ve neutered their own best lineup, or they risk their best guys getting into foul trouble (to say nothing of the physical toll it takes to foul Shaq when he’s in motion). Worse, Golden State is a transition team that wants to play fast; every time they foul Shaq, they’re slowing the game down and giving LA a chance to set up their defense.
So… the Lakers are scoring as much as they want. Golden State is built to defend against modern teams full of switchy perimeter guys; they have no answer for a rampaging kaiju like Shaq or a generational slasher like Kobe, and Hack-a-Shaq short-circuits their own offense.
On the other end, the Lakers have their own problems.
Horace Grant is basically unplayable against the Warriors’ strongest lineups, but that’s not a crisis as Robert Horry is a better fit against them on both ends anyway.
But they need to figure out what to do with Shaq. 2001 Shaq was probably fast enough to chase Draymond around the perimeter, but they wouldn’t want him to; part of what made him so special was his ability to basically “turn off” the paint as a high-percentage option for opponents.
So they’re probably letting Draymond shoot until he proves he’s hot that night (and most nights he won’t be; he’s shooting only 30% from deep this season), at which point they’ll switch Fox or Horry onto him and make Iggy prove it, too (shooting 25% from deep this season), while leaving Shaq at home to snuff drives and grab rebounds.
Of course, that doesn’t account for KD, Steph, and Klay. Fisher, Kobe, Fox, and Horry will be tasked with hounding those three guys off the perimeter, and the Lakers will probably live with them raining down midrange shots. They’re all great midrange shooters, but even the best midrange shooter is making less of his two point shots than Shaq is making of his.
Enter the pick and roll. This is where the game is ultimately decided. If the Warriors run the pick and roll with Shaq’s man, they force the Lakers to make a real tough choice: take Shaq out of the paint, or let the Warriors shoot threes off the bounce.
I think the Lakers would probably let them shoot. Fish, Kobe, and Fox were all decent at getting around screens (and nobody on the Warriors is especially world-class at setting them), and could probably bother a few of those attempts… but even if the Splash Brothers are shooting 40% on off-the-bounce attempts, that’s 12 points per ten shots. Shaq’s giving the Lakers probably 14-18 per ten shots (plus free throws) on the other end, and the Lakers are getting way more possessions thanks to their rebounding edge*. They can live with that math.
*The Warriors’ best lineup averages 25 boards per game against a smaller league with more possessions. The Lakers’ best lineup averaged 28.3 boards per game in the regular season, and 34.4 when they actually gave a crap in the Finals.
Now, of course, those numbers assume that Shaq’s shooting 2s as often as Klay/Steph/KD are shooting threes which is of course… almost exactly in line with their FGA and 3PTFGA averages, respectively.
So, then… are Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, and Rick Fox worth at least as many points as the Warriors can generate inside the arc? By the numbers? Almost exactly, and that’s before factoring in what the hand-check rule is likely to do for Kobe.
That ignores plenty of variables of course, so let’s cover a few of them quickly here:
*Won’t Shaq and Kobe get tired? Nope. Shaq played over 40 minutes 40 times that season, against way more physical D. He played over 44 minutes in 9/16 playoff games. Kobe was an indefatigable freak in his early 20s who played 47 minutes a night in the Finals. They’ll be fine.
*You’ve covered the Death Lineup vs. LA’s best lineup, but what about the minutes where those aren’t happening? Those minutes favor LA; they’ve got Shaq for most of them, and when they don’t they’ve still got Kobe going against a defense that isn’t allowed to lay hands on him. The Warriors don't have the interior presence to deal with either.
*Don’t the Warriors shoot better than that sometimes? Yes, sometimes they do. More often, they don’t, and this is a solid defensive Lakers team. The Warriors basically need to shoot 45% from deep against a good defense to win these games, and that’s an unreasonable ask over a series.
*The Lakers weren’t THAT good defensively, right? Weren’t they only 21st in the league in D-RTG? In the regular season, sure. But Derek Fisher only played 20 regular season games, Kobe missed 14, and Shaq missed 8. Also, they didn’t really care. Look what they did in the playoffs against elite offenses led by guys like Chris Webber, Tim Duncan, David Robinson, and Allen Iverson: they held their playoff opponents to 41% shooting (2nd) and 90.6 points per game (3rd). They also swept a passing-and-perimeter based Kings offense (including snipers Peja Stojakovic, Doug Christie, and Bobby Jackson) that was the closest thing going to the modern Warriors, holding them to 40% shooting. They were a great defensive team when they tried to be.
*You’re underselling Draymond, aren’t you? Isn’t he at least as good as Ben Wallace? He’s better than Ben Wallace. But he’s a way worse matchup against Shaq, where he’s giving up two extra inches and ten extra pounds against a way better model (2001 Shaq vs. 2004 Shaq). He also doesn’t have Wallace’s vertical, nor does he have a supporting defensive big like Rasheed Wallace to help save him some strain/fouls.
*What about KD’s defense. Can’t he defend Kobe? Or even Shaq? He plays center sometimes, right? Kevin Durant weighs 85 lbs less than Shaq and is stick-thin. Not only can he not guard Shaq, he’d probably get injured trying. As for Kobe… look, nobody could really guard 2001 Kobe back when they were allowed to karate chop him. KD certainly can’t do it now. Also, for all the “KD for DPOY” buzz going around, it’s worth noting that the Warriors are actually 6 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when KD is on the court than off it. They also allow 3 more points per 100 than they did the season before he joined the team. KD is a fine defender, but he’s overrated on that end and hasn’t made the Warriors any better on it.
*I know you’ve already made your point, but can you throw in one more crazy Shaq fact to really seal the deal about how hard to guard he was? Sure! In the 2001 Western Conference Finals, Shaq was up against the greatest defensive power forward ever (Tim Duncan) and probably the sixth or seventh greatest defensive center ever (David Robinson) at the same time. That Spurs team was the league’s top defense that season (they allowed 19.5 fewer points per game than the current Warriors. For reference; that’s basically one Klay Thompson worth). Duncan and Robinson combined, for their careers, for a whopping 23 All-Defensive selections (Duncan’s 15 remain by far the most ever), and David Robinson was the 1992 Defensive Player of the Year. Both players made both the All-Star and All-NBA teams that season (Duncan 1st, Robinson 3rd). Shaq lit them up for 27/13 per game on 54% shooting and swept them. He also held Robinson to 41% shooting, well below his season average of 49%. Kobe likewise torched them, going off for 33/7/7 on 51% shooting.
Final Verdict: Nobody figured out how to stop apex Shaq in the early 2000s, and the Warriors are especially poorly suited to do it now. They could steal a game or two in a seven game series if they got hot enough from deep or if Kobe had an off-night, but 2001 Shaq means the Lakers get easy buckets whenever they want, dominate the turnover battle, and turn the paint into a no-go zone for Golden State’s driving game. Throw in an unleashed Kobe at the peak of his athletic prowess and enough shooters to keep GSW honest, and I have to give this one to the Big Aristotle and company.