Throughout the 2000s, the Los Angeles Lakers had a few different rivals.
Some like the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings might have been fiercer at their peak, but no team gave Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal more troubles throughout the decade than Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs.
The two teams were the standard-bearers of the Western Conference, appearing in nine of 10 NBA Finals that decade. They won seven championships between them with the Lakers grabbing four while the Spurs took three of their own and more often than not, they had to go through the other to obtain their ultimate goal.
Bryant has always been someone who focused solely on winning and has spoken about how he could’ve won more championships in his career. He has previously stated that had he and O’Neal been able to stay together, they could’ve won 12 championships.
However, in a recent appearance on the “All The Smoke” podcast with Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes, he pointed towards San Antonio when asked why he didn’t win more, according to Mark Dunphy of My San Antonion:
“They were tough,” Bryant continued. “So when the playoffs came around, it wasn’t like Shaq and I weren’t on the same page. When the playoffs came around, we always were on the same page. We just got beat.”
O’Neal and Bryant have spoken previously about how they approached the NBA playoffs, but sometimes another great player can simply be too much and Duncan was certainly capable of that. With Duncan and head coach Gregg Popovich around, Bryant believes that is what truly prevented the Lakers from an almost unprecedented championship run:
“He was lights out. He was lights out. So the talent, the coaching, everything in San Antonio was kind of a perfect storm. If they weren’t in the picture, we probably would have won 10 in a row.”
The Spurs were undoubtedly a challenge, but one that the Lakers were able to get by more often than not. Bryant bested Duncan three times during the decade in 2001, 2002, and 2008. The Spurs repaid the favor on their way to the championship in 2003.
It is hard to believe that any team could win 10 championships, but it definitely feels like the Lakers could have won a few more if not for the combination of the Shaq-Kobe partnership dissolving and a near equal in Duncan and the Spurs. Regardless of what could have been, the two teams remain at the top of the 2000s decade when it comes to success.