The dominant duo of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal helped propel the Los Angeles Lakers to three consecutive NBA championships at the start of the millennium.
But one of the most successful stretches in franchise history would come to an end in 2004, when O’Neal found himself traded to the Miami Heat. Such a move was imminent after O’Neal and Bryant’s relationship came to an abrupt end following continuous disagreements.
Plus, O’Neal was pressing then-Lakers owner Jerry Buss for a new contract, which Buss was hesitant to dole out for an aging player. With the Heat, O’Neal would add a fourth NBA championship to his resume in 2006, serving as Miami’s go-to option on offense, along with rising star Dwyane Wade.
During a Players Only interview on TNT, Bryant admitted that he knew O’Neal would win a title with the Heat, adding that it further fueled his motivation:
“I knew you were going to get one, because of the energy, going to Miami, D-Wade, everything that was there. I knew you were going to get that one. So I knew I had to get at least two or three. I wanted you to get that, because I needed that. I wanted that. I wanted people to say, ‘See, see. This is what they’re missing. This is what they gave up for. Kobe should’ve been the one to go.’ I needed that, I wanted that. I wanted everybody to hate me and fuel off that. And just come back with so much anger and so much vengeance. So when you won, right after you won, I went out to the tracks and I ran. I did my conditioning, I did my drills, woke up the next morning and hit my weights, did my 1,000 shots, I did everything humanly possible. But I needed that. I was like, ‘Good.’”
In the absence of O’Neal, the Lakers endured a few seasons of mediocrity before returning to prominence at the end of the decade.
As Bryant continued to play at an MVP level, the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies at the 2008 NBA trade deadline to add another superstar to the fold — giving the team legitimate championship aspirations.
Together, Bryant and Gasol would lead the Lakers to three consecutive NBA Finals appearances from 2008-10, winning championships during the latter two years. That pushed Bryant’s ring total to five, surpassing O’Neal’s total of four when it was all said and done.