The NBA, much like any sports league, contains a multiverse of what ifs that surround how history actually played out — tormenting fanbases forever. What if LeBron James had never left Cleveland? What if Michael Jordan never played baseball? They go on forever, and some of them are so painful, they affect the players themselves. Shaquille O’Neal doesn’t just have one what if that stays with him, he has three, and he told ESPN’s Mike & Mike that if they had gone differently, he “was supposed to have seven rings.”
Shaq won three with Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson and the Lakers, and a fourth with Dwyane Wade and the Heat. To hear him tell it, he should have won back in 1995 against the Houston Rockets with Penny Hardaway and the Magic, a fourth title with the Lakers, and a second with the Heat. So, forgetting about the ripple effect of Shaq changing teams during his career, is he right?
While the Magic were undeniably talented and fun as all hell in ’95, Hakeem Olajuwon was certainly a better player at the time, and had a veteran roster that had just won the title the year before. Also, they had Robert Horry on the squad, which is all but a championship guarantee. To use Shaq’s term, the Magic could have won that series in a “perfect world,” but it’s hard to say they deserved to win.
Los Angeles is where Shaq can and should feel like he left titles on the table. His relationship with Kobe Bryant was notoriously volatile, but they still had the horses to easily beat the Detroit Pistons in 2004. That Pistons team remains one of the biggest outliers among title winners going back to the days before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and it’s all because the Lakers were coming apart at the seams.
And as far as the Heat’s first season with Shaq, Detroit were once again the culprits, but the 2005 Heat were not the 2004 Lakers. The Pistons had all the confidence in the world defending their title, and Ben Wallace was as adept at defending Shaq as anybody. Dwyane Wade, who was superhuman when the Heat won the following season, was only in his second season and had yet to make the leap. He averaged 18 points per game in the 2005 postseason, and 27 in 2006. Shaq may have just been Shaq, but the Heat still needed to get better — and add Jason Williams, Antoine Walker and, coincidentally, Gary Payton — to earn their title.
After all, Shaq sidestepped the real what-if question that the two Mikes asked him: what if he had been able to coexist with Kobe? By the time 2006 rolled around, Shaq was older and allowed Wade to be the lead guy on the team. What if he had come to his senses before leaving L.A.? If both superstars had remained happy and motivated, there’s no telling how many titles they could have won (or at least how many battles they would have had with the San Antonio Spurs). And that, more than any retrospective flipping of box scores, is the tragic what-if of Shaq’s career.