NBA Comparison: 2000s Los Angeles Lakers vs. LeBron James’ Teams

Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal
Every day, social media is full of talk about classic match-ups and often it is how a player or team today matches up with a player or team from yesteryear. Here, we’ll examine how a combination of players from the 2000s Los Angeles Lakers match up with a combination of the LeBron James-led Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers. To make it fair, we made it two organizations against one and followed James from one team to the other and then back, simply because of the sheer dominance of the Lakers over the course of a decade.

NBA Comparison: 2000s Los Angeles Lakers vs. LeBron James’ Teams

One such recent post on Facebook by Terrell Terry drew more than 500 comments about how the players match up:
It’s fun to look back and talk about great teams and how their players would fare against other great teams and players if you love the NBA. But to really dig into the conversation, let’s first discuss the key players involved.

2000s Lakers

Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace, Derek Fisher, Tyronn Lue, Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Ron Harper, Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, Andrew Bynum, Trevor Ariza, and Brian Shaw would make up a deep team that has not only superstar talent, but also a long list of role players who could contribute in various areas. Those role players did not necessarily require the ball to have value. Every great team needs a complete roster. We’re not trying to make an All-Star team; we’re trying to construct a well-rounded roster in which each member has a clearly defined role. The thought is that roster formulation must result in winning; we do not just want the biggest names we can add. It also takes into account the number of seasons they played with their respective teams, and in some instances, where the players were in their careers when they joined the discussion.

With 10 years to choose from, there are some high-level Lakers players like Glen Rice, Horace Grant, Isaiah Rider, Mitch Richmond, Lindsey Hunter, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, and Caron Butler that had to be cut from the list due to the time they were on the team and whether or not that time resulted in championships. Had it been about a particular season, those and other players would be key to the story, but for the purposes of this exercise, we focused on a roster that weighed in large part on longevity. Most of the players here were contributors to the Lakers for several seasons.

LeBron James-led Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron James is obviously the focus here, but his team is actually a combination of players from his days in Cleveland and in Miami. Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving, Ray Allen, Kevin Love, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Anderson Varejao, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony, Mo Williams, and J.R. Smith make up this squad.
Carlos Boozer, Eric Snow, Shannon Brown, Larry Hughes, Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Antawn Jamison, Mike Bibby, and Shaquille O’Neal didn’t make the cut.
O’Neal doesn’t make this list, nor does Boozer and the others listed here. That’s not because of talent. Like the Lakers example above, these players just didn’t play with James for enough seasons to be considered for a group that includes a decade-plus in which James led championship-level teams for the Heat or Cavaliers.


The Heat and Cavs teams featuring James are quite deep at guard spots with Irving, Wade, and Allen. The Lakers may have the top guard on any of these rosters (Bryant), but they don’t have the depth of talent that has played alongside James. Fisher, Ariza, Shaw, Fox, and Lue were more of the role player variety. However, it’s worth noting that each of them contributed in a unique way, whether it be to come in and guard an Allen Iverson type player (Kyrie Irving?) or to make a clutch shot playing off the Lakers’ stars.
Perhaps Fisher would struggle to guard Irving. But what about a 20- or 21-year-old Bryant? Bryant’s quickness and athleticism allowed him, early in his career, to guard any player at the guard or small forward positions. I think Phil Jackson would have him guard Irving and makes the game miserable for Irving. Bryant’s knowledge of angles and how to pressure and use his length back in his stance would help him in that role.
Pick-and-roll team defense would involve help dropping from the weak side. The defensive player, usually a wing, opposite of the ball, helps with the roll man so the big who is defending the screener can hedge. In other words, Bryant would use his young legs, and length, along with help from his teammates, to corral Irving. Mix in a little Tyronn Lue, Fisher, and Shaw, and perhaps over the course of the game, the Lakers could force Irving to take some contested shots against the much taller Bryant.
Fisher would have to get physical with Wade on the wings, where the Lakers could also send help by playing what they call in the league “ice” defense. Fisher or Shaw can play role player minutes as the catch-and-shoot guard, like what Jackson had with Steve Kerr or B.J. Armstrong playing off of Michael Jordan. The guard just keeps it out of the middle and he’s got the help coming baseline. Dealing with that one match-up allows the Lakers to use an army of good defenders against James and his teammates at the small forward position.

Defending James and the Small Forward Position

Metta World Peace, Trevor Ariza, and Rick Fox were all really talented defensively and could all contribute on the offensive end as well. These were big three-and-D wings before the phrase was commonly used. Ron-Ron or World Peace or whatever he wants to call himself was a beast defensively in his prime – he even won Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. Even James wouldn’t want to wrestle in an alley with World Peace in his prime for a whole seven-game series.
I would never suggest that would force James into a horrible series, just that all of his buckets would be earned and the physical and emotional toll could add up over a long series. Ariza was quick enough to spend some time on a shooting guard like Wade or Allen, but he also was lanky enough to defend small forwards, which he did in his Lakers years as a very capable wing. But that line-up may need another ball handler. Maybe even a point forward type like Lamar Odom would help, if you went big with Bryant and Ariza at the guard spots, depending on who the opposing team had on the floor. Fox, Luke Walton, Mike Miller, and Shane Battier would add wing depth to both teams.

Big Men

Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Robert Horry, and Shaquille O’Neal. That’s a solid rotation without being too “All-Starish,” a term I’ll coin to refer to fictional teams that don’t have enough basketballs to go around. Horry was always mostly a catch-and-shoot guy. Odom could handle the ball and be a big creator. Gasol had skill inside and outside. And O’Neal, of course, was as dominant a big man as we have ever seen, especially on those early 2000s Lakers teams, when he put 40 and 20 (or close to it) on Tim Duncan. I’d be afraid to see O’Neal going against Bosh. It would be like a car crash – you just can’t look away. The power of O’Neal’s finishes used to lift the roof off the arena. And the drama of the moment carries the momentum of a franchise’s championship aspirations.

On the other side, LeBron James’ teams featured Bosh, Love, Ilgauskas, Gooden, Varejao, and Haslem among others, who, like the Lakers’ guards, are more of the role player variety. Compared to the more star-laden Lakers, James’ teams featured big men (aside from Bosh) who would mostly just hit open shots and do the dirty work.

Would that team’s coach (Erik Spoelstra?) play Big Z to try to keep O’Neal away from the rim? Would that push Bosh to the power forward spot where he would have to match up with Gasol? Where does Love play? Does he go out and guard Odom in transition? Or Horry at the three-point line? If they go small, does Bosh get destroyed down low against the Big Aristotle? Could Love guard O’Neal down low? How do O’Neal and Gasol guard a smaller lineup with range, one that could feature Bosh and Love? Horry is a good match-up for those players, as is Odom. The conversation is endless.

Final Analysis

James is one of the best players of all time. Bryant and O’Neal in their primes are up there, too. Ray Allen and Chris Bosh were great complimentary stars, as was Wade. Irving is probably the fourth best player on either team after Bryant, James, and O’Neal (considering where Wade was in his career when he played with James). I think two of the three best players for either team are Lakers, but the rest of the top six are Heat and Cavs. Beyond that is a mix of all three teams.

The Lakers might have the best defensive personnel to deal with a James type player. A young Bryant could allow them to play a bigger line-up and deal with Irving, or mix and match depending on who James’ team had at the two-guard spot. If we asked which teams had the best five players, it might be a different answer than who had the deeper, better-rounded overall team. We can speculate and think about who would guard whom and how that chess game would be played as we move the personnel around. I still don’t know how you consistently deal with a 2000-2003 Shaq without helping off of Kobe and a long line of championship-winning three-and-D players.

I think it’s close, but remember, we had to combine the Heat and the Cavs against the Lakers. Also, does Jackson and the fact he has more rings than fingers give the Lakers a slight advantage over Spoelstra or whoever else would theoretically coach James’ team? Spo has proved his value, but Jackson is like what John Wooden is to the college game. Another key point might be that many people view these players differently.

Does the younger fan just think of Kobe and Shaq as the players they were in their most recent seasons, or has everyone seen them enough when they were in their early-mid 20s? Do we think of all the 2000s Lakers as a decade older on average than the Heat and Cavs players we’re comparing them to? Instead, picture O’Neal at 28 in 2000. Picture Bryant at 22. Fisher at 26. Not the older, slower, less athletic versions of themselves that you may remember. That’s hard to do. As for the older fans who like to reminisce, you can’t prop your former giants to proportions that exceed what they were.

What do you think? Who matches up with whom? Who wins this fictional battle, and why?


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