Greatest Players in NBA History: Shaquille O'Neal

In this blog I pick one of the top players in NBA history as voted on in this project and discuss some of his career accomplishments…in other words, what made him so great that he deserves a spot among the greatest? This week’s player is Shaquille O'Neal, the self-proclaimed (and for good reason) "Most Dominant Ever".

O'Neal has one of the most interesting and debated careers on the message boards, as views on him vary from him having the best peak of any player ever on down to some feeling that he underachieved for his career.  Perhaps the truth might incorporate a bit of both.  I remember when O'Neal began his college career at LSU back in 1989, he was already being spoken of in hushed tones as a combination of size, power and athleticism that the game had never seen before.  Here was this 7-foot tall, 300 pound giant with nimble feet and explosive jumping ability that could handle the ball well enough to go coast-to-coast on a fast break.  By his sophomore year he was averaging 27 points and 15 boards, and people were salivating to see what he could do on the big stage.  Those people didn't have to wait long, though, as O'Neal exploded onto the seen with a Rookie of the Year campaign in 1993 and was already All NBA by 1994 despite this being arguably the most competitive time for centers in NBA history.  O'Neal was facing off against Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo on a regular basis and stomping his way right to the head of the class.

O'Neal was strong in the '90s with the Magic, but it was around the turn of the century as a Laker that O'Neal hit his peak.  His 1999-2000 campaign is often held up as one of the best seasons in NBA history, as O'Neal teamed with Kobe Bryant to begin a Lakers championship tandem that would 3-peat over the next three seasons.  At his peak Shaq was virtually unguardable, as he added significant post moves to his larger-than-life frame.  Shaq was regularly double and triple teamed, collapsing opposing defenses and allowing Bryant to roam at will on the perimeter.  It was an unstoppable combination.

But despite the obvious highs, there are still those that think that Shaq could have been even more.  As Shaq and Kobe started to feud over whose team it was, the unstoppable duo broke down after "only" three championships.  O'Neal was accused of reporting to the team out of shape, an accusation that he welcomed by making statements about playing himself into shape in the season to be ready for the playoffs.  As a result, O'Neal only played more than 74 games in a season once between 1995 and 2009...he was always battling injury.  This is a big reason why, despite his on-court dominance, O'Neal "only" won one MVP award.  Another major criticism for Shaq was that he never became even decent from the free throw line, sporting a career free throw percentage of 52.7% that was lower than his career field goal percentage (58.2%).  Despite O'Neal's claims that he make his free throws "when they count", opponents developed the "Hack-a-Shaq" strategy specifically because of how poorly he shot at the line.  And finally, there are questions about Shaq's leadership ability as he had clashes with either his co-star or management at every stop in his NBA fact, Shaq played for six different teams which is unheard of for a player of his stature.

Thus, the dichotomy of Shaquille O'Neal.  Most Dominant Ever, or Should-have-been-better?  Where do you stand?  As a parting shot, here are some facts about O'Neal's career that catch my attention (and here's his basketball-reference page where his box score stats and career accolades are tabulated).

1) In the 1999-2000 season, O'Neal was named MVP of the regular season, MVP of the Finals, and All Star Game MVP.  He was named Player of the Month three times during that season.  He led the NBA in every advanced stat, including PER, offensive win shares, defensive win shares, and win shares per 48 minutes.  And he won the MVP by a margin of 120 to 1 in first place votes, the single most lop-sided MVP vote in NBA history (Fred Hickman was the lone dissenting vote, casting his for Allen Iverson).

2) O'Neal is in the club-house with the second highest PER among retired players in NBA history (26.43), trailing only Michael Jordan (27.91).  He is also third among retirees in career postseason PER (26.12), trailing only Jordan (28.59) and George Mikan (28.51).

3) O'Neal is sixth on the all-time list with 28,596 points scored in his career.  He is also 12th all-time in rebounds (13,099) and seventh in career blocks (2,732).  The only other player in NBA history to match all three of those marks is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (though we can assume that Wilt Chamberlain would have too, had blocks been counted in his day).  O'Neal also broke Chamberlain's record for most seasons winning the field goal percentage title, doing it 10 times vs. Chamberlain's nine.

4) O'Neal was a dominant post-season performer,  His three Finals MVP awards tie him with Magic Johnson and Tim Duncan for the second most ever (behind Michael Jordan).  He has the highest scoring average for a center in NBA Finals history.  And from 2001 - 2004, O'Neal's postseason on-court/off-court +/- was a ridiculous +19.2, clearly separating himself from Bryant (+9.7) as the postseason anchor for that dominant Lakers squad.   


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