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.   


By: nayfel
On: 3/3/2012 5:29:00 PM
I don't think people realize how unbelievably difficult it was for Shaq to be "in shape". He is a specimen that the world literally probably has never seen before and that is why it his physical condition has been so misunderstood. Obviously, this is all opinion but Shq in my book is one of the greatest athletes of all-time. What he was able to do in terms of speed, agility and quickness, with his frame, was similar to a player 6 inches shorter and 100 pounds lighter. So, because of his immense natural ability and the way he was able to plays with the agility of a SF, people seemed to think that doing it was easy. For him to stay in 'shape', all 7 feet and 350 pounds, it probably is impossible. The man was far more driven than people give him credit for and I feel that he realized that once he became his bigger body after 3-4 years in the league, that he realized it was unsustainable to stay in absolute peak condition for more than 3 months or so. We are talking about the human being which has never combined that amount of athleticism with his body and so it simply wasn't possible to maintain that physical peak fitness level for entire seasons on end. It is actually pretty impressive that he didn't suffer any truly debilitating injuries like other really talented and unusually huge (even for NBA centers) players, like Oden and Ming.
By: nayfel
On: 3/3/2012 5:34:00 PM
Also, I would have loved to see what Shaq could have done in place of Wilt. I was recently listening to Dave Cowens on Bill Simmons' podcast and he was describing how back in the day, defenses rarely double-teamed opposing superstars, specifically big men. He was describing how he would try and explain to teammates on the perimeter to force the ball to certain areas but in terms of what happened once his opponent caught the ball on the block, his teammates rarely came over to help him defend his player. That, focused with the amount of smaller while guys playing when Wilt played, led to his ultra-dominance. I would like to compare it to imagine if Shaq has played in his absolute prime against a middling division 1 college basketball team and they didn't double him or prepare to play him at all, in terms of practicing and discussing how to defend him. How many points do you think Shaq could;d score in that situation? 100?
By: The Professor
On: 3/7/2012 7:14:00 AM
Those are interesting points Nayfel, especially the ones highlighting the difference between the game 40 years ago and the game today. That was one of the hardest parts of the project, trying to come up with ways to compare folks that almost literally weren't playing the same game. Take today, there's a debate going about whether Hakeem or Duncan could have anchored the '60s Celtics on defense the way that Russell did. Physically, you can make the case that they would have. But on the other hand, Russell literally invented the concept of jumping to block shots on defense being a good strategy, and both Olajuwon and Duncan came to basketball later in life after being born in other countries...COULD they have innovated what Russell did had they been born 50 years earlier? There's just no way to know.

So bringing it to your point, I tend to think that Shaq could have put up Wilt-like numbers in Wilt's place. Especially with his more aggressive mindset when it came to dominating the middle. But on the other make a lot of good points about the problems that come with Shaq's body type...50 years ago sports medicine was WAY worse than it is now and players like Wilt and Russell were playing 45+ minutes every game every season. Could Shaq have even stayed on the court back then?
By: thepearl-673
On: 3/7/2012 8:39:00 PM
There is so much that I'd like to say.
By: nayfel
On: 3/8/2012 5:28:00 AM
Professor, I have to agree with you when looking back in history. We need to distinguish between who created something and who "could" have created something. Like the way defense is played, we can attribute to the way Russell anchored those teams and pushed defense. We can say he created that type of play and mindset. There's no question that Olajuwon and Robinson possessed the same or even more talent and ability to play defense and while we can make the case that they would have eventually created defense like Russell did, we need to realize that Russell DID do that and needs commending. Most historians and analysts of anything would agree that half of everything done is base don circumstance. Being put in a position to create something. we can speculate who could have done those things and even the innovator he was but the fact is, he WAS the innovator. Unfortunately, our civilization is centered around comparisons and so we always want to compare achievements but the innovator needs to win out, simply because of circumstance.
By: The Professor
On: 3/8/2012 8:49:00 AM
By all means, thepearl, make your opinion felt. When I wrote this I thought a lot about our conversations about Wilt vs. more modern players like Shaq. And then nayfel teed it up perfectly for you with his second post...why don't I move out of the way and let you point out why you think Nayfel's point might be in error...
By: linsa518
On: 3/8/2012 11:31:00 PM
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By: nayfel
On: 3/10/2012 4:34:00 PM
Professor, haha, you caught me!

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