One Take on Shaquille O’Neal
Shaq is retired, so it’s time for the sizing up of his career to commence. Where does he rank among centers? Among all players? Did he underachieve? Overachieve? What’s his legacy? Etc., etc. Everybody has their opinions, so of course I have mine. Some fit in with the conventional wisdom, and some don’t. There is also a myth or two that need to be knocked down. So let’s have at it; the objective stuff (his numbers and awards, what I’m calling the resume) and the subjective stuff (where he ranks, etc.).
Career numbers of 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 58.2% from the field. 24.6 points and 11.3 rebounds per game in the playoffs. Four championship rings, 8 time first team all-NBA, 2 time second team, 4 time 3rd team. NBA MVP in 1999-2000, 3 time Finals MVP, 2 time scoring champion, seven other times in the top five in points per game.
Never won a rebounding title (he did finish in the top three five times).
Career free throw percentage of 52.7 percent.
The big myth
There has been one prevailing piece of conventional that has existed throughout his career, that his bad free throw shooting was a fatal flaw in his dominance that could be exploited by opponents in late game situations. There was even a strategy centered around it, the Hack-a-Shaq defense. If you constantly put Shaq on the foul line, the thinking went, you could trade a sure points from a dunk to one point from his 50/50 foul shooting. This tradeoff would eventually result in Shaq’s team having to choose between leaving him on the floor and hoping he got his dunks before he got fouled, or taking him out at key stretches and going with a lesser player. Here’s the problem: it never worked. In Orlando, Shaq was done in by subpar performances from teammates during crucial playoff games (Bad shooting all around in 94, Nick Anderson’s Finals meltdown in 95, and the complete lockdown by the Bulls in 96). His early Lakers teams lost for a myriad of reasons, from bad shooting performances by teammates to bad defense to bad shooting from the floor by Shaq himself. I looked at every loss from every series where Shaq’s team was eliminated before winning his first title in 2000; I didn’t find one game where you could pin the result on Shaq’s foul shooting. Not even the close ones. I dare anyone to challenge my assertions with real facts and not media narrative b.s.
So where should he rank? I think you put the Russell, Wilt, and Kareem ahead of him. Russell and Kareem have more rings, while Wilt and Kareem have more points. To put him ahead of any of those guys would require some major mental gymnastics and statistical hocus pocus. Not to mention the fact that Shaq’s teams, when they lost, tended to go out in embarrassing fashion. During his prime playoff years, Shaq’s teams went out with four sweeps and two other times four games to one. Out of eight playoff eliminations during his prime years, six were without much of a fight. Wilt has fewer rings than Shaq, but his playoff defeats were largely at the hands of Russell’s Celtics teams. Wilt’s overall body of work is better. So I put him fourth.
You could argue that Hakeem was a more skilled player or that Moses Malone’s peak years were better, but I still think that Shaq’s overall body of work puts him ahead. As far as overall players go, I think Jordan, Magic, and Bird are no brainers for being ranked higher. I also think that you could put Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson higher without me thinking you’re crazy. And there’s certainly a case to be made for Tim Duncan, Kobe, and maybe Lebron at some point. So I got him fourth at center and somewhere between seventh and thirteenth overall.
The other stuff
Shaq was cheated out of at least one MVP award (in 2005), and could have reasonably gotten it several other times between 1999 and 2005. He got edged out of a scoring title in 1995 thanks to David Robinson scoring 71 points in the last game of the season. Much hay has been made about him not winning any rebounding titles. My defense of him on this front is that most of the rebounding leaders during his time were guys that had little to no scoring burden. During his prime years from 1992 to 2005, ten rebounding titles were won by either Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace, or Dikembe Mutumbo, none of whom had to worry about scoring 20-plus points every night. In an era where the overall shooting percentages are significantly better than they were during the Russell/Chamberlain days it’s a bit much to look for a guy to get 13 or 14 rebounds every night in addition to 25-plus points for ten years or so. The other knock is that he was out of shape for much of his post-Orlando tenure; that was obviously the case, but he managed to play the same number of minutes as the other big time players of his era and maintain a very high level of production. To me the biggest legitimate knock on him are the noncompetitive playoff series defeats.
That’s my take; what’s yours?