Shaquille O'Neal: Better Than Kobe Bryant, Closer To Wilt Chamberlain Than You Think
I still distinctly remember the first time I watched Shaquille O'Neal play basketball, 22 years ago now, in the 1989 McDonald's All-American Game. This was a standout play in the game:
I had rarely seen anything like it before - a seven-foot center blocking a shot, dribbling down court fluidly and taking off from the middle of the lane for a dunk. An old friend likes to remind me that for about a week straight I walked around simply muttering "Shaquille O'Neal", emphasizing my newfound mellifluous rhyme with an awestruck flourish. It was exactly why I love watching the McDonald's game, a circle of basketball life moment as Shaq introduced his presence with authority just as Kareem was exiting the stage.
Now 22 years later, one of the most dominant and entertaining careers in basketball history is over. As the remembrances of O'Neal's career are flowing in, it's a reminder that the memories of Shaq's career often fixate on what he wasn't, to an extent that I think it underrates and even undercuts what he was.
No, Shaq wasn't one of the best one or two best players of all-time, even though he had the physical gifts for that to be a possibility.
Here's what Shaquille O'Neal was: one of the 7 or so best basketball players in history. In no particular order (other than MJ at no. 1), only Jordan, Magic, Bird, Kareem, Russell, maybe Duncan and... maybe Wilt (see below) rank above him.
Let's focus for a little bit on what Shaq was:
1. Better than Kobe Bryant
Clearly, without question, Shaquille O'Neal has been a better basketball player than Kobe Bryant.
Has Kobe done a better job of maximizing his abilities? Yes, he has. Does that mean he's been a better player? No, it does not. Them's the breaks, life's unfair, Shaq's physical advantages have been too much to overcome.
Part of what had me yelling at the TV during the ridiculous Jordan vs. Kobe comparisons around the time of the 2009/2010 Lakers championships is that Kobe has not even been better than Shaq.
I've often heard it said that it's a shame that Kobe's only won one MVP award in his career, which is a head-scratcher first because Kobe's won as many MVP awards as he's deserved: one. Please inform me of all the missing seasons in which he was snubbed. [Note: I believe Kobe deserved to win in 2006, when he did not, rather than in 2008, which I viewed as more of a career achievement award.]
And second because it's Shaq for whom a mere one MVP award is ludicrous. He's the guy who was robbed of multiple MVP awards during his career. He won in 2000, and should have won in 2001, 2002 and 2005, in my opinion, but was taken for granted essentially because he was Goliath.
From the stretch of 2000-02, Shaquille O'Neal was the most physically unguardable player I've ever seen. From a numbers standpoint, Shaq led the league in PER each season, with monstrous marks of 30.6 ('99-'00), 30.2 ('00-01) and 29.7 ('01-02).
His stats from the Finals of the Lakers three-peat were absolutely off-the-charts:
• 2000: 38.0 pts, 16.7 reb, 2.3 ast, 2.67 blk, .611 FG%
• 2001: 33.0 pts, 15.8 reb, 4.8 ast, 3.40 blk, .573 FG%
• 2002: 36.3 pts, 12.3 reb, 3.8 ast, 2.75 blk, .595 FG%
Here's what my eyes told me: Shaq could not be guarded one-on-one during that stretch. Not possible.
I still remember commentators casually blowing off Indiana's Dale Davis in 2000 as simply too small to contending Shaq, and thinking it was kind of crazy: Davis was a big, tough, rugged, defensive-minded 6-11 player who was normally an enforcer, but he had no chance. Dale Freakin' Davis was too small.
Then in 2001, Shaq made Dikembe Mutombo - the season's Defensive Player of the Year, at 7-2 - simply look like a little kid. Look at those 2001 Finals numbers again; those were posted against the Defensive Player of the Year.
You couldn't even double-team Shaq conventionally at that time, with a guard coming down, because it was as if the smaller player wasn't even there.
There was one team which had success slowing down Shaq a little in this period, and that was the 2000 Blazers, and here's what it took:
1. A 7-3, 290-pound man, Arvydas Sabonis, to lean on him as the primary defender.
2. An aggressive double from a long, elite defensive big, Rasheed Wallace.
3. The greatest perimeter help defender in basketball history, Scottie Pippen, lurking to cover the passing lanes.
That's what it took to cover Shaq effectively in his prime: 14 feet and 500+ pounds of man in the primary role, plus the greatest help defender who ever lived as backup.
Let's be clear, I don't view the Shaq-Kobe dynamic as analogous to Jordan-Pippen. I acknowledge Shaq-Kobe was more of a 1-1A situation than a 1-2, especially because Kobe was often the shot creator in crunch time.
But make no mistake, Shaq was the best player on these Laker championship teams. He was the player who produced the most, and I can pretty much guarantee you he was the player around whom opposing game plans were primarily designed. And he was the primary player who commanded double-teams which opened up space for others, including Bryant.
Shaq has had a better career than Kobe. I know this can be hard to grasp because Kobe has been better than Shaq for several years, but remember that Shaq is seven years older, and had already submitted several monster seasons before Kobe had his first big breakout year in 1999-2000, in addition to being a step above in their prime three-peat years.
Jay Aych also chimes in with this point about Shaq's 2006 championship in Miami, when Dwyane Wade deservedly earned the Finals MVP award: "Shaq needs far more credit for the Heat's '06 title. He had the defense shifting toward him more than Wade. Opened up many of those jumpers. I remember Avery or Cubes admitting after the series that they might have doubled the wrong guy or something to that effect. But the point was Dallas did shift the defense toward Shaq."
2. Better than Hakeem Olajuwon
I've seen a couple suggestions than Hakeem was better, though the consensus seems to favor Shaq, so I don't want to linger here, just want to note a couple points.
As beautiful as Hakeem's game was to watch, I rate Shaq slightly higher because he was better at his peak, and also won more often.
I get a sense that some favor Hakeem because he beat Shaq head-to-head in the 1995 Finals sweep. Here are the stat lines for the two players in that series:
Hakeem: 33-12-6, 2 blk/2 stl, 48% FG/69% FT
Shaq: 28-13-6, 3 blk/0 stl, 60% FG/57% FT
What's more, Shaq was 23 years old at the time. To play Hakeem at his height as well as he did is a credit to Shaq's career, not a detriment.
If the question is who maximized their ability more, then the answer is Hakeem (despite his period of extreme disgruntlement in the early '90s), but that's a different question than who was better. That was Shaq. He won more, his peak was higher, his numbers were better, he deserved more MVPs. As magical as Hakeem was in Houston's championship runs, and as beautiful as the Dream Shake was to watch, Shaq was better in his championship runs.
3. Arguably the Greatest Field-Goal Shooter Of All Time
Just a hunch, but you may have heard that Shaq was a poor free-throw shooter. I understand why people have fixated on his poor FT shooting - the common man can’t understand why such a seemingly superhuman athlete can’t master the one basketball skill that even the most schlubby non-athlete can execute. But it's underestimated that Shaq has arguably been the greatest field-goal shooter of all time.
Over his career, Shaq led the NBA in field-goal percentage ten times, finishing with a career mark of .582 which leaves him neck-and-neck with Artis Gilmore for the best ever (Artis is ahead for NBA games only, behind by a fingernail if NBA/ABA combined numbers are used).
What's more, Shaq and Artis are also 1-2 if effective field-goal percentage (crediting an extra point for three-pointers made) is used, even though the Big Fella only made one in his career.
Please note that there is no statistic other than points, of course, which correlates with winning better than eFG%.
What's more, Shaq was always effective in terms of drawing free-throw attempts, leading the league six times. It was partially because he was so bad at converting them, for sure, but still, FTA's help get your team into the bonus and the opposition into foul trouble. Most importantly, FTA's also correlate with winning more than FT%.
Yes, Shaq left thousands of points on the table due to poor free-throw shooting. So did Bill Russell. So did Wilt Chamberlain. In the grand scheme of things, FT% is an overrated statistic.
Shaq was incredibly potent in terms of the statistics which mattered most. Essentially no one in history has converted such a high volume of field goals as efficiently as Shaq did, and that's vastly more important and valuable than converting free throws efficiently.
4. Closer to Wilt Than You Might Think
It's weird to me how present-day arguments about players often get reduced to which player has more championship rings, and attempts to analyze statistics intelligently are often derided, yet when it comes to guys like Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson, simplistic use of statistics trumps all. Wilt averaged 50! Big O averaged a triple-double!
Not that those weren't great seasons, but it's no coincidence that they both occurred in 1961-62, when Elgin Baylor averaged a 38-19-5, Bob Pettit had a 31-19, and even Walt Bellamy went for a 32-19. It was the biggest statstical outlier season ever - the pace was much faster and defense was not particularly strong.
This is where a stat like PER is particularly effective, in normalizing for things like pace and league average. As we've written many times, PER is not a be-all, end-all, but if you're talking about box-score statistics, it is easily the best measure.
Wilt's PERs from his '62-64 prime were 31.8, 31.8 and 31.6, three of the top five single-season marks ever, and only slightly better than Shaq's 30.6, 30.6, and 30.2 from '99-'01. Also note that Wilt's San Francisco Warriors finished 31-49 in that 1962-63 season, out of the playoffs with the third-worst record out of nine teams.
In terms of career box-score production, Shaq actually holds a slight edge at 26.4-26.1. Considering blocks were not counted until the '70s, Wilt's PER numbers are probably underrated, if anything. Give Wilt a reasonable edge in numbers, but based on what we now know about evaluating box-score stats, it's not nearly as pronounced as the difference between averaging 50 points/26 rebounds and 30 points/14 rebound would initially lead one to believe (especially considering Wilt took almost twice as many shots in '61-62 as Shaq did in '99-00).
Then, please note that Shaq was much more of a winner than Wilt, who was more obsessed with statistical markers. For starters, there's the 4-2 edge in championships for Shaq. While I know that can be an overstated number, Wilt left championships on the table repeatedly because he let his team down.
In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons made a convincing argument in eviscerating Wilt. I had wondered if there was a significant amount of Boston homerism bleeding through that Russell v. Wilt chapter.
Reading the excellent 2010 Russell biography, King of the Court, by Aram Goudsouzian, reinforced Simmons' findings. King of the Court offered thorough season-by-season narratives which depicted how Chamberlain often torpedoed his teams, in sometimes jaw-dropping manners.
Let's review a few key ones quickly:
• 1968: Wilt's Sixers blew a 3-1 lead to the Celtics, and they're one of only two teams to do so by dropping Game 7 at home. Chamberlain took only two shots in the second half of that Game 7. By the way, this was the year Wilt led the league in assists, often cited as one of his amazing achievements. Dig into it and you'll find it was the most selfish assist crown ever. Wilt made it his goal, and willfully passed up good shots in pursuit of padding his assist totals.
In the Game 6 loss, Wilt shot 6-21 and also hurt the Philly D by trying to protect another of his prized, unbelievable achievements: that he never fouled out of a game from high school on. Sounds remarkable, and it is, as the Big Dipper often became passive when he got into foul trouble, specifically to protect his record of never having fouled out.
• 1969: Wilt's Lakers dropped Game 7 at home to the Celtics, an inferior team that season. Chamberlain left the game with 5:30 left in the fourth quarter after banging his knee. A controversy developed as Wilt subsequently said he was ready to return, but coach Butch van Breda Kolff chose to stick with a lineup that was mounting a comeback, and the Lakers' frantic rally came up one point short.
• 1970: Wilt couldn't take advantage of an injured Willis Reed in the famous Game 7, nor against smaller players like 6-6 Dave DeBusschere after Reed left Game 5 after suffering his injury.
There are more like this, believe me. All these narratives are backed up by the numbers to say this: Wilt shrank from the occasion in the playoffs. Here are the numbers:
CAREER PER REG SEAS PLAYOFFSShaq ranks third in career regular-season PER behind Jordan and LeBron, fourth in career playoff PER behind Jordan, Mikan and LeBron. Wilt ranks fifth and 18th, respectively.
SHAQ 26.4 26.1
WILT 26.1 22.8
A modern advanced read of the numbers says Shaq v Wilt stats were comparable in the regular season, with a clear edge for Shaq in the playoffs. Shaq won more championships, 4-2. Shaq may have cost his team a couple championship opportunities by not maximizing his abilities, but when he got his opportunities in his prime, he generally seized them, and did not let his team down. He repeatedly stepped up in the playoffs, Wilt repeatedly shrunk. Who was the better player?
Say what you will about Shaq. He had a chance to be one of the one or two best players of all time, but did not maximize his talents, it is true. While duly noting that it is a fair part of the story to say that he could have been more, my primary storyline about Shaq as he retires is that he was one of the 7 or so best players ever, a four-time champion who deserved to win four MVP awards, on top of three Finals MVPs.
Shaquille O'Neal is one of the most incredible athletes, in any sport, that I've ever seen - an impossible, unguardable combination of strength, quickness, agility, explosiveness, coordination and footwork in his prime. Enjoy retirement, Big Aristotle, and let's get that corner seat on Inside the NBA warmed up ASAP.