Upon Further Review: The Best Players in NBA History, #9
In what will become a daily entry over the course of the next month, Waiver Wire writers Greg Kaplan and Vinny Ginardi will release a list of the the 25 players who they believe to be the best in NBA history. Players were judged on their careers as a whole rather than short stretches of dominance (for example, Bill Walton didn’t make the list due to injuries cutting his career short).
Vinny Ginardi: Believe it or not, I actually had Shaq listed a little bit lower on my list. More specifically, I had Hakeem Olajuwon ahead of Shaq because Olajuwon was the better overall player, and although he won less titles, he won them with far less help.
Still, Shaq did dominant the era that he played in. The Diesel made 14 All-NBA teams (eight first) and won an MVP award (2000). Shaq won four NBA titles and was the Finals MVP on three of those teams. He led the league twice in scoring and eight times in field goal percentage. In his first 13 seasons, Shaq averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game each year.
Shaq also never dominated the defensive end of the floor like he could have (he made three all-defensive second teams). Many remember Shaq as the large center who simply overpowered defenders by throwing his weight around. But when Shaq came into the league, he actually wasn’t that heavy and had much more of an athletic body type. In his rookie season, he averaged 3.5 blocks per game, an average he wouldn’t come close to touching again in his career. Had Shaq been able to keep himself in shape for more of his career, he could have been more intimidating defensively.
But offensively, there hasn’t been and might never be anyone like Shaq. If he caught the ball anywhere near the hoop he was going to score. Defenders simply could not match his strength.
He’s one of the best centers of all-time, but I think ninth best ever is a bit too high.
Greg Kaplan: Well, I suppose Vinny kind of threw me under the bus with his explanation of how Shaq got into the Top 10 in our countdown. A lot of that responsibility falls on me. And here’s why.
In my life, I can confidently say that I have never seen such a dominate force inside the paint. Did The Big Shaq-tus have help on his way to NBA Titles? Of course. He played with greats like Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade. That would help anyone. However, there was no match for Shaq when he game was at its all-time peak. There was no center in the NBA during his prime that could match his size, athleticism, low block presence and, you know, size again.
As notorious as Shaq was for being an awful free throw shooter, he was also very adept at being able to put the ball in the basket when he had a defender on him, mostly, again, because nobody could stop him in the post. 10 times in his career, O’Neal posted the league’s best field goal percentage. He was also a two-time scoring champion, fueled by the five times in his career he averaged north of 28 points per game. For the first 13 years of his career, Shaq averaged no less than 10.4 rebounds a game.
I think people forget how dominate O’Neal was in his prime because he was a player that hung around the league a year or two too long. Right now, our memories of Shaquille O’Neal are flooded with the fat, out of shape Shamrock rotting away on the Celtics bench, being largely ineffective when called upon by Doc Rivers.
Vinny specifically mentioned Hakeem Olajuwon as a player that could potentially be ranked higher than The Big Aristotle. However, there were players that could compete with The Dream. Players like Patrick Ewing and David Robinson could match up with Olajuwon, though neither of the two were able to get the better of their opponent. They did keep things interesting, until Olajuwon took over. For Shaq? He had no comparison. There was no defense to stop O’Neal, which is exactly why teams began the practice of “Hack-a-Shaq”. You want to stop O’Neal? You better hit him really hard and send him to the free throw line.
Otherwise, he was going to dominate you in the blocks. He was going to get his 25 points and 14 rebounds. He was going to make a difference. And there was nothing you can do about it. To me, that’s the mark of a truly great player. That’s why Shaquille O’Neal is a Top 10 player in NBA history.