I’ve always had mixed feelings about Shaquille O’Neal. He was undoubtedly dominant, a true force of nature, but ultimately his legacy comes up lacking in my view. That’s a pretty hard thing to say about a guy who has four rings and took three different teams to the NBA Finals, but there it is. He was great but should have been so much more. With all the talk lately about whether Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan is that generation’s best player, the sad part to me is there shouldn’t even be a debate. Shaq could have locked this up and walked off into the sunset with a legit case for not just the best player of this era but possibly the best center to ever set foot on an NBA floor.
But Shaq ate and joked and coasted his way to becoming out of shape, injury prone and right out of a should-have-been top five all-time player spot. Nobody that I see is out there arguing for Shaq’s name next to Wilt, Kareem and Russell, let alone in front of them. There are many, myself included, who think Olajuwon and Moses Malone both rest higher on the center pantheon than Shaq, and you could probably make a case for a few others.
Shaq is clearly the best center since Olajuwon, who in my mind was the class of his era over guys like Patrick Ewing and David Robinson. But I have my doubts about where he would rank all time if he had played a decade earlier. I took a look at the All-NBA centers to get an idea of Shaq’s relative competition.
First off, from 1954-55 to 1991-92, exactly one guy made any All-NBA team as a center who wasn’t a Hall of Famer. That was Brad Daugherty who was third team in ’91-92. Every All-NBA center for 38 years was a Hall of Famer until the year before Shaq entered the league. Coincidence or fortuitous break for Shaq’s legacy?
His first seven years in the league, Shaq made one first team, two second teams and three third teams. The other guys who made All-NBA center during those years were named Olajuwon, Ewing, Robinson, Mourning and Mutombo. Shaq was in the conversation but not clearly dominant.
The next seven years, Shaq’s peak career, saw him take first team all seven seasons. The other guys during those years: Ben Wallace, a rundown Robinson, Yao Ming and his gimpy legs, Mourning for a year then kidney issues derailed him, a mummified Mutombo, Chris Webber (!), Amare Stoudemire and Jermaine O’Neal. Not exactly murderer’s row. Shaq was clearly dominant during these years but the level of competition at center was a pale shadow of what it had been.
In the seven years since Shaq’s prime, things have only gotten worse. Shaq himself somehow managed to eek out a third team nod in Phoenix in 08-09 despite being well past his prime. Dwight Howard has benefitted in a similar fashion, collecting seven All-NBA nods. The others, besides Shaq: Stoudemire, Yao, Tim Duncan (twice and he’s not even a center), Andrew Bogut, Andrew Bynum, Al Horford, Tyson Chandler and Marc Gasol.
There are very few even credible centers roaming the paint these days, although you could make a case that there’s more right now than during Shaq’s prime. That certainly isn’t his fault, you can only play against who they run out there, after all. But I can’t help but think that given a different set of competition, Shaq is more Ewing than Olajuwon. Just look at the world-beater performance Indiana’s Roy Hibbert booked against Miami’s small ball unit this year. Nobody’s confusing him with Bill Russell anytime soon yet he looked the part of a dominant force virtually all series. Shaq had that advantage for nearly every game of the prime of his career. Was he really all that or did the level of competition make him look better than he actually was? I vote for the latter.
Shaq was a legit center who’s prime coincided with a league moving away from such things. Whether it stays that way for long remains to be seen, but it’s hard to argue that he faced an historically weak crop of centers during his best seasons. He had all the talent to be the best to lace them up but never really had to work for it, never had an equally talented rival pushing him. Shaq could and did get away with coasting for large portions of most seasons. His legacy should be much stronger than it is.
Which brings me back to my original point. If the Spurs manage to finish off Miami and the conversation turns to Duncan vs Kobe as their era’s greatest, they both should send a thank you card to Shaq. Without him settling for being the best of a so-so center crop instead of going for the best ever, he abdicated his rightful place in that argument.
As a final thought, after much deliberation, I think Shaq is the 7th best center ever. The top six in no particular order: Kareem, Russell, Wilt, Olajuwon, Moses and Bill Walton. You could convince me he belongs in front of Walton, but only because of injuries. The late ’70s Portland Walton was a much more well rounded player and more dominant overall force than Shaq ever turned out to be. It’s one of the great tragedies of the NBA that it only lasted for such a short time.