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For the past two years, the buzz around Shaquille O'Neal has been that he embodies the greatest mix of quickness and force ever to play center. "He is the greatest everno one else has his power," according to his coach, Phil Jackson. "The closest guy to Shaq in strength and power and agility was probably wilt," according to Knicks assistant coach Herb Williams, a former post player in the league.
OK, so in 2002, O'Neal is the most dominant player in the NBA. But where does he place in the all-time pecking order of great centers?
Get your mind past the missed free throws and the tiresome "hack-a-Shaq" yak. The time is right to place O'Nealnow a ripened 30 and in his 10th yearin the grander scheme of things. Where does he think he fits in?
"Fourth," O'Neal told the Voice late last month at Madison Square Garden after he had just collected 30 points, 15 rebounds, and five assists during the Lakers' 107-91 drubbing of the Knicks. "Behind Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, and Russell?" we asked. "Yes," he replied.
Other people's estimates of O'Neal are also apt to run high now, since he has led Los Angeles to consecutive championships, just as Hakeem Olajuwon's stock went up in 1994 and 1995 when he carried Houston to back-to-back titles.
A few years ago, things were very different. Early on, O'Neal took his lumps. The Orlando Magic jumped from 21 wins in 1992 to 41 in 1993, his rookie season. But come playoff time in the seasons to follow, Shaq's teams were swept more often than a curling lane at Olympics time. When San Antonio swept Los Angeles (which Shaq joined in 1996) in the conference semis in 1999, it made six playoffs lost and five times exiting via the broom.
The maturation was slow. Through seven years, he endured constant, and accurate, talk about not hitting his free throws. Boston sportswriter Bob Ryan called him a "woefully inadequate rebounder for a man his size" (he still has no rebounding titles), and he seemed lukewarm on defense. As true as those observations continue to be, O'Neal has now captured the Finals MVP in consecutive years, dominating with averages of 38 points and 17 rebounds in 2000 and 33 points and 16 rebounds in 2001.
O'Neal's estimate about his being fourth shows both humility for not putting himself higher and self-assurance about his body of work. But it's a tough call: If he's fourth, then he's ahead of Hakeem Olajuwon and Moses Malone, two giants of recent vintage. Olajuwon is surely on his way to the Hall of Fame, and Malone is already in.
So what do the numbers say? O'Neal is currently the third-highest all-time in points per game, averaging 27.6. Only Michael Jordan (31.2) and Chamberlain (30.1) are ahead of him. It warrants pointing out that O'Neal has averaged 27.6 in a 10-year span when teams have been scoring, on average, below 99 points per game. During Jordan's years, the league average was about 105 per game. In Chamberlain's time, from 1960 through 1973, the league average was 114. From this perspective, Shaq's lifetime average measures up pretty well against theirs. Shaq also ranks third all-time in field goal percentage (.577).
But O'Neal needs two to four more years to determine how high he climbs in the all-time ranking, and numbers are apt to decline in a player's later years. Also, he has played just 656 games. Chamberlain played 1045 games; it will take O'Neal five more injury-free seasons to reach that total. He just sat out his third All-Star Game in the past five years. In fact, when we asked him if he had a chance of passing any of the Big Three, he said no. Why? "I'm out in two years." Because of injuries? "Yes."
Soft-spoken and reasonably humble in person, O'Neal contrasts with Shaq the autobiographer. In his 2001 book, Shaq Talks Back, he at first shows the proper respect by referring to Chamberlain, Russell, and Abdul-Jabbar as "the holy trinity of centers in basketball, the greatest big men to play the game." But later he calls out Kareemwho once called out Shaq for lack of concentration, focus, and discipline: "I'm a 2000 Benz. You're a '69 Benz." He continues, "I know if you bring Kareem into my era now, I'd bust his ass. The 1960s Benz would be too slow." Considering the gap of some 20,000 points between themnot to mention Abdul-Jabbar's six MVPs, six championships, and ability to play well even past 40O'Neal may want to back off a little on the man with the single most unstoppable shot in the game's history.
In his book, Shaq is also dismissive of Russell: "I don't want to disrespect history, but when Russell played they only had about 11 teams. And there were only one or two seven-footers. If I would have played in a league with eleven teams and one seven-footer, instead of twenty-eight teams and a seven-footer on every squad, then I'd have ten championships, too. Period. That's nothing against Bill Russell." Of course not, other than undercutting Russell's 13 years of accomplishments.
First, Russell won 11 titles, not 10. And there weren't 11 teams when Bill Russell started playing pro ball or at any time later. Russell entered an eight-team league that grew to nine for the 1961- 62 campaign, his sixth year, to 10 in 1966-67, then 12, and 14 in his last season, 1968-69.