Putting Shaq in His Place


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 ever—no 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’Neal—now a ripened 30 and in his 10th year—in 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 Kareem—who 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 them—not to mention Abdul-Jabbar’s six MVPs, six championships, and ability to play well even past 40—O’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.

But what do the numbers of teams and inches have to do with anything? More to the point, in Russell’s day, he had to contend with two future Hall of Famers listed at 6-11: Walt Bellamy and Nate Thurmond. Russell was 6-10, and St. Louis’s Zelmo Beaty—who played tough enough defense to be accused of beating on Chamberlain—was 6-9. Is Shaq making the point that because these players were between one and three inches under seven feet they would be easier pickings than the meager pivot talent in 2002? Absurd. Chamberlain faced a nine-team league with four great centers. Add Beaty, beginning in 1962. So in an 80-game schedule in 1965-66, Chamberlain would have to battle a good or great center on 40 nights, or 50 percent of his games. By way of whopping contrast, O’Neal battles the fading David Robinson four nights a year. Throw in Dikembe Mutombo for two games, and that’s six nights out of 82—a mere 7 percent of the games against good defensive centers.

Size or no size, center play isn’t what it was 40 years ago, nor 30 years ago, when Wilt, Kareem, Thurmond, Willis Reed, Wes Unseld, Bob Lanier, and Dave Cowens roamed free. You need to travel back 50 years, to George Mikan’s period of dominance, to find a dearth of pivot talent comparable to the NBA of 2002.

Ex-center Herb Williams contends that inside play was more physical in the ’70s, thanks to big bodies belonging to the likes of Lonnie Shelton, Bob Lanier, and Darryl Dawkins. Even earlier, Chamberlain was mauled so much in his rookie season that he announced he was retiring. Considering that rough treatment is nothing new, Bill Walton’s comment—”Shaq should leave the calls to the three refs”—makes sense.

Satch Sanders, the former NYU star who played with Russell from 1961 to 1969, says, “If you take your top five or six centers, O’Neal is definitely in the crew. It’s tough to compare active players with those already finished. But this young man, on some nights, is up with the top three.”

The larger issue than height for Shaq’s contemporaries is his sheer bulk. How well he continues to throw his weight around—and for how many more years he will do it—may determine whether O’Neal will ever crack the top three.

“He is a combination of a lot of centers—finesse and power,” says Sanders, “and 340 pounds is very difficult to deal with.”

Career Stats League-Leading Numbers
Russell (13) 44 56 15.1 22.5 4.3 0 0 5 5
Chamberlain (14) 54 51 30.1 22.9 4.4 7 9 11 4
Abdul-Jabbar (20) 56 72 24.6 11.2 3.6 2 1 1 6
*Malone (19) 50 76 20.3 12.3 1.3 0 0 6 3
Olajuwon (17) 51 71 22.1 11.2 2.5 0 0 2 1
O’Neal (10) 58 53 27.6 12.3 2.8 2 5 2 1

*Combined ABA and NBA numbers; stats through March 11, 2002

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