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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Would You Pay $20 Million for an Old Diesel?

Would you pay $20 million for an old diesel? Perhaps this seems to be a strange question to ask right after Shaquille O'Neal had his best performance of this year's playoffs (28 and 16 versus Detroit to win the Eastern Conference Finals beats 30 and 20 versus Chicago in my book). I could point out that this article was researched and written before the Miami Heat's game six win but the reality is that O'Neal did not do anything to refute my basic premise: unless he leads the Heat to an NBA title, he is overpaid because he is the NBA's highest paid player but is clearly no longer the best player in the league. If Miami wins the championship, then it is certainly justifiable to pay O'Neal more than he would be worth based strictly on his individual numbers. O'Neal's strong performance in eliminating Detroit was very timely and it will be interesting to see if he is able to sustain that level of play throughout the NBA Finals.

Shaquille O’Neal has a lot of nicknames—Shaq Daddy, the Diesel, the Big Aristotle—but unless he and the Miami Heat are able to win an NBA title he is going to earn a new one: "overpaid." O’Neal is the highest paid player in the NBA, taking in $20 million a year. Whether or not any athlete should make that much more money than surgeons, police officers, teachers and others is a separate issue—big time movie stars make much more than athletes do and no one seems to be up in arms about that. The question here is whether or not O’Neal’s production justifies his salary relative to what other NBA players make.

Here are O’Neal’s regular season statistics for the past five seasons:

GP Min FG% FT% RPG APG SPG BPG TPG PF PPG
01-02 LAL 67 36.1 .579 .555 10.7 3.0 .61 2.04 2.55 3.00 27.2
02-03 LAL 67 37.8 .574 .622 11.1 3.1 .57 2.37 2.93 3.40 27.5
03-04 LAL 67 36.8 .584 .490 11.5 2.9 .51 2.48 2.91 3.40 21.5
04-05 MIA 73 34.1 .601 .461 10.4 2.7 .49 2.34 2.78 3.60 22.9
05-06 MIA 59 30.6 .600 .469 9.2 1.9 .39 1.76 2.85 3.90 20.0


Here are his playoff numbers for the same time span:

01-02 LAL 19 40.8 .529 .649 12.6 2.8 .53 2.53 3.26 3.26 28.5
02-03 LAL 12 40.1 .535 .621 14.8 3.7 .58 2.83 2.92 2.83 27.0
03-04 LAL 22 41.7 .593 .429 13.2 2.5 .32 2.77 2.50 4.09 21.5
04-05 MIA 13 33.2 .558 .472 7.8 1.9 .38 1.46 3.23 4.00 19.4
05-06 MIA 16 32.1 .597 .400 9.3 1.3 .50 1.50 3.81 3.56 19.6
(through May 31)


The pattern is very evident: O’Neal’s field goal percentage has increased but his minutes, free throw percentage, rebounding, assists, steals, blocked shots and points are all heading downward. His turnovers and fouls are increasing despite his diminished time on the court. He has gone from being the most dominant player in the game to "just" an All-Star level center, receiving no MVP votes this season after finishing a close second last year. His decline becomes even more apparent when you consider the numbers that he put up in 1999-2000, the year that he won his only regular season MVP and the first of his three championships: 29.7 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 3.03 bpg and 3.8 apg in the regular season and 30.7 ppg, 15.4 rpg, 2.39 bpg and 3.1 apg in the playoffs. Also, he misses between 15 and 23 games a year. O’Neal is more injury prone than ever and has lost a lot of the quickness and athleticism that he had a few years ago. His "breakout" game six in the first round versus Chicago—30 points and 20 rebounds against the likes of Michael Sweetney and Tyson Chandler—would have been a routine playoff outing a few years ago. O’Neal maintains a high field goal percentage because, to his credit, he never takes shots out of his range—dunks, jump hooks and short jumpers. He is no longer quick enough to consistently get good post position without committing offensive fouls, so he is not able to get off enough of those high percentage shots to regularly score 28-30 points like he used to do.

Many people are saying that O’Neal looks better than he has in years. Superficially, this is true, but it is important not to let one’s view be swayed by a couple spin moves and a coast-to-coast drive. O’Neal averaged roughly 20 ppg, 9 rpg and 1.8 bpg in the regular season. His numbers overall in this year’s playoffs are virtually identical to that and his statistics in the Eastern Conference Finals are only slightly better. One thing that O’Neal is doing in the playoffs that does not show up in these numbers is "showing"—on screen and rolls, that is. Heat Coach Pat Riley has demanded that when O’Neal is defending screen and roll plays that he leave the paint and “show” so that teams do not get easy shots like they have in the past against O’Neal’s teams. O’Neal has always been reluctant to do this but is now making a concerted effort in this area.

O’Neal made the All-NBA First Team for the eighth time this year but Ben Wallace, the Defensive Player of the Year for the fourth time, has a bigger impact on the defensive end of the court and Yao Ming had overall numbers that were at least as good as O’Neal’s this season: 22.3 ppg (first among centers), 10.2 rpg (third among centers), 1.65 bpg (ninth among centers), .519 field goal shooting and .853 free throw shooting. O’Neal trailed Yao in scoring, rebounding and free throw shooting and had virtually identical shot blocking numbers; his only significant advantage is in field goal percentage. Miami had a much better record than Houston and that no doubt was a major factor in the voting. Both players missed a significant number of games—23 for Shaq, 25 for Yao.

O’Neal calls himself the "LCL"—the last center left. Unlike some big men who fancy themselves to be guards and try to play on the perimeter, O’Neal has always understood that he belongs on the block. His sheer size still commands double-teams at times—not as frequently as when he was in his prime, but enough to create open shots for his teammates. Clearly, Dwyane Wade is the best player on the Miami Heat at this point, but O’Neal still has a definite impact on the team’s won-loss record. It is interesting that O’Neal willingly defers to Wade, something that he refused to do when he played with Kobe Bryant.

Purely based on production there is no question that O’Neal is overpaid—he is receiving the NBA’s top salary but is clearly not the NBA’s best player. However, Miami’s ultimate goal in acquiring him is to win the championship, so the latter part of his career must be looked at in that context. Pat Riley signed O’Neal and then came down from the Heat’s executive offices to coach Wade, O’Neal and the veteran laden roster that he assembled around his two stars. Riley’s reasoning can be summarized by borrowing from a popular advertising campaign: Cost for a future Hall of Fame center? $20 million. Winning an NBA championship? Priceless.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:24 AM

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2 Comments:

At Sunday, June 04, 2006 1:26:00 AM, Blogger Joe said...

"Unless he leads the Heat to an NBA title, he is overpaid because he is the NBA's highest paid player but is clearly no longer the best player in the league"

I think your logic is a little flawed. Look at it this way: a player is worth whatever it would cost to replace them and their contributions.

There is a real scarcity of great centers in the league. On the other hand, there are many stars who can excel at the 2: Kobe, LeBron, Wade, Iverson, Pierce, Ray Allen, Redd, McGrady, etc.

So one would logically expect that a great center would be paid more than an equivalently good SG. If you don't get one of the top five shooting guards, you can still play a great guy at that position. If you don't get one of the top five centers, you have to make do with someone like Keith Van Horn(!) at the 5.

 
At Sunday, June 04, 2006 2:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joe, you make a good point that centers, particularly those with Shaq's pedigree, are a rare commodity. Scarcity alone does not determine value, however. There also has to be demand. Recent rules changes in the NBA regarding perimeter defense place a greater premium on having players who can slash to the basket. The ultimate goal of an NBA team is to win a championship and the only good reason to pay a player the highest salary--particularly a player who is on the downside of his career and will be owed this hefty, guaranteed salary for the next several seasons--is if that player is the best player in the league (or pretty close to being the best player) and/or if acquiring that player's services enables the team to win a championship. Granted, the Heat may have been considering ticket sales, merchandising, etc. regarding Shaq's acquisition but those things are ultimately driven by success on the court. The Heat have indeed been successful thus far, but they would be the first to say that the season is not completely successful unless it ends in a championship. Shaq himself promised that to Miami fans when the team signed him.

Dallas used Van Horn at the center at times against Phoenix because the Suns often have a small team on the court. When the teams play in the Finals, Shaq will be guarded by Dampier and Diop. Dallas' roster is loaded with guys who can drive to the basket--Howard, Harris, Terry, Stackhouse, even Nowitzki is going to the hoop now. They will pose quite a defensive challenge not only to the Heat's perimeter players but also to Shaq, who is the last line of defense in front of the basket. If he can't stay out of foul trouble he will not have a chance to dominate at the other end. I thought that New Jersey could beat Miami by having Kidd, Carter and Jefferson relentlessly attack the hoop but they only did it for one game. I suspect that Dallas will prove to be more focused and determined.

I have been consistent in saying that when the Heat signed Shaq for maximum dollars and maximum years that they were taking a calculated risk. If it leads to at least one championship, then the risk paid off. I don't fault Lakers' owner Jerry Buss for not electing to take that risk.

 

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