Tim Versus ShaqDon of With Malice... has compiled an interesting roundtable focusing on whether Tim Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal will be remembered as the dominant big man of this era. You can check it out here. This is my response (which can also be found by clicking on the previous link):
After Shaquille O’Neal’s 10th NBA season (2001-02), it did not look like he would have to share top billing with anyone in the post-Michael Jordan era: he had just led the L.A. Lakers to three straight championships, winning three Finals MVPs and one regular season MVP along the way. O’Neal had won two out of three playoff series versus Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs and Duncan only had one championship to his name, a title captured in the lockout shortened 1999 campaign.
It seemed perfectly reasonable to assume that the O’Neal-Kobe Bryant duo would win several more championships—but for want of a healthy toe, a dynasty crumbled: O’Neal injured his big toe but declared that since he got hurt “on company time” he was entitled to get surgery and heal “on company time.” So he enjoyed himself during the summer of 2002, had the surgery late, missed 15 games and took his time getting back into shape. As a result, the Lakers did not have homecourt advantage in the playoffs and eventually fell to the Spurs in six games in the Western Conference semifinals. O’Neal’s conduct escalated his conflict with Bryant, who became the team’s leading scorer; O’Neal declared that if the big dog is not fed (the ball) then he won’t guard the house (play defense in the paint), to which Bryant pointedly retorted that O’Neal needed to get in shape so that he could run down the court, because Bryant had no intention of walking the ball up and waiting for him. O’Neal and Bryant worked well enough together to lead the Lakers back to the Finals in 2004 but by then owner Jerry Buss had had enough of O’Neal’s annual in-season vacations combined with O’Neal’s very public demands that Buss grant him a new contract for maximum years and maximum dollars; Buss decided to trade O’Neal and rebuild the Lakers around Bryant.
Duncan’s Spurs filled the void created by the decline and fall of the Lakers; they won the 2003 championship after dethroning the Lakers and then they won titles in 2005 and 2007 as well, meaning that “the Big Fundamental” now owns as many championship rings and Finals MVPs as “the Big Diesel.” In his prime, O’Neal was the more physically imposing and dominant player but Duncan always had a better all-around skill set: Duncan can post up, shoot the face up jumper, rebound, pass and defend. The defensive end of the court really separates Duncan from O’Neal; Duncan has annually been the anchor for great defensive teams, while O’Neal has only sporadically been a force at that end of the court and this is reflected in the fact that Duncan has earned eight All-Defensive First Team selections (plus three Second Team nods) while O’Neal has never made the All-Defensive First Team and only made the All-Defensive Second Team three times.
O’Neal dominance is easier to see, punctuated by thunderous dunks that literally rattled backboards, but Duncan has more consistently maintained a high level of play at both ends of the court. If I had to choose between O’Neal at his best and Duncan at his best for one game or one playoff series, then I would take O’Neal circa 2000. However, if we are talking about evaluating their careers as a whole, I would say that they share the title of most dominant player of the post-Michael Jordan era--but if Duncan plays a key role on one more championship team then he will deserve top billing.
posted by David Friedman @ 12:59 PM