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Monday, June 06, 2011

Shaq Achieved So Much--and Could Have Achieved So Much More

Shaquille O'Neal announced his retirement last Wednesday, ending a 19 year career that included four championships, three Finals MVPs, one regular season MVP and eight selections to the All-NBA First Team. O'Neal held his formal retirement press conference on Friday at his mansion near Orlando and instead of issuing a tearful goodbye he cracked jokes as he hosted his family, his friends and dozens of media members. Julius Erving had a year long farewell tour (as did Mario Andretti not quite a decade later), Jim Brown left the NFL at the height of his powers to make movies, Barry Sanders hardly said a word as he disappeared from public life, Brett Favre retired (and came back) more often than probably any athlete outside of boxing but it is fair to say that no one ever retired quite the way that O'Neal did, capped off by "retiring" his many nicknames in favor of the "Big AARP." It is a cliche to call someone an "American Original" but if anyone fits that description it surely is Shaquille O'Neal, a larger than life figure on and off the court.

O'Neal has an infectious joy for life, he has generously donated to many charities and he ranks among the top 15 players (and top five centers) of all-time. Yet, despite everything that O'Neal accomplished--and even considering that he rightfully should have received at least two more regular season MVPs (2001, 2005)--there is still an inescapable sense that he should have accomplished even more than he did. Phil Jackson recently said of O'Neal, "This is a guy who could and should have been the MVP player for 10 consecutive seasons." If O'Neal had approached training, practicing and conditioning with the mindset of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant then O'Neal could have established a body of work that would have credibly put him in contention for the mythical title of greatest player of all-time (as I explained in my Pantheon series it is very difficult to pick one player as the greatest of all-time, though it is possible to select several worthy candidates for that honor); O'Neal had a great career but no knowledgeable basketball analyst would rank him as the greatest player of all-time.

O'Neal's basketball career can be divided into three different segments (I will leave it to others to summarize his rapping, movie and commercial careers).

Phenom

The NBA had never seen anyone quite like the young Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal's combination of size, speed and athleticism were reminiscent of Wilt Chamberlain's dazzling array of physical gifts but a major difference between the "Big Diesel" and "The Big Dipper" was that O'Neal confined himself to the paint on offense and dunked the ball with great force as often as possible, while Chamberlain often shot finger rolls and fadeaway jumpers to prove that his dominance was not just a product of his physical prowess. There are conflicting opinions about who would have won a hypothetical "classic confrontation" between the sport's two most overpowering big men, a reflection of how difficult it is to compare players who thrived in vastly different eras.

O'Neal averaged 23.4 ppg (eighth in the NBA), 13.9 rpg (second in the NBA), 3.5 bpg (second in the NBA) and shot .562 from the field (fourth in the NBA) as he cruised to the 1992-93 Rookie of the Year award. O'Neal's Orlando Magic improved from 21 wins in 1991-92 to 41 wins and barely missed qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in the franchise's four year history (Indiana also won 41 games but claimed the final Eastern Conference berth based on a tiebreaker). Although O'Neal later improved as a passer and developed more of a low post offensive repertoire, he never matched his rookie totals or averages in rebounding and shot blocking nor did he ever lead the league in either of those categories (O'Neal later added two more second place rebounding finishes to his resume plus a pair of third place finishes in shot blocking). Rebounding and shot blocking are the provinces of young, healthy players but one would not expect a great player to peak in those departments in his very first season, particularly when that player went on to have a long career during which he enjoyed obvious physical advantages over most of his opponents.

O'Neal won the first of his record ten field goal percentage titles in 1993-94, he increased his scoring average to 29.3 ppg (second in the league), he again ranked second in rebounding (13.2 rpg) and he finished sixth in shot blocking (2.9 bpg). O'Neal and rookie Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway formed a great duo as the Magic won a franchise record 50 regular season games before being swept in the first round of the playoffs by a veteran-laden Indiana team.

The Magic were clearly a team on the rise and in 1994-95 O'Neal led them to an Eastern Confefrence-best 57-25 record. O'Neal won the first of his two scoring titles (29.3 ppg), ranked fourth in rebounding (11.4 rpg), finished second in field goal percentage (.583) and again finished sixth in blocked shots (2.4 bpg). Michael Jordan returned to the NBA after being retired for nearly two full seasons but O'Neal's Magic eliminated Jordan's Bulls in six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Magic outlasted Indiana 4-3 in the Eastern Conference Finals but their inexperience caught up with them in the NBA Finals against the defending champion Houston Rockets; the Magic were clearly happy just to be in the Finals, they thought that they would return there many times and they spent more time enjoying themselves than focusing on the task at hand. Houston swept Orlando, the second of six sweeps that O'Neal experienced during his playoff career--five of which happened during his prime.

In 1995-96, a rejuvenated Jordan teamed with Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman to lead the Bulls to an NBA record 72-10 mark, 12 games ahead of the Magic. As expected, both teams advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals but this time the Bulls swept the young Orlando upstarts, routing them 121-83 in game one and never looking back. O'Neal's regular season dominance did not prevent the Magic from suffering three straight playoff sweeps and he was bumping heads with Hardaway--a theme that would repeat itself throughout O'Neal's career, though the media rarely took him to task because he so thoroughly ingratiated himself with members of the Fourth Estate--so he jumped at the opportunity to sign with the L.A. Lakers. The Lakers drafted a rookie straight out of high school--a bold move at that time--named Kobe Bryant and, coming off of a 53-29 season, felt that they had a championship-caliber nucleus in place.

O'Neal put up his typically dominant numbers in 1996-97 but he missed 31 games due to injuries. The Lakers were 38-13 when O'Neal played but just 18-13 when he sat out. Bryant played his way into the rotation as a rookie and appeared in 71 games but he started just six times for the talent-laden Lakers, who earned the fourth seed in the West and breezed by Portland in the first round before being blitzed 4-1 by top seeded Utah in the Western Conference semifinals; that series ended with Bryant shooting three air balls in the closing moments of game five, a failure that nevertheless convinced me for the first time that Bryant would ultimately be a great player: Bryant was the only player on the team who wanted to take those pressure shots and he held his high after each miss, undaunted. When I talked with Bryant about that game years later, he laughed and said, "For better or worse, I'm very optimistic. I'm glad that I don't have a gambling vice." Whether or not O'Neal wanted to take such shots, he was generally not a viable late game option (unless he could simply catch a lob pass for a dunk) because of his horrible free throw shooting, a problem that also afflicted not only Chamberlain but also Bill Russell, who largely gets a pass on that issue because he was never his team's primary scoring option (and because his Celtics won 11 championships, a feat that tends to silence most critics). Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon were all solid free throw shooters, refuting the idea that height and/or hand size prevent big men from having a decent free throw stroke.

Four Lakers earned All-Star selections in 1997-98 (O'Neal, Bryant, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel), the first team to achieve that distinction since the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers--but those Sixers went 65-17 and set a record by going 12-1 in the playoffs, while the 1998 Lakers saw their 61-21 regular season go up in smoke as the Jazz once again swept them, this time in the Western Conference Finals.

O'Neal returned to health in 1999 after suffering what he would call "knick knack injuries" in the previous three seasons and Kobe Bryant earned his first All-NBA Team selection (a Third Team nod) as the Lakers finished fourth in the West (31-19) during the bizarre, lockout-shortened 1999 season--but the San Antonio Spurs swept them in the Western Conference semifinals en route to capturing the NBA title.

O'Neal had established himself as a premier player and a dominant low post force but his playoff resume was full of holes, most notably the zeroes in the win column during the many sweeps suffered by his teams. O'Neal dismissed this problem with his unintentionally comical statement that he had won championships at every level "except college and the NBA." Although O'Neal had only played six NBA seasons, it already seemed fair to wonder if he was destined to end up like the ringless Patrick Ewing or if he would follow in the footsteps of Wilt Chamberlain and figure out a way to win at least one title.

Champion

Fresh off of winning six championships in eight years with the Chicago Bulls--and a one year hiatus during the 1999 campaign--Phil Jackson arrived in L.A. with one daunting mandate: figure out how to meld O'Neal's inside dominance with Bryant's free flowing perimeter game and help the Lakers finally win the championship that so many people had been anticipating since Jerry West assembled the O'Neal-Bryant duo. Jackson made it clear from the beginning that the Lakers would be O'Neal's team, placing both a responsibility and a burden on the big man's broad shoulders: Jackson demanded that O'Neal get into top shape and be a consistent, dominant factor at both ends of the court. O'Neal responded with the best all-around regular season of his career, leading the league in scoring (29.7 ppg) and field goal percentage (.574) while ranking second in rebounding (13.6 rpg) and third in blocked shots (3.0 bpg). O'Neal received the first of his three All-Defensive Second Team honors and he won his first and only regular season MVP after getting 120 of 121 first place votes. The Lakers rolled to a 67-15 regular season record and then survived some grueling playoff series to win the title. O'Neal topped all postseason performers in both scoring (30.7 ppg) and rebounding (15.4 rpg), though he also received a lot of help from Bryant, who led the Lakers in scoring (25 points), rebounds (11), assists (seven) and blocked shots (four) during their 89-84 game seven win over Portland in the Western Conference Finals.

The Lakers were not quite as dominant during the regular season in 2000-01 (56-26) but they more than made up for that slippage by going 15-1 in the playoffs, eclipsing the record winning percentage posted by the aforementioned 1983 76ers. O'Neal nearly duplicated his 2000 playoff numbers (30.4 ppg, 15.4 rpg). The Lakers achieved a "three-peat"--something only previously accomplished by the Jordan-Pippen Bulls (twice), the Bill Russell Celtics (who won eight titles in a row) and the George Mikan Lakers--by capturing the 2002 NBA title. O'Neal was slightly less dominant in the 2002 postseason (28.5 ppg, 12.6 rpg) but Bryant emerged as an All-NBA First Team performer during the regular season and he played at that level in the postseason as well.

Bryant's development into a legit MVP caliber player in his own right gave the Lakers a lethal one-two punch but it also created some internal problems for the team; O'Neal was still the focal point of the offense but O'Neal preferred to play a half court game while the young, athletic Bryant wanted to play at a faster pace. O'Neal was fierce and intense during games but he was much more laid back in practice and did not have the best training habits, a tremendous contrast with the hardworking Bryant. The simmering feud between O'Neal and Bryant came to a head during the fateful 2002-03 season; O'Neal delayed offseason toe surgery--infamously declaring that he got hurt "on company time" so he would get treated "on company time"--and he missed the first 13 games of the season. Even after O'Neal returned it took a while before he got into shape and could reassert his dominance; meanwhile, Bryant lit up the scoreboard, posting nine straight 40 point games (the fourth longest such streak in NBA history) and then averaging 40.6 ppg in February. As O'Neal regained his conditioning he wanted the offense to once again center around him, while Bryant chafed at the idea that the team should slow down and wait for O'Neal to establish post position. Bryant played in all 82 games and led the Lakers in scoring (30.0 ppg), while O'Neal averaged 27.5 ppg in 67 games. The Lakers finished fifth in the West (50-32) and lost to the eventual champion Spurs 4-2 in the Western Conference semifinals. For want of a (healthy) big toe, a dynasty was derailed. Recently, O'Neal has engaged in some revisionist history by asserting that his feud with Bryant was largely manufactured by the media but that is nonsense, as is the idea that the feud was mainly Bryant's fault (the storyline crafted for years by O'Neal's adoring media sycophants); the feud was quite real and quite nasty and though egos on both sides are partially to blame the core issue always was the contrast between Bryant's professionalism/work ethic versus O'Neal's much less serious approach regarding conditioning and practice.

The Lakers reloaded with two past their prime veterans (Karl Malone, Gary Payton) in 2003-04 but Bryant suffered various injuries plus his infamous legal problems and the four future Hall of Famers were rarely on the court together. The Lakers finished second in the West (56-26, including 29-9 when O'Neal, Bryant, Malone and Payton each started) after Bryant clinched the Pacific Division title with some clutch shots in the final game of the season versus Portland but by the time they reached the NBA Finals Malone was injured, Payton was a shell of himself and O'Neal and Bryant lacked good on court chemistry; the defensive-minded Detroit Pistons defeated the Lakers four games to one, putting an end to the O'Neal-Bryant era in L.A.

Faced with a choice of paying maximum dollars to an aging star who healed on "company time" or paying maximum dollars to a rising star with a fanatical work ethic, Lakers owner Jerry Buss made the correct long term decision, parting ways with O'Neal to rebuild the team around Bryant. O'Neal landed in Miami and helped the Heat win the 2006 championship but--as I predicted--the Lakers proved to be the long term beneficiaries, ultimately reaching the Finals three times and winning two championships (so far) with Bryant leading the way. O'Neal's contributions to the Heat should not be minimized--I still believe that he deserved the 2005 regular season MVP after leading the league in field goal percentage (.601) while ranking sixth in both rebounding (10.4 rpg) and shot blocking (2.3 bpg) and he played an underrated role during Miami's 2006 championship run with playoff averages of 18.4 ppg and 9.8 rpg--but if O'Neal had been more dedicated to his conditioning and more amenable to working with Bryant instead of competing with his younger teammate then the Lakers probably could have won several more titles, establishing a dynasty comparable to the one created by the Bulls in the 1990s and exceeded only by the 11 titles in 13 years captured by Bill Russell's Boston Celtics.

The "Big Bill Cartwright"

The Miami Heat suffered one of the worst collapses ever experienced by an NBA championship team, plummeting to a first round sweep in 2007 and a 15-67 record in 2008. O'Neal slowly but steadily declined from superstar to solid star to role player and while Bryant emerged as the best player in the league O'Neal hopped from team to team, vainly trying to latch on to the right superstar's coattails in order to win one more championship--but, even though some pundits had foolishly claimed that several perimeter players could have capably taken Bryant's place on the 2000-02 championship teams, O'Neal's partnerships with Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, LeBron James and Boston's "Big Three" netted just one title in seven years. While it is undeniably true that O'Neal was no longer the dominant force that he had been in his prime it is also undeniably true that O'Neal benefited far more from his partnership with Bryant than many critics were willing to acknowledge.

In 2009, I dubbed O'Neal the "Big Bill Cartwright," a very apt nickname meant not to disrespect O'Neal or Cartwright but rather to describe the reality that O'Neal's role for the Cleveland Cavaliers was precisely the one that Cartwright had so ably filled for Chicago's 1991-93 championship teams: timely post scoring, physical defense and a presence on the boards.

O'Neal's departures from Orlando, L.A. and Miami were each followed by verbal blasts from O'Neal directed at his former coaches and his former teammates but toward the end of his career O'Neal either matured a bit or else realized that since he was no longer an indispensable player it would be more prudent to burn fewer bridges. It was nice to hear him acknowledge during his retirement festivities that he would not have won three championships in L.A. without Kobe Bryant's help and Phil Jackson's mentoring, though Lakers' fans surely wish that O'Neal had developed such wisdom several years ago.

**********

Shaquille O'Neal by the Numbers
(all rankings include NBA and ABA statistical leaders)

Regular Season Career Rankings:
  1. First in field goal percentage (.5823)
  2. Seventh in scoring (28,596)
  3. Eighth in blocked shots (2732; statistic only kept since 1973-74 in the NBA and from 1972-73--1975-76 in the ABA)
  4. 13th in rebounds (13,099)
  5. 15th in blocked shots per game (2.26)
  6. 19th in minutes played (41,918)
  7. 21st in scoring average (23.69)
  8. 27th in games played (1207)
  9. 32nd in rebounding average (10.85)
Playoff Career Rankings:
  1. Third in rebounds (2508)
  2. Third in blocked shots (459; statistic only kept since 1973-74 in the NBA and from 1972-73--1975-76 in the ABA)
  3. Third in games played (216)
  4. Fourth in scoring (5250)
  5. Fourth in minutes played (8099)
  6. Fifth in field goal percentage (.5627)
  7. 12th in blocked shots per game (2.12)
  8. 19th in playoff scoring average (24.31)
  9. 22nd in rebounding average (11.61)

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:25 PM

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2 Comments:

At Tuesday, June 07, 2011 1:08:00 AM, Anonymous Chris said...

As a Lakers fan it could be quite frustrating rooting for Shaq. I really believe he only played hard for one full season of his career (2000). In 2001 and 2002 he coasted a bit during the regular season and then turned it on in the playoffs. In the 2004 Finals he was clearly out of shape and incapable of playing solid defense for an entire game. Maybe if the media had criticized him a little more - as opposed to sucking up to him - he might have been motivated to work a little harder.

I don't always agree with Bill Simmons, but in his book he compared Shaq to a college student who could've got a 4.0 GPA, but instead decided to spend his time partying and settle for a 3.2. Can't help but feel like he squandered a once-in-a-generation gift.

 
At Sunday, June 12, 2011 6:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's definitely strange to call someone who won an MVP, four championships, three finals MVPs and two scoring titles an "underachiever," but somehow Shaq fits the bill.

There are some very interesting parallels to be made between Shaq and Lebron. When I sit back and look at their respective career arcs, the similarities are kind of eery.

 

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