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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Tim Versus Shaq

Don 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:59 PM



At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 1:27:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

That is definitely a fair assessment.

If Duncan and Shaq were cars, they would both be top of the line, but Shaq would have a higher top speed and acceleration, and Duncan would be more reliable and steady, with good handling.

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 4:08:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

Tim Duncan won a title (in 2003) with a sophomore Tony Parker as his sidekick. That was the year Parker lost minutes to Speedy Claxton in the Finals. Stephen Jackson was a starter on that team, Manu Ginobili was a rookie coming off the bench, and David Robinson was very much on his last legs. It was one of the most dominant individual playoff performances of this decade.

I don't want to denigrate Shaq, but if Duncan had played with Penny, Kobe, and Wade he would probably have at least 6 rings by now.

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 4:59:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow/Joel:

Good cases can be made for both players but the thing that strikes me is that if Shaq had possessed a more disciplined and focused attitude regarding conditioning and if he had not been so insistent on proving that he--instead of Kobe--was "the man" then he and Kobe could have possibly built a greater NBA dynasty than any team other than Russell's Celtics, in which case Duncan would probably have had to settle for one championship from a locked out season and there would not even be a discussion about who was the most dominant player of the post-MJ era. That is the most ironic thing: if Shaq had stayed in shape and let Kobe do his thing then Shaq would have gotten more of the praise that he was seeking all along when he feuded with Kobe.

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 5:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i was wondering whether you have considered teh issue of shaqs taking off time on "company time" to get his toe fixed

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 5:09:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...


It goes both ways in the Shaq-Kobe feud, they both could have behaved a little better, but here's how I think of it: in any family when there is a brotherly squabble, the onus falls on the older brother to know how to handle the presumably immature younger brother, from a psychological standpoint. Shaq is Kobe's senior by a good 6 years. You would think the older brother could figure out a way to mollify the younger without resorting to fisticuffs.

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 5:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Reread the post; I devoted a significant amount of my analysis to precisely that issue.

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 5:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

Exactly. I made that very point in some previous pieces that I have done about Shaq and Kobe: Shaq was the established veteran, while Kobe came into the league straight out of high school, so Shaq should have looked at Kobe as a talented youngster who could help him, not as a rival who would potentially steal attention from him. Although Kobe was frustrated with Bynum early on, overall Kobe has had a positive effect on Bynum's development and has treated him much better than Shaq treated Kobe a decade ago, as I detailed in a Lakers-Pacers game recap last year: Kobe has mentored Bynum, who has eagerly accepted Kobe's advice.

At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 8:50:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with Joel on this one:

"If Shaq hadn't squabbled with Kobe"
-> if you swapped Shaq and Duncan, how long do you think the Duncan/Kobe duo would be getting rings?

Kobe used to be a bit of a headcase, but part of that was because he was immature, and another was because of frustration from Shaq's antics.

What makes TD great is that he is and will always be a fantastic teammate.


At Tuesday, February 03, 2009 10:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that if you swapped Duncan for Shaq and then Duncan and Kobe both stayed healthy that duo could have won eight championships if they had any kind of supporting cast. There would have been no drama, both players are the best defenders at their positions and no one on the team would dare to slack off in practice with those two leading the way.

I would not go so far as to say that the young Kobe was a "headcase." Phil Jackson offered the perfect description of Kobe when he called him a "hardheaded learner." Jackson explained that you cannot just tell Kobe what to do and expect him to do it; Kobe wants to know the reasoning behind everything and if he disagrees he might try things his own way first and possibly fail before trying a different way. Kobe is willing and eager to learn but, like most gifted students, he challenges his teachers to be on point with their explanations.

At Wednesday, February 04, 2009 1:53:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well, maybe headcase is a bit harsh, but his attitude did rub off a few veterans the wrong way. while the same can be said about MJ, i believe that you can be a winner while avoiding unnecessary drama. it's perfectly understandable since he came straight out of highschool. I just think that Kobe would have matured faster and be even better with TD than with Shaq.

if, hypothetically speaking, Shaq and Duncan were on the same draft class, and given that you know about their work ethic and ego, most people would still pick Shaq without any hesitation.

Ironically, the Magic had no rings to show for that pick.


At Wednesday, February 04, 2009 3:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


shaq was more dominant than duncan shaq beat him 3-2 in playoffs head to head numbers are better and peers would tell you that. rings 4-4 yeah thats duncan only argument and they tied at worst they tied.


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