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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Big Diesel is Getting Smaller and Smaller

Shaquille O'Neal will always be a towering figure in basketball history but in the past few years he has become a little smaller. Kobe Bryant refuted O'Neal's profane, classless rap by leading the Lakers to the 2009 championship with a Finals MVP performance, proving that he could indeed "do without" Shaq. Meanwhile, O'Neal presided over one of the most precipitous collapses by a championship team in NBA history, as the Miami Heat plunged from the heights of the 2006 title to a first round playoff loss in 2007 and the worst record in the NBA in 2008. Midway through the 2008 disaster, O'Neal went through an escape hatch to Phoenix but the Suns promptly exited in the first round and then failed to even qualify for the playoffs in 2009. Far from proving that Bryant cannot "do" without him, O'Neal is in fact showing that he cannot "do" without a lot of help. Anfernee Hardaway, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade were the "closers" on the various O'Neal teams that made it to the Finals, because down the stretch of a game O'Neal can neither create his own shot nor can he be depended upon to consistently make free throws.

As O'Neal's status has slipped, he has regrettably taken shots not only at Bryant but also at his former coach Stan Van Gundy (calling him a "master of panic"), the best center in the NBA today (Dwight Howard) and all-time great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who O'Neal ridiculed in the same rap in which he blasted Bryant. Abdul-Jabbar wisely responded, "The gratuitous insult? I considered the source and I slept very well that night." Abdul-Jabbar averaged 22.0 ppg and shot .599 from the field for a championship team at the age of 38, making the All-NBA Second Team and winning the Finals MVP in 1985; O'Neal is highly unlikely to post those numbers or have that impact two years from now when he reaches that age.

In their classic book Wait Till Next Year, William Goldman and Mike Lupica covered a wide range of topics through the prism of one year (1987) in New York sports. A subchapter by Goldman titled "To the Death" (pp. 277-281) is a tremendous piece of sportswriting that beautifully describes how the accomplishments of most athletes inevitably are blurred by the passing of time and the emergence of younger athletes. Goldman explained that Michael Jordan's epic 1987 performance (37.1 ppg) highlighted how Wilt Chamberlain stands in defiance of that trend because "Wilt was always in the papers because Jordan was always scoring the most this's since Wilt Chamberlain or taking the most that's since Wilt Chamberlain. And that ain't gonna change, folks. Not in this century." Goldman cited the example of career 60 point games: "Wilt: 32. The rest of basketball: 14. At the present rate, we will be well into the twenty-first century before the NBA catches up." Indeed, Goldman wrote those words more than 20 years ago and the "rest of the NBA" has yet to match Chamberlain in that category: he still leads, 32-28, despite the combined efforts of Kobe Bryant (five) and Michael Jordan (four).

While Chamberlain has more than stood the test of time, O'Neal's petty comments and the dramatic decline in his game after the age of 30--an indictment of his failure to consistently stay in top condition, a lack of dedication that is the real reason that he and Bryant clashed, regardless of the nonsense that the Shaq-loving media spewed--only serve to diminish his status, particularly when viewed in contrast with Bryant, who has continued to be an elite level player even as he passed the age of 30 and his "odometer" approached the 35,000 mark in terms of career regular season minutes played.

Remember all of the garbage that was written about Bryant supposedly driving O'Neal out of L.A. and how the Lakers were wrong to choose to build around Bryant? Do you think that anyone in the Lakers' organization regrets the O'Neal trade now? I always said that the only fair way to evaluate that deal was to look at it in the short term for Miami but in the long term for the Lakers. Anyone who suggested that the 2006 Miami championship vindicated O'Neal or reflected poorly on the Lakers is an idiot; when the Lakers traded O'Neal they fully realized that the Heat would be contenders in the short term but that it would take some time to assemble a viable supporting cast around Bryant. The Heat squeezed one title out of the Wade-O'Neal duo so the move was hardly a failure from their perspective but it will be interesting to see when/if the Heat will become a contender again. Meanwhile, the Lakers with Bryant never sank nearly as low as the Heat did with Wade sans O'Neal, Bryant has already exceeded what O'Neal accomplished in Miami and there is good reason to believe that the Lakers will be championship contenders for the next few years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:20 AM



At Wednesday, June 17, 2009 2:46:00 AM, Anonymous Jack B said...

That is why i gave a lot of credit to Bill Walton because he was one of the few national analyst who said that the Shaq-2-Phoenix deal was a disaster in the making. Another reason why Shaq and a couple of veterans on that Laker squad also hated Kobe is because he came from a privilege background. That coupled with the fact that Kobe worked "too" hard only added to the hate. Had these veterans embraced Kobe back in 1997, he might have been a whole different person today.

on Media: I think the reason why they too got on the "hate kobe" bandwagon is because:
1.Kobe then a 17-18 years old wanted to be better than Jordan which was/is blasphemy in a lot of writers eyes.
2.Shaq used to invite a lot of these reporters in his parties. In return they gave him favorable coverage.
3.Most of the players around the league are from urban america so they couldn't identify with KB. Since Shaq was liked around the league, its only right that they side with him.

on kobe rape charges: I think a lot of players around the league were secretly happy this happened to Kobe. Did you catch Allen Iverson's response when he heard about it? It was something like "He aint so diffrent from the rest of us".

oN Shaq: i think he's just an insecure individual. he did put a lot of big numbers but I can't rank him ahead of Hakeem, Kareem, Wilt, Russell or Duncan.

At Wednesday, June 17, 2009 1:27:00 PM, Anonymous st said...

hey david,
great post as usual. just read a good article on kobe. thought you might be interested


At Wednesday, June 17, 2009 8:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't really know who Shaq was rooting for in the finals as his 3 favorite people were fighting for a championship a couple of months after he missed the playoffs with a star-studded team.

His beef with Howard is extremely puzzling since all the kid wanted to do was be like him. Howard had nothing but respect for Shaq. He disrespects people who look up to him (Howard), people who want him to do better (Kobe, SVG), people who are worse than him (Dampier), people who are better than him (Kareem).
Tell me again why this guy is "likeable."

In disrespecting Kareem, he certainly violated his own "big man pecking order".

Looking at Shaq's resume, one can certainly argue that he is not better than Duncan. I rank Duncan ahead of him in the post-MJ era.

Duncan has been selected to the all nba and all defensive teams every year in his career. He is the all time leader in all-defensive selections. He has not missed the post-season and his team has been a legitimate title contender every year despite never having a top-5 player with him. Not once has his work ethic or attitude towards his teammates been questioned.


At Wednesday, June 17, 2009 8:33:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

While folks are passing along articles, I found these two pieces both very interesting:

Scout’s eye helped Bryant focus on title drive

(suggesting Kobe toke that NYT article very seriously)

Kobe/Lebron/Wade compared by Blazers' defensive specialist

""It's a bit different defending against them. For LeBron, I was told "stay back and avoid letting him in the paint. It's better to let him shoot." For Kobe, it's "good luck." Wade, for me, is different, he was maybe the toughest to defend. Well, no, in fact, you can't say that he's the toughest to defend out of the three because they're the three best players in the world. It's crazy how skilled Kobe is. Wade is too quick, his lateral quickness is crazy, in a thousandth of a second he puts his right foot on the other side compared with his left foot, you don't know how he did it. And LeBron, he hits you with his shoulder and you end up in the stands. To summarize: Wade too quick, Kobe too skilled, LeBron too physical." * * *"

Obviously Batum does not understand the game like Owen and Berri.

At Saturday, June 20, 2009 3:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


great post he trying to get a escpae route to cleveland too slam magazine put him no 4 all time players kobe 12 duncan 8 that is puzzling to me shaq to me is even with duncan and kobe for best in era all top 10 i would give edge to shaq but not a way bigger edge like them. the media is biased toward shaq and have never told us his flaws or speak of his bad behavior

At Sunday, June 21, 2009 1:52:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As I already noted in another post, Slam ranked Shaq too high; there is no way that he should be in the top five. I don't have a big problem with Kobe being ranked 12th, though he could easily be ranked a little higher; Kobe has a few years left to remove any doubt about being in the top 10.


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