With the NBA playoffs set to soon begin, it’s rather easy to get caught up in player legacies. Indeed, the way athletes perform during the postseason has a huge bearing on how we remember or view their careers as a whole. For instance, Tracy McGrady had some incredible playoff performances and yet failed to make it out of the first round of the playoffs of every series that he has played in. No one will mention that his teams were never once favored to win (playing against better teams will often do that), but sadly that is probably how he will be remembered.
We could even make the argument that Kevin Garnett was headed that way until he landed in Boston (although he did make an appearance in the 2004 Western Conference Finals).
But let’s go to the other side of the spectrum and look at “winners”. Think about these names for a moment: Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. That is certainly a great list of stars; especially when we take into account their combined eight MVP trophies and four NBA Finals MVP awards. We are essentially talking about Hall of Fame players. Consequently, we would expect anyone that played with these athletes to have at some point in time experienced some type of greatness or perhaps great postseason moments; or as people like to say: Rings.
Seen in that light, can we say that Shaquille O’Neal winning four championships is a sign of underachievement? Hold that thought for a moment and travel back in time with me.
It’s the summer of 1984 and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who has already won three NBA titles (after having played with Oscar Robertson earlier in his career and then Magic Johnson) decides that he wants out of Los Angeles. He forces his way out to Chicago to team up with a young and upcoming star by the name of Michael Jordan. By their second season (1985-86) together, they win an NBA championship while Magic’s Lakers entirely miss the playoffs.
Having grown happy with his success, Kareem becomes complacent and the Bulls get swept in the first round a year after winning the title. Abdul-Jabbar is traded during the following season (1987-88), but this time is sent to a team with an established hierarchy of stars; as he is asked to fit in with John Stockton and Karl Malone. The team develops some chemistry late in the season and enters the playoffs with momentum but is defeated by Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.
The following season (1988-89), the Jazz decide to trade Kareem to Atlanta to play alongside Dominique Wilkins. The Hawks display great unity during the regular season and enter the playoffs as the prohibitive favorites to win the NBA title. The Atlanta Hawks breeze through the first round but are upset by an aging but still productive Boston squad that consists of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale who rounded up into shape by then after facing multiple injuries during the season.
Instead of retiring, Abdul-Jabbar signs as a free agent in the summer of 1989 with the Celtics with the hope of winning one last title. Sadly our DeLorean (Back to the Future reference) picks us up and brings us back to the present without telling us what happened to those bizarro Celtics (you know, Bird, McHale and Abdul-Jabbar on the same team).
By the time our journey to the past and back has ended, all we remember is that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played with Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Dominique Wilkins, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale; winning four titles in the process. Granted the story is incomplete, but would you feel as though he underachieved?
Obviously that situation never happened but it does help put Shaquille O’Neal’s career into context. He is arguably the most dominant center we have ever seen and yet several fans and media members feel as though he could have done a little bit more during his career. Granted, much like Kareem in our fictional scenario, it’s important to look at the teams and players he faced during his career.
Have a look at how Shaquille O’Neal’s teams have fared in the postseason:
- 1993-94 Indiana Pacers sweep Orlando Magic in first round
- 1994-95 Houston Rockets sweep Orlando Magic in NBA Finals
- 1995-96 Chicago Bulls sweep Orlando Magic in Eastern Conference Finals
- 1996-97 Utah Jazz eliminate Los Angeles Lakers in Western conference Semifinals
- 1997-98 Utah Jazz sweep Los Angeles Lakers in Western Conference Finals
- 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs sweep Los Angeles Lakers in Western Conference Semifinals
- 1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers win NBA title
- 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers win NBA title
- 2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers win NBA title
- 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs eliminate Los Angeles Lakers in Western Conference Semifinals
- 2003-04 Detroit Pistons eliminate Los Angeles Lakers in NBA Finals
- 2004-05 Detroit Pistons eliminate Miami Heat in Eastern Conference Finals
- 2005-06 Miami Heat win NBA title
- 2006-07 Chicago Bulls sweep Miami Heat in first round
- 2007-08 San Antonio Spurs eliminate Phoenix Suns
- 2008-09 Missed playoffs
- 2009-10 Boston Celtics eliminate Cleveland Cavaliers
If you’re scoring at home, the Diesel lost series to Miller, Olajuwon, Jordan, Stockton and Malone, Tim Duncan, a starless Pistons team, a scrappy Bulls team and finally Garnett, Pierce and Allen.
There is no shame to losing to the legendary players listed above, however one cannot overlook the numerous sweeps that O’Neal’s teams have been on the wrong end of. Furthermore, losing to the Detroit Pistons (in five games) has to go down as one of the greatest upsets in NBA Finals history; and couple that with his Miami Heat team getting swept in the first round of the 2007 playoffs and it becomes awfully tough to discount the possibility that perhaps the Diesel should have done more.
Some might say that perhaps we are holding him to a high standard, but my reply to that would be: how else are we supposed to judge all time greats? Let’s have a peak at the Diesel’s career numbers:
- 28, 596 points (seventh most all time)
- 13,099 rebounds (13th most all time)
- 2,732 blocks (eighth most all time)
- 23.7 points per game (21st in NBA history)
- 10.9 rebounds per game (32nd in NBA history)
- 2.3 blocks per game (15th in NBA history)
- 58.2 field goal percentage (1)
- 26.4 player efficiency rating (third best in NBA history)
O’Neal’s productivity as well as his longevity have allowed him to reach some impressive career totals in points, rebounds and blocks. His per game averages have taken a dip in the past few seasons given the Diesel’s diminished role with his respective teams. His career numbers do not fully capture just how destructive of a force he was during his peak years; routinely bulldozing through two or three defenders to score.
As evidenced by his PER numbers, less than a handful of NBA players were more efficient than O’Neal with the ball, and yet I cannot shake the feeling that Shaq should have been right up there with Kareem and Wilt, but he ultimately fell short.
The bridges he burned with former teams as well as superstars leads one to believe that no matter how great he was, he was also partly responsible for his teams not always maximizing their talents. How else do we explain that Shaquille O’Neal has been swept six times out of the playoffs while Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain were swept a combined four times (Kareem saw the broom three times while Wilt only saw it once)?
Ultimately, Shaq might be remembered as the “Imagine If Guy”: imagine if he had stayed in Orlando, imagine if he wasn’t often injured, imagine if he cared about being great defensively, imagine if Shaq had come into shape in 2002-03, imagine if he and Kobe could have patched things up, imagine if Miami had taken their title defense seriously, imagine if Shaq and the Suns had defeated the Spurs in the first round, imagine if Shaq hadn’t gotten hurt before the 2010 playoffs started with the Cavs and finally, imagine if Shaq had played a little more than half of the season with the Celtics this year.
As we head towards the end of Shaquille O’Neal’s career, we can probably all agree that he is easily in the top 20 of all time best players in league history. Sadly, his legacy will probably be that of a star that could and should have made it into the prestigious and heavily debated top 5 of all time but ultimately fell short.
Remember when Kobe Bryant was asked after his game 7 triumph over the Celtics last season what this championship meant to him? His answer: “I got one more than Shaq. You can take that to bank”.
And he was right. Just imagine if…