Truly A Legend: Shaquille O’Neal
About two weeks ago, NBA TV was showing Game 6 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls. Some might remember that postseason as the year that Michael Jordan returned to the game of basketball as a slightly lesser version of his previous self. However, once you are able to get passed Jordan’s play, you notice the performance of stars such as Scottie Pippen, Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal.
Most people will have you believe that the Diesel was basically the mirror image of Dwight Howard prior to arriving in Los Angeles and nothing could be further from the truth. O’Neal already at the time combined great footwork with strength, quickness and agility to beat opposing centers to the rim.
In that particular game against the Bulls, Shaq scored when he was single covered, passed the ball out when double-teamed and even found ways at times to beat the double team and score. Have a look at the Diesel’s averages in those six games against the Bulls:
As impressive as those numbers are, some might feel that Shaq could or should have done more. That has always been the talk against the future Hall of Fame player. Far too often, it seemed as if he coasted instead of doing what was necessary to become truly the best in the game.
Myth or truth?
Well, if we fast forward into the future and look at his astounding 1999-2000 season, it becomes awfully tough to argue that Shaquille O’Neal did not do quite enough as a player. That season, there was the Diesel and then there was everybody else. He was by far the best player in the league thanks in large part to his ability to affect games on both sides of the court.
Never before had the league seen a player so imposing and so dominant. Centers that were about 7’1 in height and that weighed about 280 lbs suddenly became undersized. They could not defend him, they could not box him out and more importantly they feared him. And if the toughest guys on your team demonstrate any kind of worry against an opponent, it usually trickles down to the rest of the team.
Indeed, Shaq pulverized opponents for 79 regular season games on his way to averages of 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.0 blocks per game on 57.4 percent field goal shooting during the 1999-00 season.
By the time the playoffs came around, O’Neal improved those numbers to the tune of 30.7 points, 15.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.4 blocks per game on 56.6 field goal shooting.
The signature moment of that postseason run was Kobe Bryant lobbing the ball to Shaquille O’Neal for a crushing and game clinching alley oop that sent the Lakers to a Game 7 victory in the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Once the NBA Finals started, it was clear that no one would come close to stopping or even slowing this force of nature. Look at O’Neal’s production in the 2000 Finals:
Fans will always remember how the Diesel destroyed teams all by himself that season, but for some reason the remainder of his career has almost become an afterthought.
An argument can be made that Shaquille O’Neal underachieved during his glorious NBA career, but such a train of thought would involve comparing him to greatest players in the history of the league.
Indeed, the Diesel’s sheer dominance on the basketball court invokes memories of greats such as Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Indeed, of the names listed above, no one averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds for more consecutive seasons than the Diesel, who did it for 13 straight seasons. Have a look at the other notable top big men in league history:
- Wilt Chamberlain: 12 consecutive seasons
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 12 consecutive seasons
- Hakeem Olajuwon: 12 consecutive seasons
- Moses Malone: 11 consecutive seasons
- Tim Duncan: 10 consecutive seasons
- David Robinson: seven consecutive seasons
And as productive as O’Neal was during the regular season, he shined his brightest when the lights of the Finals were all pointing at him.
Shaq made six NBA Finals appearances and played against the Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, Detroit Pistons and Dallas Mavericks. And O’Neal was a bad man in the 36 NBA Finals games he played in his career. We are talking Shaft level bad ladies and gentlemen. Look at his Finals averages:
Great numbers across the board but for some reason the Diesel’s career seems to lack truly memorable performances. For instance, we all remember Michael Jordan’s flu game, Kobe’s eight points in overtime against the Pacers and Tim Duncan’s near quadruple double against the Nets. But what about Shaq? Let’s give him his due:
- Game 2 of 1995 NBA Finals (Vs. Rockets): O’Neal records 33 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists on 12-for-22 field goal shooting.
- Game 1 of 2000 NBA Finals (Vs. Pacers): Shaq explodes for 43 points, 19 rebounds, four assists and three blocks on 21-for-31 field goal shooting.
- Game 2 of 2000 NBA Finals (Vs. Pacers): O’Neal goes for 40 points, 24 rebounds, four assists and three blocks on 11-for-18 field goal shooting.
- Game 4 of 2000 NBA Finals (Vs. Pacers): Shaq records 36 points, 21 rebounds, one assist and two blocks on 13-for-25 field goal shooting.
- Game 1 of 2001 NBA Finals (Vs. 76ers): Shaq erupts for 44 points, 20 rebounds and five assists on 17-for-28 field goal shooting.
- Game 2 of 2001 NBA Finals (Vs. 76ers): Shaquille O’Neal goes for 28 points, 20 rebounds, nine assists and eight blocks on 12-for-19 field goal shooting.
- Game 1 of 2002 NBA Finals (Vs. Nets): O’Neal nets 36 points, 16 rebounds, one assist and four blocks on 12-for-22 field goal shooting.
- Game 2 of 2002 NBA Finals (Vs. Nets): Shaq produces 40 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists and one block on 14-for-23 field goal shooting.
- Game 3 of 2002 NBA Finals (Vs. Nets): O’Neal nets 35 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and four blocks on 12-for-19 field goal shooting.
- Game 4 of 2004 NBA Finals (Vs. Pistons): Shaq puts up 36 points, 20 rebounds, two assists and one block on 16-for-21 field goal shooting.
Shaquille O’Neal is by far one of the greatest players the league has ever seen. For all of the off court comedic entertainment that he has provided us over the years, there was never anything funny about what he did to opponents on the hardwood. One could even make the case that he was the best player of the previous decade given his impact on the court and his ability to obliterate opponents on the big stage.
I will always think that perhaps O’Neal could have done more, but then again I will always remember that very few could have done it better than him though. A true NBA legend.
Farewell Shaquille O’Neal.