Nineteen years ago, Shaquille O’Neal was a rookie with the 1992 Orlando Magic. It may be difficult for the more recent NBA–watchers to believe that way back then Shaq weighed less than 300 pounds and was built more like David Robinson than like the Incredible Hulk.
The top pick in the draft, Shaq was incredibly quick off the floorboards, had excellent footwork, could run the court and had terrific defensive range. In his rookie season, Shaq averaged 13.9 rebounds and 3.28 blocks, which both turned out to be career highs. He scored on putbacks, baby hooks, spins that were both tight and powerful, and when he couldn’t turn into the middle he whirled baseline for a half-jumper/half-push shot that I always called his “jumpie.” He even had a lefty twister off a right-dribble and a drop-step.
Even more miraculous, his free-throw percentage was 59.2 percent — another peak that he never equaled.
What couldn’t he do as a rookie?
Except for his injury-wracked last four seasons, Shaq’s 1.9 assists constituted the low point of his passing career. He also led the league with 3.39 turnovers, another of his dubious personal records. But Shaq’s ineptitude in these two categories is certainly excusable as he (like most rookies) struggled to get the hang of the pro game.
By his sophomore year, Shaq was the NBA’s premier scorer and led the Magic into the Finals — where, even though he played Hakeem Olajuwon on even terms, they were swept by the Houston Rockets.
At this point, Shaq had already overtaken Patrick Ewing and David Robinson as the game’s most dominant post player, and was soon to pass the aging Olajuwon.
Still only 23 years old, it was utterly conceivable that Shaq could develop into the greatest center in the history of the NBA. But then he opted to abandon Orlando in July of 1996 and sign a free-agent contract with the Lakers. While in Los Angeles, lots of good things and lots of bad things happened to Shaq.
During his initial three seasons in Hollywood, the Lakers didn’t come close to playing in the Finals — losing to Utah in the conference semis, getting swept by the Jazz in the conference finals, and then getting shut out by the Spurs in another conference semis.
Although his scoring heroics were limited by several nagging injuries, Shaq’s shot opportunities were also impacted by first the presence and then the emergence of Kobe Bryant. Neither Del Harris nor Kurt Rambis could devise game plans that could include and complement the respective talents of these two transcendent players.
Enter Phil Jackson in 1999, and the immediate establishment of a Lakers dynasty. Not that the road to Shaq’s first championship was a smooth one. Whereas he totally accepted, and committed himself to, Jackson’s triangle, Kobe thought the offense stifled his creativity.
At a midseason meeting, Shaq stood up in front of the team and said that Kobe’s selfishness was destroying their chance to win a title. Kobe’s response was to declare his affection for his teammates, to which he added blah, blah and blah.
While Kobe reluctantly reduced his one-on-five offensive forays, credit Shaq for repeatedly informing the media that the Lakers were Kobe’s team. Even so, the friction between Kobe and Shaq continued unabated to the point where Bryant actually challenged O’Neal to a fight. The best thing that Shaq ever did was to avoid the confrontation, thereby allowing Bryant to keep all of his body parts intact.
It was after the Lakers’ first championship that Shaq made a decision that had immediate rewards but proved to be a long-range disaster. Feeling that massive centers like Arvydas Sabonis and Luc Longley were pushing him around in the low post, Shaq felt that he needed to be heavier. In his equation, mass equaled power equaled total domination. He therefore instructed his personal chef to overload his meals with meat and potatoes and the pounds quickly began to accumulate.
Even though the Lakers three-peated, Shaq continued to expand. At one point, he weighed so much that only a cattle scale could make an accurate measurement — approximately 375 pounds. Unfortunately, at this stage (as well as later) in his career, Shaq’s optimal weight was about 315.
For sure, 350-pound lightweights could no longer move Shaq off his favorite spots in the low post, but the spring went out of his legs, smaller players began to beat him to rebounds and his defensive range shrank. He became a larger-than-life Superman and he had the tattoo to prove it.
Moreover, having to carry all that poundage up and down the floor, while also making the one-footed changes of direction that are necessary to performing at a championship level, inevitably broke Shaq’s body down. Major surgery to insert metal plates in a foot, routine muscle pulls and periodic back woes all conspired to diminish his games and minutes played.
At the same time, he had mastered the interior power game so he remained a peerless presence in the paint.
The Lakers were also-rans during Shaq’s last two seasons in L.A.
A trade to Miami and a championship-winning partnership with Dwyane Wade in 2006 constituted Shaq’s last hurrah. The last five years of Shaq’s tenuous tenure in the NBA (2006-07 to 2010-11) were blighted by a continuous series of ailments. Indeed, his swan song for the Celtics a few weeks ago in the Miami series was both sad and pathetic.
So, after 19 seasons, four rings and 12 All-Star Game appearances, how to sum up Shaq’s career?
As far as his status among the all-time great NBA centers, Shaq rates behind Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Both of these guys won more championships (11 for Russ and six for A-J), and they each were at the respective pinnacles of their games for far longer than was O’Neal.
While Shaq never equaled the individual statistics of Wilt Chamberlain (although he did win twice as many rings), there are extenuating circumstances. Double-teams were illegal in Wilt’s salad days, and outstanding 7-foot opponents were more scarce. Since His Eminence Tex Winter also slotted Shaq ahead of Wilt, there should be no righteous argument here.
As great as Shaq was, he also failed to reach his full potential. If Russell’s achievements will never be equaled, Shaq could easily have surpassed Abdul-Jabbar if only he had exhibited more self-control when he flashed his fork and knife.
A guesstimate is that in not having enough salad days, Shaq cheated himself out of at least two more championships. The Big Aristotle-Diesel-Whatever will also be remembered as the Big Glutton.