Shaquille O’Neal was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, and he will be the last dominant center NBA fans will have the pleasure of watching for a long time. The NBA has good centers like DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, and Hassan Whiteside, but none of them have O’Neal’s physical presence and skill set that allowed him to dominate his opponents. Today’s NBA has no equivalent to O’Neal, and perhaps it won’t for a while.
When O’Neal entered the NBA in 1992, he had no problem adjusting to the pros. He averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds a game, earning Rookie of the Year honors, but even those numbers don’t reflect his physical prowess. O’Neal played like a man against children during his tenure with the Orlando Magic, and he wasn’t playing against scrubs. O’Neal battled New York Knicks legend Patrick Ewing and San Antonio Spurs great David Robinson. He also embarrassed defensive forces like Alonzo Mourning.
Houston Rockets champion Hakeem Olajuwon was his most challenging opponent in the paint. He averaged 33 points per game against O’Neal’s Magic as they swept them in the 1995 NBA Finals. Once Olajuwon past his prime, O’Neal took the torch as the league’s most dominant center. Though his footwork, passing, and touch around the basket were underrated parts of his game, brute force was his strength. So unlike Olajuwon’s finesse game that confused defenders, O’Neal pummeled them as he physically matured. During his three straight championship years with the Los Angeles Lakers, O’Neal had no equal at the center position. Fellow 2016 Hall of Famer Yao Ming at least blocked him three times during their first meeting. O’Neal still outplayed Ming in that match up, again, through sheer force.
Like Michael Jordan, O’Neal has been compared to players who came after him, but the comparisons never quite fit. LeBron James’ physical dominance over his opponents is similar, but as a small forward with a different skill set and smaller defenders, he’s not quite the same. Still, both players are known for their amazing strength and aggression, and they both intimidate their opponents when driving to the hoop. O’Neal was even more imposing than James though. He outweighed James by at least 60 pounds, and as hard as James dunked, he never broke a hoop.
Dwight Howard is a better comparison. He plays center, and has comparable athleticism and strength. He even broke a hoop just like O’Neal did. But as limited as O’Neal’s post game was, Howard’s has always been worse and it hurt his scoring. As underrated as O’Neal defense was (he averaged over two blocks a game for his career), Howard was a much better defensive force before he got hurt, winning Defensive Player of the Year three times by disrupting every shot that entered the lane. Though it’s interesting to note that their career blocks so far are similar.
What separates O’Neal from Howard is a trait no one attributes to either of them, and that’s killer instinct. Despite legitimate criticisms that he often entered the season out of shape, O’Neal played to win. Some seasons, his horrible free throw shooting increased during clutch situations. He also increased his scoring and rebounding come playoff time, finished that clutch alley against the Portland Trailblazers in 2000, and scored two 40-point and 20-rebound games in a row against the Sacramento Kings in 2001 the Western Conference Semifinals. With performances like that, it’s no surprise O’Neal has four championships, and he still said that he only got to show 30 percent of his game throughout his career because he was double-teamed so much. He never reached his full potential as a post player, but that’s due to his affinity for the power game. He could spin and hook(right-handed) with the best of them, but he preferred to move his opponents as opposed to faking them out. Basketball purists like Kobe Bryant found him lazy, but the results spoke for themselves.
In a league that elects Stephen Curry as the first unanimous MVP, the era of the titan is over, or at least inactive. Chest-shattering elbows and rim-snapping, backboard-shattering dunks are a thing of the past, but not forever. The same way Bryant took Jordan’s place as the dominant shooting guard, there will surely be a center who can at least tie O’Neal’s shoes. Good luck finding someone who can fit them.
Congratulations, Shaq Diesel.
Photo credit: Kris Krug