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Okay, maybe the last sentence isn’t true but there’s no question that Shaquille O’Neal, now retired, goes down as one of the best players to ever play the game of basketball. And at his zenith, it’s hard to argue that O’Neal wasn’t as good if not better than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and others in the pantheon of great centers. Was O’Neal better than any of them overall? It’s hard to say, and that’s another discussion altogether.
O’Neal used his size and strength to rule the NBA in his prime and even though he carved out his legacy with the Los Angeles Lakers from 1997 to 2004, winning three championships in a row and earning a multitude of individual awards (he won a fourth title with the Miami Heat in 2006), his legend began with the Orlando Magic and that can’t be overlooked.
Although O’Neal left the Magic on bad terms in the summer of 1996, admitting in his retirement press conference on June 3 that he partly left for selfish reasons (also because the Lakers offered more money originally), it can’t be denied that he put the franchise and the city of Orlando on the map. The Magic were nothing more than bottom-feeders but when O’Neal arrived, everything changed, and they became not only winners but one of the most popular teams in the NBA. Ask many fans why they began rooting for Orlando and it’s not uncommon to hear the reasoning — because of O’Neal. The Magic never won a title during O’Neal’s four-year tenure with the team but his impact was undeniable.
For that, Magic Basketball reflects on O’Neal’s career.
What was Shaq’s most impressive NBA performance?
Nate Drexler: When Shaq dropped 61 on the Clippers in 2000, he took “beast mode” to a whole new level. Was it a throw-away game against a throw-away team? Sure, but considering he did not have the luxury of a three point shot and tacked on 23 rebounds in the process, this was one of the most mind-blowing performances of his career. Now consider this: it only took Shaq 35 shots to get his 61 points. There was absolutely no stopping the big man on that night.
Eddy Rivera: I think most Shaquille O’Neal enthusiasts would cite his 61-point, 23-rebound destruction of the Los Angeles Clippers on his birthday, en route to his lone MVP of his career during the 1999-2000 season, as his most impressive. That was O’Neal at his most majestic, but also at his most ruthless. The Clippers’ pitiful frontcourt of Michael Olowokandi, Pete Chilcutt, and Anthony Avent stood no chance against O’Neal’s superior touch, strength, and footwork. And though I’ve only seen bits and pieces of this game, O’Neal’s triple-double against the New Jersey Nets in 1994 still boggles my mind to this day — 24 points, 28 rebounds, and 15 blocks.
Matt Scribbins: In 1999-2000, Shaq led the NBA in scoring (29.7 PPG), had the most defensive win shares, and was named MVP of the All-Star Game and regular season. For a curtain call, he led the Lakers to a title and was named Finals MVP. His playoff numbers: 43.5 MPG, 30.7 PPG, 15.4 RBG. I’m shaking. Seriously, is it possible to have a better season?
Where does Shaq rank among the greatest NBA centers of all-time?
Drexler: He is easily in the top five. You have Wilt, Hakeem, Kareem, Russell, and Shaq, as far as I’m concerned. Wilt made more statistical noise than the rest, Kareem invented an unstoppable move, Hakeem was European before European was cool, and Russell was a beast defensively. Shaq was a new breed, though, and changed the way almost every opponent behaved when he was on the court. Personally I would take him over all of the aforementioned due to sheer size and impact.
Rivera: Many writers would say behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain (in no particular order) and I would tend to agree, though I never had the benefit of witnessing any of those players in their prime. If there’s anything I would argue, it’s that Shaq in his prime rivals any of his peers. I can only imagine how good Shaq could have been had he reached his full potential.
Scribbins: I would place Shaq anywhere among the top 5 centers of all-time. Different opponents and rules make it difficult to compare players from different eras, and injuries shortened many peak seasons for O’Neal. However, for one game, I would take Shaq Diesel over any big man. Somewhere around 330 pounds and he could actually run the floor? His combination of athleticism and size may never be matched, and his tremendous impact on the NBA will never be forgotten.
When you think of Shaq, what’s the first word that comes to mind?
Drexler: I’ve said it twice already in the previous answers: Impact. Shaq had so many flaws and limits to his game, but never let them stop him from keeping the game out of the palm of his hand. At his best, he was something akin to the sun, forcing everything else on the court orbit around him. At his worst he was a terrible free throw shooter. In both cases, whether it was Shaq attack night, or hack a Shaq night, the game revolved around him in a way I have rarely seen.
Rivera: Dominant. At his zenith, which spanned a five-year stretch between 1998 and 2003 when looking at the numbers, O’Neal was unguardable. It’s a tragedy that O’Neal only won one MVP in his career because he deserved many more. O’Neal could never control who voted for him, even though he was almost always popular with the media up until his retirement. However, O’Neal certainly could have controlled how many titles he could have won or his playing weight or reaching his full potential as a player. O’Neal was dominant, but he could have been even more dominant had he put his mind to it.
Scribbins: Legend. I will never forget the first time I saw Shaq rip down a backboard. I will never forget the first time I tried on one of Shaq’s larger than life shoes. I will never forget the feeling I had when I saw Shaq play in person for the first time. I will never forget his episode of Cribs. I will never forget that grown men were seriously scared to guard him. I will always refer to him by just his first name, and the world will know who I am talking about. Yeah, that’s a legend.