AP Photo/Steve Simoneau
Talking about Shaquille O’Neal’s four seasons with the Magic, now that he’s retired after a 19-year career and generally considered one of the five greatest centers of all time, is like talking about The Beatles’ pre-Revolver output. It’s mostly completely brilliant on its own terms, and worthy of every bit of consideration and every accolade it gets, but it’s generally overshadowed by the even greater heights of what he did with the Lakers.
Like the other big man who tops him on this list (more on that next week), his departure from Orlando was decidedly ugly. But two decades after his entrance into the NBA, with time separating us from those feelings, what Shaq accomplished in his short time in Orlando is pretty undeniable.
The traditional big man is an increasingly optional facet of a good basketball team in today’s game, but when Shaq debuted for the Magic in 1992, having one was everything. And he was that guy right away. He ran away with Rookie of the Year honors, averaging 23.4 points, 13.2 rebounds, and an astounding 3.5 blocks per game in 1992-93, and immediately established himself as one of the premiere inside talents on both ends of the floor.
His rookie season was outstanding, but Shaq was only getting started. The following year saw the arrival of Penny Hardaway, whom I wrote about a few weeks ago. Shaq and Penny formed one of the most formidable duos in the game — Penny’s diverse offensive skillset and Shaq’s commanding physical presence in the paint were near-perfect compliments.
Shaq only got better and more refined as a player during his first two seasons with Penny. Consequently, his numbers continued to impress: he posted a PER above 28 in each of his second and third seasons and led the league in scoring in 1994-95.
From the outset of his NBA career, Shaq embraced the superstar role, for better and for worse. His outsized personality made him a natural fit for the spotlight of being a professional athlete and he parlayed his charisma into various film and music projects. His eventual departure for the Lakers seems inevitable in hindsight because there is arguably no athlete in the modern era better suited for Hollywood.
But while Shaq was in large part responsible for increasing the Magic’s popularity as they were still aiming for respectability as a recent expansion team, his diva personality was often a detriment. Following his rookie season, his displeasure with Magic head coach Matt Goukas was a strong factor in his exit. The team was coached for the next three years by Brian Hill, who also fell out of favor with the Big Diesel shortly before he signed with the Lakers.
When he signed a seven-year, $121 million contract with the Lakers shortly before playing with Team USA in the 1996 Summer Olympics, Shaq lashed out at the Orlando media. He loved the spotlight, but hated the privacy violations. And while some of his criticisms were warranted (an Orlando Sentinel readers’ poll famously highlighted the fanbase’s less-than-favorable opinion of him), he did himself no favors by speaking out so strongly against the team and the city he had just one year previously led to the franchise’s first Finals appearance.
Still, it’s difficult to argue with the on-court results. Shaq and Penny gave the Magic their first taste of relevance. In the mid-90s, they proved themselves capable of hanging with anybody in the East. Until Michael Jordan’s comeback and subsequent resuming of his dominance over the league, the Shaq-Penny Magic had as good a shot as anyone of picking up where Jordan and Pippen left off.
The Magic were swept by the Rockets in the 1995 Finals but, even with Shaq having been hurt for a large chunk of the following season, they were still a power. They won 60 games in 1996 and seemed poised for a repeat Finals appearance before running into the newly reconstituted Bulls, one of the greatest teams in NBA history.
It’s weird to focus so much on such a small section of Shaq’s career, particularly when he went on two have one of the greatest stretches of play of the modern era as a Laker and win four championships between L.A. and Miami. He’s on the shortlist of greatest centers in NBA history, alongside Wilt, Russell, Kareem, and Hakeem. He wouldn’t be there if he hadn’t done all that he did in Los Angeles.
But Shaq also wouldn’t have reached that point had he not been so spectacular in his early career in Orlando.
Voter breakdown for Shaquille O’Neal
What is #ORLrank?
Magic Basketball ranks the top 10 players in Magic franchise history. #ORLrank is the Twitter hashtag to use if you want to get involved in the discussion or just follow along.
You can also follow along here: @erivera7
How did we rank the players?
Five MBN writers ranked each player 1-to-10, in terms of the quality of each player.
Thanks to Daniel Myers, Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference, and Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus for contributing to the project.