AFRO Sports Faceoff: Circling Shaq: Grading O’Neal’s Career

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With the announcement of longtime center Shaquille O’Neal’s retirement from the NBA on June 3, the AFRO Sports Desk decided to size up O’Neal’s career and where it should finish among the greatest centers in NBA history. With a string of dominant bigs, including the likes of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; finding a spot for O’Neal among the greatest three centers to ever play the game was a tough squeeze for the Big Aristotle, so the AFRO Sports Desk was force to take a different approach. Rather than go back 30-plus years, Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley measured O’Neal’s career against the more recent string of great centers such as Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and even Dwight Howard.

Riley: I grew up on Shaq so I may be a little more bias than Green but personally, I’d put O’Neal down as the most dominant center of his era. Look, Olajuwon, Ewing, Robinson and even Howard were/are studs but O’Neal’s power, size and speed was simply too much at his peak. We’re talking about a 300-plus pound seven-footer with excellent footwork and agility. He eclipses those four guys in the ring category by himself and even an old Shaq gave Howard problems. Dominant, daring and transcending, O’Neal may be the most popular center to ever play the game as well. The only guy to market himself better was Michael Jordan but no center did more for the game inside and out than O’Neal. It’s not even close, he was the best of his era.

Green: I am a lifelong New York Knicks fan, but even I wouldn’t put Ewing before O’Neal. However, I would put Olajuwon up there though. You talk about footwork and agility, Olajuwon is right there. When the two met up in the 1995 NBA Finals, it was Olajuwon schooling the younger O’Neal on how to get things done when you get to the big stage. Shaq was nowhere near the scorer that Olajuwon was either. We’re talking about an extremely skilled center who could crossover, fade away and hit the jump shot with ease. Sure, O’Neal can tout his four rings but back-to-back titles and the performance Olajuwon unleashed in the ’95 postseason is enough for me to easily put “The Dream” ahead of your Big Aristotle.

Riley: You’re right, Olajuwon was very skilled but perhaps that’s what makes the story of O’Neal that much better. When it comes to raw talent, Shaq had that. No, he couldn’t swish a jumper from anywhere inside the three-point line and his free throw shooting was notoriously awful but power and dominance were his game, not finesse. Guys simply couldn’t guard Shaq in the post, period. He never had to develop the finer parts in his game because he honestly didn’t have to. When a guy comes into the league averaging close to 30 points a game, what else do you want from him? To think, if O’Neal even bothered to develop a jumper or his free throws, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion about him being the best of his era, we’d be debating his all time status. You can’t critique guys for what their game wasn’t, you can only grade them for what their game was and when it came to bullying, O’Neal was the biggest bully of them all.

Green: Just like Jordan evolved his game, O’Neal could’ve done the same thing. In a way, he was lazy to me, relying on his strength to get him by. He never really lived up to his potential, there were so many holes in his game that he could’ve improved upon. When you look at Olajuwon, even Ewing and Robinson, those guys maxed out when it came to improving their game. Even Howard is making serious strides on his offensive game. O’Neal never put the work in, preferring to spend his free time rapping, making movies and such. Sure, he marketed himself like a champion but he never applied the same work ethic to his craft. He had the raw tools to be the best ever but instead settled for being the best “bully” ever. Give me the hard working, overachieving Olajuwon.

Riley: You take the hardworking Olajuwon and I’ll take the dominating O’Neal. Only you would want to turn a Mack truck into a Ferrari. Why go around guys when you can go through them? O’Neal had his flaws but whatever holes he had in his game, those four championships filled them up just fine.

Green: I just want guys to work as hard on the court as they do off of it, that’s all. Shaq was a beast, no doubt, but minus the power and strength, what was he? Now, give Olajuwon all of O’Neal’s physical traits and my goodness…Put O’Neal in Olajuwon’s body and you’d have a regular guy. See the difference? Olajuwon, O’Neal, Ewing, Robinson and Howard, in that order of recent star centers.