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Deeper Dive: The Greatness of Shaquille O'Neal's Career Should Not Be Challenged

by Photo of Tommy Dee

One of the dominant forces in sports for over a decade, The Diesel was a once in a lifetime phenomenon.

Deeper Dive: The Greatness of Shaquille O'Neal's Career Should Not Be Challenged

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On the day where his much-awaited "30 for 30" airs on ESPN, Twitter is abuzz with a lot of discussion on the career of Shaquille O'Neal. The outspoken NBA great turned analyst and pitchman is a man of many talents, but he will long be known as one of the most dominant players in the history of the NBA in my mind. His dominance changed the NBA, and made playing against him on a nightly basis pretty unbearable.

At least in my mind. 

In others minds, however, Shaq seemingly "underachieved," a notion that I'm trying to, frankly, wrap my head around. Case in point: this morning's tweet from ESPN's Amin Elhassan:

Not "hating" here, but this is classic sensationalism at its worst in my opinion. It's irresponsible information to the younger generation of fans. Who set the expectations for his career to begin with if this is even close to being the case? His years with the Los Angeles Lakers were all-time dominant and he had one particular individual skill that the game rarely saw before he entered into the league and hasn't seen since. And when you compare his career to, say, Dwight Howard's in terms of "underachieving", Shaq is damn near Bill Russell to baby Superman. The stats agree.

The skill I'm referencing that stands out to me, particularly when it mattered most, was Shaq's ability to beat other bigs down court and establish low-block position. If Shaq got to either block or directly under the basket it was a dunk, layup or foul. It's why he had a career .586 TS% and why 54% of his career field goal attempts were from inside three feet (Basketball-Reference.com.) If you're shooting near 60% from the field and 60% of your field goal attempts are from inside 3 feet, you're basically impossible to guard especially when you average 16 field goal attempts per game for your career.

In his Laker "prime" days specifically he averaged 18.5 shots per game from the field. The triangle offense worked perfectly for Shaq if he didn't establish early post position, but if he was able to nail it down early in the shot clock and get a touch he was absolutely unstoppable. It was more effective than Kobe's fadeaway. Add up that simple math and you get complete dominance.

In comparison, Dwight Howard is shooting a similar 58% career from the field and 57% of those come within 3 feet, but he averages just 10 field goal attempts per game for his career, which is six less per game than Shaq (Basketball-Reference.com). Common sense tells you that's because Howard is more of a screen roll big than a post big, but if he established early post position as well as Shaq he'd get more touches closer to the basket where he has only one choice and that's to take the shot. I believe Howard's lack of effort possession by possession limits his touches and thus his ability to score in prime post position. That's the fundamental difference between Dwight and Shaq in my mind and it's why he hasn't won a championship to date.

(Editor's note: Field goal attempt proximity stats began in 2000 per Basketball-Reference.com.) 

Where did he actually underachieve? What truly drives Shaq's greatness home is his playoff performances. You can knock him for falling way short against the Pistons in 2004 but I equally blame Kobe for the internal distractions (Wikipedia, "Shaq and Kobe Feud). I think it's fair to say the city of Los Angeles and the bright lights of Hollywood also had an impact. But Shaq was at his most dominant during that time, and his touches and field goal attempts validate this. In 2000 he averaged 30 and 15, and capped off a dramatic, backs-against-the-wall, comeback against the Portland Trailblazers in Game 7 in Shaq-like fashion. This play to me is Shaq at his full powers.

To be fair, Amin is correct with this retweet...

Just ask Chris Dudley...

In the end, it's really hard to say that Shaq underachieved when you consider his accomplishments. To me he's a top 10 all-time player and a top 3 center. He's easily the most dominant talent in the same manner Magic, Bird, Jordan and LeBron are. Could he have done more in the regular season in terms of MVPs? Was he robbed by Steve Nash with the sympathy vote? (ballislife.com) Could he have won more titles? Surely one more but to say he didn't win 5 titles diminish an all-time great 15 years?

But if someone were to ask him, or anyone for that matter, coming out of Baton Rouge if he would sign up for 28,000 points 13,000 rebounds, 4 rings and an MVP, I'm sure we all would have signed off on a remarkable, distinguished career. Saying he underachieved is being overly nit-picky.          

I just wish for the sake of historic perspective expectations weren't often so unpredictably ambiguous and subjective. I can tolerate the day-to-day narratives, but when talking about an all-time NBA great, recollection should be far more focused for the sake of the edification of the next generation of fans.      

But, hey, that's just me.    


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