This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on March 30, 2017.
The Los Angeles Lakers unveiled a statue of the 19-year veteran who brought three Championships to the city between 2000 and 2002. Shaquille O’Neal joins Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West in being immortalised with statues at the Staples Center.
Joined by Jeanie Buss, Kobe, Jabbar and Jackson on stage, Shaq went on to give a shout out to nearly every one of his teammates during his days as a Laker. At the top of the speech was of course, Kobe Bryant with whom Shaq shared one of the greatest love-hate relationships the NBA has ever known.
Shaq arrived in LA in time for the 1996-‘97 season as a result of his failing contract negotiations with Orlando. The Lakers who were rebuilding, also acquired Kobe in a draft day trade in the 1996 Draft. What they did not expect was that these two would go on to form one of the greatest duos the NBA has ever seen. Despite the dysfunction that defined their relationship off court, Shaq and Kobe respected the game and each other enough to lift the Lakers to three championships in the eight seasons they were teammates.
While with the Magic, Shaq was beginning to understand his once-in-a-generation physical abilities. The NBA had not seen a more imposing physical presence since the great Wilt Chamberlain. Simply put, Shaq was an absolute beast, wreaking havoc upon opposing defences. His high point was disposing off the Chicago Bulls in the season where Jordan returned from his first retirement.
It was with the Lakers, however, that Shaq realised his true potential as a winner, moulding himself into the most dominating centre the NBA has ever seen.
The rap on Shaq has always been his level of seriousness, or rather lack of it. It is what allegedly drove a wedge between an obsessive workaholic like Kobe and some who picked his spots (read: Playoffs) like Shaq. “It used to drive me crazy that he was so lazy,” Bryant said to the New Yorker. “You got to have the responsibility of working every single day. You can’t skate through shit.”
It was common to see Shaq show up to camp overweight from taking the summer off. He’d have a fairly sluggish start to the regular season, then using the games to whip himself into shape right in time for the playoffs. Shaq in the Playoffs, was a different beast.
What is often overlooked is the fact that, except for his first two seasons in Orlando, Shaq has not missed the Playoffs. Despite his reduced role and a significant drop in production in his last few seasons, Shaq retired with averages of 24.3 points / 11.6 / rebounds / 2.1 blocks while shooting 56.3% from the field. Those are number accumulated over 17 playoffs. No centre has retired with better numbers. Not even the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Optimist or pessimist?
With the Lakers, Shaq averaged 27.7 points / 13.4 rebounds / 2.5 blocks while shooting a blistering 56% from the field during the Playoffs. He was the focus of Phil Jackson’s triangle offense that featured the young and hungry Kobe Bryant. Opponents had to pick their poison for the night: either keep up with Kobe and his relentless style, or contain the 300+ pound force that was Shaq. It’s no surprise then, that the Lakers ended up with three Championships in as many seasons.
There is a school of experts who believe that Shaq failed to live up to his potential. That he was lazy. That his fooling around and lack of commitment (by his own admission) to practice greatly affected his career. That he used the regular season to prepare for the only thing that mattered: the playoffs. That he stubbornly refused to correct his flawed free throw shot to raise his atrocious free throw percentage. That he let his ego come in the way of building a dynasty with Kobe Bryant. His career often gets ranked among the most disappointing NBA careers of all time.
I wholeheartedly subscribe to the above school of thought.
The numbers also matter. The sheer volume of work also matters. He is a four-time champion. He was the best or second best player on all those four championship teams. He played 19 seasons in the NBA, played in 17 playoffs and retired with better playoff numbers than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, arguably the greatest centre in NBA history.
In his seminal book on basketball, Bill Simmons ranks Shaq just behind Hakeem, wrapping up Shaq’s career with this line” “(He) could have earned a top-five Pyramid spot and multiple MVPs, but he happily settled for No 12, some top five records, three Finals MVPs and a fantastically fun ride”. While at it he made a ton of money, released rap albums, made movies, got roasted and almost got killed.
We can look at Shaq’s career through the eyes of the sceptic that believes he underachieved, or through the eyes of the optimist who believes he did just fine for himself. No matter your take on his career, there is one truth: there simply wasn’t and will never be another center as dominant as Shaquille O’Neal.