August 02, 2010
There's no great fun in ganging up on a lion in winter. There's no fun in actually just taking on a lion in winter by my lonesome. As much as he's done to tick you and me off, Shaquille O'Neal(notes) is still charming. He leaves us laughing with him and not at him in the end.
That's one side of it. And the other? That charming persona allows us, many of us, to often forget how many chances he's squelched on his way toward being one of the best candidates that could have been the best player ever. You tend to forget how often this guy has let himself (to say nothing of his most ardent fans) down. You tend to forget how he's betrayed his own gifts. How he sloughed off a chance at the mantle for a chance at a summer spent jet-skiing and carb-loading, or possibly working on that left hand.
Or his face up game.
Or his side-to-side defense.
Or, ask your parents, his free throws.
This isn't to tell you that Shaquille O'Neal is the same unrefined talent that entered the NBA in 1992. I'd be way, way off in that ignorant re-telling. But he has coasted.
He's put in ungodly amounts of work, and dealt with physical frustrations that none of us will (thankfully) ever know. But he also stepped short of taking it to the next level. We can blame his physical makeup or the times or his injuries or whatever we want. But the fact remains that, due to his often-out of shape appearance and his refusal to take blame when the going got tough, Shaq was never the no-question top center of all time that he could have become.
"I'm a weird big guy. Doing rapping, doing movies. Do a lot of stuff.
"But always do things the right way. Changed three different franchises around (Orlando, L.A. Lakers and Miami). This is a guy who they (league officials) would have secret meetings about to change the rules. So, that's going to be my legacy: The most dominant player ever."
I won't touch the rapping. Since the Native Tongues scene strayed off, I'm pretty unaware.
And the NBA looking to put rules together to hinder his play? Short of the lifting of strong side zone restrictions (one of the more obscure rule changes that nobody talks about) prior to 1999-00 (before Shaq had ever earned a ring), I can't really think of any. It's in his head.
But dominance? Most dominant player, ever?
How does one define dominance? On a Monday in March ten years ago? Yeah, those 61 points were dominant. That whole 2000-01 season was dominant. The year after, too, while Kobe Bryant(notes) slummed amongst the martyrs and made life difficult. Allen Iverson(notes) (the voted-on MVP) may have been the better story that season, but Shaquille O'Neal was the better player. Was twice the player.
And Shaq's gifts were never fully realized as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's were in his time with Oscar Robertson (who, left without Paul Silas setting screens for him, dumped it into the skilled young center), or Abdul-Jabbar's time before Magic Johnson (when it was Kareem, all alone, taking the lumps but getting to put up the numbers). Shaq's best years were spent in an offense that asked the center to think pass-first, and yet he dominated first, second, and last. If anything - and this isn't some caveat put down to make myself feel better about ripping on the guy - his time spent with the Lakers under Phil Jackson has been underrated.
Severely, underrated. Look up those stats. Chase down those YouTube videos. Remember, just how brilliant this guy was.
But stop short of calling him the "most dominant player ever," as he'd like you to.
Because he wasn't. And, you know what? There's no great shame in that.
There might be a little shame. There might be a lot of shame. If you have the chance at being the best at something, you should seek that out to no end. But big men, at this level? A lot of them don't truly enjoy the game. A lot of them are in it because a parent or sixth grade history teacher told them that their size would work best in this arena; even if it took them years to play in an arena.
And I can't blame them for that, especially big men. Because of the bumps, the bruises, the intentional fouls and way-more-intentional screaming flops that land talented centers on the bench in the first quarter with their second foul of the game. It's a miserable existence, being a center in the NBA in this era. Nobody will pass you the ball, and the referees won't give you the benefit of the doubt. Seriously, even forgetting all the stress fractures, it stinks.
So I can, as you should be able to, understand why Shaq was more interested in bad rap albums and bad fitness habits in the offseason. He's human, and he's not Kobe. Nobody's Kobe, in terms of work ethic; save for maybe Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird over the last 30 years.
But he can't have it both ways.
Shaq wasted his best years. He put up with so much, but he also used that as an excuse to give so little when it came time to prepare for putting up with so much. He got by on skill and brawn alone for most of his run. This isn't to say he completely eschewed off-court workouts, or honing his craft. But this is to say that he didn't do nearly what it took to make him the "most dominant player ever."
At his best? Sure. I might take Shaquille O'Neal's March Monday, in 2000 against the Clippers, above any other pivotman. In his prime - his worked-toward prime - he was amazing.
But the most player dominant ever? Shaq, I'm sorry, but that ain't you. Most likable? Maybe. Most dominant for short stretches? I might give you that, considering the abilities of your opposition compared with the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell's combatants.
There's no way that holds up over a career, though. Even if it isn't over.
You had your time, and your fun. But as winter sets in, Shaq, you just don't compare.