Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
[Previously: Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki • Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter • Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan • Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas • Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili • Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson]
THE MATCHUP: Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
O’Neal was a monster from the moment he entered the NBA as the Orlando Magic’s No. 1 overall pick in 1992 to the tail end of his Miami Heat tenure, when a combination of age, injuries and conditioning caught up to the 7-foot-1, 325-pound behemoth. For his first 14 seasons, O’Neal averaged 26.3 points (58.4 true shooting percentage), 11.8 rebounds, 3.2 combined blocks and steals, and 2.8 assists in 37 minutes per game. He made the All-Star team every year but the 1999 lockout.
During that span, O’Neal’s teams made the playoffs every year but his rookie season, when Orlando finished 41-41 and missed the playoffs on a fifth tiebreaker. O’Neal lost in the first round just once in his prime. He reached the conference finals nine times, made the Finals in six of those trips and won four championships.
Starting in his sophomore season for the Magic, O’Neal made 13 straight All-NBA rosters, including eight First Team selections. Only Olajuwon (three times), David Robinson (twice), Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning finished ahead of him for All-NBA from 1994 to 2006. O’Neal was as dominant a force as there ever was in the sport, finishing in the top 10 in MVP voting in 13 straight seasons, including eight top-five finishes, five top-three finishes and somehow just the one MVP in 2000.
Likewise, Olajuwon began lighting the NBA afire from the moment he joined the Houston Rockets as their No. 1 overall pick in 1984. From his debut through 1997, he made the All-Star team every season except 1991, when a Bill Cartwright elbow to his right eye cost him nearly two months in the middle of the season. In that 13-year prime, Olajuwon averaged 24.2 points (55.8 true shooting percentage), 12 boards, 5.3 combined blocks and steals, and 2.7 assists in 37.7 minutes per game.
Olajuwon made the All-NBA Second Team in his sophomore season, the first of 11 All-NBA selections in a 12-year span (six First Team bids). During that span, he only finished behind Patrick Ewing (thrice), David Robinson (thrice), Brad Daugherty and O’Neal (in 1995) at the All-NBA center position. (There were only two All-NBA centers in Olajuwon’s rookie season: Moses Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.)
In Olajuwon’s prime, the Rockets missed the playoffs once — in 1992, when they finished 42-40, a game out of the eighth seed. Whereas starting Shaq at the top of his game practically guaranteed 50-plus wins and the conference finals, Houston won 50 games five times in Olajuwon’s 13 prime seasons, losing five first-round series, making four conference finals and winning two titles in three Finals trips.
The counterargument: Sandwiched around his partnerships with Penny Hardaway and Dwyane Wade, who each made a pair of All-NBA teams during their time with Shaq, O’Neal played with Kobe Bryant on the Los Angeles Lakers. Olajuwon never played with anyone of their caliber, at least not in their primes. His only All-NBA teammates from 1984-97: Ralph Samson (1985 Second Team) and a 32-year-old Clyde Drexler, who made the Third Team upon arriving in a February 1995 trade.
The question is about how we weigh offense against defense. More often than not, Shaq anchored a top-five offense and a closer-to-middling defense. The opposite was true for Hakeem, who twice won Defensive Player of the Year en route to nine All-Defensive nods. Olajuwon led the league in rebounding twice and blocks three times, but O’Neal led the NBA in field-goal percentage nine times in a 13-year span.
Shaq’s gravitational pull was unlike anything we have ever seen on offense, to say nothing of what it did to deter opponents on the other end. That combination of the two helped birth the careers of his All-NBA teammates and yielded greater results. From the way actual baskets were structured to Hack-a-Shaq and the dawn of zone defense, an entire era was defined by the rules created to limit his dominance.
O’Neal generally used the regular season to get into shape for the playoffs, except in 1999-2000, when he accepted an early challenge from coach Phil Jackson to play closer to 48 minutes per game. The result? League-leading averages of 29.7 points per game on 57.4 percent shooting. O’Neal added 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and three blocks in 40 minutes a night over 79 games, coming within Fred Hickman’s Allen Iverson vote of becoming the first unanimous MVP in NBA history.
Those Lakers posted the fifth-ranked offense and league-best defense, which also landed O’Neal on the All-Defensive Second Team. He finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting that year to Alonzo Mourning, whose Heat posted the fifth-ranked defense — a full three points per 100 possessions worse than the Lakers.
O’Neal’s production spiked further in the playoffs, when he averaged 30.7 points (55.6 true shooting percentage), 15.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.4 blocks in 43.5 minutes per game. Those averages rose to 38 points (61.1 FG%), 16.7 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 2.3 assists in 45.7 minutes a night in the six-game Finals win over the Indiana Pacers. Needless to say, he won the first of three straight Finals MVPs.
Olajuwon joined Michael Jordan as the only players to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the same season when he accomplished the feat in 1994. His numbers that season: 27.3 points (52.8 FG%, 71.6 FT%), 11.9 rebounds, 3.7 blocks, 3.6 assists and 1.6 steals in 41 minutes a night over 80 games. The Rockets finished with the NBA’s 15th-ranked offense and second-best defense.
With Jordan off playing baseball that season, the championship door was open, and Olajuwon took advantage. His statistics remained fairly consistent in the playoffs, where he averaged 26.9 points (50 FG%, 86 FT%), 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 blocks, 3.6 assists and 1.6 steals in 43.1 minutes a night during a seven-game Finals win over the New York Knicks. He won the first of two straight Finals MVPs.
Olajuwon won the MVP vote handily that season, capturing 66 of the 101 votes cast. He edged Robinson by a single vote for DPOY. So, would you rather sweep MVP, DPOY and Finals MVP in a single season or earn a slightly lower percentage of the DPOY vote and cap one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history with one of its finest Finals performances. That is the choice here, and I find it hard to say anyone was more dominating at the center position than Shaq was in 2000.
In 1995, a 22-year-old O’neal met a 32-year-old Olajuwon in the Finals, and the Rockets swept the Magic. Both were great, as the head-to-head averages indicate:
• O’Neal: 28 points (59.5 FG% on 74 FGA, 57.1 FT% on 42 FTA), 12.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.8 combined blocks and steals in 45 minutes per game
• Olajuwon: 32.8 points (48.3 FG% on 116 FGA, 69.2 FT% on 26 FTA), 11.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and four combined blocks and steals in 44.8 minutes a game
Orlando got more from Robert Horry, Mario Elie and Sam Cassell than the Magic got from Horace Grant, Nick Anderson and Brian Shaw. That was the difference in the series — that, not giving Shaq a handful more touches per game and Anderson missing four straight free throws that would have clinched Game 1 for the Magic.
Their career playoff averages tell a similar story:
• O’Neal: 24.3 points (56.3 FG%, 50.4 FT%), 11.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.6 combined blocks and steals in 37.5 minutes over 216 games
• Olajuwon: 25.9 points (52.8 FG%, 71.9 FT%), 11.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists and five combined blocks and steals in 39.6 minutes over 145 games
As do their career averages in the Finals:
• O’Neal: 28.8 points (60.2 FG%, 48.4 FT%), 13.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.6 combined blocks and steals in 42.3 minutes over 30 games
• Olajuwon: 27.5 points (48.8 FG%, 74 FT%), 10.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 5.1 combined blocks and steals in 42.5 minutes over 17 games
O’Neal was the far more efficient scorer, even when we consider the sizable discrepancy in their free-throw shooting, and Olajuwon compiled more impressive defensive statistics. Shaq just did it more, reaching twice as many Finals, winning twice as many rings and finishing with a 17-13 record to Olajuwon’s 10-7 mark.
The biggest night of Olajuwon’s NBA career came opposite Ewing in Game 7 of the 1994 Finals, when he was still in pursuit of his first ring at 31 years old. He posted 25 points (10-of-25 FG), with seven assists, three blocks and a steal in 46 minutes of a 90-84 victory. That game was among 10 advance-or-go-home games in Olajuwon’s playoff career. His averages in those (five of which were first-round Game 5s):
• Olajuwon: 25.5 points (51.3 FG%, 62.2 FT%), 12.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 3.8 combined blocks and steals in 41 minutes per game
O’Neal only played four advance-or-go-home games in his playoff career — all in the conference finals. It is hard to say which was his biggest. It probably comes down to Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, when he submitted a subpar line (18 points, nine rebounds and five assists) in pursuit of his first NBA title, or Game 7 of the 2002 WCF against the Sacramento Kings, when he posted 35 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks and a pair of assists in 50 minutes of an overtime victory en route to his third straight ring.
O’Neal’s averages in his four career Game 7s:
• O’Neal: 26.3 points (58.8 FG%, 56.8 FT%), 10.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and three combined blocks and steals in 40.3 minutes per game
O’Neal finished 3-1 in those four conference finals clinchers, thanks in large part to the failures of Portland, Sacramento and the NBA officials. Olajuwon was 6-4 in his 10 advance-or-go-home games, the last two of which came past his prime. From 1993-97, as he was really dream shaking, Olajuwon was 6-1 in such showdowns.
It might be sacrilege to say, but it really does feel as though — where O’Neal could be somewhat neutralized for a given game because of his free-throw shooting or otherwise (see the triple-teams that limited him to 18 points in Game 7 against the Blazers at the peak of his career) — Olajuwon was less stoppable in the clutch. His worst-ever Game 7 line came in the 1993 Western Conference semis, when he was one assist shy of a triple-double in an overtime loss to the Seattle SuperSonics.
• O’Neal: Four-time champion (three-time Finals MVP); 2000 Most Valuable Player; 15-time All-Star (three-time All-Star Game MVP); 14-time All-NBA selection (8x First Team, 2x Second Team, 4x Third Team); three-time All-Defensive Second Team selection; two-time scoring champion; 1996 Olympic gold medalist; 1994 FIBA World Championship MVP; 1994 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year ; 1993 Rookie of the Year; 1991 National College Player of the Year
• Olajuwon: Two-time champion (two-time Finals MVP); 1994 Most Valuable Player; two-time Defensive Player of the Year (1993, 1994); 12-time All-Star; 12-time All-NBA selection (6x First Team, 3x Second Team, 3x Third Team); nine-time All-Defensive selection (5x First Team, 4x Second Team); three-time blocks leader; two-time rebounding leader; 1996 Olympic gold medalist; 1983 NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player
Would you rather have two Defensive Player of the Year trophies in your case or two more championship rings? You want the rings. Olajuwon might have them if he joined forces with one of the 10 greatest players ever a handful of years into his career, but he doesn’t. He also has two fewer First Team All-NBA nods, which means O’Neal was the best center in the game for a longer stretch. And, if we’re being honest, Shaq probably deserved at least one more MVP, if not two more.
For the culture
Olajuwon is the greatest foreign-born player in NBA history. He has served as the NBA’s ambassador to Africa, paving the way for Dikembe Mutombo, Joel Embiid and a generation in between. He has also committed considerable time in his post-playing career to instructing players how to operate from the post and teaching the value of footwork to a host of stars, including Kobe Byrant and LeBron James.
All that said, O’Neal is a larger-than-life character who has captured our attention in almost every medium. To various degrees of success, he has enjoyed careers as an actor, rapper, police officer, comedian, professional wrestler and business mogul.
Shaq at least shared his spotlight with Hakeem in a glorious 1990s Taco Bell commercial, although he did take the lead when they rode a tandem bike together:
O’Neal is a regular presence in our lives on TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” where he often either highlights blunders for Shaqtin’ A Fool or expands his own personal blooper reel. There may be no more prodigious personality in NBA history than Shaq.
THE DAGGER: Shaquille O’Neal is better.
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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