My recent obsession with Hakeem Olajuwon dates back to a few weeks ago, when I was watching a playoff game between the Lakers and Nuggets. Andrew Bynum, considered the premier offensive big man in the league, was in the middle of overwhelming his defender, 6'8" forward Al Harrington.
The problem is the way in which Bynum was doing it. Not once did I think, “Wow, that guy is unstoppable.” Instead, I found myself thinking, “The Nuggets really should just get a bigger defender.”
That's the way big men are in the league today. Players like Bynum and Dwight Howard dominate due to their sheer size and athleticism more than their skill on the block. And that's why I miss Hakeem.
The consensus greatest center of his era (an era featuring Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal), Olajuwon made a living destroying opponents in the post. Sporting impeccable footwork and supreme athleticism, Hakeem had maybe the most polished low-post game ever. In The Book of Basketball, sportswriter Bill Simmons compared his variety of low-post moves to the In-N-Out Burger menu, saying that he had “only a few options, but all were otherworldly.”
It sounds strange, but it's true. Hakeem had only a few moves and a few counters to those moves. Unfortunately for his opponents, those moves were so well-polished and deadly that he didn't need any others.
Consider the most famous series of the Rockets' championship runs, the 1995 Western Conference finals. The story is basically legend at this point. David Robinson was presented the MVP trophy in front of a livid Hakeem, who proceeded to dismantle the Spurs over the next six games, averaging a 35-13-5 with superb defense. What's truly amazing is how most of those points were scored.
The Rockets would get the ball, and Hakeem would trot up court and fight for position in the post. A teammate would toss Hakeem an entry pass. Hakeem would then take a few dribbles and either:
A) Take a turnaround jumper
B) Fake one way and take the turnaround the other way
C) Fake both and step through his opponent for an up-and-under
That sequence encompassed roughly half of the Rockets possessions, and the Spurs (usually Robinson) simply could not defend it. Robinson would play the jumper, and Hakeem would burn him with the fake. He'd play both and get beat with the up-and-under. By the end of each game, a dejected Robinson was giving Hakeem open jumper after open jumper. He simply didn't know what to do.
With just one move and two counters, Hakeem was able to overwhelm his opponent. That's why I keep coming back to those Hakeem videos. It's how big men were meant to play.
Hakeem's most impressive feat, though? This video of him tutoring Dwight Howard in the post just two years ago. It's amazing not because of Dwight's improvement, but because at 47 years old, Hakeem still looks like he could play. He makes Dwight, the most athletic center in the world, look as uncoordinated as a high school teen during a growth spurt. Unbelievable. I guess Hakeem always will be.