Los Angeles Lakers: Comparing Dwight Howard and Shaquille O'Neal
Haven't we seen this before?
After only four years with the young Magic franchise, Shaquille O'Neal bolted for Los Angeles during the summer of 1996. He signed a free-agent contract during the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics and spent eight years with the Lakers.
Sixteen years later, Dwight Howard leaves the same franchise, the same town and the same fans for the same nemesis.
Although a handful of draft picks and role players do not equal a superstar, at least this time, Orlando got something in return.
While the Magic are once again left to pick up the pieces and condemned to the bottom of the NBA, the trade mercifully ends almost two years of distractions, trade rumors and speculation surrounding the league's most dominant big man.
But before we get ahead of ourselves or jump to conclusions, let's compare the two moves and superstars.
Dwight Howard, Summer 2012
NBA Experience: 8 seasons
Finals Experience: Lost in 2009 to Lakers
All-NBA First Teams: 5
All-Defensive Teams: 4
Defensive POY: 3
All-Star Games: 6
Gold Medals: 2008
Dunk Contest: 2008, runner-up 2009
Scoring Titles: 0
Free Throw %: .588
Shaquille O'Neal, Summer 1996
NBA Experience: 4 seasons
Finals Experience: Lost in 1995 to Rockets
All-NBA First Teams: 0
Defensive POY: 0
All-Defensive Teams: 0
All-Star Games: 4
Gold Medals: 0
Dunk Contest: 0
Scoring Titles: 1995
Free Throw %: .546
How the Situations Are Similar
In 1996, Shaq joined a solid Laker lineup that won 53 games the previous year. Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones were young up-and-coming players, Cedric Ceballos had led the Lakers in scoring the previous two seasons and Elden Campbell was a formidable presence in the post.
During the middle of the following season, the Lakers swapped Ceballos for Robert Horry, a solid forward who could also shoot the three and had won two rings with the Houston Rockets. In a season that saw Magic Johnson return and then officially retire, Los Angeles made the playoffs, but was bounced in the first round by the Rockets.
While Howard is teaming up with proven stars, Shaq joined a squad of mostly younger players who possessed high potential. As a result, much was expected of O'Neal.
Fast-forward to August 2012. Dwight Howard was traded to a team that has reached the Finals three times in the last five years, winning in 2009 and 2010. However, only Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace remain from the 2010 team.
While the Lakers' role players are always changing, Mitch Kupchak orchestrated one of most NBA-altering offseasons in history. Howard joins a starting lineup that, including himself, features three MVP trophies, eight rings, 18 All-NBA First Teams, 15 All-Defensive Teams and four Defensive POY awards.
Yes, the Lakers may be aging, but the 2012-13 squad is completely different than 2003-04 experiment with Gary Payton and Karl Malone. This year, the Larry O'Brien Trophy is all but theirs to lose, while nearly 10 years ago, those vets were hopping on the hoops version of the Yankees, hoping to retire with a ring.
In a shortened 2011-12 season, the Lakers maintained a .621 winning percentage with 41 wins. With the acquisition of Nash, the Lakers are already an above-average team without Howard. He will not be expected to carry the team, but to be the piece that elevates it back to a championship-caliber level and carry on the Laker big-man tradition.
Who will win more rings as a Laker?
Sharing the Court with Kobe
Even though it is at opposite ends of his career, both players get to play with Kobe Bryant.
Kobe does not have much left to achieve, outside of proving he still has it. Howard realizes the privilege of getting to play with a surefire Hall of Famer, still in his prime. Howard also knew what he was getting into as far as being willing to submit to most-important-player status.
Dealing with Bryant's "I eat first" attitude will not be nearly as difficult for Howard as it was for Shaq. At the beginning of Kobe's career, he wanted to make a name for himself and prove that he was not too young.
Shaq had been one of the best players in the league for years and did not take kindly to having his toes stepped on. The subsequent Kobe-Shaq feud is well-documented.
Even though Shaq and Howard have similar styles of scoring, Shaq was much more of an offensive player. Howard will not be as reluctant to relinquish shots to Kobe.
The charity stripe is widely regarded as both players' biggest weakness.
To date, Howard has led the NBA in free-throw attempts four different seasons. At the time of being dealt to Los Angeles, Shaq led the NBA in the 1994-95 season.
During O'Neal's prime, the "Hack-a-Shaq" strategy was about all you could do.
While Jackson was gutsy for trying the strategy, it ultimately backfired. Howard is the most dominant center in the game today; he is just not on Shaquille O'Neal's level. Yet.
However, they both consistently shot around 50 percent, which is not an advantage for anyone.
Stroking the Ego
Both refer to themselves as Superman and crave attention so strongly, it's almost painful.
Shaq has caused all kinds of tension and drama throughout his career with other players, coaches and even management.
For example, in O'Neal's rookie season, Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum reportedly overheard Shaq express multiple times a desire "to get Matty [Guokas] out of here and bring in Brian [Hill]," which is what happened the next season.
Howard has been blamed for the firing of head coach Stan Van Gundy. Howard was not really upfront with his drama and whining and caused lots of problems for the Magic front office.
It is speculated Van Gundy was fired as a last resort to keep Howard in Orlando. Then, he waffled on staying or going, making things very difficult by declaring Brooklyn was the only place he wanted to go.
Both players ended up getting what they wanted. However, at the time of the deal, Howard's behavior and lack of consistency make him more of a liability in the future.
Size and Athleticism
Both players are considered physical specimens.
Dwight Howard is currently listed at 6'11'' and 265 pounds. He is more athletic and a better leaper than Shaq. Howard is very strong around the basket, making him difficult to defend.
Very few players at his height possess both exceptional athleticism and physicality.
Shaq's weight fluctuated around 325 pounds, and he is 7'1''. He is hands-down the most physically dominant center of all time.
At the time of Los Angeles signing him in 1996, he was considerably "smaller" and leaner. Nevertheless, his girth and size matched with his strength and deceptive quickness rendered double-teams all but ineffective.
How the Situations Are Different
Shaq left after four years in Orlando, but Howard played for the Magic for eight seasons, and coming straight from high school is definitely a factor. Even the rare teenager who makes a name for himself in the NBA takes a couple of years to develop into a star and, subsequently, have enough power to demand a trade.
In 1996, Orlando only had an NBA team for seven years and was still developing a fanbase and establishing the franchise. Therefore, it was not as difficult for Shaquille to leave.
In the end, it was much harder to see Howard go. He owns several Magic franchise records, is unquestionably the best player they ever had and meant a lot to a city that only boasts one professional sport.
Fitting in with the Team
While Shaq was a formidable defender on the block, he is best known for his offense.
In 1995, he was the NBA scoring champion and averaged over 26.5 points per game in each of his final three seasons with the Magic.
In 1996, Ceballos, the Lakers' leading scorer the prior season, was traded, leaving the majority of the scoring duties to Shaquille and unproven Eddie Jones and Van Exel.
Howard faces quite a different environment. On top of Kobe and acquiring Nash, the fact the Lakers managed to keep Gasol is probably the most amazing part of the deal.
As the go-to guy, Dwight Howard averaged 20.6 points per game last season. Going forward, that will not be required of him, and Gasol's post offense will be more than huge, complementing Howard on the block.
On the flip side, Howard clogging the lane, picking up Gasol's slack and making sure the Lakers don't miss a step on defense in Andrew Bynum's absence will be instrumental.
Howard is more athletic than Bynum, and having a teammate like that in the middle will leave Kobe and others more comfortable to take more chances pressuring the perimeter. Howard also fits a Nash-driven, up-and-down style better.
What It Means for the NBA
As Howard joins two players who defeated him in the Finals three years ago and follows in the large footsteps of a player who periodically gives him a hard time in the media, it is not easy to say for sure which player had the better Orlando career.
It is clear, however, that the 2012 Lakers and Dwight Howard are in a better position than Shaq and the 1996 squad.
So one last question: Is that good for the NBA?
For most people, the first answer that comes to mind is a resounding "no." How could it be?
That opens up a whole discussion on small-market teams being farm systems or minor-league teams for the large-market ones.
I'm not buying it.
Players do not desire to go to certain teams because of how big the city is. They want to go there because of how successful the team is.
One could easily rattle off small-market teams in multiple sports that have enjoyed recent success and often been a preferred destination for free agents: the Green Bay Packers, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts, for example.
Large-market teams like the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers or New York Giants are much more established and often more successful because of how long they have existed.
The Lakers have been a franchise more than twice as long as the Magic.
And when you compare Howard and O'Neal, it is easy to see what they mean to the NBA. Shaq made the Lakers relevant again. While people may hate the Lakers, most fans would rather watch stars they know instead of a bunch of no-names.
Do you think Dwight Howard on the Lakers will cause more interest in the NBA?
That's why Tiger Woods is so important to golf or Michael Phelps to the Olympics.
When you look at Nielsen's TV ratings of the NBA Finals for the past 12 years, nearly every series that involved the Lakers had higher ratings than those that didn't.
In a star-driven league like the NBA, there is no question that Dwight Howard going to Los Angeles is great for the NBA.
I think I might be more excited about an all-but-inevitable heavyweight rematch of OKC vs. L.A. in the conference finals than a possible LeBron vs. Kobe Finals we've always only talked about.
Tell me you won't be watching professional basketball next season.
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