Shaquille O'Neal vs. Dwight Howard: Comparing the Games of Two Lakers Big Men
Like Shaq, Howard was drafted first overall by the Orlando Magic, developed into the best big man in the NBA, carried his team to the NBA Finals and even adopted the nickname "Superman" along the way.
Now, like O'Neal, Howard is a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, albeit via trade and by way of a much more acrimonious exit than even the one that saw Shaq walk across the country as a free agent.
Both are gregarious giants and jokesters by nature, though they've never gotten along well. Shaq has long taken to chiding and baiting Howard, even referring to Andrew Bynum (for whom Howard was essentially traded) as the best big man in basketball on national television.
Whatever resentment or ill will O'Neal feels toward Howard or vice versa likely has more to do with Howard's following in O'Neal's footsteps than any copycat crimes between their respective games. Shaq suggested as much while at Comic-Con in San Diego in July:
Frankly, their respective games are like night and day, or about as much so as those of two once-in-a-generation-type talents at center can be.
Size and shape are at the heart of the difference in their styles. Nearly every other disparity between O'Neal and Howard stems from the fact that the former was always significantly bigger than the latter was, is or likely ever will be—especially from the waist down.
Shaq entered the league in 1992 at a legitimate 7'1" (without shoes) and 303 pounds—a massive, yet agile post presence with phenomenal footwork for a human being his size.
A size that only grew over the years as O'Neal's waistline ballooned with age.
A dozen years later, Howard made his debut in the NBA at a much shorter 6'10.25" (with shoes) and a lean 240 pounds. Few would ever refer to a man of Howard's stature as "small," though he's hardly the behemoth Shaq was in his day.
To be sure, Howard's particular build has its perks. His muscularity allows him to remain strong, quick and agile, even while adding mass. An incredible athlete for someone his size, Howard relies more on his leaping ability than his bulk to get his work done on the floor.
Not that being big hasn't helped Howard's game at all. He still owns a significant size advantage over most of his adversaries and can bowl his way to the basket on occasion.
But the strengths of Howard's game stem from his athletic range on the hardwood. He's a great rebounder and a superb pick-and-roll finisher, in large part because he can jump over, around or through just about everyone in the paint.
Those leaping abilities are particularly helpful for Howard on account of his more slender lower half. Unlike Shaq—who had the strength and sheer mass in his legs and, shall we say, hindquarters to move mountains in the middle—Howard must rely on early positioning, quickness, a solid face-up game and upper-body strength to make hay down low.
That being said, Howard's more effective with his back to the basket than most people (other than Grantland's Sebastian Pruiti) realize, if only because the way in which he operates in the post isn't aesthetically pleasing. Eight years into his NBA career, Howard's footwork and finesse game remain rather raw, though those finer points haven't hindered his production any—he's averaged better than 20 points per game in four of the last five seasons and has shot 57.7 percent from the field for his career.
Still, it's unlikely that Howard will ever be anything close to the destructive force down low that Shaq was for a decade-and-a-half. The Big (insert any of a zillion nicknames here) averaged no fewer than 20 points per game during each of his first 14 NBA seasons (26.3 points per game overall), and he hit 58 percent of his shots over that span.
Shrink the time frame down to Shaq's time in purple and gold, and you wind up with a line of 27 points (on 57.5 percent shooting), 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.5 blocks.
Keep in mind, he did this while sharing the ball (however tenuously) with a young Kobe Bryant, who was himself one of the top 3-5 players in the NBA amidst O'Neal's peak.
Howard would be hard-pressed to replicate those numbers. Aside from his shortcomings as far as skill and lower-body strength are concerned, Howard will have to share the ball with three offensive-minded All-Stars—Kobe, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash—while working his way into playing shape within a new system following back surgery this past April.
This isn't to say Howard will never control the paint on offense; he's still relatively young (26) and is as tough to defend as any center in the league.
The point, rather, is that Howard's strong suit has always been defense. He's established himself as the foremost defensive presence in the league today, if not of his era, by way of a streak of three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards—a streak that ended last season when Tyson Chandler took the prize.
The fact that Howard still finished third in the voting—despite missing 12 games and engendering resentment at the ballot box with the way he handled his "Indecision"—is a testament to just how phenomenal he is on that end of the floor.
Here's a look at the rest of Howard's defensive resume at a glance:
*Tops in total rebounds six times
*First in defensive rebounds on five occasions
*Four rebounding titles (measured in rebounds per game)
*Twice the league-leader in blocked shots
*Finished with the best defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions on the floor, according to Basketball-Reference.com) on three occasions
*Five All-Defensive selections (four consecutive to the first team)
Shaq can't so much as hold a candle to Howard's CV in that regard.
To be sure, O'Neal was no slouch on defense, at least in his prime; he garnered three All-Defensive selections during his time in L.A.
But rather than patrolling the paint as a helper, shot-influencer and all-around intimidator (as Howard does), O'Neal did his best work as a position defender. Just as Shaq's colossal combination of size and strength allowed him to become an unstoppable force on offense, so too did it render him an immovable object on defense.
Most players were helpless to maneuver around O'Neal so long as he stood his ground and slid his feet without knocking his opponent to the floor or swiping his arms down; in which case, the opposition wouldn't score over Shaq, but rather resort to doing damage from the free-throw line.
Howard is much more adept at defending without fouling than O'Neal ever was. Because of his superior agility and sense of timing and spacing on the floor, Howard can single-handedly alter the complexion of a game (if not the fortunes of an entire franchise) as a stopper.
Which would you rather have on your team?
On the whole, though, Howard's impact on the league pales in comparison to that of Shaq in his day, most notably the part of it spent in purple and gold.
Simply put, Shaq was the preeminent player of the era immediately following Michael Jordan's second retirement from the Chicago Bulls. Shaq's MVP season in 1999-2000—during which he led the NBA in scoring at 29.7 points per game, to go along with 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.0 blocks for a 67-win Lakers squad that won the title—was a marvel of modern basketball.
His three straight Finals MVPs to complement the Lakers' three-peat weren't too shabby, either.
Howard has no such hardware to his credit, but he can say that, like Shaq, he was tops at his position when he arrived in L.A.
The difference? Howard's closest competitors include such illustrious names as Andrew Bynum, Roy Hibbert and DeMarcus Cousins. As for O'Neal, he was the cream of the crop during a veritable golden age for big men, earning his stripes against Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson, not to mention paving the way for Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Yao Ming and, of course, Dwight Howard.
Howard doesn't have to be Shaq to succeed in L.A. and shouldn't try to be. For Howard to go from disastrous with the Magic to dynastic with the Lakers, he just needs to be true to himself and stick to what he does best: rebound, defend, block shots and leap tall buildings in a single bound.
The rest—on the court and in the annals of NBA lore—will take care of itself.
Even if every step forward only strengthens the inextricable link between him and Shaq in the history books.
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