Michael Jordan retired from dominance in 1998. Since that time two players—Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan—have been major pieces of eight of the last 10 NBA Championship teams.
In fact any team who wanted to win a title in the last decade needed to start one of four dominant big men (the other two being Kevin Garnett and Ben Wallace). Big men dominated the league for 40 years before Jordan, and they have dominated it for the 10 years since.
In 2009, however, that story could be changing. Duncan has just turned 33, and the Spurs were ousted in the first round of these playoffs. Shaquille is now 37 years old, and the Suns failed to make the playoffs at all.
Though undoubtedly the greatest undrafted player of all-time, Ben Wallace has long been a shadow of his former self. Kevin Garnett (the most versatile seven footer ever) has been out injured for months. Unless Dwight Howard's Orlando Magic can defeat Kobe Bryant's Lakers in the finals, 10 years of big man dominance will be over.
Given the fact that this 'big is best' era may be coming to a close, I thought it would be interesting to look at the two most dominant players of the last 10 years and ask, 'which one is better?' Garnett and Wallace obviously are deserving of a mention, but their singular title each pales to the extended dominance of Shaq and Duncan.
So without further ado, lets take a look....
Tim Duncan - 4 Titles, 3 Time Finals M.V.P, 2 Time League M.V.P
Tim Duncan was drafted by the Spurs in the 1997 draft with the first pick. Known as one of the most fundamentally sound players of all time, 'The Big Fundamental' was a boon for the 1997/98 Spurs, as their poor record the previous year was due to the absence of another dominant, but aging center, David Robinson.
The two combined to become the 'Twin Towers', one of the best front lines in the history of the league. The Spurs went from 20 wins the previous year, to 56 in Duncan's first season, and the following year—after the retirement of Michael Jordan—they won the franchises' first title in five games over the Knicks.
The next three years did not fare as well for the Spurs. Robinson was getting older all the time, and Shaquille O'Neal emerged as the most dominant force in the game. Whilst Shaq's Lakers won their three-peat, Duncan and the Spurs could do nothing but await their next chance, which came in 2003.
In Robinson's final season with the Spurs, he and Duncan won the franchises second NBA championship. Duncan absolutely dominated the series against the Nets, in the final game he had a triple double—21 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists.
With eight blocks he was only two away from an amazing finals quadruple double. David Robinson was resurrected, contributing 17 boards in what was to be his final game. He retired after the play-offs, leaving Duncan as the teams undisputed leader.
Under Duncan's captaincy the Spurs would go on to capture two of the next four championships, leaving Duncan for one on each odd year, 2003, 2005 and 2007.
Though he struggled with injuries over that time, the emergence of Manu Ginobili and later Tony Parker—along with veteran assistance from Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry and others—allowed Duncan's Spurs to be successful. He won his last ring in 2007, although finals M.V.P honours went to Tony Parker, the only time Duncan failed to win that award.
Duncan's career numbers to date are as follows:
21.4 ppg on 50.7 percent shooting, 11.7 rpg, 3.2 apg and 2.4 bpg.
Shaquille O'Neal - 4 Titles, 3 Time Finals M.V.P, 1 Time League M.V.P
Drafted first by the Orlando Magic in 1992, few players have had as dominant a career as Shaq. The Big Diesel lead Orlando to 20 more wins in his rookie season, posting up a line of 23.4 points, and 13.9 rebounds per game on his way to Rookie of the year honours.
In his second year he upped his scoring to 29.3 points per game, and recorded his first (ridiculous) triple double against the Nets, a line of 24 points, 28 rebounds, and 15 blocks!
Although Shaq's early years were characterised by statistical and individual dominance, it was not until the age of 27, the 1999/00 season that Shaquille reached his gigantic potential. Averaging 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game, Shaq lead the Lakers to 67 wins and won his only league MVP award.
Leading the league in scoring, coming second in rebounding and third in blocks per game, Shaq was a force of nature and the Lakers won their first title since the days of Magic Johnson twelve years prior.
Following that season, with the emergence of Kobe Bryant as a dependable second option, the Lakers would go on win two more titles in a row, for a rare three-peat.
Shaq would be finals MVP each year, and his PER streak of 30.6, 30.2 and 29.7 would rank as the one of the most dominant stretches in history, and the cap to 5 straight years of leading the league in this statistic.
In 2001/02 the league finally eliminated the illegal defense rules, a change which was a de facto introduction of zone defenses. There are many who believe this change was implemented to limit the dominance of Shaq and the Lakers, by making it much easier to implement the hack-a-shaq, and double Kobe on the perimeter.
Whether or not this was the intention one can hardly argue with the outcome, as 2002 was to be the last ticker tape parade for Shaq's Lakers.
Following a disappointing defeat to Tim Duncan and the eventual champion Spurs in 2003, and a disastrous juggling of future hall of famers in 2004, Shaq's time with the Lakers came to a close.
That he and Kobe had struggled to get along was famously well known, and when the torrent of titles dissipated, the Lakers front office decided it was time to focus on their young star, and so traded Shaq to the Miami Heat.
Shaq's first season in Miami was considered a success by most measures. He played well, averaging 22.9 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, although at 32 years old, he clearly was not as dominating a force as in his prime and before the rule changes. The Heat improved their standing by 17 wins, and made the conference finals.
The next year saw a 33 year old Shaq's numbers drop to 20 and 9, as he struggled with injuries and played just 30 mpg. The Heat though won 50+ games for the second straight year with Shaq and made the NBA Finals.
Shaq averaged 18.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per game during the playoffs, but this was paled by Dwayne Wades 28.4 points per game. Though the Heat went on to win the title, it was now Shaq's turn to take a supporting role, similar to Duncan, as his perimeter star took the finals MVP honours.
After the 06 season Shaq's struggle with injuries were to deepen, although during the 2008/09 season with the Suns he managed a renaissance to post respectable numbers of 17.8 points, and 8.4 rebounds in 30 minutes per game on 60 percent shooting.
Although at 37 his time dominating the league has long since passed, Shaq has remained a useful contributor. His career numbers are as follows:
24.7 ppg on 58 percent shooting, 11.2 rpg, 2.6 apg and 2.4 bpg.
So Who's the Best?
For me this is a simple question with a four letter answer. S-H-A-Q!
He may have had the steeper decline so far with his age, but Shaq was among the most dominant players this league has ever seen. There is a very strong argument that the league changed the rules of the game itself to slow him down, something never even contemplated for Duncan.
Tim Duncan has been dominant over a longer period, but he never reached the heights that Shaq did during his three year run on top. I think the recaps speak for themselves, but I'm going to give the last word to the Big Aristotle himself:
"The biggest thing that will define my legacy is how I’ve done it, and what I’ve done, and who I am. I’m a weird big guy. Doing rapping, doing movies. Do a lot of stuff. But always do things the right way. Went to the police academy to become a police officer.
"Get his master’s in criminal justice, stayed out of trouble. Played for three different teams. Changed three different franchises around. This is a guy who they would have secret meetings about to change the rules. So, that’s going to be my legacy: the most dominant player ever"