Forget Protecting Lebron, Shaq's Still One of the NBA's Best Centers

Benjamin TurnerContributor IJuly 14, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 26:  Shaquille O'Neal #32 of the Phoenix Suns warms up before the NBA game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on February 26, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.    The Lakers defeated the Suns 132-106.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Great centers along with first-rate nicknames are on the way out once Shaquille O'Neal calls it a career.  The Dream, Admiral, Patrick Chewing (just kidding), and Big Diesel are superstar players with Hall-of-Fame pseudos, but with The Big Witness retiring, the torch will be passed to a new breed of big man.

Orlando Magic Superman Dwight Howard is leading the evolutionary change for the center position. 

Howard, the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year, is the most physically-freakish center to come into the league since Shaq.  At the tender age of 23, he has already been a two-time All-NBA First Team player, Slam Dunk champion, and Olympic gold medalist. Last season Howard led all centers in rebounds (13.8), blocks (2.9), and double-doubles (63).

It's crazy to think that he hasn't even approached his full potential.  Once Howard develops a low-post game and starts making his free-throws with more consistency, he could ascend to the level of Olajuwon, Robinson, Ewing, and O'Neal.  Although these more recent greats fall a step short of the classics like Russell, Chamberlain, and Abdul-Jabbar.

In 2009, Howard was second in the league in points per game (20.6) and minutes per game (35.7), second only to Minnesota's budding star center Al Jefferson.

Big Al has the potential to be a special player in the Twin Cities for years to come, but after leading NBA centers in minutes (37) and points per game (23.1), he needs a more creative nickname to go with his game.

Also, as the franchise player, Jefferson must remain healthy for the T'Wolves to develop their young, promising talent.  Even after suffering a season-ending injury and playing in only 50 games, he still recorded a third straight season with double-digit total averages in points and rebounds.

Barring too many trips to the trainer, Howard and Jefferson are the two best centers when it comes to displaying a combination of consistency and pure athletic ability.

The NBA's second tier of centers isn't as clear cut.

Possible choices include Yao Ming, Emeka Okafor, Andris Biedrins, and Shaq.

Last season, Yao was considered one of the most consistent big men in the league.  Over his seven year career, he has averaged 19 points and nine rebounds while shooting 83 percent from the foul line.  Although, because of his ailing feet, Yao could possibly miss the entire season, so at this moment, his career possibly hangs in the balance.

Okafor heads a rising Charlotte Bobcats franchise as well as being one of the most underrated post players in basketball.  Once the second overall selection in 2004 NBA Draft (Howard went first overall), Okafor played in all 82 regular season games last year, while trailing only Howard in double-doubles (39). 

After recording double-digit points (10.6) and rebounds (10.1) over the past three seasons, Biedrins has improved by leaps and bounds since entering the league as a 18-year-old project in 2004.

The Latvian has continued to improve his stat line every year, and I predict in February, he'll be playing at Cowboy Stadium for the Western Conference All-Stars.

So that just leaves Shaq, right?

For those that feel Shaq is no longer dominant and can't play a leading role on a championship team, think again.

Even though he has a bright future in the broadcasting business, Shaq is still a star on the hardwood. 

The Big Aristotle appeared in 75 games for the Suns last season, which is a figure he hadn't reached since the 1999-2000 campaign with the champion Lakers.

It seems Shaq Fu found his fountain of youth in Phoenix.  He had a great bounce-back season that included his 15th All-Star appearance.

Excluding power forward/center types like Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Kevin Garnett, Shaquille has more showings at the All-Star Game than Howard, Yao, Okafor, Jefferson, Mehmet Okur, Marcus Camby, Nene, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas combined.

In 2009, Wilt Chamberneezy recorded a career-best in field goal percentage (60.9%), which led all NBA centers.  Plus, he was third in field goals attempted (841) and made (512) behind only Howard and Yao.

The Big Cactus also bagged more double-doubles (30) than Ilgauskas, Chris Kaman, and Erick Dampier combined.  His season total ranked fourth among centers with only Howard, Okafor, and Yao putting up better numbers.

On top of that, Shaqovic did his best to combat the infamous "Hack-a-Shaq" rule.  From the charity stripe, O'Neal's season percentage (59.2%) was the second-best of his career, trailing only his 2002-2003 season average (62%).  That number is seven points higher than his career average.

Lastly, The Big Daddy was fourth among centers in points per game (17.8), behind only Jefferson, Howard, and Yao.

Shaq has all the nicknames in the world to go along with Hall-of-Fame accolades, which include seven First Team selections, four NBA championships, three Finals MVPs, three All-Star Game MVPs, two scoring titles, 2000 NBA MVP, and the 1992-1993 Rookie of the Year award.

Shaq has been one of the game's biggest stars for almost two decades now. But in recent years, he's been surpassed by Dwight Howard and Yao Ming as the league's most dominate big man, with Al Jefferson blooming into a superstar. 

With Yao's health a major question mark in Houston, he won't be as effective even if he decides to suit up this season.  Since Yao will probably be on the injured reserve list, he's been disqualified for the sake of this argument.

Come the 2009-2010 season, in my mind, that puts Shaq in the discussion as a top three center in the association. 

Howard clearly claims the No. 1 spot, followed by Jefferson, who reigns supreme among the trees in the Western Conference.  After that, O'Neal is the best choice because he'll be playing for a powerhouse Cavaliers team. 

Okafor, Biedrins, and Nene are great options as well, but Shaq will be in the media spotlight game-after-game as the King's bodyguard.  With so much face time, O'Neal will look to entertain on national television, while proving to the country he still has the ability to perform great on the biggest stages.

In the end, O'Neal is a nice, fun piece to the championship puzzle but he isn't the deciding factor.  After missing out on Rasheed Wallace and Ron Artest, Cleveland still needs a shooting guard or a post player that can step out a sink a jumper.

There's still plenty of time for Cleveland to make another move (Anthony Parker isn't enough though), and there's still time for Shaq to add more accolades to his ever-growing legacy.