When Shaquille O'Neal was at his absolute best, he was the absolute best.
The best center ever. Possibly the best NBA player ever.
So if I'm creating an all-time NBA starting five, and I'm getting each player in his peak form, I'm penciling Shaq in as my center. And my team, which I will name in the following slides, will beat yours.
Shaquille O'Neal. Michael Jordan. I just gave you the list of players to ever win three consecutive NBA Finals MVP awards. That is the complete list.
It's also the complete list of names that have any business in the discussion of which players, at their peak, belong in the "Most Dominant Ever" discussion that Shaq himself started.
But that phrase—"at his peak"—will always be a necessary qualifier when assessing O'Neal's legacy, because his peak was much shorter than that of other hoops legends.
In fact, according to this diehard LA Lakers fan and longtime drinker of the Shaqool-Aid, Shaquille O'Neal's prime lasted only three or four seasons, with a single year as the clear pinnacle: the 1999-2000 season in which he captured his first career NBA championship.
That year, a lean, mean, hungry Diesel threw up 30-20 games with absurd regularity. Defensively, he blocked shots, but not a ton of them, because most players didn't bother challenging the scowling, howling monster who lorded over the paint with pure physical power and a seething desire to not only defeat, but humiliate, anyone who crossed him.
That year, after snatching one of his 13.6 rebounds per game, Shaq was equally likely to throw a perfect outlet pass or put the ball on the floor and run the fast break himself, with all the speed and ball-handling ability of a point guard.
He passed out of double-teams with precision, often pointing and shouting for approval from a courtside Magic Johnson after particularly sweet no-lookers.
Unfortunately, as Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times remembers, "Shaq told teammates when he won his first title, he'd come back the next fall at 400 pounds, and didn't miss by much."
He was of course able to play himself into shape and win the next two Finals MVP awards, but his time at the pinnacle was limited by the fact that basketball wasn't his life—it was just part of his life. He never had the basketball OCD of Michael or Kobe.
By the third of the Lakers' consecutive title wins, Shaq's playoff averages had declined from 30.7 ppg and 15.4 rpg in the first title run to 28.5 and 12.6—still great numbers to be sure, but a drop of three rebounds indicates the decline in overall activity and dominance from his otherworldly 2000 playoff campaign.
By the Lakers' 2004 Finals loss, the Detroit Pistons were able to single-cover Shaq and send the rest of their junkyard dogs at Kobe.
So is Shaq the greatest center of all time? Probably not, if we're going by a player's entire body of work. But in his prime—which by my count lasted three to four years, with an absolute pinnacle in 1999-2000—he was the greatest.
So, if I'm creating an all-time NBA starting five, and I'm getting each guy in his peak form, I'm penciling Shaq in as my center. And my team will beat yours.
Click through, and I'll introduce you to my team and take a look at the guys who will be mighty upset to have been left on the bench.
I'll start with what I believe is one of the toughest calls on the team: Shaq's position, at center.