All-Time NBA Starting Five: Shaquille O'Neal Starts at Center
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.
Center: Shaquille O'Neal
I'm putting the original basketball Superman at center in my all-time NBA starting five.
Other options: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Russell's achievements are staggering—literally impossible to overlook or minimize in any way. But they were achieved in much smaller, slower, less athletic NBA than the one we see today.
Russell stood 6'9" and weighed 215 pounds. If you were to put together a team to challenge my five, and put Russell in at center to guard Shaq, the Big Diesel—with a four-inch height advantage and 90- to 100-pound weight advantage—would be licking his chops.
The great Celtic champion's only chance would be the same approach taken by so many other big men who were simply physically overmatched against O'Neal: stay in front of him and hope to draw offensive fouls.
But Shaq didn't score almost 28,000 career points by fouling out; his quickness and agility would take him around and over Russell with relative ease.
And I don't think anyone would argue that O'Neal would have any trouble containing Bill Russell on the offensive end.
Chamberlain was the Shaq of his day; the Big Dipper was a giant, powerful force of physicality and personality. But you know that if they suited up against each other, Shaq would quickly dub himself the Biggest Dipper, and with a 40-pound weight advantage, he'd nullify Chamberlain's greatest asset.
Plus, considering their head-to-head history, I can't possibly pass Russell over and start Chamberlain, now, can I?
Olajuwon has perhaps the strongest case to start over O'Neal. After all, he did sweep Shaq out of the 1995 NBA Finals.
But that was a young, raw, unrefined O'Neal meeting an Olajuwon at the height of his powers. O'Neal's Magic teammates were also young and unready for the moment (I'm looking at you, Nick Anderson), while Olajuwon's Rockets were a well-rounded veteran squad.
But even with his vaunted arsenal of offensive moves, Olajuwon was a 21.5 ppg scorer in his career, trailing O'Neal by more than three points per game. And while Olajuwon was a prolific shot-blocker, Shaq at his peak dominated defensively in a way that cannot be completely captured by statistics.
It's for that same reason that I choose O'Neal over Kareem, the NBA's career scoring leader. Shaq wouldn't be able to stop Captain Skyhook, but who ever could? Shaq would score on Kareem on the other end and be a bigger influence in other areas of the game.
Now let's all give Kareem a minute to add this to his "slights and displays of disrespect" list.
Power Forward: Tim Duncan
The Big Fundamental will be starting alongside the guy who gave him that nickname, Shaq, in my all-time NBA starting five.
Other options: Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Kevin McHale
Charles Barkley was a one-of-a-kind bowling ball of a player, a freakishly powerful and explosive athlete with a world-class scoring touch and a hunger for rebounds.
But I'm going to take the 6'11" Duncan over the 6'6" Barkley for my 4 spot. Duncan is a gifted scorer and rebounder himself, and light years beyond Barkley as a blocker and alterer of shots.
Karl Malone, the second-leading scorer in NBA history, had a shooting touch that seemed impossibly soft coming off the fingers of a man whose body looked like it was chiseled from obsidian.
He was a bad-ass and a competitor, and I believe that the criticism about his failure to win a title is exaggerated—all the guy did was lose to Michael Jordan, in two hard-fought series, no less. But ringless he is, and I can't pick him over the four-ringed Duncan.
As far as high-scoring power forwards with attractive playoff resumes go, McHale is unmatched by every 4 who ever played the game, except one.
That one is Tim Duncan. He gets the start.
Small Forward: Larry Bird
Larry Legend holds down the 3 spot—and will stretch the floor with his three-point shooting—for my all-time NBA starting five.
Other options: Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving, LeBron James, Scottie Pippen
Baylor, the original NBA "slasher," was a scoring virtuoso and one of the founding members of the Best Players to Never Win a Title Club.
Bird has no idea what it feels like to be part of such a club, and was a bit of a scorer himself. Baylor can't start over Bird.
Dr. J was a highlight-reel guy who eventually earned championship glory, but he simply wasn't as complete a player or as great a competitor as Bird.
Pippen is one of the ultimate "team" players of all time. He's known mostly for defense but in reality could do it all—shoot, pass, handle the ball...there's a reason he has more championship rings than he can fit on one hand, and also kept the Chicago Bulls in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture during MJ's baseball hiatus.
But Bird was also a very complete player and capable defender, and is on another level from Pippen in the scoring category.
With James well on his way to adding a title to his resume, his exclusion here is indeed hard to justify. He's obviously in another world athletically from Bird (and just about anyone else who ever played the game), and has become a more complete player as he shoots more consistently from the perimeter.
If you picked James to play the 3 in a squad taking on Bird and my team, we'd have a matchup issue on our hands at the defensive end. But so would you.
In the end, Bird's legendary cold-bloodedness and competitiveness make him my pick at small forward by the slimmest of margins.
Shooting Guard: Michael Jordan
I'm gonna go ahead and go with Michael Jordan at shooting guard in my all-time NBA starting five.
Other options: Kobe Bryant
If you HAD to name someone who could POSSIBLY start at shooting guard in an all-time NBA starting five other than Michael Jordan, the only name possible is Kobe Bryant.
In fact, if you started Kobe at the 2 in taking on MJ and my squad, you would go into the game thinking you had a chance to win the shooting guard scoring matchup.
Or you could lose it—I'm starting Michael Freaking Jordan, after all. And in terms of total impact on the game, particularly at the defensive end, Jordan remains a level above Kobe in the NBA pantheon, and he gets the start.
Point Guard: Magic Johnson
The man who put the "show" in "Showtime" is the point guard in my all-time NBA starting five.
Other options: John Stockton, Oscar Robertson, Bob Cousy
Another Celtic with so many championship rings he uses a few of them as paperweights, Cousy was spectacular and innovative, but gets passed over for Magic just by looking at the tale of the tape.
If you started the 6'1" Cousy at the 1 against my squad, the 6'9" Magic would have a field day posting up and zipping passes over his head.
Oscar Robertson famously averaged a triple-double for an entire season, but that's all anyone seems to remember about his career. You hear about players having "quiet" high-scoring nights—did the Big O somehow have an entire "quiet" career?
But he ended his career ringless, while Magic has a fistful—and it's because Magic's talents and flair for the dramatic allowed him to impact the game at a level above Stockton.
To top it off, Magic is perhaps the only leader in NBA history with a personality strong enough to keep a lineup as talented and headstrong as this one in line.
What Do You Think?
Would you make any changes to my squad? Who'd I leave out that I shouldn't have?
At first glance, I thought my team might be on the "big and slow" side.
Then I realized I had Magic (greatest fast break player ever), Michael (aka His Airness aka Jumpman) and Shaq (one of the fastest, most athletic centers ever), and I realized my "big/slow" fears were just a result of Laker fan trauma from the series against the Mavericks.
But could a super-athletic squad, with guys like Kobe and LeBron on the wings, and Karl Malone and Bill Russell in the frontcourt, run my team off the court?
All in all, I think my squad is unbeatable, and a big part of that is the Big Fella in the middle, Shaquille O'Neal.
When he was at his absolute best, he was the absolute best.