Shaquille O'Neal Is the Greatest Center of All Time: The Facts Don't Lie

Ari HoringSenior Analyst INovember 3, 2008

I recently read an article where five NBA experts claimed that Shaq ranks under Hakeem Olajuwon in the top-center-of-all-time argument.

This completely shocked me, because if you took a look at Shaq’s stats and winning record, it’s not even close. I believe Shaq is the best center of all time, and in this article, I’m going to compare Shaq to the greatest centers of all time and show why he is the greatest.


Shaq vs. Hakeem Olajuwon

Olajuwon: 18 seasons

Career: 21.8 ppg, 51.2 FG%, 11.1 RPG, 2.5 APG 3.1 BPG, 1.7 SPG

Single-season highs: 27.3 PPG, 14 RPG, 4.6 BPG

Only averaged more than 25 points per game in a season four times

Shaq: in his 17th season

25.2 PPG , 58.1 FG%,  11.5 RPG,  2.4 BPG, 2.7 APG, .6 SPG

Averaged over 25 points per game 10 times

Single-season highs: 29.7 PPG 3.5 BPG 13.9 RPG

The main difference between the two is that Shaq is clearly a better scorer, while Hakeem is clearly a better defender.

However, individual offensive power is more important than individual defensive power. For example, who would you rather have on your team: a great defender like Bruce Bowen, or a great offensive player like Tracy McGrady.

Team defense, not individual defenders, win you championships, while individual offensive superstars win you championships as well. Now let’s see who’s a better winner.

Hakeem Olajuwon

Won his division three times, seven times past the first round of the playoffs, four conference finals appearances.

Three NBA finals appearances, two NBA titles, two Finals MVPs

Shaquille O’Neal

Won his division nine times, 13 times past the first round of the playoffs, nine conference finals appearance.

Six NBA finals appearances, four NBA titles, three finals MVPs

When it comes down to winning, maybe the most important attribute that defines a player, Shaq wins hands down. Keep in mind, if Michael Jordan hadn’t retired in 1993, Olajuwon more than likely wouldn’t have won any titles, and we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

I don’t understand how anyone can say Olajuwon is better than Shaq when he isn’t nearly as good of a scorer or more importantly a winner.

I’m not going to compare the statistics of Shaq vs. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar because the eras were so different. But I am going to address the comparisons.


Shaq vs. Bill Russell

Was Russell even the best center of his generation? No, Wilt Chamberlain was hands down a better player. Chamberlain's statistics were far superior to Russell’s, and if you look below at their statistics you can’t refute that.

Although Russell may have won 11 titles, which is the most by any player in NBA history, Chamberlain’s statistics are so much better than Russell’s that the number of championships can’t be a deciding factor.

Just looking at NBA titles doesn’t prove anything on its own. Are Robert Horry and Steve Kerr two of the best players of all time because of how many titles they’ve won? 

In fact, Russell's teams were so good that in 1957 the Celtics featured 6 future hall of famers on the same team.

For comparisons between two players with relatively close statistics, like Olajuwon and Shaq, winning can be a deciding factor. But since Russell was clearly not as dominant as Chamberlain, winning cannot be a deciding factor.

Because Russell isn’t even close to being as good as the most dominant big man of his era, Wilt Chamberlain, and Shaq is the most dominant of his era, the advantage has to go to Shaq.

BIll Russell

15.1 PPG, .440 FG%, 22.5 RPG, 4.3 APG

Single-season highs: 18.9 PPG, 24.7 RPG

Wilt Chamberlain

30.1 PPG, .540 FG%, 22.9 RPG, 4.4 APG

Single-season highs: 50.4 PPG, 27.2 RPG

Shaq vs. Wilt Chamberlain

For how great Chamberlain’s statistics were, he only won two titles and one Finals MVP, compared to Shaq’s four titles and three finals MVPs. Chamberlain was known for choking under pressure and underachieving, escpecially during pivotal playoff games. On the other hand, Shaq hasn’t been known for any of these.  

Chamberlain played with some great teams and eight Hall of Famers over the course of his career and had numerous opportunities to gain more titles. However, Chamberlain never had the killer instinct that Shaq had and constantly underachieved.

Three games in particular epitomizes Chamberlain's career. In 1968, in Game 7 of the NBA finals, Chamberlain did not attempt a shot in the second half as the Sixers were the first team in NBA history to lose a series after leading 3–1. 

In 1969 in game 6 of the NBA finals, the Celtics beat the Sixers 99–90, and Chamberlain only scored eight points.  If Chamberlain had put up his normal 30 point performance, L.A. would have probably won its first championship. In the following game 7, Chamberlain sat out the last 6 minutes of the game as they lost to the Celtics 106-108.

The key question was why Chamberlain had stayed out the final six minutes. At the time of his final substitution, he had scored 18 points and grabbed 27 rebounds. Chamberlain claimed he was injured but Bill Russell did not believe Chamberlain's injury was that serious and openly said "Any injury short of a broken leg or a broken back is not enough."  

The following year in the one of the most famous game 7's ever, Willis Reed notoriously ran out of the tunnel to play in the game even though he was badly injured the game before. Reed and the Knicks won the game and the series and Chamberlain was criticized once again for not taking over the game with Reed playing injured.

Even though Shaq was a greater winner, some people still say that Chamberlain's stats were so great that he has to be considered the greatest. However, during the early 60's when Chamberlain put up his best numbers, the rules were much different.

In fact, the key was only 12 feet and was moved to 16 feet in 1965 in large part due to Chamberlain. The offensive and defensive schemes weren't primitive and frankly Chamberlain was much taller than eveyone and exploited that. 

Besides that playing in the NBA was fairly new to African Americans. The first African American had only broken the color barrier in the NBA in in 1950 and thus many potential great players weren't even playing in the NBA. 

I don’t see how Chamberlain can be considered better than Shaq, when Shaq, the most dominant of his era, is clearly a better winner than Chamberlain the most dominant of his.


Shaq vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Abdul-Jabbar may have the edge in titles won, but Shaq has the three-to-two edge in Finals MVPs won and played with less great players during his titles runs.

Abdul-Jabbar played with Hall of Famers such as Bob McAdoo, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Oscar Robertson during his title runs. Shaq won titles with only two players who are most likely going to be in the Hall of Fame one day in Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade.

One game in particular sums up why Shaq is a better player than Abdul-Jabbar. In Game Six of the 1980 NBA Finals, with the Lakers up 3-2 against the 'Sixers, Abdul-Jabbar, who was in his prime, couldn’t play because of an ankle injury.

Magic Johnson thus took his place at center and led the Lakers to a championship-clinching victory. Imagine if Shaq got injured in the playoffs during his three-peat with the Lakers and they still managed to beat a team comparable to Julius Erving’s 'Sixers in a championship clinching game. That is unimaginable to me.

If you took Shaq off the Lakers during their title runs, the Lakers wouldn’t be guaranteed to make the playoffs. When Shaquille was injured during his three peats, the Lakers had a regular-season record of 12-11 (.5217%).  

When Kobe was injured, the Lakers regular season record was 25-7 (.78%). Interestingly, the Lakers' entire regular-season record during their three-peats was 181-65 (.735%), which is a lower record than when Kobe wasn’t playing. The Lakers actually had a better record when Kobe wasn’t playing.

If you took Abdul-Jabbar off his team during his third to sixth title runs, I believe his teams would still have gone deep in the playoffs, considering how much talent he had on his teams, with James Worthy and Magic Johnson as his teammates.

During Abdul-Jabbar’s last two titles, which separate him from Shaq, he only averaged around 16 points a game during the regular season and wasn’t even one of the two best players on his team. I believe that during Shaq’s title runs, he was more important to his team than Abdul-Jabbar was.

One of the most important things that Shaq does that statistics do not record is the amount of fouls he draws.

Every player who ever guarded Shaq was constantly in foul trouble. Some teams would have to put their fourth-string big man in to guard Shaq because all their other big men were in foul trouble. 

In a way, Shaq was an incredible defender because he would always take the opposing center out of the game by getting them in foul trouble. In fact, opponents would keep extra big men on their roster just to guard Shaq when the time came in the playoffs.

I remember when the Detroit Pistons acquired Elden Campbell from waivers before the 2005 playoffs so when they faced the Heat, he could play 10-20 minutes against Shaq.

Shaq is the best center of all time, but his career has become underrated due to the following things, which may or may not be true:

1. He is often injured and misses a good portion of the season.

2. He supposedly doesn’t take the regular season as serious as people would like.

3. He supposedly is fat, lazy, and out of shape, and could be an even better player.

4. He isn’t a good free-throw shooter.

5. He supposedly isn’t very skilled and simply uses his strength.

6. He’s always had a great player playing with him.

7. Drama constantly surrounds him wherever he goes.

8. He has a love or hate him personality.


1. Yes he is often injured, but his teams have only missed the playoffs once in his career. If his regular-season injuries aren’t hurting his teams, than why should we hold it against him?

During his four titles, he only missed 35 games, while Kobe Bryant missed 32 games during his three titles. One thing I will say is that in recent years his injuries have become more of a concern, but this shouldn’t have come as a surprise since he has gotten older and past his prime. 

2. If Shaq doesn’t take the regular season seriously, how does he have one the highest winning percentages of any player in regular-season history?

Even though he has been known to stress the importance of the playoffs and dismiss the importance of the regular season, Shaq is a very competitive person and plays his hardest every time he plays.

We live in a what-have-you done-for-me-lately world, and people have come to a conclusion that Shaq takes days off when he can play because he doesn’t care about the regular season.

Maybe Shaq is just being smart. Shaq is older, more fragile, and needs more rest and recovery time than he did when he was younger.

Shaq doesn’t care about playing all the time and putting up great regular-season statistics. At this stage in Shaq’s career, he only cares about winning titles.

3. Do people not realize that Shaq purposely stays around the same weight and body build? When he was younger, he was leaner and was more versatile but never won anything. When Shaq put on a large amount of muscle and weight, he finally started dominating and won four titles.

If Shaq continued to be that leaner guy who first entered the league, he probably would have had better highlight reels and people might like him better. However, he wouldn’t have been the dominant force and winner he was.

4. Yes, Shaq isn’t a good free-throw shooter. But besides Michael Jordan, there really isn’t a perfect player. Shooting free throws is Shaq’s kryptonite. There is no doubt that his free-throw shooting has cost him some games. 

But almost every other player has at least one thing there not good at. The main difference is that Shaq’s is more obvious because free throws our so easy to point at.

If anything, people should look at his poor free-throw shooting and realize that he’s probably an even better live court player than we give him credit for. If Shaq was an 80 percent free-throw shooter, he could have arguably been a better player than Jordan.

5. Yes, Shaq does use his strength to overpower players and doesn’t have as much skill as a player like Tim Duncan. But if you were stronger than everyone, wouldn’t you use your power to dominate games? 

Nobody is asking Allen Iverson to dominate games with his power. Allen Iverson is a very quick player and that’s why he uses his quickness to dominate games. Nobody asked Reggie Miller to dominate games by driving to the rim.

Miller was a natural shooter, and that’s why he won games by shooting. Shaq was blessed with greater physical strength than every other basketball player on the planet, so why should he need to learn how to shoot a 15 footer.

6. What great center didn’t have a great player playing with him during his title runs? In fact, every great center had at least one and usually multiple Hall of Famers surrounding them. Shaq never played with more than one great player at a time, unlike Chamberlain, Russell, and Jabar. 

As I showed earlier, the Lakers actually had a better record with Kobe not playing than with him playing, and the Lakers had a much worse record without Shaq playing. That should show you how a younger Kobe Bryant wasn’t as big of a factor for the Lakers as most people think.   

7. Yes, Shaq has brought some drama to every team he has played for. But he has always brought winning to every team as well. The point of playing in the NBA is to win, not to have perfect locker room chemistry. 

Since Shaq has won where ever he has gone, it shouldn’t be held against him. To be frankly honest, there is only a few players Shaq has played with (one in particular) that he has had drama with.

8. Shaq has one of those unique personalities, where you either love him or you hate him. He has a unique mix of being the cockiest player in the NBA and being the most outgoing. 

Although he is a extremely cocky person, he’s not a snobbish person who looks down on people. Shaq’s a friendly guy and loves talking to the ordinary man. Ironically, he might be the biggest guy in the NBA and at the same time the most childish.

He's had some of the best quotes in sports history and is just a natural entertainer. He may not always do what everyone wants, but love him or hate him, you can’t deny he’s being real.


Although I do believe Shaq is the best center of all time, I can understand how people can make arguments for Jabbar and Chamberlain having better careers than him. However, I believe that Shaq, in his prime from 2000-'02, was the second-greatest player of all time, behind Jordan.

During his three-peat with the Lakers, he was the most dominant force to ever play in the NBA. He was constantly doubled team and tripled team and yet he couldn’t be stopped. 

For his size, Shaq is a one-of-a-kind athlete who is unmatched by any player in any sport. No 7'1" player, who weighs 330 pounds, has ever had as good footwork, been as powerful, had as good lift, and been able to move as quickly as Shaq has. 


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