Shaquille O'Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon: Which Legendary NBA Center Was Greater?
A Title Fight between Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon in their collective primes would have been an event for the ages—a match of mega proportions that could only be made in heaven.
The raw energy created from a Shaq Attack versus the Dream at their best would equal the amount of energy released by a supernova exploding at it’s very climax—there simply were no other more dominant NBA big men in the last thirty years, at least.
It would be a show that exhibited two very different but dominant styles: The Shaq Attack versus the Dream Shake. It is four rings versus two and 18 seasons versus 19. It’s the unrivaled brute strength of King Kong versus Godzilla with a brain.
Both these centers dominated their tenures in the NCAA and were No. 1 picks in the NBA draft, where they each won multiple NBA championships.
But who was better?
Welcome everybody to another Bleacher Report debate. This time it’s Deputy Editor, Allen Kim and Shaquille O’Neal facing off against Featured Columnist, Rich Fernandes and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Allen: What's the Greatest Part of Shaq's Game?
The greatest part of Shaq’s game was, in my opinion, his physical dominance—he was both the immovable object and unstoppable force stuffed into one massive package.
When Shaq entered the league, he towered at 7’1” and weighed a rock-solid 285 lbs, yet he was somehow able to run the floor with smaller guards and finish with the force of a wrecking ball.
Later in his career, he bulked up and weighed upwards of at least 325 lbs. At that stage of his career, he was practically unguardable one-on-one due to the sheer mass he commanded. Trying to single-handedly stave Shaq off from bullying his way into the paint had a laughable success rate.
Once in the paint, your best opportunity to prevent him from scoring was to double-team him or foul him. His ability to score near the rim looked practically effortless.
Shaq truly was a rare physical specimen and a once in a generation type of athlete.
Rich: What's the Greatest Part of Hakeem's Game?
The Dream Shake
Hakeem the Dream was the big man in the NBA during the 1980s and 1990s who exhibited an unheard of combination of finesse and dominance on both ends of the court. The Dream was so good and so unique that the NBA has not seen the likes of him in all its history.
Hakeem not only ruled the post by defending and rebounding, but he was also a dominant scorer who had an array of mind boggling moves for a big man. And it was these moves of effortless coordination that often left his opponents with the feeling that they had just been schooled.
He was big, he was bad and for his opponents, it was really very sad.
Hakeem had his own signature move called the Dream Shake and he always seemed to make the right decisions with his complex assaults on the rim. By comparison, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Skyhook was also unstoppable, but it didn’t come with a systematic repertoire of fakes and countermoves reminiscent of a fighter jet in a dogfight the way the Dream Shake did.
"The Dream Shake was actually one of my soccer moves which I translated to basketball. It would accomplish one of three things: one, to misdirect the opponent and make him go the opposite way; two, to freeze the opponent and leave him devastated in his tracks; three, to shake off the opponent and giving him no chance to contest the shot.” (Hakeem Olajuwon)
He was a defensive force that won two DPOY awards, and that included being voted on nine All-NBA Defensive teams.
He had an impressive all around game that’s visible from his career stats. During the regular season, Hakeem had Regular Season impressive averages of 21.9 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.7 SPG, and 3.1 BPG. In addition, he had similar postseason averages of 25.9 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.7 SPG, and 3.3 BPG.
The Dream is third All-time in career double-doubles (718) trailing only Shaq and Karl Malone. He is only one of four players to achieve a quadruple-double on a list that includes only David Robinson, Alvin Robertson and Nate Thurmond.
He is eighth all-time in career steals on a list otherwise extinct of centers and dominated by guards. He is fourth all-time in block shots per game (3.09) and first in that same category over total career.
What’s more? Unlike Shaquille O’Neal, who would hit a homerun by swatting his blocked shots into the stands with foolish King Kong bravado, the Dream kept his block shots in play by aiming them towards the open man.
Hakeem had strength, speed and an assortment of arsenal to go along with fighter jet dogfight ability. And all that can be attributed to his amazing all around skills that are unmatched in NBA history.
The Dream’s arsenal was a much greater weapon in its complete combination, that for this special player, it’s impossible to pick one part of his incredible game to shine above the rest.
You can only say that the Dream’s all around sensational game was the best part of his game and that includes the Dream Shake as well as Olajuwon’s superior and unmatched defense.
Allen: Who Would Win a One-on-One Matchup of Shaq vs. Hakeem in Their Primes?
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
While Shaq and Hakeem have faced off on a number of occasions, we never got to see these two legends duking it out at their absolute peaks.
You could very well argue that Shaq’s prime started from his second year on, but I believe his best years started when he joined the Lakers. However, by that time, Hakeem was on the decline and nearing the end of his illustrious career.
Looking at their numbers, overall, Shaq got the better of Hakeem. While statistics don’t always tell the whole story, Shaq demonstrated his ability do match Hakeem in nearly every department.
In 20 regular season matchups, Shaq has gotten the better of Hakeem, leading his teams to 14 wins and six losses. Shaq’s numbers against Hakeem are also more impressive—he averaged 22.1 points on 54.4 percent shooting, 12.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.8 blocks.
Hakeem, on the other hand, averaged 18.4 points on 44.7 percent shooting, 9.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.4 steals and 2.4 blocks.
In eight playoff matchups, Hakeem holds the edge in wins with a five- to three-game advantage. This includes when these two legendary centers met up in the 1995 NBA Finals, where Hakeem got the better of him in every contest, leading the Houston Rockets to a sweep of the Orlando Magic. Hakeem outscored Shaq 32.8 points per game to Shaq’s 28.0 points per game.
To Shaq’s credit, he was only in his third season while Hakeem was at the top of his game. The Lakers’ version of Shaq would’ve fared far better against Hakeem compared to the younger Magic version.
However, Shaq’s numbers over the course of their playoff duels are far superior. The Big Diesel put up 28.8 points on 55.6 percent shooting, 11.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 0.5 steals and 3.3 blocks. The Dream countered with a respectable but inferior 23.0 points on 46.5 percent shooting, 9.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks.
When looking at both their individual abilities and skills, Hakeem brought more to the table. He was far more versatile on offense and his defensive abilities outmatched Shaq.
Regardless, Shaq’s biggest advantage—his physical dominance—factors into several areas. Even a defender of Hakeem’s caliber could not stop Shaq on-on-one—he’s simply too domineering to contain consistently without help.
Shaq’s assertive and forceful style of play undoubtedly wore down his opponents, which affected all facets of their game.
Hakeem would, without question, attempt to do his very best to weather Shaq's onslaught, but in the end, even he would succumb to the force and might of Shaq.
Rich: Who Would Win a One-on-One Matchup of Shaq vs. Hakeem in Their Primes?
Shaq was good, but absolutely no way is Shaq prime beating Hakeem prime in a one-on-one matchup.
That’s because Shaq’s brute force game from under the basket cannot possibly compete with the Dream’s multi-dimensional game from all over the court.
While both were 7-foot monsters with physically intimidating games, the Dream was the far more versatile athlete. That fact alone would translate into Hakeem adapting to almost any situation on both offense and defense.
He was always high amongst the league leaders in a wide array of stats including steals, blocks, rebounding and points. He is widely considered to have the best footwork of any big man in NBA history.
And Olajuwon’s trademark Dream Shake offensive arsenal was unstoppable. It was a product of hard work and determination combined with incredible talent and intelligence that helped him define a set of spin moves and fakes that he executed with stealth and marksman like precision.
While Shaq depended mostly on his physical presence to overpower opponents in the scoring department, Olajuwon had the jump hook shot, the up and under, the baseline drive, the fadeaway jumper and even a ridiculous crossover—not to mention all the systematically timed fakes and countermoves.
Shaq’s scoring stats are slightly better than Olajuwon’s, but not significantly. The Dream’s defense, however, was on another level altogether and that’s saying something considering O’Neal was an excellent defender himself.
Let’s not forget that a prime Dream did go one-on-one with a young but dominant Shaq and a very talented Orlando Magic team in the 1996 NBA Finals. That, by the way, was to the tune of 32.8 PPG, 11.5 RPG and an incredible 5.5 APG.
It’s true that Shaq was not exactly in his prime, but he was one of the most dominant centers in the league and his team was far more talented. The Magic, however, still lost to the Rockets despite having home court advantage.
The only way Shaq wins a one-on-one matchup against the Dream is if someone throws him the ball under the basket for an undisputed mammoth dunk. But then again, it wouldn’t be one-on-one anymore would it?
Shaq simply would not be able to consistently counter the Dream Shake’s complexity of moves that ranged from the post to as far as 16 feet from the rim.
Allen: Where Do Shaq and Hakeem Rank All-Time in NBA History?
Getty Images/Getty Images
While the last few years of Shaq’s career have not been kind to him in terms of health and production, over the years, many people have forgotten what a force Shaq has been since he entered the league.
Forget all the terrible movies and rap songs he's contributed to, and let's just focus on basketball.
A brief look at some of the finer points of his resume:
- 4x NBA Champion
- 3x NBA Finals MVP
- 2000 NBA MVP
- 15x NBA All-Star
- 8x All-NBA First Team
- 2x NBA Scoring Champion
- NBA Rookie of the Year
I could go on rattling off a list of more accomplishments, but you get the big picture—Shaq has a list of accolades to match up against any Hall-of-Famer. His numbers in the final years of his career have been a far cry from his peak years, but he's much older now and it's obvious that his many years of service have taken a toll on his body.
While most of the '90s was owned by Michael Jordan, I also consider it to be the "Era of the Big Man." Several of the game's greatest giants to ever pick up a basketball were all in their prime when Shaq first came into the league—Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Karl Malone, etc.
It didn't take Shaq long to move up the ranks to become the most feared, paint abusing bruiser in the league. He calls himself MDE—Most Dominant Ever—and I tend to agree with him on that.
The only competition standing in Shaq’s way to total domination at the center position is Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain.
Rich: Where Do Shaq and Hakeem Rank All-Time in NBA History?
Hakeem the Dream is the only player in NBA history to retire while ranked in the top 10 all-time in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and steals.
In fact, Olajuwon played one less season than O’Neal, yet finished with almost 1000 more block shots. When you’re a dominant center, defense is important and block shots is defense in its purest form. That extra effort makes the Dream the leader in all-time career block shots.
In addition, no other center could steal like Olajuwon. He is eighth all-time amongst all players and there is no other center in this category. That’s absolutely ridiculous.
There is no doubt that Shaq was very dominant, but take away four inches and 50 pounds and that dominance simply disappears. The same cannot be said for the ultra skilled center that was Hakeem Olajuwon, who was a hybrid between a dominant center and a shooting guard with the compliment of moves to match.
And let’s not forget the worst part of Shaq’s game, where he couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn from the free-throw line. It’s scary to think just how much more dominant the Big Diesel could have been with just a .700 free throw percentage—but he couldn’t do it, not even close.
And that fact alone made him extremely unclutch in the dying minutes of games when opponents would unleash their highly effective Hack-a-Shaq strategy. It’s laughable that in crunch time, the Lakers would counter the Hack-a-Shaq attack by pulling O’Neal out of the game.
When you think of the definition of a dominant center, it’s hard not to think that this kind of a player must be a leader in blocked shots or rebounds or both. It’s also true that the words dominant and Shaq go hand in hand when discussing the greatest centers ever.
Isn’t it interesting then, that Shaquille O’Neal never led the league in either rebounds or blocks—despite his physical gifts? Shaq isn’t even on the shot block leaders list.
Furthermore, there are many that diminish Hakeem Olajuwon’s titles because they were accomplished in the two years that Michael Jordan was either retired, or returning late and rusty and unable to seal the deal.
But consider this: Hakeem and his Rockets often dominated Jordan’s Bulls during the regular season to the point that completely dumfounded His Airness.
"It's a good thing those guys can't find their way to the Finals because we don't have an answer for the big guy." (Michael Jordan)
There is no debate that Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal are amongst the top ten players ever to play in the NBA. There is also no doubt that the work ethic of the Dream was far superior to that of Shaq’s and it’s this distinction that separates their careers in stone.
If Shaq had a better attitude, cared about conditioning and improving his one dimensional game, he would have finished his career as the undisputed best center ever. But the laziness and the arrogance were a poison that prevented the Diesel from surpassing the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Hakeem the Dream Olajuwon.
The Dream should be higher than Shaq on the top-10 list with a strong argument for a top-five placing.
Allen: Who Is a Better Building Block to Start a Franchise?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Honestly, it’s nearly impossible to go wrong with either Shaq or Hakeem as a franchise building block.
While they both occupied the same space, they both played the position quite differently. Shaq was a bruising monstrosity capable of absolutely dominating the space around him while Hakeem took a graceful and methodic approach using the wide array of moves at his disposal.
Offensively, Hakeem had arguably the most diverse set of post moves of any center in league history, but the force with which Shaq played completely shifts the balance of power.
Shaq is, due in large part to his physical advantages, one of the most precise scorers ever. His career field goal percentage is one of the highest the NBA has ever seen and he rarely took bad shots—this helps to offset the terrible free throw percentage he has accrued.
While notching two scoring titles—two more than Hakeem has won—under his belt may not seem like a lot when compared to the likes of Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain, if you look closely at Shaq’s numbers, he's been in the top four in the scoring department nine of the first 11 years of his career.
Four of his second place finishes have come at such narrow margins that he could have potentially earned up to six scoring titles.
It's easy to say "what if" about a certain facet of any athlete’s career, but his runner up finishes are some of the closest scoring races the NBA has ever seen.
Defensively, Hakeem wins hands down. His lone Defensive Player of the Year award is enough proof of his advantage on the defensive side of the ball.
However, Shaq was no slouch on defense. While his massive space-consuming body helped attribute to much of that, he was a force to be reckoned with inside the paint.
Any player coming down the lane would certainly think twice about driving to the hoop if O'Neal was nearby. His size alone was enough to keep even the biggest and craftiest players from getting a high percentage look near the bucket.
While with the Lakers, Shaq flirted with career averages of nearly 13.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game. So while he hasn't won any Defensive Player of the Year awards or been named to the All-Defensive First Team, he was a game changer.
Other than his lackadaisical approach to defense, a knock against Shaq has been his, at times, questionable work ethic and conditioning.
Being one of the most gifted athletes of all time, Shaq’s ceiling was through the roof, and it can be argued that he never reached his plateau.
Hakeem, on the other hand, was the consummate professional and his work ethic was legendary among NBA circles. Not to mention, he set an example as a great humanitarian and devout spiritual figure.
Despite Hakeem’s stronger leadership skills, sound defense and stellar reputation, Shaq is a talent simply too enticing to pass up on. A motivated Shaq in his prime may be the single most destructive force the league has ever seen.
Rich: Who Is a Better Building Block to Start a Franchise?
When it comes to starting a franchise, you can’t go wrong with either Shaq or Hakeem as your big man under the glass.
Or can you?
In retrospect, using your first pick on Shaquille O’Neal to build your franchise might be a big mistake—just ask Orlando Magic fans.
Hakeem, on the other hand, was the Houston Rockets’ number one pick and he remained their franchise player for 17 of the 18 years he played in the league, bringing that city two championships.
You cannot say the same for Shaq, who brought Orlando zero championships before bolting at the first chance.
But Shaquille O’Neal did become the championship franchise player for the Los Angeles Lakers and the major force behind their Three-peat millennium dynasty—a fact that cannot be ignored.
What also cannot be ignored, however, is the bad attitude and mountain of unnecessary arrogance that Shaq brought to the Lakers’ locker room. In the end, it took two to tango and together with Kobe Bryant, L.A. had the fuel and the matches that became a continuous time bomb that went off over and over again.
Despite the three championships that Shaq brought to Tinsel Town, one cannot help but wonder how much more dominating the millennium Lakers might have been had Shaq exhibited the same exceptional attitude as Hakeem Olajuwon.
The Dream continuously worked on his game to get better and that meant putting in the time in the gym and on the court.
A better conditioned and physically fit Shaquille O’Neal that was a leader, instead of the immature spoiled brat that caused condescension in the Lakers’ house, would have helped bring L.A. a four-peat at the very least.
For those who would argue that O’Neal did win two more championship than Olajuwon, you must consider the fact that Shaq dominated those titles without facing any dominant centers in their primes.
David Robinson was not in his prime. Also missing in action and out of the picture were the likes of Patrick Ewing, Moses Malone, and Robert Parish among others.
In fact, it’s really quite conceivable that the Dream (in his prime) could have won at least three championships with Kobe and Co. in the early 2000s in Shaq’s place.
After all, Olajuwon had undeniably better skills, was in much better physical condition, was physically dominant himself and most importantly—he had a superior attitude.
"If I had to pick a center, I would take Olajuwon. That leaves out Shaq, Patrick Ewing. It leaves out Wilt Chamberlain. It leaves out a lot of people. And the reason I would take Olajuwon is very simple: he is so versatile because of what he can give you from that position.
It's not just his scoring, not just his rebounding or not just his blocked shots. People don't realize he was in the top seven in steals. He always made great decisions on the court. For all facets of the game, I have to give it to him." (Michael Jordan)
Allen: Who Wins a Playoff Series Between Lakers' Three-Peat vs. Rockets' Repeat?
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Between the two dynasties, the Lakers would be the more formidable opponent. They had a better coach, a more dominant big man and better complementary players.
The Lakers No. 2 option, Kobe Bryant, was superior to an elder Clyde Drexler past his prime, but it can be argued—albeit both ways—that the rest of the Houston Rockets’ supporting cast was superior to the Lakers, thus balancing the equation.
In the end, it comes down to the leader and centerpiece of each squad—Shaq and Hakeem.
Shaq was the undisputed leader during the Lakers’ three-peat from 2000-‘02. He absolutely dominated the competition on his way to three straight Finals MVPs.
It took the Lakers 23 games to capture the first title of their dynasty, which took place during the 2000 NBA playoffs. Shaq put up a jaw-dropping 30.7 points, 15.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.4 blocks.
During the Lakers’ defense of their title in the 2001 NBA playoffs, the Lakers were the most dominant team of the postseason—they won 15 out of 16 playoff games on their way to a second straight title behind Shaq’s 30.4 points, 15.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.4 blocks.
The following year, it took Shaq and company only 19 games before they were able to hoist their third consecutive Larry O’Brien trophy over their heads. O’Neal had, by his standards, his worst performance of the three title runs—he put up 28.5 points on 52.9 percent shooting, 12.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.5 blocks.
The Lakers dynasty was close to adding another piece of hardware to their trophy case, but an unfortunate set of circumstances prevented them from expanding their dynasty.
During their loss to the Spurs in the 2003 Playoffs, Kobe was playing with a severely injured shoulder and Rick Fox was out for the series.
Robert Horry, known to be one of the most clutch playoff performers, was ice cold against the Spurs. Not to mention, a potential game winning three-pointer by Horry at the buzzer in Game 5 went in and out of the basket.
Winning Game 5 would have swung the series in favor of the Lakers, and—while this is just conjecture—they would’ve been favored to advance on to face an inferior New Jersey Nets squad in the Finals—a series they would have undoubtedly won.
Shaq did all he could, averaging 29.3 points, 14.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.8 blocks. Nonetheless, it was not enough from Shaq, who played like a man on a mission.
Hakeem Olajuwon was similarly dominant in the Rockets’ championship years. During their first title run, the Dream put up 28.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 4.0 blocks in 23 games.
The following year, Hakeem managed to lead his squad to a second title in one less game—he stepped up his offensive game and scored 33.0 points, while collecting 10.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.8 blocks.
While Hakeem dominated the competition during that stretch, the Rockets' success did not match that of the Lakers' dynasty.
One caveat you can’t forget about was the void Michael Jordan left in the mid-90’s when he briefly retired from the NBA to pursue a career in baseball. Again, nothing but pure conjecture, but you can easily argue that Hakeem may have very well never won a single title had Jordan been present and focused on the game.
Rich: Who Wins a Playoff Series Between Lakers' Three-Peat vs. Rockets' Repeat?
Shaquille O’Neal had a go to superstar for every single one of his championships. For the first three, it was none other than Kobe Bryant (L.A. Lakers) and for the fourth, it was Dwayne Wade (Miami Heat).
In contrast, when Hakeem Olajuwon faced off against Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks in 1994, his second best player was Otis Thorpe—yet the Rockets still prevailed.
During Houston’s repeat in 1995-96 season versus none other than Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic, Olajuwon had 33 year old Clyde Drexler—a good role player who was far from his superstar prime.
Orlando was young and very talented with two rising superstars in both Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq was not quite in his prime but still one of the most dominant centers in the league—yet the Rockets prevailed again in four games straight.
It’s difficult to pick a clear winner when pitting the Lakers’ three-peat against Houston’s Repeat.
On the one hand, Shaq was so dominant, but you would think that Hakeem would more than handle his own. Then there was Shaq’s putrid Achilles heel from the free throw line that would shift the balance of power to Houston.
But then again, Kobe Bryant had the ability to shift the balance back to L.A.’s side, especially if he was going head-to-head with an aging Clyde Drexler.
In the end, it would seem that the L.A. Lakers would win. But give Olajuwon a second superstar like Drexler in his prime, and Houston would win almost every time.
"Hakeem has five moves, then four countermoves—that gives him 20 moves.” Shaquille O'Neal)