As the LeBron James Sweepstakes begins and the media jumps all over his every move (understandably so), there is something that basketball fans are clearly overlooking.
There is a very strong possibility that we have seen the last of the "true" center in basketball. His name is Shaquille O'Neal.
There was no farewell tour on his behalf, and his work on and off the court at this point in his career will not be recognized because of the rock star that is 13 years his junior.
As the league evolves, the center is losing its true value.
The big man is becoming perimeter-oriented, which has match-up advantages, but takes away from the intimidation factor of the greats such as Russell, Chamberlain, Olajuwon, and Abdul-Jabbar.
Thus, we lose appreciation for the models of consistency that have been presented to us.
Are we forgetting the fear that teams had when they faced the "Diesel"?
In his prime, Shaq forced teams to impose a strategy of fouling him before he touched half-court. Opponents knew free throws were his weakness, so this strategy was devised to hinder his offensive impact.
However vulnerable Shaquille O’Neal was at the line, Hack-a-Shaq did not faze him.
One MVP award, 15 All-Star games, two All-Star game MVPs, and two scoring titles later, we can actually say O’Neal was in the top three in the category of "hardest players to guard". Each year, he is consistently a league leader in field goal percentage, as well as free throws attempted.
That type of mileage can take a toll on someone of O’Neal’s stature, and we are seeing the consequences now.
O'Neal is currently trying to hold on to what diminished skills he has left, but with the impact—or lack thereof—that he showed with the Cavaliers this season, both good and bad teams are likely to shy away from "The Diesel."
It was just a season ago that we saw O'Neal make the All-Star team by putting up numbers that had not been from him in years. This was a far cry from his prime, where you could pencil him in for 27 points and 12 rebounds every night—not to mention two blocks, to add insult to injury.
Coming into the league, O'Neal made an immediate impact, averaging just over 23 points per game and nearly 14 rebounds. These statistics helped him win Rookie of the Year.
The best was yet to come, as he led the Magic to the NBA Finals, despite the back-drop of “His Airiness.” In his finals debut, he was beyond phenomenal, averaging 28 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 2.5 blocks.
The Magic were swept by the Houston Rockets, but O’Neal understood what it took to win and he was determined to win back-to-back titles.
If you called O’Neal the most dominant player during his prime, it would be an understatement.
During his tenure with the Lakers, he led them to three NBA Championships, four NBA Finals appearances, and a host of headlines, along with his superstar counterpart, Kobe Bryant. While averaging 27 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks a game during his career with the Lakers, his international appeal was at an all-time high.
At times, his diva tendencies may have rubbed some the wrong way (just ask Kobe Bryant), but those who know basketball can never question how Shaq would perform when the pressure was on.
In 2000, we saw everything come together for O’Neal, as he went on to win the regular season MVP, All-Star Game MVP, and Finals MVP, all in the same season. We also saw tenacity from O’Neal that fueled the Lakers to their first of three straight championships.
He put himself in select company, becoming one of only four players to win three Finals MVPs (Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Tim Duncan).
In the four finals appearances in LA, O’Neal averaged 33.5 points per game, 14.1 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks while shooting over 60 percent from the field. These numbers cement Shaq as one of the greatest Finals performers of all-time, but as we all know: “All good things must come to an end.”
As his career with the Lakers went in another direction (in order to build around Kobe Bryant), the man we know as “Superman” found a new place of residence with the Miami Heat and their emerging superstar in Dwyane Wade. Instead of being the number one star, he found himself in the position of a complement to Wade.
In 2006, O’Neal would win his fourth championship in a decade—adding to his already stellar resume.
The last couple of years have not been as good as he would have liked. His impact on the Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers did not pan out. His style of play did not mix with each system, and it is causing people to forget O’Neal’s true impact on this generation.
Some might say that Shaq dominated during a time when there were no elite centers, or that he had to have a guard counterpart to allow him to dominate in the post—but for 18 years, O'Neal has had the luxury of being a true ambassador for the NBA.
He has exuded the charisma and charm that helped him sell sneakers, albums, and appear in movies such as "Blue Chips," "Kazaam," and "Steel."
Whether we like it or not, O’Neal’s impact has been felt. I just hope as fans we are not so naive to let it go unnoticed.