Where does Shaq rank historically?

When I first heard that Shaquille O'Neal  was retiring my knee-jerk reaction was, "He's in the Top Ten of all time, for sure." 

The problem is that we tend to think qualitatively without fully integrating quantitative factors. I can vividly remember being in college and M*A*S*H was on every night at 11:30 and 12:00. If my friend Jason Apple missed an episode he would ask me where it ranked and I would always say "Top Five."  I wasn't being flippant; when I saw the episode that was my first reaction. Of course, at some point it dawned on me, "Wait, these can't ALL be Top Five episodes!"

And this is the problem with Shaq, one of my favorite players to watch (in his prime) ever, partly because I played the same position, partly because Shaq came of age when I played in high school and sports therefore meant the most to me, partly because of his generosity off the court and partly because of his larger-than-life personality and style.  

But can Shaq really be Top Ten all time? I want to believe, but it's a hard case to make

[The following is a quick-take analysis, not meant to be comprehensive, and drawing upon the assumption that the reader is very familiar with the people, careers and eras to which I refer. Other people have written entire articles and books ranking players with more data and scope; I'm just giving quick short-hand on the problem of ranking things by "feel".]

If we look at the list of Greatest Players of all time, and limit ourselves to those no longer playing, just about everyone would have the following eight people in some order. (I'm using alphabetical, so as to not get bogged down on how this group should be divided, which is a separate argument we can have another time): 

Bird, Chamberlain, Jordan, Kareem, Magic, Robertson, Russell, West

As great as Shaq was, it's hard to imagine a knowledgeable person putting him ahead of any of those immortals. But here's where it gets tough. There are three more names of retired players that go into the discussion: 

Olajuwon, Moses Malone, Mikan

Mikan is by far the hardest to grade. By any fair definition, the Mount Rushmore of Greatest NBA centers would have Mikan, Russell, Chamberlain and Kareem, leaving Shaq off entirely. Yet Shaq was a better player, which seems contradictory, but I don't know how to put it any better. (The short answer is that we are supposed to judge players in their era, and Mikan was as dominant in his as anyone in any sport EVER, yet his game is so untranslatable today that it's hard to imagine him playing for a Division 1 college team. You think the Refs has different rules for how they called fouls for and against Shaq? They invented the Shot Clock to stop Mikan.)

Mikan's case is so troubling I don't even know what to do with it, but that's just the beginning. We still have Olajuwon and Malone. (By the way, it irks me that I had to put Moses Malone, but I knew if I didn't some moron would think I meant Karl Malone. Sigh.)

I'm willing to say Shaq is definitively better than Malone, and while I'm willing to discuss, that's pretty much settled in my head. But that means (if we're counting Mikan), Shaq woudl be #10, and that's only if you rank him ahead of Olajuwon.  No one who knows the game of basketball can be comfortable just saying that one way or the other. You might have a view on it, but you'd at least want to think it over. Shaq was more dominant, Olajuwon was more skilled. Shaq won four titles to Hakeem's two (and those two came during Jordan's hiatus), but one of Olajuwon's titles came against Shaq's Magic, and even though Shaq was still very young then, it's at least a head-to-head. 

But even then we have another HUGE problem. 

There are two players playing today that most likely have to go ahead of Shaq, or at least when they retire they will - Duncan and Kobe.  Duncan played in the same era as Shaq, but much like Olajuwon it's hard to say one way or another. Both won four rings. Duncan was more consistent and (arguably) a better teammate; Shaq was more dominant and at his apex better. It's a tough call.  

But that leaves Kobe, and, as much as it pains me to write these words, the last few years (not to mention the reasonable expectation that he has a couple of good to near-great years left) have moved Kobe past Shaq.  I hate writing that. You can't know how much I hate writing that. At one point a few years ago I felt that the argument was absurd, but I gotta be honest, even if I don't like it.  

To sum up, even if we ignore the historically vexing case of George Mikan, and even if we just declare Shaq better than Duncan and Olajuwon (which I'm not willing to do, and again - how could anyone feel comfortable being definitive about it), the highest we could possibly rank Shaq would be #10, and we wouldn't be able to sleep knowing we had cheated to do so. And even if we could somehow talk ourselves into Mikan not mattering and the Olajuwon/Duncan hit-jobs, we still couldn't rest easy, because of what's coming.

No one can know what the future holds, but if we look at the NBA today we at least get sort of an idea of what's on the horizon.  Will Durant one day be an all-time great? Maybe Chris Paul? Maybe Nowitzki if he keeps up this pace for a year or two, and maybe the Chicago Deez Boyz - D Rose or D Wade....all possibilities, but not likely to pass Shaq on the All-time list.  

But, c'mon.  We all know (or suspect, or cringe; however you feel about him) that it's only a matter of time, a couple of pieces of hardware, until another name goes right past Shaq and crashes that Hallowed Top 8, scrapping with Kobe over entrance to the Top 5 and even beyond.  

All of which leaves poor Shaq out of the Top 10.  He'll probably be okay with that. After all, he can rap. He can wrestle, and if there's not a badass action franchise out there for him I'll eat my hat.  Shaq will find his way, and we'll soon tell him how his third act tastes.....

I miss him already. 

(This is from my blog, Institutionalized.  See more blog posts)

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Anonymous said...

Allthough I never truly saw Mikan play with a few black & white video exceptions I think he couldnt of truly matched up with Shaq.

Duncan and Hakeem those are much tougher calls, both guys more skilled but neither guy could really dominate like Shaq could so I give the edge to Shaq.

I hate the "rings" argument in all sports if you truly went be rings than Jim Pollard, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr, and Don Nelson all had 5 rings...yeah I know Jim who?? Shaq only 4 rings but come on..

Mo Malone, allthough totally underrated not the player that Shaq was.

Shaqs pazazz on the court was 2nd to only Rodman yes Rodman. It was close though, Shaq spinting down the court for no apparent reason than looking at his left hand with astonishment was priceless. In the end his body said no mas.

He might be a top ten he might not be its close. Personality wise and what he brought to the nba easily top 5 probably top 3, arguably #1...

Anonymous said...

The records don't lie in da NBA Archives ---> Hakeem has More rebounds, more steals, more blocked, more assists, slightly lesser points than Shaq

Offensively Hakeem = Shaq
Defensivley Hakeem >> Shaq

PLUS with Ex-players ranking Hakeem ahead Shaq
Midheal Jordan, Robert Horry, Kenny Smith, Reggie Miller, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul Jabbar etc etc etc
I know who i have to lean towards as the better player.

CONCLUSION: Sentiments aside, Hakeem >>> Shaq