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Shaq an elite player, but let’s not get carried away

Shaq had a great career, and he was one of the elite players of the last two decades. He was a better person than most, unusually charitable and a touchable star who let fans in. Shaq was good for the game. But let's not get too carried away with what he accomplished, writes Sam Smith.
Unquestionably, O'Neal was one of the elite players of the era. But he also was a guy swept five times in playoff series. O'Neal was this feared physical force, yet he never led the league in rebounding. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

The big NBA news this week along with the NBA Finals, now 2-1 for Miami, was the retirement of Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal's announcement, which was greeted with the usual encomiums, set off discussion of O'Neal's place in basketball history.

My aside here, by the way, is he's nowhere close to being the ‘Most Dominant,’ which was self-proclaimed. They were Wilt Chamberlain and George Mikan, the only two players who caused the league to change the dimensions on court because they could not be controlled otherwise.

It's been a season of hyperbole as befits this era with every good game by Dirk Nowitzki having him in the company of Larry Bird, and similarly with LeBron James with other all-time greats like Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson.

It did get me thinking about the top players of this era and where they fit in the NBA pantheon. The NBA announced its top 50 players on its 50th anniversary in 1997, and they're not about to adjust that list. The next time we'll see a top list will be in 2022 when the league picks its top 75 players.

What if you went back and wanted to make it a top 50 list now? Who is added and who comes off? That, obviously, would be too painful to exclude deserving players from the 50th anniversary team.

So first, let's take a look at that original top 50, which was done in alphabetical order. It's the media generally naming the top 10.

The 50 Greatest Players in NBA History:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Nate Archibald
Paul Arizin
Charles Barkley
Rick Barry
Elgin Baylor
Dave Bing
Larry Bird
Wilt Chamberlain
Bob Cousy
Dave Cowens
Billy Cunningham
Dave DeBusschere
Clyde Drexler
Julius Erving
Patrick Ewing
Walt Frazier
George Gervin
Hal Greer
John Havlicek
Elvin Hayes
Magic Johnson
Sam Jones
Michael Jordan
Jerry Lucas
Karl Malone
Moses Malone
Pete Maravich
Kevin McHale
George Mikan
Earl Monroe
Hakeem Olajuwon
Shaquille O'Neal
Robert Parish
Bob Pettit
Scottie Pippen
Willis Reed
Oscar Robertson
David Robinson
Bill Russell
Dolph Schayes
Bill Sharman
John Stockton
Isiah Thomas
Nate Thurmond
Wes Unseld
Bill Walton
Jerry West
Lenny Wilkens
James Worthy

Who gets added? Not in any particular order, I'd say:

Kobe Bryant
Dirk Nowitzki
Kevin Garnett
Dwyane Wade
LeBron James
Paul Pierce
Allen Iverson
Steve Nash
Dwight Howard
Tim Duncan
Jason Kidd

If you are looking at the Top 50, the last guys in likely were Sam Jones, Wes Unseld, Nate Thurmond, Scottie Pippen, Robert Parish, Hal Greer, Clyde Drexler, Bill Walton, Dave Cowens, Dave Bing, Nate Archibald and Paul Arizin.

And who are the guys in this era who don't make the Top 50 cut?

Gary Payton
Grant Hill
Chris Webber
Alonzo Mourning
Ray Allen
Reggie Miller
Vince Carter
Tracy McGrady
Amar'e Stoudemire
Carmelo Anthony
Chris Paul
Manu Ginobili

Back when the NBA announced its top 50 team, Shaq was the only relatively new player with potential, as opposed to achievements, who made the list. So are there that many players since then deserving of that top 50 status? And I'm not even mentioning the likes of Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant. It's going to be a tough vote come 2022. Start making your lists.

Looking back at Shaq’s legacy

-- A word—or more—about Shaq. Even he admitted at his laugh filled farewell (from playing) press conference that he could have been more than he was. So do we punish someone, at least regarding legacy, because they weren't as good as we felt they could have been or should have been? Perhaps Shaq had it right and the crazed competitors like Jordan and Kobe and Bird and Magic didn't. Shaq enjoyed himself, devoted more energy off the court and did enough to play on four championship teams, though winning just one league MVP award. He won three in the Finals, as he generally used the regular season as a warmup for the playoffs. Never once in his career did he play all 82 games. He only played more than 75 once since leaving Orlando in 1996.

The Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel related O'Neal's ugly departure from Miami in 2008 when in an apparent attempt to get himself traded to Dallas, O'Neal appeared to have faked injury and didn't play as Miami plummeted to 15 wins two years after winning a title.

But this was nothing new for Shaq, who so alienated himself in Phoenix that Steve Nash declined to re-sign until O'Neal was traded. During the season when rumors came up of a trade to Cleveland, O'Neal began to pout and refused to even dress with teammates. In Cleveland, O'Neal often worked to separate James from the team and in the last week against the Bulls, persuaded James to begin sitting out games. O'Neal eventually feuded with all his co-stars, Penny Hardaway, Wade and Kobe Bryant, the latter effectively breaking up the three-time champion Lakers. Phil Jackson had asked O'Neal to take a subsidiary role, which could mean continued championships. O'Neal declined and was traded to Miami.

Unquestionably, O'Neal was one of the elite players of the era. But he also was a guy swept five times in playoff series, including in the 1996 conference finals against the Bulls when he failed to even show up until late for a crucial game. O'Neal was this feared physical force, yet he never led the league in rebounding. Heck, even Chris Webber did once. Shaq may have played for one of the most underachieving college teams ever, teamed with Stanley Roberts and Chris Jackson and never advancing past the round of 32. Shaq had a great career, and he was one of the elite players of the last two decades. He was a better person than most, unusually charitable and a touchable star who let fans in. Shaq was good for the game. But let's not get too carried away with what he accomplished.

My top centers:

Wilt
Kareem
Russell
Mikan
Hakeem
Shaq
Moses
David Robinson
Willis Reed
Bill Walton

An MVP debate

-- David Stern usually has good ideas about the game, but his comments recently about awarding the MVP after the playoffs were, simply, wrongheaded. And hardly because Derrick Rose won. It's bad enough many want to dismiss the NBA regular season. Now the commissioner does as well? The regular season means a lot and in many respects is what the game is about, building a team toward the playoffs, the beauty of the journey. The Finals has an MVP. You'd have to eliminate that award because the media vote for the last best thing they saw. So the league MVP would be the Finals MVP no matter what happened in the playoffs. You wouldn't vote for a great performer whose team lost. It's ridiculous and suggests a lack of understanding of what the NBA season and the NBA is about to suggest voting the league's best player based only on playoff performance. Would anybody seriously consider the regular season in the voting? Voters support winners. It would eliminate just about everyone in the league from consideration and be basically a referendum on winning the title. I'm hoping the commissioner was just so distracted by the labor negotiations he wasn't thinking straight. Though that would be a concern as well.

NBA news and notes

-- Talk about your instability. The fired Jay Triano with 229 games was the third longest serving Toronto coach. ... Would you deal your two No. 1s if you were the Bulls for Minnesota's Jonny Flynn? I'd consider it, as most expect Flynn to be traded with the arrival of Ricky Rubio and Luke Ridnour a solid contributor. The Timberwolves will have numerous possibilities. ... It really is difficult to talk for almost three hours during a basketball game, though ABC's Mark Jackson apparently allowed a personal defeat to shade his analysis. Either that or he's just stupid. I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. Jackson, in joining the chorus of praise for James, said James could guard all five positions and Scottie Pippen couldn't even guard Reggie Miller. Of course, Pippen shut down Jackson in the 1998 conference finals, Jackson's inept performance because of Pippen costing his team the series.

-- Dwight Howard rejected an Orlando TV station report he was signing an extension with the Magic. He continues to say he wants to stay with the Magic. Of course, Carmelo Anthony said the same thing about Denver. The Magic has no intention of trading Howard. ... Brad Miller, who maintains his home in Sacramento, showed up at a King reunion and surprised friends with news he had microfracture surgery. Miller said he hopes to return in mid-season. Forget it. He's done. ... Lakers insiders say the reason someone like Mike Brown was hired was to purge all influence Phil Jackson had, which effectively eliminated Brian Shaw as a coaching candidate. Management's actions were not unlike Jerry Krause in 1998 declaring Jackson wouldn't be back and removing most of Jackson's influence. Current GM Mitch Kupchak apparently is being marginalized to some extent. He certainly would have called Kobe Bryant to inform him, which the Buss family didn't before hiring Brown. Brown, like he did in Cleveland, immediately was expounding how he'd bring real defense to the team, like the one played in San Antonio. He should call back when his Lakers have five titles... You figure Cleveland has to get getting nervous about Kyrie Irving, the presumptive No. 1 draft pick, who has been injured and not working out. Is he that good you can make him the top pick without seeing him play as he barely did during the season? ... Congratulations to former Bulls public relations chief and NBA media vice president Brian McIntyre, who will receive the prestigious John Bunn lifetime achievement award from the basketball Hall of Fame. Johnny Kerr received the award in 2009.

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