The Point: Shaq’s Level of Dominance Was Bigger And Better
Inevitable as the comparisons will forever be when it comes to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, however often fans topple into temptation to debate the transcendence of Jordan and LeBron James, here’s a necessary reminder in these pandemic-hiatus, The Last Dance-doc reflective days:
Jordan’s immediate successor in complete NBA dominance was neither Bryant nor James. It was Shaquille O’Neal.
Truth be told, O’Neal was statistically even more dominant than Jordan had been in those late 1990s. That 1999-2000 Shaq season ranks up there with the best that anyone has ever done: 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 3.0 blocks per game. Regular-season, All-Star and NBA Finals MVP. Runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year. O’Neal missed only three games and logged 40 minutes per game. (For reference, Damian Lillard currently leads the league at just 36.9, and even Jordan never averaged 40 in any of his six championship years.)
The Lakers returned to glory with that 2000 championship after going 67-15—still the best regular-season record in the franchise’s great history besides winning a record 33 consecutive games and going 69-13 in 1971-72. Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Brian Shaw would become known as some of the most treasured and clutch role players in Lakers lore, but none of them were even in the 1999-2000 team’s top five in minutes as the Lakers became champions again. As hard as it is to imagine Bryant not leading any team, O’Neal took a whopping 1,184 more shots (field goals plus free throws) than Bryant that season.
No team is ever a one-man team, but one man was undeniably most responsible for this team.
It came just one year removed from when Jordan left the Bulls’ dance floor in 1998. A lockout-shortened, 50-game regular season ensued, with Karl Malone voted the oldest MVP ever at 35, edging Alonzo Mourning to assume Jordan’s MVP throne despite it being one the lightest-delivering seasons of Malone’s career.
Then O’Neal took over with his incredible 1999-2000 season, nearly the first unanimous MVP season in league history. He got 120 of the 121 first-place votes, prompting Jerry West to say: “I feel sorry for the one guy who didn’t vote for him.” How misplaced was that other first-place vote? Allen Iverson got it, but still finished seventh in the balloting.
Although Stephen Curry’s 2015-16 season became that first unanimous MVP season, it is O’Neal’s 2000 MVP season that often comes out as the No. 1 individual season of all time in those speculative, subjective rankings pieces. And O’Neal followed it up with two more NBA Finals MVP awards as the Lakers won in 2001 and ’02.
That’s the exact same three-peat Finals MVP dominance that Jordan twice pulled off … but no one else has ever done, before or after.
Also like Jordan, O’Neal was guided to that first NBA championship by Phil Jackson. “My white father,” O’Neal would say over and over, and he credited Jackson foremost for curbing O’Neal’s emotional distractions and prioritizing poise.
Jackson has that effect on most people he comes across, helping center them no matter what position they play in sport or life. But O’Neal and Jordan also walked with ears wide open to Jackson’s advice. They had endured enough setbacks to be tagged as more flash than substance; O’Neal and Jordan were both coached by Jackson to those first championships in their age-27 seasons.
James won his first NBA championship in his age-27 season, too.
Guess how old Anthony Davis is now in his first Lakers season?
Davis is actually close to a year younger now than O’Neal was then, but there are some similarities between the current Lakers team and that 1999-2000 team: A freshly constructed group came together and delivered a somewhat surprising fast start under a new coach, with team-wide hunger to win and veteran role players executing a distinctive playing style that forced opponents to adjust rather than vice-versa.
The current Lakers have leaned on their size advantage—usually playing a traditional center in JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard alongside the 6-foot-10 Davis. They also rank second to Philadelphia in most post-up possessions when most of the league has shifted a more open-court attack.
Perhaps the Lakers could hold an advantage in a playoff run after the COVID-19 hiatus because they play a more uncommon style: Both Davis and James are among the top 10 individuals in post-up touches this season—and only one other player on that list projected to be in the Western Conference playoffs (Denver’s Nikola Jokic). There’s a certain shock value in playoff series when teams must prepare for less-than-conventional attacks.
O’Neal was the ultimate example of that. Besides the versatility of Jackson’s triangle offense, there was no way to simulate or properly prepare for the presence of O’Neal. You can’t get a sense for the impact of a tidal wave by having someone pour a box of pingpong balls over you. O’Neal used to describe it as his “boom-boom” attack wherein he would lower the boom once, powering his backside through to stagger his helpless post defender, and lower the boom a second time to do it again. It would happen faster than expected, and by then the defender would be almost under the basket—right in range to be dunked on in a manner that was more humiliating and emasculating than the sharpest competitive edge Jordan could ever bring.
In that 2000 playoff run, the Lakers won their opening games by 10, 28, 15 and 17 points. The Lakers went an amazing 11-1 in opening games of playoff series during their 2000-02 three-peat, with the lone surprising loss coming in the 2001 NBA Finals opener against Philadelphia despite O’Neal’s 44 points, 20 rebounds and five assists.
That was a slight victory for that guy Iverson again. Same guy who said when he and O’Neal went into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016: “Obviously the most dominant big man we’ve ever seen. Ever.”
What Iverson said at the Hall of Fame right before that is also relevant to O’Neal’s overarching story: “I just love him so much as a person.”
O’Neal has long had a gift for being able to brighten folks’ days, and he has validated in his post-playing career how diverse his interests are. Yet just as many are now better understanding who Jordan is from the documentary of his past accomplishments, O’Neal should be remembered as much more than this excellent source of comedy in the TNT studio or the hard-working pitchman and entertainer you see everywhere else. On the court, O’Neal was the elephant who could dance better than all the lions.
Even the fluid, long-range game you see today is a result of his on-court dominance. The NBA literally changed the rules after the Lakers beat the 76ers in 2001, with zone defense suddenly permitted. Opponents were allowed to stack multiple players on O’Neal or his side of the court even without the ball there.
As much as you’re hearing about the unofficial “Jordan Rules” for defenses to limit Michael back then, these were actual league rules that hurt O’Neal. (Even Jordan lobbied the league at the time not to make those changes that he believed would badly diminish individual stars.)
Just about every top wing player draws that burden of being compared to Jordan. Yet no one has even been able to look like Shaq in his prime. New Orleans rookie Zion Williamson’s name has just been brought up because of his immense power with quick athleticism, but c’mon, he’s 6-6 compared to O’Neal’s 7-1.
Before he entertained us with all those “Big” nicknames (“The Big Aristotle” being the best with its philosophical reminder that
“Excellence is not a singular act; it’s a habit. You are what you repeatedly do”), O’Neal was called by his closest friends a simple one-word nickname: “Big.” He celebrated his size and played that way.
No center has been league MVP since O’Neal in 1999-2000. It is 20 years later now. The guy who called himself “M.D.E.” for “Most Dominant Ever” eventually began calling himself “L.C.L.,” for “Last Center Left.”
But the reality is that when O’Neal was doing his thing, the discussion then was how no one even in the center-focused NBA before could be properly compared to him, either. And while he was dominating, he had the gift of personality to describe it better than any analyst, too.
“You’ve never seen anyone,” O’Neal said back in the day, “this big—this sexy—move this way.”
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Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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