The Big Diesel is Getting Smaller and SmallerShaquille O'Neal will always be a towering figure in basketball history but in the past few years he has become a little smaller. Kobe Bryant refuted O'Neal's profane, classless rap by leading the Lakers to the 2009 championship with a Finals MVP performance, proving that he could indeed "do without" Shaq. Meanwhile, O'Neal presided over one of the most precipitous collapses by a championship team in NBA history, as the Miami Heat plunged from the heights of the 2006 title to a first round playoff loss in 2007 and the worst record in the NBA in 2008. Midway through the 2008 disaster, O'Neal went through an escape hatch to Phoenix but the Suns promptly exited in the first round and then failed to even qualify for the playoffs in 2009. Far from proving that Bryant cannot "do" without him, O'Neal is in fact showing that he cannot "do" without a lot of help. Anfernee Hardaway, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade were the "closers" on the various O'Neal teams that made it to the Finals, because down the stretch of a game O'Neal can neither create his own shot nor can he be depended upon to consistently make free throws.
As O'Neal's status has slipped, he has regrettably taken shots not only at Bryant but also at his former coach Stan Van Gundy (calling him a "master of panic"), the best center in the NBA today (Dwight Howard) and all-time great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who O'Neal ridiculed in the same rap in which he blasted Bryant. Abdul-Jabbar wisely responded, "The gratuitous insult? I considered the source and I slept very well that night." Abdul-Jabbar averaged 22.0 ppg and shot .599 from the field for a championship team at the age of 38, making the All-NBA Second Team and winning the Finals MVP in 1985; O'Neal is highly unlikely to post those numbers or have that impact two years from now when he reaches that age.
In their classic book Wait Till Next Year, William Goldman and Mike Lupica covered a wide range of topics through the prism of one year (1987) in New York sports. A subchapter by Goldman titled "To the Death" (pp. 277-281) is a tremendous piece of sportswriting that beautifully describes how the accomplishments of most athletes inevitably are blurred by the passing of time and the emergence of younger athletes. Goldman explained that Michael Jordan's epic 1987 performance (37.1 ppg) highlighted how Wilt Chamberlain stands in defiance of that trend because "Wilt was always in the papers because Jordan was always scoring the most this's since Wilt Chamberlain or taking the most that's since Wilt Chamberlain. And that ain't gonna change, folks. Not in this century." Goldman cited the example of career 60 point games: "Wilt: 32. The rest of basketball: 14. At the present rate, we will be well into the twenty-first century before the NBA catches up." Indeed, Goldman wrote those words more than 20 years ago and the "rest of the NBA" has yet to match Chamberlain in that category: he still leads, 32-28, despite the combined efforts of Kobe Bryant (five) and Michael Jordan (four).
While Chamberlain has more than stood the test of time, O'Neal's petty comments and the dramatic decline in his game after the age of 30--an indictment of his failure to consistently stay in top condition, a lack of dedication that is the real reason that he and Bryant clashed, regardless of the nonsense that the Shaq-loving media spewed--only serve to diminish his status, particularly when viewed in contrast with Bryant, who has continued to be an elite level player even as he passed the age of 30 and his "odometer" approached the 35,000 mark in terms of career regular season minutes played.
Remember all of the garbage that was written about Bryant supposedly driving O'Neal out of L.A. and how the Lakers were wrong to choose to build around Bryant? Do you think that anyone in the Lakers' organization regrets the O'Neal trade now? I always said that the only fair way to evaluate that deal was to look at it in the short term for Miami but in the long term for the Lakers. Anyone who suggested that the 2006 Miami championship vindicated O'Neal or reflected poorly on the Lakers is an idiot; when the Lakers traded O'Neal they fully realized that the Heat would be contenders in the short term but that it would take some time to assemble a viable supporting cast around Bryant. The Heat squeezed one title out of the Wade-O'Neal duo so the move was hardly a failure from their perspective but it will be interesting to see when/if the Heat will become a contender again. Meanwhile, the Lakers with Bryant never sank nearly as low as the Heat did with Wade sans O'Neal, Bryant has already exceeded what O'Neal accomplished in Miami and there is good reason to believe that the Lakers will be championship contenders for the next few years.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:20 AM