Shaq-sized roundtable: O'Neal's legacy

Originally Published: June 1, 2011
ESPN.com

After 19 seasons, six teams, four championships, three NBA Finals MVPs and a regular-season MVP, to boot, where does Shaq stand in NBA history?

In honor of the Big Diesel, we tracked down eight of our NBA experts to break it down in this super-sized edition of 5-on-5. (Because bigger is better, right?)


1. On the list of all-time centers, where do you place Shaq?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Way, way up there. I'm glued to Bill Russell's 11 titles as all-important, but O'Neal is in the chase group with Olajuwon, Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Wilt Chamberlain and David Robinson. And let's be honest -- O'Neal in his prime dunks over all those guys.

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Fifth. Wilt, Kareem and Bill Russell are in my top three (I can't truly rank them because I didn't see Wilt and Russell play), followed by Hakeem Olajuwon, then Shaq. Edge to Hakeem because he beat Shaq in the Finals.

Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine: Sixth -- right behind Moses Malone, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain clearly outrank him; Shaq is competing in the next tier with Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan (uh, sorry dude, you're a center). At gunpoint I'll put Shaq fourth, because his peak was as good as anybody's in history.

Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: When he was at his best, he was more of an unstoppable force than the other surefire Hall of Famer whose greatness I witnessed from up close, Hakeem Olajuwon, because he had a repertoire of moves that even Hakeem could not match. I never covered Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain, so it is hard to rank them. But if I had to list a top three, it would be those two guys and Shaq.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Fourth. He's got to be behind Russell, Kareem and Wilt, but I'd argue that Shaq has to be ahead of Hakeem no matter what happened in the 1995 Finals. His body of work and overall stature and impact on the NBA culture trumps The Dream, who gets credit for making Shaq raise his game with that schooling in '95.

P.S.: Do you realize how hard this question is when you can't make room for Moses Malone or Bill Walton?

Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Like most of us, I've got him behind Wilt, Russell and Kareem. Because of his overall impact on the game and the duration of his primary productive years, I don't mind putting him ahead of Hakeem, Ewing and Robinson.

Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: There are Bill Russell guys and there are Wilt Chamberlain guys. I'm a Russell guy, personally, because of his titles and his defense. But strong cases can be made for both and have been made down through the years. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest scorer in history and won six overall titles, dominating for generations.

After that golden trio, Shaq could fit in as perhaps the fourth best of all time. Never have we seen a man with this type of size and talent. Stories of Shaq and highlights of Shaq will be around long after we're all gone.


2. Will you remember Shaq more for his successes -- such as three-peating with the Lakers -- or the fact that he won only one MVP and no rebounding titles? In other words: Did he get the most out of his talents?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: No, he didn't get the most out his talents, but I'll still remember him for winning rings. He won four, but it felt like 50.

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: You can't say he got the most out of his talents. But you also can't deny he hasn't gotten the most out of his life. If he were more obsessed with being the best basketball player ever he might have done it … but he would be nowhere near as interesting a person. And I'll never consider a four-time champion a failure.

Shaquille O'Neal
Jim Ruymen/AFP/Getty ImagesDespite dominating the NBA in his heyday, Shaq only has one regular-season MVP trophy on his mantle.

Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine: He didn't get the most out of his basketball talents, but I'd argue he got the most out of his ability to entertain. Laugh if you want at his rap albums and his movies, but some of them drew an audience and made coin. As for his personality and outrageous quotes, was there anyone who, in his prime, could do a better job of promoting a big-time game with a crazy comment? Maybe Charles Barkley, but it's an extremely short list after that.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Shaq didn't get the most out of his talents, no. He had as much ability as any player in history, but relied solely on his ability to overpower opponents physically. Nonetheless, I'll remember Shaq most for the dominating stretch from 2000 to 2002; it was a force of nature unlike any the league has ever seen.

Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: I will remember him as much for being "quotatious" as I will for his successes, the greatest of which was the Lakers' three-peat. As for getting the most out of his talents, I suppose he could have been a more dominant player numbers-wise if he had played 20 pounds lighter during his prime, but that is nit-picking.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: When it comes to maximizing his talents … of course not. But we've seen enough gym rats in basketball history. There's only Shaq when it comes to the talent/personality package. The fact that all his flaws and insecurities were so often exposed kept us tuned in as much as the four rings and the many failures (sweeps, usually) that preceded then. This was a seminal figure in the sport's history that we could all touch.

Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: I will remember him for the titles with the Lakers, the backboards he brought down before that in Orlando and how he put Miami in position to be a championship team and got one more ring without Kobe. Even Shaq will tell you he left two rings and about 6,000 points (on free-throws alone) on the table because he didn't get as much out of himself as he should have.

Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Of course for his successes. His ability to dominate games with physicality was unique. He also won titles with two different franchises and led three different teams to the NBA Finals, a distinction that speaks to his impact on the game. The league changed rules because of his game, a true compliment.

True, he didn't get the most out of his ability. The last half of his career was diminished as he struggled to stay in shape. When he was judged by MVP voters it was often against the expectations he created for himself, which held him back from claiming more. But no one could ever doubt that entire seasons revolved around him.


3. Which Shaq did you like better: Shaq at All-Star Weekend as the life of the party ... or Shaq as the king of the podium at the NBA Finals?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: If you're into partying, the guy with the Finals trophy is more than fun enough -- and that model comes with a Finals trophy.

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Shaq at the podium in the Finals became better entertainment than the series themselves, especially when the Lakers were beating the 76ers and Nets in a total of nine games. He'd tease the transcript stenographers, create words, gave excessive info such as the color and style of his underwear.

Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine: Easily the Shaq at the podium during the Finals, when his talent as a player was equal to the size of his jokester personality. When he became more goofball than player and didn't always seem to recognize that something had shifted, it was sad.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Shaq at All-Star Weekend, because it was more appropriate and because it was easier to do the playful things (dancing with JabbaWockeeZ, for instance) that showed that side of his personality.

Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: Life of the party at All-Star Weekend. This was a guy who once went into a break-dancing routine at center court at the Saturday practice on All-Star Weekend and made the entire place stop and watch, a guy who could inject some life into All-Star Games that were dying for a storyline.

When the game was in Los Angeles a few years back, O'Neal was leading a three-on-one fast break as the point guard when it became clear he was not giving up the rock, and the one defender who was back needed to get the hell out of his way. I learned that night that the only player who ever took a charge against him in a similar situation in a real game was ex-Pacers point guard Travis Best.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Finals Shaq. Hands down. All-Star Weekend is always too chaotic to zero in on one thing. Yet when it came to The Finals, if you had a media credential around your neck, you looked forward to Shaq at the mike as much as the games.

Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: It's tough to beat the podium Shaq from those NBA Finals, when he had a new nickname for himself and a fresh wisecrack for his opponent seemingly every day. But give me the Shaq that broke out the break-dancing contest during All-Star practice in Vegas four years ago.

Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: You always appreciate the work in the Finals more than anything else. Whether it's on the court or at the podium.


4. How does the fact he played for six different teams affect his legacy?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: No idea what you're talking about. Out of respect for O'Neal on this day, I choose to believe he retired in 2007.

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: The first three actually helped his stature, because he could say he took three different franchises to the NBA Finals. Watching him shuffle from Phoenix to Cleveland to Boston in the end was sad, but will ultimately be merely fine print in his story, not boldface italics. It doesn't undo what he did in Orlando and L.A.

[+] EnlargeShaquille O’Neal
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesYeah ... we're probably all better off just forgetting Shaq's run in Cleveland ever happened.

Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine: Playing for six different teams doesn't affect his legacy as much as why and how he left. As his physical skills eroded from lack of vigilant conditioning, he insisted on being the star when his play no longer could carry the role. And he always blamed someone else as he went out the door, often someone he had heaped praised upon just a year earlier.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Very little, because the last three barely count (take the Suns, Cavs and Celtics out of his career and there's virtually no difference in how we assess it), and because he took each of the other three to the Finals.

Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: It would be a shame if the younger NBA fans out there only remember him for his swan song years with the Suns, Cavs and Celtics rather than what he did for the Lakers and Heat franchises, not to mention what his departure from the Magic did to that franchise.

No question he hung on for a year too long, and what people forget about LeBron James' Game 5 disappearing act from the 2010 playoffs was how in the first quarter of that game, the Cavs did everything they could to get Shaq going instead of LeBron.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: It doesn't for me. Moses played for seven teams and I still see him as a top-fiver, too. If anything hurts Shaq's legacy in my eyes, it's the fact that he left almost all of those six teams in such messy fashion. I remember sitting down with Shaq a few years ago in Phoenix, when he told me how his dad was urging him to go out gracefully. Even if you exclude the whole injury-riddled Celtics experiment, Shaq wouldn't have satisfied The Sarge.

Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: No more so than seeing Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders or Reggie Jackson wind down their careers in odd jerseys. The impact Shaq, the one we'll always remember, is the player who suited up for the Magic, Lakers and Heat -- having taken each of those teams to the Finals.

Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Shaq will be remembered as a Laker and will likely go into the Hall of Fame as a Laker. He probably deserves a statue outside of Staples Center since that seems to be a fad these days.

His stint in Miami helped put that franchise on the map, but his other stops were just that -- stops. He's a modern superstar and that means he changed addresses. At the end of his career he was chasing a ring and despite the stigma that sometimes comes with that, you can't hold it against him.


5. How many of those teams should retire his number?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: One: The Los Angeles Lakers.

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: His jersey should hang for his first three teams.

He made the Magic relevant and took them to their first Finals. He three-peated in L.A., something not even Magic and Kareem could do. And if the Heat can retire Michael Jordan and Dan Marino's jerseys, they can retire Shaq's.

Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine: Three at most: Orlando, Lakers, Miami.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Orlando should but probably won't given the circumstances of his departure. Which leaves the two places he won rings: Los Angeles and Miami. Both should be no-brainers.

Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: Only the Lakers and Heat. He delivered championships to Los Angeles at a time when Kobe Bryant was incapable of carrying that team on his back (as he would discover when O'Neal left), and he gave Miami its first and (so far) only title when Dwyane Wade also wasn't ready to carry the Heat.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Lakers and Heat. That's it. I don't blame the Magic if they still feel the sting from Shaq bolting. His departure was that devastating, so crushing to the point that Dwight Howard's future conjures up haunting Shaq memories every day in Orlando.

Michael Wallace: ESPN.com: Orlando should, unless Dwight Howard objects and threatens to skip town, too. The Lakers certainly will retire his jersey. And it's possible that Pat Riley will do the honor in Miami. Riley is respectful of the game's history and Shaq's place in it -- despite the bridges the Big Departure burned on his way out of town.

Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: There are banners in L.A. and Miami that Shaq brought there. Regardless of any hard feelings, especially with the Heat, his number deserves to hang in their rafters.


Bonus question: Quite simply, Shaq or Kobe?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: The Lakers really got to make that choice in 2004, chose Kobe and won two more titles. Hard to argue with that. But if could have somehow locked O'Neal in the year 2000, O'Neal by a country mile.

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Kobe has one more ring, Shaq has one more Finals MVP. If this were strictly about maximizing a basketball career the answer would be Kobe, but Shaq always understood there's more to life than basketball. He made it fun, turned it into a show. That's why I'm a Shaq guy.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant and Shaquille Oneal
Rocky Widner/Getty ImagesShaq's got the personality, but Kobe's got more jewlery.

Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine: Kobe.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Shaq. Kobe played at a top-10 level for longer, but Shaq's peak value was as good as that of any player in history. When the Lakers three-peated, it was with Shaq , not Kobe, as the centerpiece.

Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: Both guys have always been great to me (Kobe has been better with the national media than with the L.A. media), so this is a toughie from a personal standpoint. But if I had to choose one, and with their career accomplishments being about even at this point, as a professional storyteller I would have to go with the guy who was the better entertainer. And that was the Big Fella.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Copout City here I come. Don't know how to choose between 'em. Because I can't separate 'em. My last season as a Lakers beat writer with the Los Angeles Daily News was the season (1996-97) they both landed in L.A. For most of the past 15 years, if you thought about one, it wasn't long before the other popped into your head.

Michael Wallace: Shaq. All day. While Kobe's place among the all-time greats might be a spot or two ahead of Shaq's when it's all said and done, Shaq understood what it meant to be in the spotlight and how to be a showman as well as a show-stopper. It's just a shame their egos got in the way of what could clearly have been the greatest 1-2 punch in NBA history.

Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: There is no doubt that Kobe is one of the greatest competitors we've ever seen. But the Lakers don't win the three straight titles without Shaq. As one basketball historian said to me on the matter, the Lakers probably would've won multiple titles with Shaq and a dozen different wing players in that era. The unknown is what would've happened had they stayed together and into Kobe's prime. Shaq, however, is the more rare talent.