*Authors note: After much prodding from readers and goading from my buddies, I am going to broach one of the most difficult questions in basketball history (even more importantly, it is extremely difficult for me because of my personal love of both of these players games). Who was better? In some other cases between superstars, the answer is simple. Jordan vs. Kobe? Jordan wins easily. He averaged more points with a better field goal percentage. He never lost in the NBA Finals. Jordan beats Kobe in nearly every statistical category. Magic vs. Stockton? Magic blows Stockton away. Though John Stockton now owns the record for total assists, Magic was significantly better than him in almost every other statistical category. His assists per game average was notably higher. His points per game average was multiple points ahead. But, for Shaq and Olajuwon the numbers are similar, so we have to look at the numbers and beyond them.
Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon are two of the best players in the storied history of the NBA. Depending on whom you ask, one of them is the fourth best center, and the other is the fifth best behind Bill Russell, the best defensive center, Wilt Chamberlain, the most prolific player in history, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the highest scorer in league history. Both Olajuwon and O’Neal were great scorers and shot blockers. Their careers overlapped, but Olajuwon was in the prime of his career when Shaq entered the league, so he outplayed him when they met in the Finals. Olajuwon faced some of the best centers in league history in their prime and shone despite great competition. O’Neal played against adequate competition, and he destroyed them. The only way to compare these Hall of Fame giants is to focus on their style of play, their statistics, and their impact on the National Basketball Association to prove which player is better.
Hakeem Olajuwon is the most skilled big man to ever play the position of center and one of the best athletes too. He played the game in a way that accented those attributes. Olajuwon’s style defined the perfect combination of power and finesse. He jumped over defenders, bumped and neutralized them, or angled around them on every offensive play. He pushed, pump-faked, and powered through whomever he faced on the basketball court. Olajuwon made David Robinson look foolish during the ’94 season in which Robinson was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player. He ground through seven games against another Hall of Fame center, Patrick Ewing, in the NBA Finals in the same season and won his first championship. For an encore, he swept Shaquille O’Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers the following year for his second NBA Championship. Olajuwon was like a hurricane on the court. He affected everything in the any basketball game that he played. He was amongst the league leaders in points, rebounds, field goal percentage, blocks, and steals in every year of the prime of his career. Olajuwon scored at will in the post and at the top of the key, and was the premiere shot blocker of his era. He used his quickness, power, leaping ability, length, and skills and positioning to best his opponents. Olajuwon used all facets of the game to dominate during his career.
Olajuwon’s attacks were reminiscent of a hurricane, but Shaq pounded teams like a tsunami. Opponents never realized the sheer force and power that he possessed and regularly used until they stepped on the court with him. Where Olajuwon occasionally used finesse for an easy score, Shaq was all brutishness. He bullied opposing centers and their teams with his sheer size and athleticism. If defenders were just slightly out of position, he dunked on them. When they were in position, he put his body into their body, drop stepped, and then dunked on them. Sooner or later, a double team came. Then, Shaquille O’Neal bombarded his way through two and sometimes three defenders, pump-faked and dunked on them all. If the defenders finally pushed him far enough out on the floor where he could not dunk on them, he took an efficient short hook, or made a quick move around them and dunked anyway. He was a physical specimen. When he entered the league he was 7’1, 285 lbs., and ran as fast as the guards. In the next few years, he put on 50 lbs. of muscle and became the anchor of a Laker’s dynasty in the 2000′s. Shaq overpowered opponents and beat them into submission by being and playing bigger than everyone else.
Surprisingly, these two players with completely contrasting styles are almost identical by the numbers. They each won one regular season NBA MVP. Hakeem Olajuwon garnered two NBA Finals MVP’s in three trips to he Finals, Shaq won three in five trips. For their careers Olajuwon and O’Neal averaged 21.8 and 23.7 points per game, respectively. Olajuwon averaged 11.1 rebounds in his career, and O’Neal pulled in 10.9. The Dream was a nightmare for opposing offenses blocking 3.1 shots per contest and adding 1.7 steals. Shaq was an underrated defender with 2.3 blocks and 0.6 steals per game, and they both averaged 2.5 assists per game over their tenure in the NBA. There is no statistical category where the two big men are separated by 2 full units. There are some significant differences in the games of Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal though. Advocators of the argument for Olajuwon stress skill and versatility over brute strength. Olajuwon averaged amongst the league leaders in points, rebounds, blocks, and steals consistently. People that preferred Olajuwon over O’Neal say that skilled players simply adapt to defenses. If an opponent was bigger than Hakeem, he would go around him with his patented Dream Shake, confusing the defender with several rhythmic, calculated moves. If the defender was smaller, then he would push them around and score over or through them. And, he was just as deadly on defense as he was on offense. He is the only man to average 14 rebounds and 4.5 blocks in the same season. Olajuwon is the only center or forward in the top ten on the All-Time Steals list, and has the most blocks in NBA history. He was the only player to win MVP, Defensive POY, and Finals MVP in the same season. Olajuwon is one of two guys to complete more than one 5×5′, which is a direct measure of a player’s skill and versatility. His accomplishments on both ends of the basketball court is a testament to his place in history. Olajuwon has 1000 more blocks than Shaq even though he played one less season than him. He blocked shots and got steals like no other center in NBA history, and Olajuwon ushered in the new age of big men with style under the rim on the offensive side of the ball. Surprisingly, over half of his shots came from short jumpers, and he still managed to shoot 51.2% from the field in his career. He was equally adept at facing the rim and making short jump shots as he was at playing with his back to the basket. Olajuwon scored baskets in more diverse ways than anyone before him.
Shaq however, was a classic big man who only played with his back to the basket. He never had to adapt, because he more dominant than any player in league history other than Wilt Chamberlain. The people that fight for the Shaq argument say that he never learned to do other things because he never had to learn anything new; he was bigger and more athletic than everyone else. Shaq averaged amongst the league leaders in scoring, rebounds, and field goal percentage for more than a decade. People from the Shaquille O’Neal camp argument say that Shaq never played against any great players in his prime because he dwarfed all the players of his era. Shaquille O’Neal was a force on both ends of the floor. He was completely unstoppable on the offensive end and a great deterrent on the defensive end. Whereas coaches occasionally attempted to play Olajuwon one on one, Shaq rarely saw single coverage unless playing one of the better centers in the league. And, even the best defensive centers in the league were over-matched with him. He bullied through every big man in the NBA, including defensive stalwarts like Ben Wallace, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutumbo. Shaquille O’Neal was so huge and athletic that he could not be stopped by anyone one person.
Deciphering who is the better player is not as simple as looking at who won the most games or scored more points against the other. When Shaq and Olajuwon met in the NBA Finals, Olajuwon outplayed a young Shaq and the Rockets swept the Magic, so some people think that Olajuwon was better. His averages for the ’94-’95 Finals were 32.8 ppg., 11.5 rpg., 2.0 bpg., and 2.0 spg. Shaq averaged 28.0 ppg., 12.5 rpg., 2.5 bpg., and 0.25 spg. But head to head, Shaq defeated Olajuwon in 14 out of 20 games and averaged more points and rebounds. Olajuwon averaged 18.4 points and 9.1 boards in all of those games, and Shaq averaged 22.1 and 12.4. Conversely, in 1999 when they met in the playoffs Shaq dominated an Olajuwon that was well past his prime. Olajuwon only averaged 10 points in the series. Shaq and Hakeem were two ships passing in the night. When Olajuwon was in his prime he dominated the younger Shaq. Once Shaq reached his best years he dominated an old Olajuwon. Simple statistics and head-to-head match ups can be deceiving too.
Only the legacies of these great players can decide who was better. Hakeem Olajuwon was the only player in the history of the National Basketball Association to win a NBA championship without another Hall of Fame player on his team. People remember that he won it all with Clyde Drexler against Shaquille O’Neal and the Magic in 1995. However, in the 1993-94 season Hakeem Olajuwon won the NBA championship without even another All-Star on his team. He took his level of play and his team to another level in the playoffs. Olajuwon was so dominant that he embarrassed David Robinson, the newly crowned MVP, in the Western Conference Finals in a showdown of Hall of Fame big men. He then defeated another Hall of Famer, Patrick Ewing, in the NBA Finals. Shaq however, never faced a Hall of Fame center in the latter rounds of the playoffs, and he had Kobe Bryant for three of his rings and Dwayne Wade for the last one. So, though Shaq had more rings, he also had better teammates. This puts the two big men on even ground again, though one could argue that Shaq made his teammates better too.
The biggest hallmark of a player’s greatness is when changes in standard game rules are made to stop him. As great as Olajuwon was, he never prompted rule changes. Goal tending was invented because of Bill Russell’s penchant for stopping entire teams from scoring around the rim. Players have to wait behind the free throw line because of Wilt. He grabbed his own misses and dunked them before other teams had a chance to get to the ball. The revival of zones defenses was a direct result of NBA team’s inability to stop Shaquille O’Neal with double and triple teams. During the Laker’s dynasty from 1999-2002, Shaq was so unstoppable that he forced the NBA into allowing teams to camp in the paint in order to slow him. He was too big for one person to guard in the post, and he exploited double teams too. The only way to contain Shaq was to legalize surrounding him with defenders. Shaq inspired the governing body of the National Basketball Association to change its rules which means he was the more dominant player in the context of league history.
The statistics between these two giants were extremely similar despite them having completely different styles of play. They were both successful individually and within the context of team accomplishments, winning MVP’s and championship rings. But, Shaquille O’Neal edges Olajuwon because he caused a change in the rules that govern play. When a player is so domineering against competition that he causes the rules committee to make legislation that helps defenders, then he has made an indelible mark on the history of that game. Both Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal are great, however Shaq was more impacting on the history of the game, and therefore the better player overall.