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The Last Big Man

7 Jun

Shaquille O’Neal will not go down in the annals of basketball history as the best big man that ever played the game despite being one of the most talented post players in league history. That title is reserved for Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, or Kareem Abdul Jabbar. He quite possibly could have surpassed them had he worked harder at conditioning or shooting free throws. But nevertheless, he is a certain Hall of Famer and still the fourth best big man in National Basketball Association history, Hakeem Olajuwon notwithstanding. Shaquille O’Neal was as dominant, intimidating, and downright abusive  as any post player ever was on the block. He was a real big man, and unfortunately he may be the last pure big man that we may ever see. Shaquille was the National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player, the NBA All-Star MVP, and the NBA Finals MVP in the 1999-2000 season. He won a total of four championships and three Finals MVP’s in five trips to the NBA Finals. He scored 28,596 points with a 23.7 points per game average and grabbed 13,099 rebounds with an average of 10.9 rebounds per game. He blocked 2.3 shots per game and altered countless others. Shaq was a statistical giant whose numbers were only marred by two mediocre seasons in Cleveland and Boston, and only rivaled by a few centers in NBA history. But more significantly, the way that he played the game of basketball is more important to telling his legacy. Shaquille O’Neal played solely with his back to the basket. There were no feathery free throw line jumpers or facing up at the top of the key for a jab step and a soft bank shot in his game. He bullied his way towards the basket for powerful, short hook shots or devastating dunks on every play. The only finesse move in his arsenal was a spin move that was predicated on the defense overplaying him. Shaq was one of a kind talent, and unfortunately there are no players in the league to succeed him in the paint in the same way that he followed other NBA bigs down there. Those big men that played exclusively in the paint have disappeared. They have slowly become obsolete in the last few years of the NBA as the best big men have gotten older. The last two true post players in the league are Shaq and Duncan. Before their skills eroded both Shaquille O’Neal or Tim Duncan could score one on one against anyone in the post. However, Shaq recently retired after an injury-riddled year in Boston and a severe drop-off in his production made him less effective. Tim Duncan has become decidedly slower, less athletic, and less effective in the last few seasons. The rest of the big men, with the exception of Dwight Howard, are hybrid posts that spend as much time out on the elbow and wings as they do in the paint. Howard plays in the paint, but he languishes to score without help from a play maker. He is often ineffective unless he has deep position under the basket or gets an easy assist from a penetrating guard. Dwight Howard is not skilled enough or confident enough to dominate offensively in the post like Shaq did. And, Howard also does not dominate on the defensive end like the former big men either. Howard gets most blocks from the weak side of the court and almost none on the ball, as opposed to the classic big guys of NBA legend.

In fact, some of these players caused the metamorphosis of the back-to-the-basket player into the versatile big men that we see today. The beginning of the end for true posts started with players like Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin McHale, and Kevin Garnett. Though each of the three players careers overlapped with at least one others, they played in three different decades with dissimilar playing styles and matching approaches. All three could score effectively in the post, and they each played a part in the demise of big men. Kevin McHale was one of the first power forwards in the NBA that proved that big men could score in the paint without being physically imposing. He scored through immaculate footwork and an infinite  amount of counter moves. McHale was one the first bigs that scored consistently in the paint with mostly finesse moves. Hakeem Olajuwon combined the perfect footwork of McHale with the power of a center and the agility of a guard. He was incredibly coordinated, balanced, and super-athletic. Olajuwon played the game of center differently than anyone before him. He could play with his back to the basket and use power and technique, but he regularly took the basketball out on the floor and dribbled past defenders too. Over 50 % of his shots were on short jumpers, a far cry from big men of the past. Olajuwon scored just as easily in the paint as he did outside it. Garnett took Olajuwon’s skill level from the extended paint to the wing. Whereas Olajuwon was like a hybrid of the 4 and 5 position, Garnett at 6’11″ became a combination of the 3 and 4. He could handle the basketball like a guard, and had the quickness and athleticism of Olajuwon. Garnett was extremely skilled and shot even more jumps shots than Olajuwon. He could be the most versatile power forward in NBA history. These three unintentionally changed the landscape of basketball. After their appearance on NBA courts during the most popular period of professional basketball, players stopped learning the specifics of certain positions and began to learn the more attractive aspects of the game. Kids stopped learning the technique behind blocking shots and began practicing ball-handling. While this practice fed a proliferation of multi-talented younger players, it also created a league of players that never learned a defined set of basketball skills. The byproduct of McHale’s, Olajuwon’s, and Garnett’s careers is a league full of versatile, skilled players, but also a league full of guys that seldom impose their will on games because they failed to learn the classic way to play their positions. Shaq’s game was a bit of a throwback. He eschewed learning special ball-handling skills or the finer-points of shooting the basketball, and focused on positioning and footwork. It served him well. He used the techniques that big men before him proved to be effective. He manipulated floorspace utilizing his feet, his hips,  and his butt. He went over big men to score, or went through them. For his career Shaq shot 58.2% from the field. Shaquille O’Neal used his natural ability to his advantage on the basketball court instead of using trickery and pump-fakes. He guarded the paint with fervor. Anyone attacking the rim had his shot blocked or was met with a hard foul from a man that weighed in excess of 350 lbs. Shaq played the game the right way.

Shaquille O’Neal may have been the last real big man to play the game of basketball. He was the last of the shot-blockers who denied shots on-ball and from the weak side. He was the last of the big men that worked for deep positioning and he only used moves where his back was to the basket. And, he was the last guy to physically dominate and intimidate his competitors. His career was highly celebrated and he was one of the most dominant big men to ever play the game of basketball. It is unfortunate for basketball fans that he may be the last real big man to play it.

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