Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Dwight is no Diesel

In April, Phil Jackson was asked who he would start a team with if he could take any active player in the NBA not named Kobe Bryant. He went with Dwight Howard over LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Paul. I’m not arguing the merits of his selection rather I just want to simply point out that Howard was Jackson’s #1 choice. Howard is an exploding NBA superstar having secured a second straight selection to the All-NBA First Team as well as an NBA Defensive Player of the Year Trophy. The fact that he was the #1 overall vote-getter for the 2009 NBA All-Star Game and has unexpectedly led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals has only helped enhance his status as the league’s most dominating big-man.

Howard is an amazing athlete. He physically dominates the center position and has clearly catapulted his team beyond expectations this season. However, I think that Howard’s success gives us an opportunity to revisit and, hopefully, truly appreciate and understand Shaquille O’Neal’s dominance. In my opinion, Shaq is one of the least appreciated superstars in NBA history. That doesn’t mean that people think he was terrible. I think given the opportunity to name the 20 greatest players in NBA history, most would put Shaq in that group. What I’ve found, though, is that few people are willing to put Shaq in a more elite group. In fact, I am convinced that Shaq is one of the top five players in NBA history even though—based on reader-comments from my top 100 Basketball Players of All-Time list—that claim has been met with a tremendous amount of resistance.

Much of the opposition to Shaq’s place in NBA history comes from a perceived lack of “style points.” He wasn’t a ballet dancer in the post like Hakeem or a masterful technician like Tim Duncan. He was just brutally overpowering. The impact on the record books and trophy cases is undeniable but his impact on NBA fans remains tenuous. It’s unfortunate that people have forgotten so quickly how truly revolutionizing Shaq was to basketball. However, I think Dwight Howard gives us a chance to re-appreciate just how thoroughly dominating Shaq was.

Like Shaq was before him, Howard is a 23 year old, physically imposing Orlando Magic center who has led his team to the NBA Finals. Howard’s raw athleticism and physically imposing frame gives us a perfect comparison for Shaq. Howard is the best big man in the NBA. Tim Duncan is old. Shaq is older. Yao is a walking saltine cracker. KG’s offensive game has moved farther and farther away from the basket leaving Howard as the preeminent post presence in the NBA. Phil Jackson thinks so and so do most NBA fans.

If Shaq’s dominance can’t be fully appreciated at face value, maybe it can be appreciated via a comparison with Dwight Howard.

Dwight vs. Shaq at 23

PlayerAgePPGPPG (Playoffs)FG%PERUsg%usg% (Playoffs)APGRPGBPGSPGTO/PG
Shaquille O’Neal2329.325.7.58328.631.930.12.711.
Dwight Howard2320.621.0.57225.426.123.91.413.

Dwight Howard is an exceptional player. Physically, he may be the closest thing the league has seen to Wilt Chamberlain since, well, Wilt Chamberlain. He also might be the most athletic big man the league has seen since “The Big Dipper.” His Slam Dunk Competition exploits attest to that. However, there is a difference between being Amare Stoudamire-great, and Shaquille O’Neal-great. Another way to look at it is to recall a simple geometry concept: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Athleticism takes you on a journey to the basket. Size and physical superiority takes you straight to the basket. The shorter the path to the basket, the fewer things can go wrong which is one reason why despite a much higher Usage %, Shaq turned the ball over fewer times than Howard. Whereas Howard tends to need to complete a move or exhibit fancy footwork to shake a defender, Shaq simply took it to the rim with authority. It was much, much easier for Shaq to score.

At age 23, Shaq averaged 29.3 points per game to Howard’s 20.6. Shaq did it with a higher field goal percentage. Shaq was also the focus of Orlando's offense leading the league in Usage % at 31.9%. That means that Orlando relied more on Shaq than any other team relied on any other player in the NBA. Howard’s 26.1% is nothing to be ashamed of but compared to Shaq it’s underwhelming. Shaq also wins the PER comparison, 28.6 to 25.4. Howard’s “specialty” is defense. Notice that Shaq was no slouch defensively. He became an incredibly effective defensive player as his career progressed but even at 23, Shaq was no pushover.

At 23, Shaq had a similar build to Howard. Shaq was a little thicker but he was much more slender early in his career. As Shaq bulked up, his dominance only magnified which came with four NBA Championships, three NBA Finals MVPs, and an NBA MVP (he should have won at least three MVPs). If Howard can’t touch Shaq at 23, then he’s got a heck of a hill to climb to catch him in his prime. Howard is a beast and deservedly receives league-wide accolades for his paint prowess. However, if Howard truly is the most important player in the NBA as Phil Jackson contends, then that should help clarify just how dominating and important Shaq was. Howard is 6’11, 240. Shaq was 7’1, 330 in his prime. Unless Howard puts on 60 pounds (not sure his metabolism will let that happen), then no matter how good Howard gets, it will likely never be as good as Shaq.

Through two games of the NBA Finals, Howard has scored six total field goals. The Lakers have a fairly formidable front court offensively but certainly do not have the defenders to contend with Howard’s size and athleticism. Shaq—in his first foray into the NBA Finals at 23—found himself opposite one of the five or six greatest centers in NBA history who happened to be in his prime. Hakeem Olajuwon was an offensive powerhouse but he is also arguably the greatest defender at the center position in NBA history. Shaq lit Hakeem up on the offensive end in the '95 Finals. Revisionist history has rendered Shaq a less effective version of Chuck Nevitt in that series but that’s just not how things went down. In fact, compare what a young Shaq did against one of the greatest centers of all-time in his prime to what Dwight Howard has done against Pau Gasol.

Shaq vs. Hakeem in ’95 Finals

Shaquille O’Neal232812.5.5956.52.5
Hakeem Olajuwon3132.811.5.4835.52.0

Dwight Howard vs. Pau Gasol in ’09 Finals

Dwight Howard2314.515.5.37533
Pau Gasol28209.5383.01.5

Barring injury, Dwight Howard is destined for greatness. He is a superstar at the most important position in the NBA. Five years from now, he will probably be drawing comparisons to the greatest post players who ever played. In comparison, though, Shaq was in a league of his own.

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