Backpicks GOAT: #5 Shaquille O’Neal

Key Stats and Trends

  • Unmatched scoring and efficiency combination for a post player
  • Massive defensive attention led to dynastic playoff offenses
  • Inconsistent and problematic tendencies limited defensive value

Scouting Report

A 300-plus pound colossus with a 7-foot-7 wingspan, Shaq took the league by the storm as the most physically dominant force in history. He was still fairly raw in the beginning, relying on brute strength and breathtaking athleticism, powering into and over smaller challengers:

Yet he was nimble enough to face the basket and dribble, setting up spins and hooks:

Shaq loved that jump hook, and when young, it was his preferred post move along with the power spin. He habitually deployed it on the right block where he could kiss it off the glass:

He generated chunks of offense on put-backs, where he used size, length and quickness to transform bricks into layups.

Here, he pins his man under the rim, volleyballs the rock to himself, and then makes like a 300-pound Hakeem Olajuwon:

In his first three years, Shaq’s offensive rebounding was historically strong, posting rates in the 95th percentile among high usage big men. (His rate hovered around the 84th percentile, or 11.5 percent, for the remainder of his prime.) In tracking his games, many of his offensive boards were immediately hammered home as dunks or layups.1

Unlike Wilt, who was largely stationary on the block, O’Neal often battled for position across the breadth of the lane, making himself a threat to catch entries in a variety of spots:

In the next clip, notice how he drives his derrière back into the open space, so when the defender adjusts, he creeps closer to the hoop. The result is a deep catch at the rim and some seriously high-percentage offense:2

He was a foul-drawing machine, bludgeoning front lines and producing the highest free throw rates in NBA history. Yet overplaying Shaq off the ball was risky. Hedge too much for position, and he would spin to an open space that only he could access, catching lobs from the side or the top:

These counters made him a nightmare, physically overwhelming men that tipped the scales at 265 pounds. Without the rock, defenders desperately clung to him to prevent offensive rebounds or lobs. As a result, standard Box Creation seems to underestimate his opportunities created, which were over 5 per 100 during his prime in my sample.3 I even counted two or three clear instances of face-guarding — a version of the “tethering” discussed here — to keep him off the boards. This off-ball gravity added scalable value, preoccupying defenders unwilling to leave O’Neal.

Fortunately for the league, Shaq was a relatively weak distributor when he arrived in Orlando, rarely finding advanced passes and frequently missing high-percentage looks like this:

However, he was an extremely willing passer, leveraging kick outs or a quick repost when double-teams arrived. As he matured, he improved at locating cutters like this:

His passing progressively improved over the years, finding more connections like the last clip. His ratio of good passes to poor or missed ones flipped: In his first three seasons, I didn’t score a single O’Neal pass as “good.” By his Finals MVP years (2000-02), he threw far more quality passes than problematic ones while still missing the occasional layup assist.

His game progressed throughout the ’90s, and around ’96 or ’97 he started using a right-shoulder fade more:

Shaq’s physical condition was a constant issue, and in his first year in Los Angeles (1997) he looked heavier and sluggish, often battling an assortment of nagging injuries that sidelined him for 81 games from 1996-98. He played through an abdominal strain that hampered him in ’98 and ’99 before returning with a vengeance in 2000 in his best physical form since his third season. His elevation was noticeably improved, as was his touch. His quickness, at times, was nothing short of unfair:

In my tracking, O’Neal averaged 1.14 points on 126 on-ball attacks (from 1996-2002) — a small sample, but a reflection of his dominant field goal percentage metrics and a justification for the often-employed hack-a-Shaq defense. His defense, however, was more of a mixed bag. Size and athleticism served him well around the rim, and centers without refined post repertoires challenged him at their own peril:

But O’Neal’s team defense was, at times, cringeworthy. His effort and court coverage were lacking, his rotations often a step slow (if at all):

Although he slapped at the ball there, his typical help technique turned him into a 300 pound fouling machine. Young Shaq would often lunge his body into defenders while simultaneously chopping down on the ball, drawing a foul call nearly every time:

In his earlier years, these habits (and his own offensive fouls) sometimes landed him in foul trouble. He wasn’t “foul prone,” but he failed to defend the paint efficiently until 2000. And his lack of mobility — some of it from effort, some from size — hamstrung him against the pick-and-roll:

O’Neal was hesitant to leave the lane and chase stretch bigs, as he would often sag back and watch them shoot. Similarly, his statuesque defense left ball handlers free to fire, and a number of guards torched LA with clear jumpers behind a basic ball-screen during these years:

During his peak seasons, O’Neal was sometimes reluctant to move at all, loitering in the lane with threats nearby:

Here’s perhaps the most extreme example of Shaq’s laziness that I catalogued, in which he guards the block instead of following the screen setter, David Robinson, before heading toward the ball:

He was able to influence the penetrator on that play, but these stationary rotations expose a defense. They were more plentiful during the middle stretch of the ’90s, when O’Neal registered a whopping 6 “delayed” rotations per 100 in my sampling. He cleaned this up noticeably during his peak years (from ’00-02), but still committed them with problematic frequency (just under 3 per 100). These flimsy efforts are better than not rotating at all, but they are largely ineffective defensive habits from the team’s most important defensive pillar. (Shaq also committed outright defensive errors at a moderate rate — about 2 per 100 in my sampling.)

To recap: After a raw rookie season, O’Neal was far more grounded and skilled on offense in ’94. By ’97, he showcased a robust skill set, but still struggled with passing, defense, and ultimately, conditioning. His peak years, from 2000-02, saw improvement in those areas before weight started to take its toll — some reports had him up at 380 pounds by 2003. After that, he slowed down, clocking another three effective seasons before tapering off hard in 2007.

Impact Evaluation

O’Neal’s arrival in the Magic Kingdom correlated with an overnight transformation. After three seasons of ineptitude, Orlando morphed into a playoff quality team in his rookie season. While the Magic improved slightly on defense — from 2.3 points worse in relative defensive rating (rDRtg) to 0.9 points better than average — most of their growth stemmed from a massive 5.2 point jump in relative offensive rating (rORtg). The change occurred with roughly the same core of players, a young Nick Anderson maturing and Dennis Scott playing more. But Shaq was the team’s leading scorer and carried the largest offensive load as a rookie.

In 1994, O’Neal exploded, dropping his turnovers and generating a top-100 scoring rate of all time on efficiency 7.7 percent better than league average (rTS); only 12 seasons in history have exceeded Shaq’s scoring rate that year with better efficiency.4 Rookie Penny Hardaway arrived and Orlando sprung forward on offense, posting a +4.5 rORtg and playing at a 52-win pace (3.7 SRS). In ’95, the Magic added Horace Grant and Hardaway emerged as an elite weapon, helping the team to an historically good +6.9 rORtg (98th percentile).5

When Shaq moved to Hollywood, the Lakers were a garbled mishmash of talent, coming off a 53-win season behind a strong offense. They lost Vlade Divac and Cedric Ceballos in ’97, but were loaded in the backcourt for the next two years, with All-Stars Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel and a teenage Kobe Bryant off the bench. When Phil Jackson brought the triangle to Tinseltown in 2000, LA’s rotation featured two-way role players instead — Robert Horry, Ron Harper, Rick Fox and Derek Fisher — who could feed off of Shaq’s interior gravity and drill outside shots while adding defensive value.

Shaq’s attack was so impervious to defense that LA lost nothing on offense — particularly with the emergence of Bryant — despite swapping skilled scorers for extra-passers and unheralded finishers. (Fox and Horry shot triples at about 36 percent during those years, Fisher at 39 percent.) O’Neal’s combination of scoring and true shooting was practically unrivaled among modern big men, as he outpaced everyone during his peak years while maintaining top-of-the-pack efficiency. Below, I’ve plotted his scoring, efficiency and creation agains the other great 3-point era big men:

Outside of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, traditional pivots aren’t incredible offensive centerpieces. But O’Neal was a unique force. There have been 26 seasons in NBA history with a scoring rate over 29 points per 75 and an rTS above +4 percent. Only two players have done it four times: Michael Jordan (six) and Shaq (four).

While O’Neal’s creation doesn’t compare to the elite perimeter engines like MJ, it was strong for a post player, and, coupled with his offensive rebounding and ability to foul out entire front lines, made him a playoff nightmare.6 As a result, Shaq’s playoff offenses were nearly unrivaled. From 1995-2002, he had the second-best eight-year run of any lead player in NBA history (+8.8 rORtg) and his 1997-2001 Lakers had the best five-year postseason offense in history.7 Here is how O’Neal’s teams stack up against the best unique five-year offenses in the shot clock era:8

There’s strong evidence that Shaq was the driving force behind these offensive heights. From 1996 to 2004, he missed at least 15 games in six separate seasons, leaving a large WOWY trail in four of them. In ’96, with the Magic returning the same core rotation, Orlando played at a 65-win pace at full-strength and a 50-win pace without O’Neal. Without Shaq, the Magic were an excellent offense, generating a +5 rORtg. But with him, they were one of the best healthy offenses ever, posting an astounding 117 offensive rating (+10.8 rORtg).

That was just the beginning. In 1998, the Lakers offense improved from +4.5 relative efficiency in 26 games without O’Neal to +7.3 with him. From 2000-03, LA played 32 full-strength games without Shaq and posted a +0.4 rORtg. With him, they were an exceptional +7.3 (although the defense was slightly worse). Even his floor-raising was colossal: In 29 games without Kobe Bryant, Shaq’s 2000 and 2001 Lakers posted a +2.8 relative offense at a 54-win pace flanked by role players (and Glen Rice for half of those games). O’Neal’s game-to-game impact across his career was consistently huge and, naturally, his overall WOWY results are some of the best on record:

Shaq’s entire prime was played during the plus-minus era, and these non-box stats are extremely kind to him. Every one of his scaled adjusted plus-minus (APM) seasons from 1995-2006 is above the 94th percentile historically, with an amazing seven consecutive seasons in the 99th percentile starting in ’98. This family of metrics also casts Shaq as an offensive juggernaut; every year during that ’98-04 stretch falls in the 99th percentile in offensive APM, including the seventh-best four-year peak on record (1998-2001). Only LeBron James (nine) and Steve Nash (six) have more top-100 scaled offensive APM seasons than Shaq’s five.

In line with the scouting report, defensive indicators weren’t always as kind to him. First, there are the broad strokes: Orlando improved with Shaq and hovered around average for his entire tenure there. In LA, with the exception of blips in 1997, 2000 and 2002, the Lakers were either around average or a few points below it. However, Shaq was a capable shot blocker and excellent defensive rebounder — even posting a rare 27 percent rebounding rate and 4 percent block rate combo in the 2000 postseason — and as a result his scaled defensive APM numbers ranged from the 79th percentile to the 94th.

A lot goes into evaluating defense, but an important indicator for a non-horizontal player like O’Neal is rim-protection data. As LA’s primary shot-blocker and resident lane dweller, we can ballpark how effective he was at guarding the hoop while he was on the floor by looking at opponent shooting in the lane while Shaq was in the game:

It’s a noisy stat, but those gaps between O’Neal’s teams and other notable defenders are large. Additionally, those numbers correlate with both defensive APM and defensive box plus-minus from year to year for him. He does have the curious 2000 result on his side; in Phil Jackson’s first season in LA, the Lakers posted an rDRtg 5.9 points better than league average, the third largest defensive improvement in NBA history, and far better than any result during Shaq’s career as a defensive cornerstone.9 But this was sandwiched between two subpar defensive years from LA, and the team’s postseason defense wasn’t exactly spectacular either. A simple explanation is that Shaq’s defensive effort in the paint waned — he has admitted to playing himself into shape — but it’s likely more complicated than that.10

There is evidence that Shaq was a strong man defender; from 1998-2003, All-Star centers scored at 3.6 percentage points worse (in true shooting) when they faced him versus when they played the rest of the league.11 For comparison, this is comparable to how Dikembe Mutombo performed against All-Star centers during his defensive prime from 1992-98, although Mutombo faced a far more offensively-inclined group, including Shaq himself. Overall, most metrics indicate that O’Neal was a good to very good defensive presence at times, although his lack of mobility and poor help habits seemed to cap his defensive impact well below the greats.

His statistical portfolio is rivaled by few: He has the third most valuable five-year plus-minus stretch in the 24-years of data we have, trailing only LeBron James and Kevin Garnett. His WOWYR is strong (11th among players on this list), and his scoring profile, coupled with his team’s postseason offenses, are unprecedented for a post player. All signs point to Shaq’s scoring/creation/rebounding/gravity package generating outlying impact on offense for a big man, and I consider him peerless in this area among centers.12 To boot, he fit with perimeter stars and spot-up shooters alike.

Because he was so good at such a young age, Shaq amassed 14 All-NBA seasons in a row per my estimations, including seven strong MVP seasons and five more weak MVP years from 1994-2005. His peak defense is somewhat challenging to pin down, and because his offense was so good, small adjustments in his valuations during his best seasons have compounding effects on his overall career value. I could comfortably rate his offense or defense about five percent lower, which would slot him behind Wilt, but I have a hard time ranking him much higher, as slight boosts to his best offensive and defensive years would not land him on Mt. Rushmore. He and Hakeem are fairly close, but despite Shaq’s durability issues, I’m more confident in his estimations from year-to-year. With one of the highest apexes in NBA history, he lands at No. 5.

  1. I tracked about 700 possessions between 1993 and 2002 for rebounding, passing, creation, post-up and defensive tendencies.
  2. This is where Shaq’s free throw shooting rendered him mortal. He finished shots under the rim over 70 percent of the time, but a timely hack turns the play into a pair of more palatable, 50-something percent free throws. It’s the difference between a 1.5 point play and a 1.05 point play.
  3. This estimate is closer to his non-3 Box Creation estimate.
  4. Kevin Durant did it five times, LeBron James three times, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Adrian Dantley, Steph Curry and Shaq himself all did it once.
  5. Hardaway was a superstar-level offensive player before injuries derailed his career. In 1996, in 24 games without Shaq but the rest of the team at full-strength, Penny improved his scoring 4.5 points per 36 minutes (to 23.8 points) and his true shooting 2.5 percentage points (to +8.0 percent rTS).
  6. Only the 2000 Blazers managed to contain Shaq. Portland boasted a front line of 7-foot-3, 290 pound Arvydas Sabonis, Rasheed Wallace and the sturdy Brian Grant. In 11 games that year, peak Shaq averaged 19.2 points per 36 on 53.2 percent true shooting, down from his seasonal averages of 26.7 per 36 and 57.8 percent efficiency.
  7. Steve Nash’s Suns technically had a better five-year stretch, although they only played in four postseasons from 2006-2010. Nash also had a better eight-year stretch from 2001-08 (+9.6 rORtg) across two teams.
  8. “Unique” seasons are the best five-year stretches without any overlapping seasons. For instance, the best stretch for Shaq’s Lakers was from 1997-2001, thus the 1998-2002 stretch is excluded because it shares seasons with the ’97-01 period.
  9. Only the ’98 Spurs, (who added Tim Duncan and David Robinson), and the 2008 Celtics (with Kevin Garnett and a roster overhaul) had larger single season improvements in rDRtg.
  10. Historically, no team has ever yo-yoed so drastically, although the closest example might be the 1973-75 Pistons, who improved by 5.5 points in ’74 only to drop back to below average with a similar core. As for LA, Kobe and Shaq seemed more engaged on defense in 2000 on film, while Robert Horry was at the end of his stellar defensive prime. I certainly credit Jackson for improvements from ’99, along with a more physically mature Bryant and the addition of Ron Harper. But Jackson, Kobe, and a similar core were back for the disappointing 2001 season. Harper, on his last legs, only played in 47 games that year.
  11. From 38 games against Alonzo Mourning (’98-02), David Robinson (’98-01), Rik Smits (’98), Vlade Divac (’01), Theo Ratliff (’01) and Zyrdunas Ilsgauskus (’03). It was not a good time for offensive centers.
  12. If Shaq could have made free throws, he’d be the greatest offensive player ever. Consider that at a 70 percent rate, his 2000 season would have been worth nearly 2 more points per game, and at 80 percent, nearly 3 additional points per game.

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