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.

Backpicks GOAT: #6 Hakeem Olajuwon

Key Stats and Trends

  • All-time level defender, anchoring excellent defenses despite mediocre teammates
  • Team and individual metrics improved across the board in the postseason
  • Never played on a great team; isolation game and weak passing make scaling a concern

Scouting Report

If Shaq was Wilt incarnate, then Hakeem was Russell. Standing over 6-foot-10 and weighing 250 pounds, he paired the quickness of a guard with the strength of a big. This allowed him to cover the court with a controlled chaos, helping and recovering almost at will:

Hakeem didn’t start playing basketball until he was 15, but his athleticism made up for any shortcomings. He could bite on upfakes in his early years, but his incredible ability to control his body and recover limited any damage:

Young Olajuwon tried to block just about everything, and thanks to the tighter spacing of the era, he nearly did.1 Hakeem blocked hundreds of high-leverage shots at the rim, and his aggression and perfect timing turned him into a basketball eraser:

Yes, that was the unblockable Sky Hook. Olajuwon’s court coverage was unrivaled among 3-point era centers, so he could briefly lose his man (Bill Cartwright, No. 24 in the next play) before covering enough ground to muck up the dribbler and block the shot:

He was also able to eliminate shots in man defense, using his strength to absorb contact and still elevate to meet the ball:

As he aged, he became a smarter defender, no longer chasing every attempt and minimizing his defensive errors. Here, instead of merely challenging the shot, Hakeem plays some basketball chess:

He seemed to learn this trick around the ’89 or ’90 season, providing lightning-quick help to alter shots, then dropping an arm to guard against a pass if he felt the attacker change his mind. Again, watch his left hand here:

This effectively made his double teams tax free (rebounding aside), because ball-handlers couldn’t hit Olajuwon’s man with his passing wall in the way. He still had the occasional lapse, usually from a preoccupation with the action in front of him:

Yet he was so quick that he could often influence plays even without anticipating them. Here he is pouncing on unsuspecting penetrators:

I tracked over 800 possessions of his for this series, and he transitions from committing defensive errors at a moderate rate in the ’80s to a low rate in the ’90s. Olajuwon’s frequency of “elite” help plays — swooping over in unreasonable fashion to disrupt action near the hoop — is the highest I’ve ever recorded. While his awareness might not have matched Garnett’s, his horizontal game was still excellent; he’s arguably the quickest and fastest center ever, possessing cat-like reflexes and the ability to guard almost anyone.

No film study of him would be complete without mentioning his steals. Hakeem deflected countless balls and topped 2 steals per game in five of his first seven seasons, despite not gambling much. Many of his thefts came from quickly jumping entry passes or flicking at dribblers like this:

On offense, his scoring arsenal was robust when he entered the league. If mid-’90s Olajuwon was firing on all cylinders, late ’80s Hakeem operated at 90 percent capacity. His Dream Shakes and eye-popping moves were there in the early days:

Those weren’t highlights either — those moves were his post game. His strikes were decisive and nearly indefensible; he hit more difficult shots with regularity than anyone besides Kobe Bryant. When younger, Olajuwon would pick up a bucket or two a game just by unleashing his agility and strength on overmatched defenders. Here, he makes like an edge rusher in football, ducking around his man before sealing him for a score:

This repertoire made him an excellent isolation scorer. I tracked possessions where he was in single coverage, and Olajuwon averaged an incredible 1.22 points per play.2 In games from the early ’90s, Houston went to an Hakeem iso 19 percent of the time when he was on the court, more than Kobe’s 2006 rate of 17 percent, per Synergy.3 Of course, he had just about the fiercest spin move outside of Michael Jackson too:

But Olajuwon made these ballerina moves into double or even triple-teams, forgoing easier shots for teammates. This was a major issue, particularly in the first half of his career, and instead of creating high-efficiency opportunities for other Rockets, he launched low-efficiency shots into multiple defenders:

Here’s another example leading to a turnover, in which Hakeem showcases his blazing speed that earned him a number of easy fast break scores during the ’80s:

Based on my sampling, from 1985-92 Hakeem missed an opportunity for creation about as frequently as he actually created one (over 4 plays per 100). This ratio was halved in 1993, as he started playmaking more frequently — around 8 opportunities created per 100, all-time levels for a big man — instead of forcing his own scoring into piles of defenders. In my sample, he shot under 40 percent on these double-teamed shots when he had a clear outlet valve instead.

Olajuwon’s subpar passing compounded the issue. He occasionally spotted cutters or high-leverage passes, but couldn’t always deliver the ball accurately or timely:

By 1993, he was a better, more willing passer, comfortably tossing it back out to his shooters.4 In the second clip below, Hakeem finds a shooter with an unorthodox look-away, then demonstrates his amazing offensive rebounding:

He was a premier offensive rebounder when he entered the league, posting a top-15 rate of all-time in his rookie season. As his athleticism tapered off in the early ’90s, he was still quite good in this area, above the 80th percentile in those years among high-usage big men. He tracked the ball well off the rim, and even tossed in the occasional swim move to outmaneuver opponents on the glass:

To recap, Hakeem entered the league as a skilled scorer and ferociously aggressive defender. He improved his shooting in the early ’90s (translating to even better isolation efficacy) as his defense wised up. In 1993, he shifted his floor game towards creating more, although he struggled with this for his entire prime. In 1994, he was a half-step slower and lacked some of his explosiveness, reflected by a decline in defensive rebounding and blocks. And in 1995, another half-step came off as Father Time wore on him steadily until the end of the decade.

Impact Evaluation

Quantifying Olajuwon can feel like solving physics. He’s essentially the only all-timer to never test his portability by playing with top-end talent, although his brush with other stars in ’97 yielded decent results given that the Big 3’s combined age was 101. When younger, his shoot-first tendencies made it unlikely that he could play a more team-oriented game, although his improved ’90s repertoire should have fit comfortably next to any perimeter star. And most notably, his individual and team offense regularly improved in the postseason, turning Houston from an afterthought into a championship contender despite its marginal personnel.

Before the 1984 season, a rebuilding Rockets team drafted 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson and played at a 32-win pace (-3.1 SRS). The next year, they added Olajuwon, upgraded their guards and climbed to a 45-win clip (1.4 SRS). Both sides of the ball improved, but notably, the defensive efficiency jumped about 2 points and the Rockets finished fourth in defensive rating. Given his role and skill set, it’s likely Hakeem was responsible for a good chunk of this improvement as a rookie. In 1986, the Rockets weren’t much better in the regular season (a 47-win pace), although their offense grew as the defense dipped below average.

However, in the ’86 postseason, Houston excelled, improving its offensive rating from 110.2 to 110.7 despite tougher playoff competition. While offensive centerpieces typically decline against stingier postseason defenses, Olajuwon was one of the few who improved, elevating his scoring volume and efficiency. Most NBA mid-level offenses show a natural bit of relative improvement against harder postseason opponents, but Olajuwon’s Rockets were a whopping 2.7 points better.5

In other words, Hakeem’s offenses were inelastic, likely caused by his ability to take and hit difficult shots. This is a double-edged sword; Olajuwon’s poor shot selection and isolation tendencies can prevent an offense from flourishing, but they also made Houston resilient to most good defenses. There was nothing for the opponent to take away because he was already taking hard shots. More on this in a second.

Those ’80s Rockets teams were poorly constructed, bottoming out in 1983, then never really filling the roster with valuable role players. Sampson and Hakeem were supposed to be the future, but injuries derailed Ralph. Meanwhile, because of their immediate success, the Rockets added the following legends through the draft: Steve Harris (1985), Buck Johnson (1986, a rotation player by his third season), Doug Lee (1987) and Derrick Chievous (1988).6 Compounding matters, two rotation players were given a multi-year ban in the middle of the ’87 season for recreational drug use. It wasn’t until they stepped off the treadmill of mediocrity in 1992 that they snagged a worthwhile rookie in the lottery named Robert Horry.

As you can see, there was minimal roster turnover, which is stupefying for a non-contender. Instead, Houston spun its wheels for a handful of seasons with a marginally talented group on both ends of the court. The ’80s Rockets never surrounded Hakeem with shooters to punish teams for double-teaming off his guards, and they regularly finished in the bottom-half of the league in 3-point shots attempted.

Olajuwon still left an impact footprint though. With Sampson, Hakeem missed 18 games in 1986 and ’87, and the Rockets were 3.3 efficiency points worse on defense without Hakeem. Then, with Sampson gone entirely, (1987-91), Olajuwon posted the best defensive stretch of his career.7 His court coverage and rim erasures led them to a five-year relative defensive average that was 3.4 points better than the league, finishing in the top five in each season. He did this with moderately strong defensive forwards (Rodney McCray in ’87 and ’88, then Otis Thorpe, who joined in ’89), but lacked elite defensive talent or a notable defensive system.8 During that stretch, Olajuwon led the NBA in defensive rebounding rate twice and block percentage once. Below, you can see how those Rockets stack up against the best unique five-year defensive stretches from 1970 to the mid ’90s:9

Given the makeup of the league in the ’80s, I’m not sure it was possible for anyone to generate a super-team on defense like the 2000s Spurs. Houston never went all-in on that end like Pat Riley in New York, and thus their league-best ratings weren’t statistical outliers. Still, as the above chart depicts, only a few franchises had a better five-year defensive stretch than the Rockets in that period, a feather in Olajuwon’s cap.10

Without a second legit star and a fairly underwhelming supporting cast (apologies to Buck Johnson, Mitchell Wiggins and Sleepy Floyd), Hakeem still led the Rockets to a 52-win pace at full-strength in 1990 and 1991, on par with many notable lone-star efforts in history. His isolation scoring game made him a classic “floor raiser,” ensuring his teams weren’t overrun by stifling opponents. This trait is significantly more appealing in Olajuwon than every perimeter player in history — including young Jordan — because it’s paired with his defense, making it easier to win without offensive dominance. And Hakeem wasn’t just a great team defender, he was an individual shutdown artist of the highest order. Opposing All-Star centers lost nearly 4 points per 36 and more than 5 points of efficiency against him during the heart of his career:

On offense, Houston’s improvement coincided with Hakeem’s personal development as a creator (per the scouting report). The ’80s Rockets were often poorly spaced with idle perimeter threats who watched Olajuwon dance with half of the opponent’s roster. But Rudy Tomjanovich’s Rockets were loaded with capable shooters waiting to hit spot-up jumpers, and the ’94 team set a record for 3-point attempts in a year (at the time).11 Then in 1995, the Rockets increased their 3-point frequency by 36 percent, setting another record for attempts with a shorter 3-point line.

However, efficiency was almost always an issue for Hakeem. Early in his career, his difficult shot selection and poor passing tendencies limited his offensive impact. The Rudy T years tapped into his ability to punish double teams and unleashed a high-variance strategy that was a threat to any opponent in a seven game series. But even with his shift in ’93 to a more willing creator, Olajuwon still took an enormity of challenging, double-teamed attempts, dampening his percentages. Here’s how his three-year peak compares to the other great big men of the 3-point era in the “Big 3” offensive dimensions of scoring, efficiency and creation:12

In the postseason, Houston relied on him even more, and he responded by (amazingly) upping his scoring and creation. Here’s the same snapshot of the 3-point era big men, except this time using playoff data from those same seasons. Notice how Hakeem moves from the weakest creator to the strongest while maintaining his efficiency:

All of this had a profound impact on the Houston offense. From 1993 to 1995, the Rockets were about a point better than the defenses they faced in the regular season, averaging 109 points per 100 possessions. But in 57 playoff games, with Hakeem ramping up, Houston was 5.3 points better than the defenses it faced, posting a 111 offensive rating. So while the Rockets hovered around 50-wins during the season with a small margin of victory, in those 57 playoff games they posted a 7.6 SRS (62-win pace) by maintaining a small margin over the best teams in the league. Hakeem’s inelasticity as a player likely turned Houston into a resilient team.

The Rockets took one last swing in 1997 when they added Charles Barkley to form a “super” (but elderly) team with Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. When healthy, that was actually the best regular season team Hakeem ever played on (57-win pace). Ideally, when more talent arrives, stars develop a synergy and create easier shots for each other. That didn’t quite happen, as Hakeem posted comparable scoring numbers with slightly lower creation rates and the Rockets finished 3.6 points better than average on offense at full-strength. Age was certainly a factor at that point, but the results were a tad underwhelming.13

Using Jeremias Engelmann’s three-year APM study from 2002-16, the best defensive players improved their teams by about 4.5 points per game. (The best offensive players approached 5.5 per game). Did the slightly congested spacing during his prime amplify his incredible ability as a help defender? I think it did, and thus his combination of scoring and defense provided a devastating package, even before he started passing more. If his resiliency truly made his ’93 and ’94 teams closer to 60-win competition, then his peak was likely matched by only a few players ever.

Augmented Plus-Minus (AuPM) paints him as a star player who fell short of the elites at the end of his prime. His 1994-95 two-year AuPM average of +4.8 falls in “only” the 95th percentile, but given the evidence, it’s clear that Hakeem was one of the rare players ever to genuinely have a larger impact against superior playoff competition. AuPM also underestimates Tim Duncan — from ’06-09, it’s about 2.5 points short of his APM value every year — the most functionally similar player to Hakeem in history. Both were elite defenders with strong isolation games who created via kick-outs but lacked court vision. Duncan’s passing grew beyond Hakeem’s, but Olajuwon’s scoring game was more robust.

Hakeem’s scaled APM marks from his post-prime years — 1997 and 1998 — land him at +4.0 and +3.4, respectively, with better impact on defense, suggesting that his prime impact metrics could have indeed been elite.14 And multiple game-level plus-minus studies view him as a superstar who’s a rung below the all-time MVPs, which makes sense given some his down years; Olajuwon was caught in a shifting team identity during his injury return in 1991, then feuded with management over contract disagreements in the 1992 season.

I consider him the best defender of the 3-point era, and that value holds on any team. His questionable shot selection and inability to scale on offense are a concern and his team situation creates enough uncertainty that I’m a bit uneasy about his offensive valuations. But I have a hard time slotting him much lower, especially given his similarities to Duncan, and in the most negative light, he’s no lower than ninth. Yet, he has enough longevity and such a high peak that he could easily place fifth. In another close call, he comes in with the sixth-most valuable career in NBA history.