Backpicks GOAT: #4 Bill Russell

Key Stats and Trends

  • Spearheaded the most dominant defensive dynasty in NBA history
  • Shut down the best centers of the time based on available box scores
  • Mediocre scorer but vision and rebounding made his offense passable

Scouting Report

In many ways, Bill Russell was the first athletic “freak” in NBA history. He was an Olympic-level leaper, standing 6-foot-11 in shoes and playing in the 230s.1 Yet he was fast and agile, able to lead the break as a center:

His defining athletic attribute was explosive leaping, reaching shot-blocking altitudes in the blink of an eye. Here’s a 35-year old Russell, in one of the last sequences of his career, inhaling an overmatched Mel Counts drive.

His defensive IQ was probably his most valuable asset. In his biography, he recalls practicing different pick-and-roll coverages with dance partner KC Jones, rehearsing the all-important pas de deux long before the league popularized coverages like “ice.” He also grasped efficiency decades before Dean Oliver formalized it, (correctly) claiming that his team would benefit mightily if Wilt scored a lot but was forced to eat up extra possessions to do so. Russell was aware of how disruptive he could be without even blocking a shot, describing his psychological warfare like this once:

“The thing I got to do is make my man think I’m gonna block every shot he takes…Say I block a shot on you. The next time you’re gonna shoot, I know I can’t block it, but I act exactly the same way as before, I make exactly the same moves. I’m confident. I’m not thinking any more but I got you thinking…I don’t even have to try to block it.”

In the clip below, Russell’s mere presence forces Oscar Robertson — one of the greatest offensive players in history — into an off-balance flip shot:

In the limited film we have of Russell, he demonstrated an intuitive feel for when to help, and how to roam and recover (something he dubbed his “horizontal game”):

These were modern, efficiency-crushing actions, similar to what Kevin Garnett excelled at decades later. However, without a 3-point line to worry about, Russell was content to let marginal shooters fire away from midrange. If he had a defensive blemish, it was resting off these players too frequently, waiting for them to make one or two jumpers before extending his coverage:

Conservation of energy was a strategic play then — Russ logged nearly 45 minutes a night — so these occasional hiccups traded quality for quantity. On most possessions, he engaged, and his timing made him nightmarishly effective. Here he is inviting a player into the lane so he can blast off at the last second for a block:

And his quick leaping regularly led to plays like the ones below:

These challenges were hyper-efficient, rarely drawing free throws or surrendering points. (Russell posted some of the lowest per-possession fouling rates in NBA history.) In perhaps the prototypical Russ play, he stays near his own man as long as need be before springing to help at the last second, controlling the block and starting the Celtics’ break:

Here’s what former teammate Bill Sharman said about him in the 1967 documentary “Year to Remember:”

“Russell, who is a little quicker than [Wilt Chamberlain or Nate Thurmond], will go to the corners, block a shot or get back underneath and get the big rebound or again pick up the cutter.”

He could cover just about any opponent in front of him; here he is switching on to Oscar and then West, completely disrupting both:

Oh, and in case you were wondering what his man defense was like on the block, there’s the occasional logic-defying play like this:

In the publicly available games, the number of blocked shots is staggering. Based on about 100 unofficial box scores (journalists would sometimes track them), Russell tallied around 8 blocks per game during his career, and was closer to 9 per contest during his peak seasons. Adjusting for pace, this yields about 5.5-6.0 blocks per 100 possessions, which would fall between the 30th and 60th-best seasons on record.2

Whatever the number was, it’s clear that his combination of awareness and athleticism was like a cheat code for the era, introducing verticality into a previously grounded game.3 His rebounding was also top-notch, and the best estimates of his glasswork put him on the edge of the top-100 seasons historically, with rebounding rates around 20 percent. He wasn’t into powerful box outs, instead, counting on timing and a nose for the ball to snatch it off the rim:

On the other end, Russell’s half-court attack was fairly straightforward, consisting of a little face-up shot from midrange, right and left-handed hooks and the occasional drive. Here’s a sample:

These shots weren’t too accurate, as evidenced by his slightly above-average field goal percentage — between 43 and 47 percent for the heart of his career.4 He often served as a passing hub, looking for cutters or open men to hit from the post. These would lead to a number of “Rondo Assists” — more vanilla passes that find basic openings — instead of warping the defense with his threat to score. The play below is a typical Russell post-up that ends in a marginal shot:

Sometimes, he would turn that into a hook or shot attempt, but he was often surveying for slashers and rarely ate up possessions trying to force his own scoring. Overall, he looks like a good, but not great passer, and could occasionally play-make for teammates. In the clip below, he senses a double-team and slips it out to the open shooter:

He also completed nifty passes off his own shot action — the dishes below hint at vision and awareness that were good enough to throw high-level dimes. In the second clip, despite briefly dropping his head to secure his handle, Russell is still able to map the court and find the backdoor.

His assist rates were regularly at the top of the league among big men, and in his final five years he finished in the 60th percentile or better among all players in each season.

That generational athleticism also opened up transition opportunities and offensive rebounding chances. It made him a solid finisher as well; here he is with a modern-looking attack as the roll man in the pick-and-roll:

But pick-and-roll action like that wasn’t used as frequently in those days. Instead, Russell tallied a decent share of second-chance points, like this:

And he was extremely nimble running the floor. Here he is demonstrating that speed on the break:

In the latter stages of his career, he played more “point center” and looked for his own offense even less. He was a quick outlet passer, and, as shown above, could grab boards and even run the break himself. In his final few years, his assists increased to around 4 per 75 possessions while his scoring declined from a peak of 12 points per 75 at +3 percent efficiency — slightly below Draymond Green levels — to just under 10 per 75. This kind of low-usage approach won’t lift teams short on scoring, but it would complement perimeter-based offenses.

Russell was durable throughout his career, even gutting through a broken bone in his foot for the final two months of the 1966 season.5 He was slowed slightly by arthritic knees down the stretch of his career before retiring in 1969.

Impact Evaluation

There’s a lack of granular data on Russell, which makes it hard to ballpark his defensive impact. Was it worth 5 points a game (MVP-worthy) or something unheard of like 7 points (GOAT-season worthy)? It was clearly immense, and combined with his passable offense, left a considerable impact footprint.

He didn’t miss much time in his career, so WOWY numbers are hard to come by. Journalists and teammates always claimed that the Celtics fell apart without him; Boston was a 35-win team (-1.9 SRS) in 28 games he missed from 1958-69, and for the other 915 games of his career they played at a 59-win pace (6.4 SRS). This is a tiny piece of evidence – the years are spread out, teams change, and so on — but it echoes the same story as Russell’s other value signals.

For instance, when his teammates missed time, Boston rarely missed a beat. In 1958, Bob Cousy sat for seven games and the Celtics played far better without him. In ’59 and ’60, Sharman, Cousy and Tom Heinsohn missed a few games each, and the machine kept on ticking. In ’61, Sharman missed 18 games and the Celtics were (again) better without him. In ’62, Cousy missed five and, yes, the Celtics were better without him (portending his retirement years).6

But Russell missed four games in 1962 and Boston’s differential fell by 22 points. Four games is infinitesimally small, but all of these stories point in the same direction. It was only when Russell was hampered by injury (in the 1958 Finals) that the Celtics fell short of a title — the single time a Russell team failed to win in a 12-year span dating back to college.7

This trend would hold throughout most of Russell’s career. In ’66, Sam Jones missed eight games and Boston’s performance didn’t budge. Jones missed 11 more contests in ’69 and the team was about 2 points worse without him. All told, as the roster cycled around Russell, his impact seemed to remain. A more detailed calculation of his game-level value has Russell at the top of the impact-heap in his era, while similar studies have him behind only Jerry West and Oscar Robertson (who both had the fortune of playing on dominant teams during the most watered-down years in NBA history).

At the height of their dynasty, the Celtics were comically dominant. From 1962-65, their average margin-of-victory (MOV) was over 8 points per game. During the same time span, only two other teams even eclipsed 4 points per game – the ’64 Royals and the ’64 Warriors. And all of Boston’s separation was created by its historic defense, anchored by Russell:

Russell didn’t join the team until partway through his rookie season, and before hopping aboard, Boston looked like an improved club (playing at a 58-win pace for 19 full-strength games). Still, what transpired in the ensuing years cannot be attributed to teammates or a defense-first strategy.

Boston platooned different players around Russell while he anchored the greatest defensive dynasty in NBA history. At its height (1960-1966), Russell played 43 to 45 minutes per game while only Sam Jones topped 35 per game (once, in 1965). During the 1963 season, no other Celtic played over 31 minutes per contest. To put Boston’s defensive dominance into perspective, let’s zoom out and revisit the above graph, but this time using all defensive seasons since 1955:

As defensive stoppers ramped up their minutes in the ’60s and Russell evolved, Boston lapped the league. 1964 and ’65 were the two best defensive teams ever by this measure. (Amazingly, in Second Wind, Russell calls out the 1964 team as the best defensive team of his time without knowing any of the efficiency metrics.) He captained four of the top-five and five of the top-10 relative defensive seasons in history.

Despite a smattering of famous names, the offenses were never anything to write home about. In ’55 and ’56, Cousy, the sharp-shooting Sharman and the hyper-efficient Easy Ed Macauley powered attacks that were 2 to 3 points ahead of the league. With Russell in for Macauley in ’57, Boston’s offense dipped to around average, where it would hover until 1960.8 In ’61, Sharman trailed off in his final season, Cousy slowed further and defensive notables like KC Jones and Tom Sanders saw more time. During the heart of the ’60s, the Celtics finished about 3 points worse than the league in offensive efficiency based on our best estimations.

Yet Boston was viewed as a squad of offensive stars because they played at a high pace and scored a lot of points at a time when raw scoring was emphasized. Russell was certainly flanked by some offensive talent in the early years (Cousy and Sharman) and in the later years (Sam Jones and John Havlicek). Even his own offense was relevant; for instance, in 1962, he led the team in postseason scoring and efficiency and finished second in assists. But Boston wasn’t out of the ordinary for having a few good attackers, nor were they winning with their offense.9

Tom Sanders, KC Jones and John Havlicek made up an excellent supporting cast of defenders, although Boston lacked a second big man to play next to Russell. When he retired in 1969, along with Sam Jones — who was down to 26 minutes per game by then — the Celtics dropped a whopping 8 points in SRS (from a 59-win full-strength pace to a 36-win one) despite returning the rest of their eight-man rotation.10 So while Boston fielded a strong team around Big Bill, there’s nothing indicating that they could sniff the same heights without him.

In the postseason, the defensive domination rolled on. Below, I’ve compared Russell’s playoff defenses to those of other all-time big men. The gray bubbles in Russell’s column are the Celtics individual performance in each year. Note that Boston never had a subpar defensive postseason with Russell, and that its worst playoff runs were clustered at the end of his career as a he slowed down:

When pundits wax about old-timers dominating, these are the kinds of outlying result we should see from an ahead-of-his-time star. Boston’s best five-year defensive rating (1961-65) was 9.2 points better than league average. No other team in history has been 7 points better than the league over a five-year stretch. Even this understates the Celtics’ defensive dominance because the league average was pulled down by Boston’s presence.11

Finally, there’s Russell’s total lockdown of other All-Star centers. He was so complete as a defender that he was likely the best team and man defender of his era. Here’s what he did to All-Star pivots during his career:12

All of these players declined in efficiency, and only Thurmond improved his scoring (although on dreadful accuracy). Willis Reed and Zelmo Beaty were vaporized by Russell. The numbers are particularly compelling because, unlike today, Russell played most of the game and Boston did not double-team frequently.

Of course, his most notable conquest was Wilt. While one might think that Chamberlain’s line against Russell was exceptional — he averaged 33 point per game on +4 percent efficiency — adjusting for pace yields a scoring profile comparable to ’89 Roy Tarpley or ’10 David Lee. The sample above comes from Wilt’s volume scoring years only, but even in 1967, arguably Chamberlain’s most revered season, Russell slowed him down significantly. Against the league, Wilt averaged 24.6 points per 36 minutes on 64.9 percent true shooting (TS). But in nine games against Russell, his scoring dropped 4.3 points and his efficiency plummeted 10.8 percentage points.

In Wilt’s 1962 50-point season, he faced Russell 17 times and the rest of the league 75 times (he played Boston twice without Russell). Chamberlain averaged 50.9 points and 53.6 percent true shooting against the league, but 37.2 points on 50.1 percent true shooting against Russell (with 4.3 fewer free throw attempts per game). Russell shaved 14 points per game off Wilt’s average and his drop in efficiency — from 1.07 points per attempt to 1 point per attempt — is the full-game equivalent of a GOAT-level offense regressing to average.

So, we can safely crown Russell as defensive royalty. His offense pales in comparison to other greats, but he was not a poor offensive player – in many ways, he was above average for his day, although it’s unlikely his contributions moved the needle much. Between 1959 and 1965, he finished in the top half of centers in points per 36 twice (’60 and ’62), while falling between the 61st and 71st percentile in true shooting (efficiency) in both years. His scoring regularly improved in the playoffs before trailing off in his last four seasons.

The impact studies we have for that era suggest he’s, at worst, a player with MVP-level lift, and at best, view him as one of the most valuable players of all time. The noisiness of that data and Russell’s outlying status as a defender make it difficult to confidently pin down his value. But, the restrictive dribbling rules, poor spacing and sheer volume of possessions played make it likely that his pre-3 point impact was well ahead of today’s best defensive scores.13

His portability was superb – any team at the time would have exploded defensively by adding him, and his passing and finishing would provide bonus value for any competent offense. He has excellent era longevity, and I consider his peak among the better ones in NBA history. Shaving my valuation of his defense by 5 percent per season — a plausible but conservative estimation — would drop him a spot or two in these rankings while keeping his per possession impact in line with the modern defensive juggernauts.

On the other hand, there’s a viable argument that he was even better than I give him credit for. Like Jordan and LeBron today, his prime was an onslaught of MVP-level seasons and, relative to his era, he might have been the most valuable player ever. Yet for this exercise, his ambiguity leaves enough doubt that he lands at No. 4, narrowly edged out by the man in front of him.

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.