This is the NBA that I was always afraid would reappear. Despite a playoff season that was full of drama and excitement, the same old NBA has shown up in the finals. They are barely worth watching, much less writing about. So, instead of concentrating on the game, my mind was left to wander. My thoughts, when they weren't concerned with the Laker girls, kept coming back to some comment made by Nets coach, and former Laker great, Byron Scott. When asked if he could draft one player, Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal, Scott replied, without hesitation, that it would be Shaq. Jordan was a great player, he said, but someone like Shaq only comes around once in a lifetime. That made me think, because I had always thought that Air Jordan was the greatest player I would ever see, but could that player be Shaq? In our quest to find the next Jordan, have we overlooked the 7'2'' 350 pound man-child standing in our midst? The only thing to do is to look at each player and see how they size up in the Big Four categories of "greatness," Championships; Making players around him better; Unstopability (which is my Don King word, i.e. one I made up); and Crunch-time shots.
Championships: At one point in his career, Shaq's infamous quote was that he had won championships at every level, "except college and the pros." That 12 and under YMCA league title must have been pretty tough. But now, after the Nets are done, Shaq has three and Michael has six. Of course, Shaq's career, injuries not withstanding, is far from over, so there is a chance that he can win a few more. Once you have won more than two titles, you really have entered a special place in NBA history. This instantly puts you in the conversation with Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird as one of the greats. Shaq and Michael have both played great in the playoffs. Over his career in the post season Shaq has averaged 28 points and 13 rebounds, while Jordan has averaged 33 points and 6 rebounds. They both also became stronger by having to get over the hump of a great opponent, the Detroit Pistons for Michael and the Utah Jazz for Shaq. The only common factor here is Head Coach Phil Jackson, so maybe we should be discussing if he is the greatest coach of all time, instead of who is the greatest player. Actually, we shouldn't. Phil is a great coach, but not the greatest coach. Both Shaq and Michael have led their teams to multiple titles, so there is no winner.
Does he make the players around him better? Shaq and Michael each have had one other "great" player, Kobe Bryant and Scottie Pippen respectively. And yes, before you argue, Pippen was a great player with the Bulls. He benefited from playing on the same team as Jordan and not having a lot of scoring or leadership responsibility, but in his prime he was a great player. Now Kobe, whom I am not sold on, could also turn out to be "Pippen-esque," he has never had to carry a team for an extended period of time, but we will not know until he plays on a team without the Big Aristotle, Shaq. Michael and Shaq both made these players appear to be great, although Kobe is just now starting to understand how to play the supporting role. They way they do this is different from the way someone like Magic or Jason Kidd make someone look better with brilliant passing, but in their ability to attract so much attention that it opens up the court for everyone else. Is it any coincidence that Steve Kerr then and Robert Horry now shoot so many wide open threes? Kobe has never been double-teamed or the focus of a defensive game plan. This frees him up, like it did Pippen, to concentrate on defense when he has to and shut down the other team's star guards. Both Kobe and Pippen have excellent all-around games, because they know they do not have to carry the scoring load. As for the rest of the guys, it would be interesting to see a game between the Bulls and Lakers role players. I think I would give the edge to the Lakers, Robert Horry and Rick Fox are a bit better than the Bulls best role players, Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman, although if we were playing HORSE I would pick Steve Kerr. So, this would also have to be a draw.
Unstopability. This is hard. Shaq may have the Superman tattoo on his biceps, but he is really a lot more like the Fantastic Four villain Galactus, just slowly moving through the universe devouring everything in his path. A force no one can stop, unless Reed Richards suddenly takes up hoops. The argument is that Shaq commits offensive fouls on every possession, but in his defense, he is hammered and hit on every possession, so unless it is blatant, it all balances out. Michael is more like Batman, he is going to attack you physically and mentally. He is a ruthless competitor that will do whatever it takes to come out on top. I like Batman as much as the next guy, probably more, but I have got to go with Galactus. The dude devours planets and double teams, you can't beat that.
Crunch-time shots. The hands down winner here is Michael Jordan. He has done it so many times, I cannot even name them all, but the two best have to be the shot over Craig Ehlo in 1989 and the final shot against Byron Russell in the 1998 Finals. It is a lot harder for a big man to get the ball down the stretch, for a last second play because he can be effectively denied. There is also Shaq's less than quality free-throw shooting that led to the "Hack-a-Shaq" defense of putting him on the foul line. This is becoming less and less effective, as he gets better at hitting those shots, and you rarely see it used like it was in the mid 1990s. But when it comes to clutch shots, nobody beats Michael Jordan.
So, there you go, a couple of draws, and then one for each. This is an argument I would not have thought possible only two years ago, but Shaq is at the very least one of Michael's equals. Whereas Michael can only be compared to Dr. J, Magic, and Bird, Shaq can only be compared to Wilt, Bill Russell, and Kareem. Despite the fact Michael's movie career has been better than Shaq's, "Space Jam" v. "Kazaam!" is a no-brainer, I am going to say, because of his unequaled dominance, Shaquille O'Neal is the guy I would want to build my team around. In a draft, my pick is Shaq.
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