As players and personalities, Shaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar couldn’t be much different. Different eras. Different styles. Different games. Even with so much that makes them difficult to compare — the difference in eras, the unique careers — there is so much that pulls them together.
At his prime, Shaq was an unstoppable force that may never be seen again in the NBA. But most would argue his prime didn’t last as long as it should’ve, and by the end, he was only a role player. Kareem maintained greatness for longer yet perhaps never reached O’Neal’s dominating summit. So today, we’re arguing which player you’d rather have: Shaq or Kareem? We argue. You decide.
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The NBA has never seen a force like Shaquille O’Neal and there will never be another player that can dominate a game like The Big Aristotle. Wait, why is he called The Big Aristotle in the first place? We have an explanation for that, as Shaq once said during his MVP acceptance speech in 2000, “For all my friends in the media who like quotes, mark this quote down. From this day on I’d like to be known as The Big Aristotle because Aristotle once said, ‘Excellence is not a singular act; it’s a habit. You are what you repeatedly do.'”
When I talked with Elton Brand recently, he talked about the dominance of Shaq, saying, “but Shaq, that just wasn’t even fair. That guy was just incredible.” Brand also went on to tell me that Shaq was the “most unstoppable force he had ever seen”. There aren’t many players that can step on the same court with Shaq, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of them.
Over 20 NBA seasons, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the most decorated players to ever step on the hardwood, collecting 19 All-Star appearances in his 20 seasons (missing only 1978), six NBA MVPs and two NBA Finals MVPs, to go along with his six NBA championship rings. Abdul-Jabbar boasts career numbers of 24.6 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. KAJ is one of the best centers to ever play the game, no one can argue that. However, there is also no argument that Shaq is THE best center to ever play the game, which is where this argument stops.
But, before we discuss that, it’s important to bring up the animosity between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal. The Big Diesel claims to have never formed a relationship with KAJ while in Los Angeles and put himself and George Mikan as the greatest centers in Lakers history.
Shaq was dominating the NBA when there was no short supply of 7-0 bruisers. There was David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, plus many more. Despite all these future Hall of Famers that Shaq was playing against, he is still the name that rings true when talking about the most dominant big man of this time period and of all time. He is the reason the Orlando Magic have a decorated history and played a large part in the Hall of Fame career of Kobe Bryant.
Shaq literally changed the game with his own hands. If you remember from his days with the Orlando Magic, his most famous highlights were the ones of him smashing putback dunks while also bringing the rim down with him. The dunks that forced the NBA to upgrade the material of their backboards to the ones we see today, that can no longer be shattered. The NBA had been around for quite a long time and the backboards didn’t have to be changed until Diesel arrived, that’s saying something about his brute strength and power.
Even though Shaq will be remembered for his days with the Lakers, his first four seasons with the Magic are nothing to forget about. Shaq was the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1992-1993 with the Magic, which would be the first of many trophies that would fill his walls. In his four seasons in Orlando, O’Neal averaged 27.2 points, 12.5 rebounds, 2.8 steals and 3.0 blocks per game. More importantly than the numbers, Shaq was the leader of a team that featured players like Penny Hardaway, Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott and Horace Grant. In just four short years with the Magic, Shaq brought Orlando to the conference finals twice and the NBA Finals in 1995. The NBA Finals trip in 1995 featured one of O’Neal’s best seasons when he averaged 29.3 points and 11.4 rebounds. All of that is impressive, but nothing on what the big fella would do in the City of Angels.
Shaquille O’Neal won three championships with the Los Angeles Lakers in three years, along with three NBA Finals MVPs. The Big Diesel was also named League MVP in the 1999-2000 season. In eight seasons in Los Angeles, O’Neal averaged 27.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.8 steals and 3.0 blocks per game. After Shaq’s four season in Orlando, there was no doubt he would become a Hall of Fame player. However, his eight seasons with the Lakers truly immortalized Shaquille O’Neal as a legend. In ten years, when the NBA is still being dominated by flashy handles and perimeter shooting, Shaq will stand out even more. When I show my future son game footage of Shaquille O’Neal, he will understand what a true dominant force is, no matter how many rings LeBron James has by then.
It’s hard to see Shaq being any more dominant with his career numbers, but imagine if he actually knocked down his free throws? How does Shaq explain his poor shooting from the free throw line (53 percent for his career)? He once said, “So me shooting 40 percent at the foul line is just God’s way of saying that nobody’s perfect. If I shot 90 percent from the line, it just wouldn’t be right.”
Every player has his kryptonite and the free throw line was O’Neal’s. Even with his consistent failure at the line, it’s amazing what he was able to accomplish. Think of all the teams that were forced to foul Shaq and send him to the line. The countless and-ones and trips to the free throw line and still, Shaq is one of the best to ever lace his shoes up. If Shaq hits even 70 to 80 percent of his free throws during his career, he could have possibly been better than the distinction of basketball greatness, Michael Jordan. KAJ and Shaq have similar career numbers, but KAJ was a better free throw shooter at 72 percent for his career. Yet, Abdul-Jabbar only averaged 24.6 points over his career, compared to 23.7 for O’Neal, who was much worse at the line.
Abdul-Jabbar may have O’Neal edged out in NBA championships, but Shaq has one more Finals MVP than Kareem. Besides all of that, no one can deny that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was playing with a squad loaded with future Hall of Fame players during his title runs, including players like Oscar Robertson, James Worthy, Magic Johnson and Bob McAdoo. The only players Shaq won rings with that will be in the Hall of Fame are arguably Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. While KAJ’s title-winning teams could have won without him, the Lakers and the Heat would not have captured NBA championships without O’Neal. Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant are future Hall of Fame players, but their trophy case would be missing a few championships without the help of the Big Diesel.
If we want to keep talking rings, since that’s the popular argument these days, then let’s talk about the state of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during his last two championships. Abdul-Jabbar didn’t win his last two rings until he was 39 and 40 years old and not even close to the best player on his team in Los Angeles. During the championship run in 1987, KAJ averaged a mere 17.6 points and 6.7 rebounds. In the playoffs that season, KAJ averaged 19.8 points and 6.8 rebounds. His last championship in 1988, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 14.6 points and 6.0 rebounds in the regular season and 14.1 points and 5.5 rebounds in the playoffs. These last two championship teams were carried by Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Byron Scott, who all saw the floor for close to 40 minutes per game in the postseason, compared to a slim 30 minutes for Abdul-Jabbar. People are quick to discuss rings when talking about greatness, but often forget that rings are a team accomplishment. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the bulk of his rings when he was a third or fourth option on a team smothered in future Hall of Famers. His team would have won the rings with or without an aging KAJ, while Shaq’s championship teams would have never raised a banner without his dominance.
All in all, the simple fact is that the NBA has never seen such a dominate force like Shaquille O’Neal and it never will. In the video below, Shaq says, “I’m like the last coming of Wilt, because after me there will be no more.” It’s hard to argue with that, because with the league evolving around jump shots and guard play, the league will never see a dominate force in the paint like Shaquille O’Neal — career numbers of 24.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game are the definition of greatness.
During his four NBA champion runs, O’Neal averaged 27.0 points and 13.3 rebounds in the playoffs, including two 30 and 15 playoff averages during his two rings in ’00 and ’01. For his six NBA championship runs, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar averaged 22.4 points and 9.7 rebounds in the playoffs. KAJ never had a playoff run with 30 and 15 and four of his NBA championship runs saw him average less than 10 rebounds. The true definition of a champion is what they do in the playoffs and this is where Shaquille O’Neal asserts his dominance over Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem was one of the best centers to play the game, but Shaq was on another level that may never be reached again.