Who’s Better: Shaq or Pau Gasol?

08.21.09 9 years ago 58 Comments
Shaq vs. Gasol

Shaq vs. Gasol

We argue. You decide.

SHAQUILLE O’NEAL (by A. Burton)
November 2008: “Shaq has never truly gotten the credit he deserves for what he’s accomplished on the court and what he’s meant to the game. There was a good 6-7 year stretch (arguably much longer) where Shaq was the most problematic force in basketball. Like Lawrence Taylor did in the NFL, Shaq in his prime altered game plans and made teams create new strategies (Hack-a-Shaq, stockpiling not-so-talented bigs just to have fouls available, etc.) to deal with him. And inexplicably, he only has one League MVP to show for it.”

Nine months later, I still believe every word I wrote in that paragraph. But in that same column, I missed one mark:

“The Shaq-haters are loving this current phase of his career, where the big man is good for a single-digit scoring night at least once a week and is basically a role player.”

Wrong. The truth is, I can’t see an NBA in which Shaq is merely a role player.

No matter how old, slow, fat or disinterested in the game he gets, one thing has never wavered with Shaq: You ALWAYS have to game-plan for him. Even at 37, going into his 18th season, he’s a force that must be accounted for on every possession. Defending him one-on-one is still an invitation for disaster. He isn’t an automatic 30-and-13 anymore, but ask Toronto (45 points) or Milwaukee (35 pts) if he’s a role player. Better yet, ask Pau Gasol, who saw Shaq score 33 on the Lakers last March. For all the talk that Diesel (17.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg) is running on fumes, he managed an All-NBA nod and an All-Star co-MVP in ’08-09, at worst the second-best season of any center after Dwight Howard.

Gasol had a career year, and while in his prime at 29, he’s yet to surpass Shaq. Lakers’ opponents are definitely concerned about Gasol, but he doesn’t spark that panic and sense of helplessness like Shaq still can. The tactics employed to contain Shaq have to go beyond “Be physical with him and hope he wilts” — the general rule for Gasol.

Some will put Gasol ahead of Shaq using the same rationale Kobe used to rank himself ahead of Shaq when they were teammates: That Shaq isn’t as complete of a player. Therein lies another area where Shaq has been underappreciated. His arsenal of post moves, passing, defense (except on the pick-and-roll, I’ll give you that), basketball IQ and handle gets overshadowed by the raw power and size, but don’t be mistaken: Shaq is and always has been a very good ballplayer, not some Black Godzilla who happens to play ball.

This isn’t fantasy: If you’re building a team to contend for a championship in 2010 and you need a big, Shaq cracks the top four: Dwight, Duncan and Garnett are the only ones you’d consider taking before him. And as good as Pau Gasol is, he’s not that good yet.

Pau Gasol

Pau Gasol

PAU GASOL (by Ben York)
Pau Gasol and Shaquille O’Neal are two vastly different players that couldn’t be further apart physically or mentally. However, they do have similar roles on their respective teams which allows for a legitimate comparison of their worth as players.

Both Pau and Shaq are looked at to fit seamlessly in their team’s offensive and defensive schemes; the Lakers and Cavs need them both to score the ball at a high percentage in the post, get to the foul line, rebound, and defend the interior.

In Pau’s case, it’s probably more of him being a perfect fit in the triangle offense that makes him so valuable. The triangle offense centers around the construction of mismatches and isolations from an initial entry pass into the low-post which leads to the creation of a 2-man game on the weak side and a 3-man game on the strong side. However, it all starts with the ability and effectiveness of the player in the post. Pau is certainly an extremely gifted fundamental post player and uses exceptional footwork and timing to create his shots.

Shaq, on the other hand, was a perfect fit for the triangle just because of his sheer size. He created frequent mismatches and isolations due to his massive body, and still does today in any offense that he’s involved in. He’s also a good passer out of the post which allowed the Laker’s triangle offense to be so deadly.

Still, if I had to choose which player I’d rather have on my team I’d take Gasol without hesitation.

Probably Pau’s greatest asset is that he gives Kobe Bryant full control of the team. He’s not known for being tough, physical, or even a great defender for that matter, but he gets the job done and integrates surprisingly well at any point in the game. More importantly, he allows the game to come to him rather than Shaq’s conscious need to be a focal point in the offense throughout the game. This allows Kobe the freedom to do whatever the hell he wants (or is needed) on the basketball court, which as we all know, has been a very good thing for the Lakers.

At times, though, the Lakers have needed Pau to step up either his scoring output or his defensive front, and he has accepted those tasks each time. It certainly helps that the Lakers are, collectively, a very good defensive team but Pau has proven to be a much better defender in the post than he was when he first became a Laker. Offensively, he’s shot over 57% from the floor in his time in Los Angeles and takes about 12 shots a game making around 7 of them. Those numbers allow for Kobe to take his much needed shots but also leaves enough opportunities for Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, and the rest of the Lakers role players.

With Bynum looking to take a much more active role in the Lakers’ future, we could see a small decrease in Gasol’s numbers. However, I’d expect Pau to be more than willing to sacrifice individual accolades for the betterment of the team — something that Shaq has never truly adapted to.

Who do you think is better?

Follow Ben York on Twitter: @bjyork
Follow Austin Burton on Twitter: @AustinatDIMEmag
Follow DIME on Twitter: @DIMEMag

“Who’s better?” archives
8/19 — Andre Iguodala vs. Rudy Gay
8/14 — Ray Allen vs. Michael Redd
8/12 — Steve Nash vs. Jason Kidd
3/3 — David West vs. LaMarcus Aldridge
2/26 — Kevin Durant vs. Danny Granger
2/19 — Paul Millsap vs. David Lee
2/17 — Caron Butler vs. Tayshaun Prince
12/24 — Marcus Camby vs. Andrew Bynum
12/19 — Deron Williams vs. Chauncey Billups
12/17 — Manu Ginobili vs. Tracy McGrady
12/12 — Amare Stoudemire vs. Al Jefferson
12/10 — Dirk Nowitzki vs. Chris Bosh
12/9 — Derrick Rose vs. O.J. Mayo
12/8 — Rasheed Wallace vs. Elton Brand
12/5 — Kevin Martin vs. Vince Carter
12/4 — Brandon Roy vs. Joe Johnson
12/3 — Dwight Howard vs. Yao Ming
12/2 — Paul Pierce vs. Carmelo Anthony

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