ESPN just released it's list of the Top 10 Players of All-Time at each position, and though I went through and read each one as they came out — point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards — in reality it was all just leisurely interest while waiting for the moment of intrigue when the true litmus test of validity (at least for me, anyway) was released: the centers list.
Unfortunately, the ESPN list makes the exact same grave mistake I've seen too many of these types of rankings make in the past: They rank Shaquille O'Neal (4) higher than Hakeem Olajuwon (5).
While these lists are certainly subjective, and Shaq is undoubtedly an all-time great, it completely bewilders me how anyone that seriously looks at the careers of both in an unbiased and complete fashion can consider The Diesel above Dream. Olajuwon just has too many advantages.
Shaq was the more dominant post scorer, averaging 23.7 points per game to Olajuwon's 21.8 and winning two scoring titles to none for Dream, but Olajuwon was certainly the more complete package with much, much more nuance to his game.
Don't get it twisted, Shaq's agility in the post was both impressive and surprising for a man his size, but Olajuwon's versatility to score inside or out, high block or low block, combined with the now legendary array of post moves at his disposal, made Hakeem a much more total offensive player.
Whereas O'Neal never developed a reliable jump shot or a face-up game, both were integral parts of Olajuwon's repertoire. He could beat you with either if you were doubling (or tripling) him in the post. Shaq did what he did better than anybody - he was a routine leader in field goal percentage year-in, year-out - but Hakeem did everything.
Olajuwon was also a significantly better free throw shooter (71 percent lifetime), whose stroke got better as his career progressed (before tailing off his last couple seasons), suggesting he actually did things that just seemed foreign to Shaq... you know, like actually working on his shot.
In fact, O'Neal was so poor from the line (52.7 percent for his career and under 50 percent in 8 out of his 20 seasons), that he often needed benched down the stretch of tight games due to his inability to knock down the easiest shot in basketball.
How many other all-time greats were such a liability to their team in crunch time that they sometimes couldn't even afford to have him on the floor?
Both men were adept passers out of the post and were creative in using their presence to open up shots for their teammates. They both averaged 2.5 assists per game for their careers and got better during their primes, while tailing off towards the ends of their careers: the inevitable big man slide.
They're close on offense, though I take Hakeem's versatility and well-rounded skill over Shaq's one-dimensional brute scoring. Defensively, however, the gap is even wider.
Olajuwon is the all-time NBA leader in blocked shots with 3,830, which is a full 1,100 blocks more than O'Neal's 2,732 while playing in two less seasons than Shaq (18 to 20).
Hakeem lead the league in blocked shots three times (0 times for Shaq) and went on a seven-year tear from '88-'95 that saw him average 4.0 blocks per game. O'Neal has only averaged over 3.0 blocks per game two times in his career, and his high point of 3.5 was achieved during his rookie season.
Olajuwon ranks eighth all-time in the NBA in steals with 2,162, which dwarfs O'Neal's career total of 739, and makes him the only full-time center in the top 50 all-time in that category.
Olajuwon averaged over 2.0 steals per game five different times in his career and averaged below 1.0 steal per game only a single time in 18 seasons. Shaq never once averaged over 1.0 steal per game.
Olajuwon was also the better rebounder with 13,747 (11.1 per game) for his career to O'Neal's 13,099 (10.9).
Dream lead the league in rebounding in two consecutive years from '89-'90, while Shaq never won a rebounding title. In fact, after starting out his career strong on the boards, O'Neal's rebounding dropped off inversely proportionate to his weight gain.
In addition, Olajuwon's top-flight athleticism allowed him to defend any player on the court, even guards, with effectiveness. He was an elite one-on-one defender and his quickness made him both an effective pick and roll and help defender as well.
O'Neal's strength and power made him a sturdy obstacle one-on-one, and his sheer size meant for a high intimidation factor in protecting the rim, but it also hindered his help and pick and roll D. He was simply too big to be effective.
Both players' careers were littered with numerous awards and accolades. Shaq nabbed 1x MVP, 3x Finals MVP, 14x All-NBA selection (1st, 2nd & 3rd team combined), 15x All-Star, 3x All-Defense, and was named to the NBA 50th Anniversary Team.
Olajuwon was a 1x MVP, 2x Finals MVP, 12x All-NBA, 12x All-Star, 5x All-Defense, 2x Defensive Player of the Year and was also named to the 50th Anniversary Team.
Both also found team success, with Shaq nabbing four titles, to Olajuwon's two, but it's important to note that Hakeem was not afforded the luxury of a prime Kobe Bryant or a prime Dwyane Wade on any of his trophy quests.
Anyway, the awards are almost too much to quantify... there's a lot. For both.
But where Dream really separates himself, besides being a more complete offensive player (though not a better pure scoring machine), a not-even-close better defender, and better rebounder, is his work ethic.
A young, African immigrant who didn't even pick up a basketball until the age of 16 parlayed his freakish athleticism into professional NBA success through years of hard work and refinement to his game. Which he continued to to refine even into his later years.
I'll never forget the Robert Horry quote in regards to the famous Dream performance against David Robinson in the '95 Playoffs.
"Those moves Dream had put on David? We had never seen those before. It was like he had been in a lab somewhere working on those secretly."
O'Neal, on the other hand, will always be known as a guy who could've done more had he only fully committed himself to the work required to expand other aspects of his game. Instead, he often showed up for camp overweight and out-of-shape and sometimes used large chunks of the year just to play the weight off.
Had he only developed a reliable secondary offensive game, or worked harder on his free throws, or ever came in light enough to be a better team defender, we could easily be talking about the best ever. By placing him above Olajuwon, it's rewarding squandered potential over a player who maximized his, while simultaneously weighing pure scoring higher than every other facet of basketball combined. It's just not logical.
Horry had another great quote, and it's pertinent here, because he was lucky enough to play with Olajuwon, O'Neal and Tim Duncan, all in their primes.
"Each guy's great in a different way. Out of all three, I still have to stick with Dream, because he had so much game. He could shoot it from the outside like Tim. He could power inside like Shaq. Besides, his free throws were better."
For the record, my (also completely subjective) list looks like this, top 5 only:
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
2. Hakeem Olajuwon
3. Wilt Chamberlain
4. Bill Russell
5. Shaquille O'Neal
I would personally be okay with the first three in any order, as they are the most complete packages on both ends of the court this game has seen.
Russell and O'Neal are in a clear second tier for me, as even though they were both elite in some areas, they both also had big holes in their game. I also do have some doubts whether or not Russell's game would translate over into modern times - he was only 6'9", and all those titles were won in an era when there were anywhere from only 8-14 teams - but that's pure speculation and conjecture.
What do you think? Hit us here at TDS in the comments with your top 5. Or your top 10.