In something that should come as no surprise to anyone who watched even a shred of Rockets basketball in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Shaquille O’Neal made a recent appearance on Sunday TODAY and was asked to list his all-time starting five, and he listed Hakeem Olajuwon as his starting center alongside Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Karl Malone.
It’s an immense show of respect from a guy not always known for respecting his competition (anyone remember the racially-tinged Yao Ming comments?), though to be fair, Shaq almost always referred to Hakeem as one of his idols throughout his career.
It’s important to note this, because I have this argument fairly often with basketball talking heads and other writers (yay Twitter) who often list Shaq ahead of Olajuwon historically, because when asked about himself, the Big Diesel replied, “No, I’m not first team. Not at all,” which is the correct answer in this writer’s opinion.
Despite Shaq’s obvious dominance as a post scorer (simply unstoppable), he’s often overrated overall by those who grew up watching him in his prime due to his over-sized personality and thunderous dunks. Remember, during his prime, Shaq didn’t compete against a single other all-time elite center in their prime. The closest was Yao, who was from the school of very, very good.
It’s also important to note that O’Neal had some very quantifiable weaknesses in his game. He never won a rebounding or a blocks title, he couldn’t hit a free throw to save his life, he had no game to speak of whatsoever outside of the painted area, and while he was serviceable as a one-on-one defender because of his size, he was essentially useless as team defender and off the pick-and-roll due to his lack of lateral quickness. He also often showed up out of shape and missed a ridiculous amount of games after the 2004 season.
I simply can’t agree with those rating Shaq that high when he had so many obvious weaknesses in his game. No amount of Sportscenter highlights of him dunking on the Todd MacCullochs, Vlade Divacs and the should-have-long-been-retired-by-now David Robinsons in the playoffs can change all of those shortcomings.
I don’t have to rewrite Hakeem’s plethora of accomplishments here at The Dream Shake, for goodness sake, but I will just say he’s the single greatest defensive force the modern game has ever seen. The only other possible equal on that end was Bill Russell, but the era he played in skews his reputation slightly, while Dream was doing it in the greatest era of prime centers in NBA history.
All-time leader in blocks, top 10 in steals (as a center, a simply incredible statistic), and the all-time leader in “stocks” (steals plus blocks). You can read more about stocks here in this piece I wrote a few years ago. He also has two rebounding titles, led the league in blocks three times, led the league in defensive plus-minus three times and defensive win shares four times. Add on his nine All-Defense selections and his two Defensive Player of the Year awards, and Dream simply has no equal on that end of the court.
And that’s without even getting into his contributions on the offensive end, which redefined the center position for multiple generations and has modern players still seeking out his tutelage on the intricacies of post play and footwork.
In this writer’s opinion, the only other center that could possibly be considered for the starting five is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I love Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, but again, their era slightly skews their accomplishments.
Dream is the right pick, y’all. You should listen to Shaq. His interview will be airing this Sunday.
Just for S&G (shits and giggles for the uninitiated), here’s my all-time starting five and my top five centers.
All-time Starting Five:
PG: Magic Johnson
SG: Michael Jordan
SF: Larry Bird
PF: Tim Duncan
C: Hakeem Olajuwon
Top 5 Centers:
- Hakeem Olajuwon
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
- Wilt Chamberlain
- Shaquille O’Neal
- Bill Russell