Top 50 NBA players from last 50 years: Shaquille O’Neal ranks No. 9

Editor’s Note: As part of a new series for his podcast, “What’s Wright with Nick Wright,” FOX Sports commentator Nick Wright is ranking the 50 best NBA players of the last 50 years. The countdown continues today with player No. 9, Shaquille O’Neal.

Shaquille O’Neal’s career highlights:

  • Three-time Finals MVP
  • 2000 league MVP
  • 15-time All-Star
  • Eight-time first-team All-NBA, two-time second team, four-time third team
  • Three-time All-Defensive second team
  • Two-time scoring champion
  • 10-time field-goal percentage leader
  • 1993 Rookie of the Year
  • Eighth on all-time scoring list

Shaquille O’Neal is the nickname king. The gigantic center with the outsized personality came up with countless monikers over the years — for others and himself.

One, in particular, stands out as it concerns his own playing career: M.D.E. (Most Dominant Ever).

It sprung up midway through his career, almost as if he knew he would not go down as the greatest player of all time and wanted to control the narrative. With that, was Shaq’s absolute best better than everyone else’s?

“You can have any player in NBA history for one game at his apex peak of his powers, who are you choosing?” Nick Wright said. “My answer is Shaquille O’Neal. Because as great as [Michael] Jordan was, as great as Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] was, as great as LeBron [James] was, even at their apex peak, they might have an off night. It’s unlikely, but they might have an off night. During Shaquille O’Neal’s apex peak, he never had an off night when he cared.”

Shaquille O’Neal is No. 9 on Nick Wright’s Top 50 NBA Players of the Last 50 Years

Shaquille O'Neal is No. 9 on Nick Wright's Top 50 NBA Players of the Last 50 Years

Shaq is widely regarded as one of the most dominant players in NBA history. He amassed a number of accolades throughout 19 seasons in the league, including Rookie of the Year and MVP honors. O’Neal won four NBA titles and was named Finals MVP three times.

That caveat at the end — when he cared — might seem convenient. But anyone who watched Shaq knows that he was prone to picking his spots throughout a prime that spanned more than a decade. What’s inarguable is that he was fully engaged in the 2000-02 postseasons, particularly in the Finals. 

And the 7-foot-1, 300-plus-pound giant was unstoppable.

Consider that Shaq’s quietest performance among 15 Finals games during the Lakers’ three-peat was 29 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks in the 2001 clincher versus the Sixers. His Finals averages during that stretch: 35.8 points, 15.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.9 blocks, 59.5% shooting, 44.3 minutes.

“Nobody can argue anyone’s ever been more dominant in the biggest moment than Shaq during those three years,” Wright said. 

His dominance does not begin or end there, of course. Shaq was thought to be a Dream Team snub before he entered the NBA, and his rookie year in Orlando proved as much. He was an All-Star starter and finished seventh in MVP voting after posting 23.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks a game at just 20 years old. No rookie has grabbed more rebounds in the past 50 years.

By Year 3, the nimble center had the Orlando Magic in the Finals after eliminating Jordan’s Bulls in the second round. And he was better than you might remember in the title round. It’s become folklore that Hakeem Olajuwon ran circles around a young Shaq in Houston’s sweep. The truth is, three of the four games were close, the Rockets’ supporting cast badly outplayed the Magic’s, and the superstar big men’s numbers were really similar (O’Neal: 28-13-6, three blocks, 60% shooting; Olajuwon: 33-12-6, two blocks, two steals, 48% shooting).

The real phenomenon that arose was Shaq’s teams continually getting swept in spite of his excellence. It happened five times in his first six playoff runs, with the trend initially following him to Los Angeles. He averaged 27 and 12 in those losses. The Lakers’ playoff fortunes would soon change, however, with their hire of Phil Jackson and development of Kobe Bryant.

“[Shaq] responds with what I believe to be the most dominant three-year stretch of any player in league history,” Wright said.

In 1999-2000, a better-conditioned Shaq played a career-high 40 minutes per game and averaged 30 and 14, won his second scoring title and came one MVP vote away from being the first unanimous selection. Those averages rose to 31 and 15 in the playoffs, boosted by five 40 and 10 games, and delivered a championship. 

“One of the most dominant start-to-finish playoff runs ever, but it’s not even his best,” Wright said. “His best will come next year.”

Shaq produced nearly identical numbers in 2000-01, yet the Lakers won 11 fewer games, wrongly costing him the MVP. In the playoffs, his 30 and 15 headed a 15-1 run and second title. The lone setback required overtime and Allen Iverson exploding for 48 points as the 76ers stole Game 1 of the Finals. Shaq went for 44 and 20, his third 40-20 output of a postseason that culminated in another Finals MVP.

He’d win a third straight in 2002, but only after the Lakers narrowly escaped the Kings in the conference finals. Down 3-2 in the series, Shaq tallied 76 points, 30 rebounds and six blocks over Games 6 and 7. Equally important, he hit 24 of 32 free throws as L.A. won both contests by slim margins before sweeping the Nets in the Finals. 

It felt like the Lakers couldn’t lose, and perhaps they wouldn’t have in the coming years if they continued going through Shaq on offense. As Bryant ascended, O’Neal’s usage gradually declined from his MVP season. During the ’03 playoffs, Kobe averaged nearly eight shots more than Shaq, and L.A. bowed out in the second round. While their illustrious partnership had begun to fray midway through the three-peat, it was completely fractured in the aftermath of Bryant’s sexual assault case. 

In 2003-04, Shaq led the NBA in field-goal percentage for the sixth time in seven years but averaged a mere 14 shots per game. The aging, disjointed Lakers rallied late in the season and ran through the West, making them heavy favorites in the Finals versus the Pistons. O’Neal showed up but was mostly alone. He put up 27 and 11 (on 63% shooting) for the series, including 36 and 20 in Game 4, as L.A. was beaten handily in five games.

A trade to the Heat rejuvenated O’Neal and made his Eastern Conference squad an instant title contender. He’d have a pair of strong seasons but was no longer the overpowering force in the postseason. The Heat couldn’t overcome an injury to Dwyane Wade in the 2005 conference finals. In 2006, Shaq had throwback performances in clinching Game 6s against the Bulls and Pistons, but Wade did the heavy lifting in Miami’s Finals win over the Mavericks. 

O’Neal hung on for a few more years with a few more teams and even earned a 15th All-Star bid at age 36 with the Suns. After 19 lively seasons, he ranks in the top 10 in points, offensive rebounds, blocks, field-goal percentage, free-throw attempts and player efficiency rating, and he places even higher in several postseason categories. His 58.2% career shooting mark is by far the highest for a 20-point scorer. 

Shaq averaged 28 and 12 over his 10-best seasons and 27 and 13 over his 10-best postseasons, which spans 155 games. In 25 of those playoff contests, he registered a Game Score (Basketball Reference’s catch-all metric) of at least 30. That trails only Jordan and James. 

What can’t be quantified but is obvious through 75 years of the NBA: O’Neal is one of one.

“There is no era in which Shaq would not be utterly dominant,” Wright said. “He did it against anyone and everyone. At his peak, no one could hold him under 35 and 15 a game.” 

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