Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 2, 2011

Better Late Than Never, Shaq Takes A Seat

On Wednesday Shaquille O’Neal, always as much showman as basketball star, used his popular Twitter feed to announce he was ending the latter of those two careers. Given that he has almost 4 million followers, it didn’t take long for the word to get around. As it did, fans of the Boston Celtics, the sixth and last stop on O’Neal’s peripatetic journey through the NBA, probably breathed a sigh of relief.

There’s no understating the enormous accomplishments of the big man’s career; or ignoring the fact that for better or very possibly worse, in the second half of that career he was a really, really, big man. Drafted by Orlando as the first overall pick in the 1992 draft, O’Neal was the 1993 Rookie of the Year and the first rookie named to the NBA All-Star team since Michael Jordan. He set what would ultimately prove to be career highs in rebounds and blocks per game. By his third season he was leading the league in scoring as he the Magic went to the NBA Finals, where he personally matched up evenly against the great Hakeem Olajuwon even as Houston swept Orlando.

After four seasons in Florida O’Neal became a free agent and decamped to the West Coast, signing a 7-year, $121 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. He continued to set personal milestones, including leading the NBA with a 58.4 field goal percentage in the 1997-98 season, the first of five consecutive years that he would be the game’s most accurate shooter. But it was not until Phil Jackson became the Lakers’ head coach in 1999 that the team became dominant. Jackson was able to devise an offensive scheme that brought out the best in both O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Together the two superstars led the Lakers to three successive NBA titles in 2000, 2001, and 2002, with O’Neal being named the MVP of the Finals all three years.

It was after the first championship that O’Neal, who as a rookie weighed less than 300 pounds, decided he had to bulk up to counter the pushing and shoving in the paint from some of the NBA’s larger centers. In the second half of his career he would at times weigh as much as 375, and played mostly at around 350. While the extra weight ensured that he wasn’t going to be pushed around underneath the basket, it sapped him of the quickness and mobility that were the hallmarks of the younger Shaq. It also likely contributed to the series of injuries, especially to his lower body, that robbed him of playing time throughout the remainder of his career.

This is not to say that he couldn’t still perform. By 2004 the personal rivalry between O’Neal and Bryant essentially forced Lakers management to choose one or the other. They chose the younger Bryant, sending O’Neal back east to the Miami Heat. There he won a fourth ring in 2006, when O’Neal again led the league in shooting percentage. But as the years wore on, Shaq increasingly became a role player, no longer the dominant big man around whom one would build a team. From Miami he moved on to Phoenix and then to Cleveland, adopting a new nickname and always entertaining the fans at every stop, even as his skills eroded.

Finally last August the Celtics surprised their fans by announcing that they had signed O’Neal to a 2-year deal at the NBA’s minimum salary for veterans. Dubbing himself the “Big Shamroq” O’Neal brought his big smile and open personality to New England, even appearing in a tux to guest conduct the Boston Pops. What he didn’t bring was a whole lot of game. At various times during the season he was unavailable due to knee, hip, calf, and Achilles injuries. Meanwhile Celtics fans, already worried about their aging Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, were asking, “two years?”

Then in February general manager Danny Ainge traded away Kendrick Perkins, relying on the team’s two O’Neal’s, Shaq and fellow veteran Jermaine, to take over the popular center’s role down the stretch and through the playoffs. Unfortunately that never happened. Shaq returned for just a single regular season game in April, playing just five minutes before suffering yet another injury. He was in street clothes for the first round of the playoffs and played just twelve minutes in two games as Miami eliminated Boston in round two.

The 15-time All-Star retires with 28,596 points, fifth on the all-time list behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Wilt Chamberlain. As soon as he is eligible he will no doubt join them in the Hall of Fame. When that day comes Celtics fans will join the rest of the league’s partisans in saluting Shaquille O’Neal’s career. But given that his one season in green was the only year in that career that O’Neal averaged fewer than 10 points, fewer than five rebounds, and fewer than one assist per game, they will also be really, really glad that the big guy had the decency to walk away from year two.

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