Next time Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley deride the current NBA for shooting too many threes and lacking dominant centers, instead of sarcastically mocking their antiquated standards for style of play, we should maybe credit the former for what we’re watching. He deserves as much credit for it as just about anyone. Crazy, right?
Think back to those years Shaq was forcing teams to employ an extra seven-footer just to absorb six extra fouls. The adjustments evolved from that tactic to actually designing rosters in ways to hopefully make up for the few shortcomings O’Neal did have on a basketball court. Namely: handling the pick-and-roll defensively and bigs whose ability to shoot forced Shaq away from the key.
Looking at you, Sacramento Kings.
Those Kings teams are arguably the most popular team among NBA Twitter and helped plant the seeds for the three-happy, pace-and-space style of play we love watching nowadays. Even the seven seconds or less Suns employed Shaq after years of trying to speed the game up enough to combat his physical dominance. The Spurs didn’t have to make as drastic an adjustment, but that’s mostly because they had that Duncan guy.
When Shaq says the dominant center is a thing of the past, it’s mostly due to his presence. Again, look at those western conference foes. Vlade Divac (Kings), Arvidas Sabonis (Blazers), Amare Stoudamire (Suns) and Duncan (Spurs — yes, I’m counting him as a center) all embodied some aspect of the current NBA center. Teams like the then New Jersey Nets and The Sixers that tried to employ big, stiff, unskilled centers who couldn’t use Shaq’s size against him on the other end didn’t stand a chance against those Lakers teams, as evidenced by the single combined game won against him in two finals series.
Yes, I could very easily just credit those teams for building their rosters as such and the evolution of the center for what it was, but do those advancements happen if Shaq’s dominance didn’t just happen to occur right before they took place? Seems like a fair question to ask.
Years of such roster construction as we saw with those aforementioned teams in a copycat league leads to more and more teams acquiring that style of play without really knowing the root of the reason for doing so: A seven-foot, 270 pound behemoth with agility and touch around the basket that felt consistently unfair.
It makes it all the funnier when people ask how today’s teams would’ve faired against those three-peat Lakers. Well, we saw rule changes and a drastic shift in the centric point of offensive schemes thanks largely in part to that era of the Lakers, so I’d imagine it’s pretty safe to say that, if the game was played with the rules of that era, teams would struggle.
Conversely, it’s just as fair to say that those Laker teams would also struggle with today’s rules against, say, the Warriors, because the formation of their roster came from an evolution nearly two decades in the making. That lineup of Steph, Klay, Iggy, Durant and Draymond (holy crap, that lineup) is the culmination of said evolution. Interestingly enough, one could argue very easily that Shaq, himself, was the fully-evolved form of the era of basketball centered on getting the ball as close as possible to the basket for, the game’s most efficient shot: A Shaquille O’Neal slamdunk.
So, instead of waxing poetic about the years of yore, dominated by giants and post play, Shaq could instead credit himself for what we get to enjoy today. It isn’t like Shaq struggles to do so for other stuff, anyway, right? Enjoy your day, big guy. You deserve, somehow more than many might think.