On June 1st, 2011, Shaquille O'Neal announced his retirement, ending the career of one of the best big men the game has ever seen... and clearly one of the greats of his generation.
But was he the best big man of his generation? There are those that would - without hesitation - point to Tim Duncan as holding that honorific. This is a debate that's been ongoing pretty much since they both hit the floor. Hell, we covered it here 2 and a half years ago...
This, is perhaps one of the greatest questions facing mankind. Well, at least those of us interested in basketball! So I posed this task to a number of august writers in the field of basketball.:
Well, now that Shaq's retired, and Timmy's a shell of what he once was - basically a run down on who you think was the better big man of the generation: Shaq or Timmy (and a side-consideration on that, what do you consider Tim Duncan to be - a PF or a C?). On whatever basis you choose, make your choice, and support that choice with whatever arguments you see fit.Involved in the ensuing discussion:
Matt Moore - CBS Sports & Hardwood Paroxysm
College Wolf - T-Wolves Blog
Ezra Padua - The Purple and Gold Blog
Scott/TBF - With Malice
John Karalis - Red's Army & Crossover Chronicles
Jeff Clark - Celtics Blog
Jeff Fox - Hoops Manifesto
Rob/Brumbygg - With Malice
Michael De Leon - Project Spurs
So let's get to it, and then post all this, let's get to it in the comments section!
Matt Moore, CBS Sports & Hardwood Paroxysm
The question essentially boils down to whether popularity matters. If we're looking at impact, statesmanship, role, proficiency, all-around efficiency, and what he gave his team night in and night out, it's Duncan. But Duncan wasn't the cultural phenomenon. His highlights aren't played over and over again. He never broke the backboard, nailed the oop dunk and ran down like Oprah had given him a car, never gave the postgame pressers or dropped his own nicknames. Duncan just won, and produced, and worked. None of this is new information.
But in the framing of sports relevance and legacy, isn't popularity important? Shouldn't the fact that Shaq was in "Blue Chips" and a 311 video and did the "Kobe ass taste" rap and everything else weigh in? If we're talking about this in the strictest of terms, an athlete's job is to entertain, and Duncan entertained the peaceful sleep of the bored more often than not. Don't take this as a slant. Duncan shouldn't be punished for his quiet consistency any more than Shaq should be punished for being great television.
But we're remiss if we overlook how deeply Shaq penetrated the global consciousness, how far he spread the idea of an NBA star as a celebrity. No one before or since really crossed over culturally the way Shaq did. Jordan crossed over as a brand, but his personality was glass, or maybe more effectively diamond. All you saw was the shine and the hardened exterior. Shaq you saw the full weight of the clown prince, the impact of his dominance, the shadow of his identity on a global scale.
Duncan was just a silhouette who passed through, and you had to really, really look at it to see how beautiful it was.
So yes, Shaq had the better career; yes, his impact was greater; yes, he will be remembered more. But if we forget what Duncan could do with his range, with his variety of beginning and ending moves (the things which verify him as a power forward), if we lose sight of the memory of all those hits from the hammer that the quote in the Spurs locker room talks about, we've forgotten what made Duncan great. And losing sight of that blinds us from his epic statue that stands in the landscape of professional basketball.
It depends on how you look on it, but you'd better look fast and look close. We'll never see anything like either of them ever again.
College Wolf, T-Wolves Blog
Revisiting this debate two and a half years later, I still think the answer to the question has got to be Shaq. He was overwhelmingly my selection in 2009, and despite the fact that he's played about half as many games as Duncan since then, he still gets my vote. What has changed since we first had this discussion? The answer is nothing, really. So how can you pick Duncan over one of the best, and most dominant big men of all time? I don't see how you can. They both still have four championships, and Shaq still has greater raw stats in almost every category. While he has played about 150 more career regular season games than Duncan, it's deceiving considering he's played the past few seasons as a shell of his former self, at the ages of 37-39 years old. He added basically nothing to his career numbers, while Duncan has played at a decently high level at "only" the ages of 33-35 years old.
Duncan has made two less All-Star games than Shaq, but has one more MVP award (although we all know Shaq got completely hosed when Nash "won" it.) Really, these guys are two of the best big men of all-time, although Shaq was more dominant and physically imposing during his prime. He was quite literally, unstoppable. Duncan is great in his own right and considered the better all-around player, but you can't really say the same thing about him being a whirlwind unstoppable force during his career, like Shaq was.
With these two guys, I don't know how you can definitively rank them since they are so close in terms of basketball greatness and overall success. So in that regard, I think there is a large degree of personal preference that comes into play here. Do you like power and brute force? Or precision and artistry? I think the general populace would most likely pick Duncan, as he's had much better stats the past 2.5 years (but the age and health of the two players most definitely needs to be considered!) Regardless of that, you simply cannot discount the utter dominance of Shaq during his career, all the way up until he won his fourth title.
Perhaps Basketball-Reference.com can settle this debate once and for all? Taking everything into consideration, they list Shaquille O'Neal as the #14 best player in the history of the NBA, which is ranked #1 amongst anyone that played in the NBA through last season. How does Tim Duncan compare? B-R has him listed at #21 and #4, respectively.
P.S. Lastly, regarding whether Duncan was a PF or C, I do not entirely know how you can answer that. I mean, as far as I can tell he could pretty much interchangeably play either position. I guess it probably just depends on what position the other Spurs big man on the court with him was more comfortable in playing; as well as who Duncan was matched up against from the opposition during any particular game.
Ezra Padua - The Purple and Gold Blog
First of, yes, Duncan is a power forward simply because his game fits the mold of a power forward more than that of a center.
It's absurd to some, but I don't really see the problem of comparing Tim Duncan to Shaquille O'Neal. Both are dominant frontcourt players who happen to have the same amount of championship rings, Finals MVP trophies and, more importantly, played in the same era.
Duncan is obviously the more well-rounded basketball player in terms of fundamentals and skills. He could score in the low block or from 17 feet with his signature bank shot. He can pass, block shots, rebound and has one of the highest IQ for a big man ever.
But I will have to go with the one and only Shaq on this one. O'Neal may not be anywhere a precision tool as Tim is but count how many bigs in NBA history who can, not only dominate games the way he could, but also make the guy defending him look as helpless as anyone trying to stop a Mack truck from backing up.
You have a better chance of preventing any of Tim's go-to moves than stopping Shaq from getting deep into the lane and throwing down one of his two-handed backboard-shattering dunks. Duncan has more ways to score the ball, but Shaq scored more points per game than Tim because of his unstoppable power game. O'Neal is superior in strength, agility and athleticism compared to Duncan. He's also the better defender, shot-blocker, rebounder and never complained about having to defend the centers in the league.
Scott/TBF - With Malice
I have to say this is one of the few topics I cannot divert from by using semantics in order to talk about how the two things are non-related. First fact; both Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal are big men. Fact two; both played as big men, not as range big men ala Bill Laimbeer or, for extreme purposes, Andrea Bargnani.
Fact three; both big men were dominant in such a manner that both could take over a game simply as they willed it.
I guess my contention then becomes "are TD and Shaq from the same generation?"
I see Shaq as the heir apparent to the golden era of big men, succeeding the likes of Robinson, Olajuwon, Ewing, Mutombo, and Smits even though all four of those players would continue to play for the next four or five seasons at a reasonably high level. Duncan however, made his entrance to the NBA stage in 1998, 6 years after O'Neal and by which time O'Neal was unquestionably the dominant big in the game. O'Neal also got caught in the "Jordan era" of the NBA, whilst Duncan came in as Jordan was exiting stage right for the second time (and even though he would return in a Wizards uniform, it wouldn't even be mildly the same).
However, (and expect to see however written a lot as there are so many counter arguments within this topic it isn't funny...) Duncan took only two seasons to haul in O'Neal and end up with a Championship ring. I'll never forget the perplexed look on O'Neals face when the Spurs defeated them, nor will I forget the commentary of the people of the time who were ready to proclaim Duncan the most dominant big in the NBA. But that was too premature – as O'Neal would remind everyone the next three years running.
So here is my contention – up until 2002, Shaq was unquestionably the most dominant big in the modern game (if we define the modern game as post-Jordan). But post-2002, when many would argue that Shaq momentarily lost interest, Duncan assumed the position of most dominant big man, irrespective of position played, as he carved oppositions to pieces. Duncan was a matchup nightmare as his post-passing was probably the best seen since... Well... Shaq!!!
I'm not going to get into numbers because I feel that different coaches, different surroundings, and different personalities influenced both their numbers. As well as injuries in the case of Shaq.
However, I will note the following; when it came to win time – Duncan was the man. Sure Shaq could turn it up a gear but I personally believe that no one, even now, ups their game come playoffs like TD. He lives for that time of year, he's ready for that time of year, and he knows what he has to do come that time of year. Duncans regular season vs post season numbers reflect this as well – when playoff and Finals time comes, Duncan clicks up a gear in all facets of his game. Not one single category goes down – all go up.
Shaq maintains his awesome numbers – but when an opposition team learns to live with those numbers, and even beat you with you putting up those numbers, then that means the team (in this case the Lakers) are stuck for ways to win. A good example is 2003 – where the Spurs dethroned the Lakers; Oneal went 28/11/2.5 in the regular season and 27/15/3 in the playoffs.
Awesome numbers all round (worth noting is his assists also went from 2 in the regular season to 3 in the playoffs). Duncan on the other hand went from 23/12/3/3 in the regular season to 25/15/3.5/6 in the post season and he did that in twice as many games as O'Neal. Also worth mentioning is all three shooting percentages increased in the playoffs as well.
So we should now come back to the contention, who was the best big of the generation. In all honesty, I feel like both these big men were torch bearers at some point, and although Shaq would never admit this, I think in 2003 when Shaq stopped hitting the gym and got disillusioned by Kobe, he passed the torch to TD. From there TD reigned for the next 7 or so seasons until Dwight took the torch and ran off with it (though he really needs to show he's a game winner like the other two before he can enter the conversation). So there we have it – a very passive, fence-sitting, opinion on who the best was.
If we were going to argue positions well I'll just give you one sentence; in 10 years we'll be arguing Wilt or Shaq whereas we already know the best PF of all time is Tim Duncan.
John Karalis - Red's Army & Crossover Chronicles
I can't possibly sit here and pick Shaquille O'Neal over Tim Duncan or vice versa. They're just too different, yet identical in their impact. Shaquille O'Neal was all about power, with some agility sprinkled into his game in his early years (my favorite Shaq play was the high post, spin, lob from Penny Hardaway for the nasty finish). Timmy was always crafty with his post moves and signature bank shot, even though he'd occasionally power through someone on a finish.
I guess at the heart of my cop out (c'mon, you know that's what you're saying about this take) is that I just view Tim Duncan as a power forward. Go ahead and Google his bio and you'll see him listed as a forward/center. He might, out of necessity, have had to play the center spot for the San Antonio Spurs for a majority of his career, but you'll note that whenever the Spurs had another big on the roster, Tim would slide over to the 4 spot.
And that, to me, makes these two players incomparable. If you were to tell me "start a team with either of these guys in their prime" I'd be happy to let you take the first pick and give me the other guy. Shaq was a dominant big man who DEMANDED attention in the post. You couldn't guard him 1-on-1 or you'd just get destroyed. I'd even contend that his free throw shooting, an obvious detriment to his scoring, became almost a weapon of sorts. It actually got coaches to completely change their strategy, commit fouls and get into the penalty... which actually did have a ripple effect on the games.
I know, that's a bit of reach, but you know where I'm going with that. Whenever you force coaches to radically change a game plan, there's something to be said for that.
Meanwhile, there's no doubting Tim Duncan's impact on the game. He's the ultimate pro. He instantly made the Spurs a contender. He has embarrassed a great many people for a great many years. I won't quote stats because the stats all say the same thing: Tim Duncan is one of the best of the best. He's in the Hall of Fame's Hall of Fame. So is Shaq.
Who's the better big? You can't tell me either is better than the other. Call it a cop out if you want. I call that the truth.
Jeff Clark - Celtics Blog
If you are talking about peak performance or who you'd take on his best day for one game, I'd take Shaq. For consistency and for a guy that better represents the era they played in, I'll take Timmy.
Obviously they were both great, great players and this is to take nothing away from O'Neal (obvious but necessary disclaimer). I just think there were times when Shaq didn't bring it every night. The reasons could be endless. Injuries, acting distractions, Kobe feud distractions, or just the wear and tear on such a ginormous body when the refs call the game differently for you than they do for the rest of the league. Whatever it was, there were whole seasons where he'd just mail it in and coast on being the biggest guy on the court. And there is also the matter of the glaring hole in Shaq's game in terms of his free throw shooting. Add it all up and there's just enough negatives to pull him back behind Duncan on my mythical list, even though Shaq's talent and "best days" were better than Tim's.
For Duncan's part, he was boringly consistent and maddeningly reliable (for opponents at least). You knew that he was going to take that short turnaround from the block off the glass, but like Kareem's hook shot, there was nothing you could do about it. He also one 4 different titles as the undisputed alpha-male on his team while Shaq was more of a 1a or 1b next to Kobe and Wade. That's picking nits, but if the race is this close it matters.
Jeff Fox, Hoops Manifesto
Perhaps the most striking thing about the Timmy vs Shaq debate is how to the average/casual NBA fan it wouldn't be a debate at all – Shaq would win by a landslide. Just goes to show how polar opposite the two men are in terms of marketing their "brand".
So to determine who truly has had the better career of the two, you have to cut through the hype, hyperbole and self proclamations such as being the "Most Dominant Ever" and get to the real meat of the argument – the two superstar big men's performances on the court.
And when you cut through all the smoke and mirrors and get to the heart of the matter, you see that the Duncan vs Shaq battle is an extremely close one. It's almost like splitting hairs, their resumes are so similar (titles won, MVPs, All-NBA, etc.).
However, I'm going to give Tim Duncan my vote due to a few factors: superior defender at multiple positions (PF and C), more versatile offensive game, superior intangibles (no locker room drama, no me-first attitude) and the fact that he won his four titles without the help of the Kobe Bryants or Dwyane Wades of the world that Shaq had on his side (although David Robinson, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are/were no slouches). Not to mention Duncan is far superior to Shaq in staring contests, sitting and watching paint dry, and impersonating robots.
Brumbygg, With Malice
The best big of an era? It's probably too close to call, so let's just give it to the guy with more rings. 4 championships each? Okay,the give it to the guy with the most finals MVPs. 3 each? This is more difficult than I thought!
All joking aside, there is precious little in the way of numbers that can be used to separate these two great players. Shaquille O'Neal has been to the finals with 3 teams - none of whom would have been there without him. And not only is there no way The Admiral gets a ring, let alone 2, without Tim Duncan. Timmy went on to get 2 more without Robinson.
Between 1999 and 2008 these guys shared 8 titles!
When you have two guys so closely matched in terms of career numbers - and I'm giving Shaq a pass on the last couple of years - then you look at the ability to dominate a game and who can match up against them and I have to give it to Shaq.
For me the biggest factor is that at his best no one could guard Shaq. And because he was so dominant this enabled Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade to be even more destructive. Focus on Shaq and these guys will cut you up. Leave Shaq a little space by filling holes to limit Kobe/Wade and the rock is in the hands of the big guy. The only thing that ever worked against hiom was "hack-a-Shaq". If could have spent more time on his free throws and become an 80% free throw shooter, Shaq would have been completely unstoppable.
This is not to say that Timmy D is/was not a force in his own right. He has multiple ways to hurt you on the court and possesses one of the softest touches ever for a big man. Where Shaq gets the nod for me, is that Timmy was/is defendable. An elite defensive big like Kevin Garnett is able to shut down Timmy. Not all the time, but with some regualrity. No one ever had that kind of success against Shaq.
Michael De Leon - Project Spurs
While statistically, they aren't very far apart, and they both have four championships and have both racked up numerous awards, as a Spurs fan, I hate to admit this, but I'm going with Shaq here.
Shaq was so dominant in his prime and was able to make even All-Star centers look bad when matched up against him.
While Duncan was the Spurs' go-to guy through four championships he never quite had the same dominance Shaq did. I'm not underselling Duncan here, as a Spurs fan, I've been privileged to watch his entire career.
Comparing two great players is always very difficult to do, especially when it comes to two of this stature, but in the end, I have to give Shaq said.
That said, call me a homer if you may, but I wouldn't take Shaq over Duncan in a Spurs uniform any day.
Don, With Malice
Before pursuing this, let's get the "center or power forward" question out of the way. With Timmy, it's tough, because throughout his years he's clearly been interchangeable on both roles - I'm not even sure that "interchangeable" is what I'm saying, more that the roles on the floor don't really fit into the age-old filing system we've grown accustomed to. I don't think basketball's even really played in terms of "point-guard/shooting-guard/small-forward/power-forward/center" any more anyway, they're just labels that make it easier for us (the ubiquitous fan) to understand.
From what I've seen of San Antonio, they generally speaking, the Spurs like to play a guy at *cough-cough* "center" who is a stretch-big. A guy like Matt Bonner's a perfect compliment to Timmy. And if playing against a good big man, Timmy covers him. Likewise, if there's a big man on the opposition who plays the stretch role, Timmy doesn't cover him. For the most part, Timmy covers the lane. So for my money, he's a center. For the most part.
Upon retiring, Shaq wasted no time in taking a few potshots at those still in the league. A double-edged comment to Dwight Howard, on one hand annointing him as the only true center left (a slight by omission to all those considering themselves to be true centers. Take note Andrew Bynum!), but also pointing out that Howard's got a long way to go before he measures up to Superman v1 Still, Shaq's never been afraid to take aim and fire... and Dwight Howard's oft been one of Shaq's favourite targets.
But in this case: he's right. No-one left measures up. No-one still playing can hold a candle to Shaquille Rashaun O'Neal.
That is... unless your name's Tim Duncan.
Ok, true: Tim Duncan's not the same Timmy that quietly and unassumingly became his own force to be reckoned with... but if we're completely honest, then neither was Shaq for quite a few years leading up to his retirement.
Who was then? Which of these immensely talented behemoths was "the man" for the era that for all intents and purposes, has just ended? The turn of the millennium...
As far as accomplishments, they stack up well against each other.
4 NBA Championships
3 Finals MVPs
2 Scoring titles
14 All NBA teams (8 1st team, 2 second, 4 third)
3 All D second teams
15 All Star appearances
4 NBA Championships
3 Finals MVPs
13 All NBA teams (9 1st team, 3 second, 1 third)
13 All D teams (8 1st team, 5 second)
13 All Star appearances
Duncan definitely gets the nod on the defensive end, whereas offense - Shaq was better... but on both sides of that equation, it's muddied. Shaq was no slouch on D in his heyday, and Duncan has always been incredibly effective offensively, with a wide array of post moves and a better mid-range game than O'Neal.
Can we agree that as far as accolades go, this is pretty much a wash... right? Well, that's where I sit. As far as what they've done.
But there are two disparate qualities that make me go with Shaq.
First: if all things are equal (and they're not quite - as I'll suggest later), then surely you have to go with what is more pleasing... and for me, I'll take Shaq's showmanship over Duncan's dour demeanor any day of the week and twice on Sundays. This is a game, and part of it all has to be entertaining... Shaq attacked the game with a ferocity and hunger that is rare on the field of play. I appreciate what Timmy's done, the guy's a clinic. But in that, he's "clinical". And I mean that in a light that's not at all positive.
Secondly, and to put the argument to bed: Shaq, in full flight, was a veritable juggernaut. Quite literally, the unstoppable force - one that I do not believe Duncan's "immovable object" could cope with.
Duncan was cool, poised and always collected, and Shaq's nickname for him "The Big Fundamental" is oh-so-appropriate. But Shaq? Man... I've never seen anyone that big, move that well. Yes, Wilt had power. Kareem had grace... but neither was anywhere near as big as Shaquille O'Neal. And so quick, with an undeniable physical power.
There's some sadness in this, as O'Neal being who he was, did not do the best he could have with his physical tools... at least, he didn't work those tools for as long as he could have. His flaws as a basketballer, were just as big as he was.
Some will detract this as simply choosing O'Neal because he's big. Well... maybe, but that's simplifying the issue as much as it would be to appreciate Michael Jordan because "he jumps well".
Big's been done before - ask Eddy Curry. But not like Shaq, and I struggle to believe that we'll see his like again.
Timmy or SHAQ it's gotta be a tie i mean all three of them are great but SHAQ is a head of Tim on scoring and offense but Tim has D
So many of these writeups mention the one side of the court where Shaq has an edge (offense) and completely ignore the other side of the court where Duncan is well ahead (defense). Add in intangibles like leadership and letting teammates shine and it quickly becomes no contest.
@jasonuke Sometimes when comparing two players like Tim and Shaq, all you have to do is ask yourself which player anyone or any team would rather deal with more than the other. You'd be kidding yourself if you pick Shaq.
@jasonuke "no contest"? Dude... really? Are you from some sort of alternate reality?
I loved the way "Shaq has an 'edge'" on offense, but Tim Duncan is "well ahead" on D... c'mon man - you cannot have it both ways.
Sure: Duncan's better on D. But Shaq was *miles* ahead on the other end of the floor.
And 'intangibles'? Really? You're going to categorically state that Shaq never made his teammates better? Never showed leadership?
Lemme guess: Spurs fan, right?
When Don first sent this out i was pretty certain of which way I planned to go on it. Doing a little research, looking at the numbers and considering what both guys have done I kept going back and forth. From reading the post it seems that a lot of the contributors had the same problem - and many of them are far smarter than I am - and this made for some really interesting reading.
Nice to see Jeff out in left field again, but a series of well written pieces that should all be commended and celebrated. Nice work all!
I got Shaq, but barely. Mainly because he was more dominating and impactful in his prime. And he was more phyiscally unique and socially impactful. Great discussion topic, this is so close that it seems no one on the panel had a strong opinion leaning heavily toward one of the other, and I echo those sentiments.
Player comparisons are never easy even for the so-called experts (who tend to make absurd statements just for upmanship rather than progress the debate). But I must say the discussion we have on this debate are some of the smartest, well-considered piece I've seen in a long time from anywhere (yes, even you Jeff). Superb job guys!
Some of the best, most level headed discussion I've read in awhile.
I have been pulling my hair out for the last five years over another debate that NEVER occurs. Shaq vs. Hakeem...
@JeromeStewart This is a tough one. Hakeem killed Shaq when they played in the Finals, but that was prime Dream and baby Shaq. I think prime Shaq would probably beat him 1 on 1, but I prefer Hakeem's game. I like to think of them playing together. Who could stop a frontcourt of Shaq and Hakeem! Hakeem had the game of a modern 4 anyway, just the size of a 5.
The Duncan as a PF or C debate is irrelevant for this arguement because it was Shaq who caused him to flip between positions. Shaq scared the crap out of NBA centers, and I'd pretty much guarantee without Shaq, Duncan would have played 5 his entire career, as too probably would guys like KG etc. Dwight Howard was even a 4 for the first few years of his career. All of this because they just couldn't compete with Shaq's raw power and so turned their games into more finesse ones (or in Dwight's case got lucky enough to be entering as Shaq was on his downward slide) and stuck in the 4 position. Shaq's influence on the game is what puts him above Duncan. Timmy had great fundamentals, and was a winner, but regardless of what the above commentators say, he never DOMINATED a game like Shaq did. Shaq was LITERALLY unstoppable in his prime, Duncan was just damn good.
@JdotD Great point! No one wanted to guard Shaq. No one.
@JdotD Word. Couldn't agree more.
@JdotD I agree Jdot. Additionally, I think the Spurs constantly had him listed as a 4 due to All Star voting. Didn't have to compete against Shaq or Yao.
Interestingly too, as a PF, Timmy's probably #1 All Time. As a Center, he'd barely be top 5, if that.
I see I'm in the minority (as per usual) picking Duncan. It was a real close call, though, which I think speaks more of the incredible career Duncan has had - everyone in the world knew Shaq was (or was going to be) dominant (he told them that himself) - Timmy did his work like a 7-foot robot on a stealth mission.
@Jeff Fox C'mon Jeff... even the SPURS BLOGGER picked Shaq!
@mdeleon Hahaha... surprised the crap outta me Michael! Was worth waiting for...