As Shaquille O’Neal likes to tell it, he’s responsible for the NBA no longer being a league littered with back-to-basket big men. To O’Neal, he made that type player extinct by dominating his contemporaries.
The reasoning can be debated but there is no denying players of O’Neal’s elk and skill set are now few and far between. DeMarcus Cousins, Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Town have in some sense revived the traditional center but they too have games predicated on perimeter success.
Not that it makes them any less of a player. Today’s NBA requires big men to be versatile enough to not only space the floor but also guard multiple positions. Nonetheless, O’Neal has the upmost confidence he could succeed in that type of setting.
He explained why during an appearance on the official Lakers podcast:
“Of course I could. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, well, it’s a different game.’ No. When people are doing things different, that’s when you’ve got to do something different. OK, everybody is shooting jumpers. Fine, but I make my money on the inside. A lot of people don’t understand it takes legs and strength to shoot the jumpers. A lot of people will try to shoot jumpers for three quarters against me. In the fourth quarter, banging up against me all the time, it won’t work. And then I would always have that physicality. Because, as you know, I don’t give an [expletive] about the fine. So those guys come into the lane, I’ve got to touch them up. All day, every day. Gotta touch them up. Fine, suspension. I don’t really care about that. It’s a psychological thing. They know the next time they come down the lane, I’m going to touch ’em up.”
In response to a question submitted on social media, O’Neal went on to add he would not attempt to become a three-point shooter:
“First of all, if I came up in this era, I wouldn’t shoot threes. That’s not what a big guy is supposed to do. If I played today, I’d average 50, without free throws. I’d average 50, because guys don’t play physical. They whine and they cry; I’m going to punish everybody. All these guys talking about shooting jump shots, you’re going to have to defend me. And you can’t defend me with three or four fouls. I’m just going to punish you. I haven’t really lost to a lot of guys that shot jumpers in my face, but I beat everybody by playing low. So I would definitely average 40. Easily.”
That O’Neal would voice that type of confidence in himself is hardly surprising. He is also correct in highlighting the physical presence he would bring to the court.
Other than Cousins and Embiid, and perhaps Dwight Howard and Marc Gasol, there no longer are centers who are similar in size to O’Neal. That undoubtedly would tip the scale in his favor when on offense.
Defensively, O’Neal, while he moved well for a player his size, would likely struggle on the defensive side of the court when needing to guard in space. Nevertheless, O’Neal’s claim is similar to one Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made when he detailed how he would adapt in the modern NBA.