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Thursday, July 21, 2011
Shaq still picking his spots

By Zach Harper

Shaquille O’Neal has always been pretty adept at pushing buttons. It was almost as if the biggest thing he took away from his time with Phil Jackson was learning the art of crafting a very poignant and provoking remark that stirred up an air of controversy for an opponent (or sometimes a teammate). He knew how to stir up contention to any possible threats to him, his team and his legacy.

Currently, everybody seems to be soaking in his classification of the Miami Heat as a “Big 2” rather than a Big 3. It was a slight against Chris Bosh and not the first time he’s swiped at the big man. He once called Bosh the RuPaul of big men, and has been sure to make it known that his opinion of the Heat’s All-Star big man isn’t very high amongst the rankings of the NBA’s best players.

However, I don’t really take exception with those comments. Whether Shaq accepts Bosh as one of the top big men in the NBA today or whether he thinks of him merely as a standard role player doesn’t really resonate with me one way or the other. It gives us content on the Internet and another thing to use when we poke fun at the Heat.

I’m much more concerned with the idea he stated last month when he said, “There’s only really one dominant big man left, and that’s Dwight Howard. I expect him to win three or four championships. If he doesn’t win three or four championships, I’ll be disappointed.”

Too often, we marginalize the NBA down into a simplistic view of championships being the only measurement for success. And we intimate that winning a title is something that can be done by a single dominant player. Ultimately, the NBA is a simple league. Put the ball in the basket and try to stop the other team from doing the same. But getting consistency out of those two actions against some of the best and most in-depth scouting and strategy building in professional sports is an extremely difficult thing to accomplish.

Dwight Howard is hands down the best center in the NBA. He’s hands down the best big man in the NBA. Some might even argue that he’s the best player in the NBA (not me, but it’s not insane to mull over the idea) and the most valuable. I just don’t understand how someone with the experience and knowledge of Shaq can see the progression of the league over the past 19 seasons and think the game is as easy as it used to be for big men.

I posted earlier today about being able to watch old games on NBA TV during the lockout and getting a pretty great look at how the game used to be. The most glaring thing you notice from these old games is just how horrendous the team defense was. Yes, it was a much more physical game back then. You could assault someone on the court and just get slapped with a personal foul, not having to worry about the NBA trying to freeze your assets and look into pressing charges for crimes against the Geneva Convention.

The league and its officials allowed things to be settled on the court as long as was relatively civil. It was physical defense every night, but just because it left players black and blue doesn’t mean it was better defense. Watching old players get the ball in the post, opposing defenses would stick to their men on the perimeter, no matter where they were situated. Part of this was because zone defense was severely outlawed and they didn’t have the relaxed help rules that allow teams to cover so much area with their five-man units (or four-man units when the Heat also have Mike Bibby on the court).

If you were going to double the post, you had to charge quickly to cut off the offensive player and you couldn’t float around areas for three seconds before clearing the paint. It afforded big men the opportunity to be patient in the post and eventually exude their will and dominance over inferior players.

Dwight Howard will never get to play in that NBA. He has to deal with defensive savants like Tom Thibodeau, Lawrence Frank, Erik Spoelstra, Elston Turner, Dwane Casey and many others who spend all day and night scheming ways to keep him from maximizing the damage he can inflict on opponents. It’s not that Shaq never had to deal with this. There was defensive scouting during his early days too. It’s just that he was able to take advantage of rules that left him and his defender alone on an island with a great view of any rescue ships coming their way.

Dwight Howard may never win a championship. He may end up winning five. He’s still extremely young and has a long way to go in his career, especially as he enters his prime. He’s refined his defensive understanding over the past several years to become a completely smothering influence on opposing offenses. His offensive game has become an actual weapon for Orlando to utilize throughout a game instead of just brief moments here and there.

He just isn’t offered the same environment to dominate that guys like Shaq, Hakeem and Robinson had during their primes. More than ever, basketball is a team venture that requires multiple parts, schemes and performances to come together as one centralized force. It doesn’t matter if Dwight is the biggest and best big man in the league right now if he’s playing in a setting that is more rewarding to perimeter play and more reliant on teammates helping out the star of the team. It no longer matters how good he is if his team isn't talented and poised enough to help him out.

Obviously, Shaq knows far more about playing in the NBA today and what it takes than any of us questioning or agreeing with his statements on players. He’s experienced the evolution of team defense first hand and it’s possible he still believes in brawn over brains.

Or maybe it is one last chance to take a jab at someone simply to stir up a little controversy for a long-time opponent. Either way, I’m looking forward to Shaq bringing these kinds of discussions to the studio next season.