TrueHoop: Shaquille ONeal

Naked Shaquille O'Neal antics

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Veteran NBA coach Alvin Gentry with a classic tale of life with Shaquille O'Neal.


LeBron not first to play NBA numbers game

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
By Adam Reisinger
LeBron JamesAP Images/Mark DuncanLeBron James will return to wearing his original No. 23 for the Cavaliers in 2014-15.

LeBron James announced Sunday that after four seasons of wearing No. 6 with the Miami Heat, he'll go back to his original No. 23 when he rejoins the Cleveland Cavaliers this season. When James originally announced his decision to change to No. 6, he did so out of respect for Michael Jordan -- who, coincidentally has his jersey hanging on the wall in Miami, despite never having played for the Heat.

However, James is far from the first superstar to change his number, then have a change of heart and change back.

Ray Allen (34 to 20 to 34)

James' old Miami teammate Ray Allen has some experience with this type of jersey switch. Allen came into the league wearing No. 34 -- his college number -- for the Milwaukee Bucks, then held on to it with the Seattle SuperSonics. However, when Allen was traded to the Boston Celtics, 34 was taken by Paul Pierce, so Allen switched to 20. Upon signing with the Heat, Allen had his choice of 20 or 34, and went back to his original number.

Dominique Wilkins (21 to 12 to 21)

Dominique Wilkins most famously wore No. 21 for the Atlanta Hawks, where his number hangs in the rafters. He kept the number when he was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers late in the 1993-94 season, but when he signed with the Celtics, 21 wasn't available (it's retired for Bill Sharman). Wilkins played one season in Boston wearing the unfamiliar No. 12, before bolting for Europe. When he returned to the NBA in 1996-97 with the San Antonio Spurs, he was back in his trademark No. 21 -- becoming the last Spur to wear it before Tim Duncan.

Charles Barkley (34 to 32 to 34)

After Magic Johnson announced his sudden retirement due to HIV, Charles Barkley chose to change his jersey number from his original 34 to 32 to honor Johnson -- getting permission from Philadelphia 76ers legend Billy Cunningham to have the number temporarily unretired. However when Barkley was traded to the Phoenix Suns in the offseason, No. 32 was already being worn by Negele Knight, so Barkley switched back to 34, before finishing his career in Houston wearing No. 4.

Shaquille O'Neal (32 to 34 to 32)

In the exact reverse of Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal started his career wearing 32, switched to 34, then went back to 32 (before moving on to 33 and 36 in his twilight years). O'Neal actually wanted 33 -- his college number -- when he was drafted by the Orlando Magic, but that was taken by Terry Catledge, so O'Neal settled for 32. When he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, both 32 (Magic Johnson) and 33 (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) were retired, so he took No. 34, which was available after George Lynch was traded to the Vancouver Grizzlies. When O'Neal was traded to the Heat, he had his choice between 34 and 32, and decided to go back to his original number.

Michael Jordan (23 to 45 to 23)

Perhaps the most famous jersey number reversal, Michael Jordan wore No. 23 during his original stint with the Chicago Bulls, up until his retirement in 1993. When he returned to basketball in 1995, he chose to wear No. 45 -- the number he'd worn during his brief professional baseball career -- and leave No. 23 in the rafters. However, during the Bulls' Eastern Conference semifinal loss to the Magic, Jordan switched back to his customary No. 23, a move he said made him more comfortable, but cost his team a $25,000 fine. Jordan remained in 23 for the rest of his time with the Bulls, and kept the number during his brief comeback with the Washington Wizards.

Cutting Dwight Howard some slack

October, 30, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Dwight Howard
Getty Images
Should we give a goofball the chance to grow up and develop some gravitas?

A friend asked me recently if I knew of a basketball player named Dwight Howard. This friend’s cluelessness on matters of sports has long been a source of amusement between us, but he also offers a window into the world of popular opinion beyond the NBA’s force field. A top executive at the kids’ cable network where he works had encouraged him to see how they could make use of Howard. My friend has met Howard a few times in the past year or so. He finds him friendly, polite to more or less everyone, goofy in an inoffensive way and, above all, eager to be funny.

“But he’s not funny,” my friend said dispassionately. “It doesn't work.”

When nonfans speak about sports, they do so in declarative sentences. The commentary is devoid of emotion, acid, indignation and all the other additives sports fans inject into their feelings about this guy or that team. There’s no wholesale judgment or burning desire to ascribe a player’s lack of funniness to some larger character flaw or human failing. Dude isn't funny, and it doesn't really work, but it’s still useful to put a goofy 6-foot-10 giant on the air because it lends a show some novelty, and a fair number of kids are still drawn to big-name athletes, and we’ll leave it at that.

But rabid fans aren't a leave-it-at-that kind of crowd, and there’s no such thing as detachment. The NBA is their favorite show, and they want to be vested in the characters, define which ones are compelling and which ones annoy the hell out of them. For the past several years, Howard has fallen into that latter group. If not with 10-year-old children, then certainly with many of his teammates, the die-hards and the media.

Howard has rightfully earned his membership. In Orlando, Fla. -- a low-degree-of-difficulty market -- he was clumsy handling his business. Right about the time Howard signed his first big deal, his shtick started to wear thin. One former Magic teammate described Howard as someone with two distinct modes -- big kid desperate for attention or adolescent pout. Over the years, Howard has made few friends among media personnel, who watch his postgame antics: the endless dawdling while they wait and wait by his locker, the chirping to no one in particular while he dances around, the yapping to nobody special while teammates roll their eyes and depart in their street clothes long before Howard has even dried off.

The drama at the end of his tenure in Orlando drove up his unfavorables. There’s consensus around the league that Howard wanted Stan Van Gundy out, although there’s a bit more debate about whether Van Gundy and Otis Smith wanted Howard traded, and to what extent CEO Alex Martins vetoed that proposal. Whatever the case, the torturous Van Gundy news conference was the tipping point for Howard.

When a player establishes a pattern of behavior over a sustained period of time, his reputation coagulates. We’re certain we know exactly who he is, and no one cuts him a break because it’s just too much fun. After all, he put himself in the schmuck box, and we’re under no obligation to let him out. We become overly possessive of a guy’s narrative, as if he has no say in the story going forward. We’re entitled to say what we want about him until the end of time. A statute of limitations is granted only upon the presentation of a ring, and, even then, the guy often has to undergo a massive rehabilitation.

The problem with this thinking is that it ignores a simple truth: A lot of callow people ultimately grow up. For most, it happens outside the glare of the public eye. You bump along, absorb a few of life’s blows and become more sensible about the tasks that come with being an adult. Those who are long on self-doubt become more confident, and those who see themselves as invincible learn a thing or two about their limitations.

None of this comes naturally to athletes at the highest level. Most pro ballplayers work like crazy, but, dating back to the moment they showed exceptional potential, most of their material needs have been met -- to say nothing of the gross amount of attention and approbation they've received along the way. When you've been given a ton of stuff, you become insulated, which makes those potholes on the road seem like craters.

The first half of Howard’s pro career has followed this path. But, one thing we've learned from the smartest talent evaluators in pro sports the past couple of decades is that it’s ill-advised to project future performance based on past performance without taking age into account. Self-awareness is a trait people pick up later in life.

The Tobias Harris/No. 12 snippet notwithstanding, Howard has shown some promise in the past four months. His move from Los Angeles to Houston was handled cleanly. He took meetings at the beginning of the week in an orderly fashion, then spent a couple of days in seclusion to weigh the most important professional decision of his life. As teams were crossed off his list, they were notified, and, on Friday, he announced his decision to sign with Houston.

None of this deterred the gangs who roam the alleys of social media, who continued to roast Howard. The chattering class insists that anything short of a title will render Howard a fool, although players such as Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony rarely get called out for being poolside by mid-May. Meanwhile, Shaquille O’Neal knocked him for melting under the bright lights of Los Angeles, as if an aversion to Southern California is a mortal shortcoming and not a matter of taste (Woody Allen is celebrated for his L.A. Hate, but Howard’s apprehension about working there is inexcusable?).

Of course, all of this goes away if Howard wins a title in Houston, but that implies that a championship is the most important measure of character, when it’s really just a measure of professional achievement. Whether he ever hoists a trophy, it’s possible Howard will continue to be juvenile well into his twilight years. Some athletes mature (see: Webber, Chris), and some don’t. Howard has given no certain indication that he’ll ever be Mr. Gravitas, but he should be given some breathing room -- not because we owe him a thing. This isn't about a fresh start.

It’s about affording someone the opportunity to excise his frustrations and become better at who he is and what he does.

LeBron was almost perfect

February, 4, 2013
By ESPN Stats & Information

LeBron James came within one shot of perfection from the field on Monday. He was 13-for-14 in the Miami Heat’s win over the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday night.

Here are the top things to know from that performance, one that stands atop James' best games in at least one area.

1. This was the best field-goal shooting game of James’ career, regardless of the number of shots taken. His previous best was a 9-for-11 (82 percent) game against the Nets last March.

The chart on the right shows how James fared on all the different play types.

2. The only shot James missed was marked as a four-footer that rolled off the rim with 2:33 left in the 3rd quarter and the Heat leading 61-57. James has shot an NBA-best 76 percent from the field this season on shots from less than five feet (minimum 100 shots).

As you’ll see in the shooting zone chart at the bottom of this post, James was able to make things very easy for himself, by taking every shot from inside the paint.

3. Apparently the post-Super Bowl flight to Miami did little harm. This marked the seventh time this season that the Heat played on back-to-back days. It was the first of those seven in which James scored at least 30 points in each game.

4. The last player to shoot 13-for-14 from the field or better (minimum 14 shots) in a regular season game was Andrew Bogut for the Milwaukee Bucks against the Dallas Mavericks on January 26, 2010 (13-for-14). The last player to do so for the Heat was Shaquille O’Neal (15-for-16) against the Seattle Supersonics in 2006.

5. James is 25-5 against the Bobcats in his career and has won nine straight meetings against them. In his 30 games against the Bobcats entering Monday, James had only shot 60 percent or better from the field twice.

Statistical support for this piece came from

Vucevic cleans glass but can't slow LeBron

December, 31, 2012
By ESPN Stats & Information
The fireworks started early on New Year’s Eve in Orlando, as the Miami Heat slipped past the Orlando Magic 112-110 in overtime.

The stat line of the night belonged to Nikola Vucevic, who finished with 20 points and 29 rebounds. He became the third different player in Magic history to grab at least 25 rebounds in a game. Dwight Howard (four times) and Shaquille O’Neal (twice) are the others.

With two rebounds in overtime, Vucevic was able to set the Magic franchise record for rebounds in a game. The previous mark was 28, which Shaq did against the Nets in 1993.

Vucevic’s 20-20 game is the first for an Orlando player other than Howard since 1998. Howard had the last 41 such games for the Magic. Horace Grant (one game in 1998) and O’Neal (15 games from 1992 to 1994) are the other players with a 20-20 game in franchise history.

He is only the fourth NBA player in the last 20 years with at least 20 points and 29 rebounds in the same game. Vucevic joins Kevin Love, Dikembe Mutombo (twice) and Charles Barkley.

LeBron James scored 36 points and dished out 11 assists to lead the Heat to the win. With the double-double against the Magic, he is one of only nine players with at least 15 double-doubles this season.

James has scored at least 20 points in each of the Heat’s 29 games so far this season. Since the ABA/NBA merger in 1976, that’s the second-longest such streak to start a season. Only George Gervin, with 45 straight games to start the 1981-82 campaign, has a longer streak.

LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all finished with at least 20 points in the win. This is the 27th regular season game where all three passed that threshold, but only the sixth time in the last two seasons. The Heat are 22-5 when all three score 20 points.

Lakers may not gain most from Howard deal

August, 10, 2012
By Ryan Feldman
ESPN Stats & Info
Who got the best of the reported Lakers-Nuggets-76ers-Magic trade?

Dwight Howard
Was it the Lakers, who kept Pau Gasol and acquired Dwight Howard? Was it the Nuggets, who improved defensively by acquiring Andre Iguodala? Was it the 76ers, who now have an elite center in Andrew Bynum? Or perhaps the Magic, who built for the future?


Howard has a reputation as a defensive force. But Bynum actually allowed fewer points per post-up play than Howard last season. Howard held opponents to a lower field-goal percentage and forced turnovers more often but the difference came on fouls. Howard sent opponents to the free-throw line more than twice as often on post-up plays.

Andrew Bynum
Bynum held the roll men on pick-and-roll plays to a lower field-goal percentage than Howard and sent his opponents to the free-throw line less often.


New LakerSteve Nash is one of the best pick-and-roll point guards in the NBA. Nobody had more pick-and-roll passes than Nash last season. Howard could take advantage of those situations more often playing alongside him. Last season, Howard ranked first in the NBA in points per play as the pick-and-roll roll man among the 75 players with at least 50 plays.


The 76ers' top three big men before the trade were Spencer Hawes, Kwame Brown and Lavoy Allen. Bynum totaled more points, rebounds and blocks last season than Hawes, Brown and Allen combined.


With Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol surrounding him, Bynum wasn’t double-teamed on every possession. But in Philadelphia, it might be a different story. Bynum turned the ball over nearly three times more often when he was double-teamed in the post last season, nearly once every four plays.

Bynum scored the fewest points per post-up play when double-teamed among the 31 players with at least 50 post-up plays last season. Only Kevin Durant turned the ball over more often on those plays.


The Nuggets upgraded their defense by trading Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington and acquiring Iguodala. That was an area of need after allowing the 5th-most points per play in the NBA last season. Last season, 113 players defended at least 50 plays and Afflalo was the worst among them in terms of points per play allowed. Harrington ranked 54th. Iguodala ranked 10th, holding opponents to 37 percent shooting.


This is only the fourth time since blocks became an official stat in 1973 that a player averaging at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per game has changed teams after that season.

In 2004, the Lakers traded Shaquille O’Neal to the Heat. It took the Lakers four seasons to win a playoff series and get back to the NBA Finals. In 1996, Shaq left the Magic to sign with the Lakers. The Magic didn’t win another playoff series for 12 years. The Bucks traded Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers in 1975 after reaching the 1974 NBA Finals and haven’t returned to the Finals since.

Why Kobe and Nash will make a great duo

July, 8, 2012
By Ryan Feldman & Rachel Eldridge, ESPN Stats & Info
Harry How/Getty Images
Kobe Bryant has never played with an elite point guard like Steve Nash.

Using Synergy Sports Technology and other tools to analyze how Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant will coexist as teammates with the Los Angeles Lakers, it seems that they will make quite the duo.


Since Kobe’s rookie season, no Laker has averaged seven assists per game, something Nash has done in 12 straight seasons.

Since Shaquille O’Neal’s departure in 2004, none of Kobe’s teammates with at least 20 starts in a season has assisted on more than 22 percent of teammates’ field goals. Nash has never assisted on less than 25 percent of teammates’ field goals in a season in his career, and has led the NBA with an assist percentage of more than 50 in each of his past three seasons.

Last season, no point guard had a higher true shooting percentage (a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account 2-pointers, 3-pointers and free throws) than Nash (62.5). Ramon Sessions (57.0 with the Lakers) was the only Lakers point guard at better than 50 percent. Andrew Bynum led the Lakers with a 59.4 true shooting percentage.

In fact, no Lakers point guard in the Kobe era (since 1996-97) has had a true shooting percentage as high as Nash’s last season. Nash has been better than 60 percent in eight straight seasons.


Nash passed the ball on 62 percent of his pick-and-roll plays last season and his teammates shot 51 percent on those passes. He passed the ball on 54 percent of his isolation plays last season and his teammates shot 51 percent on those passes.

Nash passed the ball to spot-up shooters 389 times on pick-and-roll plays last season, the most such passes in the league.


Kobe passed the ball on only 13.7 percent of his isolation plays last season, the sixth-lowest percentage of the 51 players with at least 25 isolation passes. Only Carmelo Anthony, MarShon Brooks, Russell Westbrook, Josh Smith and J.R. Smith passed the ball less often.

When Kobe passed the ball on isolation plays, his teammates shot 39.2 percent, which ranked 41st of those same 51 players. He passed the ball on 48.9 percent of his pick-and-roll plays last season. On those passes, his teammates shot 42.6 percent.


Of the 337 players with at least 15 unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers last season, nobody was left open less often than Kobe. Only 35.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot jumpers were unguarded.

When Kobe was left open, he shot 51.3 percent, which ranked 11th of the 113 players with at least 75 unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers last season. It was the highest such percentage of the nine Lakers players with at least 20 attempts last season.


Based on the Synergy data above, Nash prefers to pass the ball. And when he passes it, his teammates typically shoot a high percentage.

With Nash taking over primary ballhandling duties and Kobe handling the ball less, expect the Lakers to get more open shots and shoot the ball at a higher percentage, including Kobe.

Kobe doesn’t get open very often, but when he does he’s a highly efficient shooter. If Nash is able to get open shots for Kobe, expect the Lakers to be a strong contender.

The notion of Shaq as GM

May, 23, 2012
Stein By Marc Stein
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Can you dig it? Does Shaquille O'Neal have a future working the phones as a GM?

George Mikan. John Kundla. Fred Schaus. Pete Newell. Bill Sharman.

And, of course, Jerry West.

Those are some of the names of the general managers who filled that highest of high-profile posts with the Los Angeles Lakers before Mitch Kupchak built a championship team of his own.

And then there's Shaquille O'Neal.

The same Shaq who used to tell anyone in Lakerland who would listen: I'm better than all of 'em.

In the same shameless manner he's prone to proclaim his boundless greatness several nights a week from the TNT set, Shaq used to say it all the time back in the day: Convincing Gary Payton and Karl Malone to play for the Lakers almost for free in the 2003-04 season made him the best GM they've ever had in L.A.

So if you find it beyond-belief outlandish that Shaq would be campaigning for the suddenly vacant GM job in Orlando -- where his NBA career began and where he still lives -- you haven't been paying much attention for, uh, roughly two decades.

Not that I'm going to get too worked up about the possibility. Not that I can foresee Shaq, with roughly zero front-office qualifications, coming anywhere close to getting the job.

The Magic aren't talking publicly about their GM or coach search and refused comment Wednesday night when asked specifically to respond to my ESPN The Magazine colleague Chris Broussard's report on "NBA Countdown" that Shaq and Orlando officials could meet as soon as next week to discuss the opening.

But here's my best read on the subject with the help of a few observers plugged into the league's front-office grapevine: Shaq has been lobbying behind the scenes to be considered for the position, and the Magic -- in spite of the nastiest of divorces with O'Neal in the summer of 1996 -- are willing to at least sit down with the 40-year-old and give him the courtesy of hearing what he has to say.

That's a long way from actually hiring Shaq. A L-O-N-G way, to borrow from Larry Bird's spelling technique, from letting Shaq come back to a franchise he leveled as a free agent to be the guy who either convinces Dwight Howard to finally commit to the Magic long-term (after feuding with Dwight for years) or immediately takes on the monster responsibility of trying to find a sensible trade for Howard before next season (as rookie GM).

The mere mention of Shaq, even if he turns out to be something more than a courtesy candidate, surely (and sadly) overshadows the most interesting part of Broussard's notebook-on-TV report, which revealed that the Magic's secret dream is trying to find a way to convince Doc Rivers to leave the Boston Celtics to come back to Central Florida.

Now THAT makes sense. It's the longest of long shots with Doc only just finishing Year 1 of a new five-year, $35 million contract to coach the Celts, but Orlando's thinking there is steeped in sound logic. If they could somehow convince Rivers to rejoin the Magic -- even if Doc insisted on a management-only role -- Dwight would surely be wowed. And the number of true stars in the Magic Kingdom would instantly double.

Don't have a clue how the Magic plan to convince Boston to let Doc out of his contract, but why let details get in the way? The mere idea is the smartest we've heard out of Orlando in years.

I still tend to think that hiring Donnie Walsh to replace Otis Smith will wind up being the best available move for the Magic as they launch the post-Stan Van Gundy era, but there's no reason not to aim high. Go for it, Magic.

Chase Doc. Ask for permission to speak with him when Boston's season ends. Better idea than anything we've heard so far. Better than all of 'em.

Clippers trap Grizzlies offense in Game 7

May, 13, 2012
By ESPN Stats & Information
After seeing a 3-1 series lead vanish after back-to-back losses, the Los Angeles Clippers went on the road and beat the Memphis Grizzlies by 10 points to pick up the first Game 7 win in franchise history.

According to Elias, the Clippers are the sixth team in NBA history to win Game 7 on the road after relinquishing a 3-1 series lead. It was only the third postseason series win in the franchise’s 42-year history and second since the club moved to the West Coast from Buffalo for the 1978-79 season.

The key to Sunday’s win was the defense. The Clippers held the Grizzlies to 72 points. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the second-fewest points allowed on the road in Game 7 during the shot-clock era. The Indiana Pacers beat the Boston Celtics 97-70 in the 1st Round of the 2005 playoffs.

The biggest improvement was in transition defense. In Game 6, the Grizzlies outscored the Clippers 24-11 and made all eight shots in transition. On Sunday, the Grizzlies made only two of nine shots in transition and were outscored 16-6. In their four wins, the Clippers allowed nine points per game in transition; in defeat, that number climbed to 20 points per game.

The Clippers bench outscored the Grizzlies 41-11, with the five players off the bench all finishing with a positive plus-minus. During the 10 minutes that the five bench players were on the court together, they outscored the Grizzlies by 10 points.

The Clippers and Lakers both advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals creates a logjam on the schedule at Staples Center next weekend. With the Los Angeles Kings still alive in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the arena will host four basketball games and two hockey games from Thursday through Sunday, including doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday.

The Lakers (Friday and Saturday) and Clippers (Saturday and Sunday) will both be playing on consecutive days. Our friends at Elias let us know that this will be the first time an NBA team has played playoff games on consecutive days since May 10-11, 2003. The Dallas Mavericks played the Sacramento Kings and Detroit Pistons played the Philadelphia 76ers on both of those dates.

Notes from South Beach
Chris Bosh left the game with an abdominal strain in the second quarter, but that didn’t slow down the Miami Heat. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined for 42 points in the second half, outscoring the Indiana Pacers on their own. In the fourth quarter, James had 16 points to match the Pacers’ output.

LeBron joined Shaquille O’Neal as the only players in Heat history with a 30-point, 15-rebound playoff game.

After averaging 21.4 points per game in the 1st Round, Danny Granger scored seven points in the first game against the Heat. He was held scoreless in the first half for the first time since April 10, 2007 (regular season and playoffs combined).

Shaq still picking his spots

July, 21, 2011
Harper 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.

Dirk defining his legacy this postseason

June, 11, 2011
By ESPN Stats & Info
Dirk Nowitzki
It's hard to say that a player who entered the 2011 playoffs as one of only four players in NBA history to average over 25 points and 10 rebounds per game for a postseason career had a lot left to prove.

In the case of Dirk Nowitzki that is exactly how it felt this postseason. Particularly after Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle proclaimed him one of the 10 best players all-time despite lacking the one thing that ultimately seems to define every great player’s career: a ring.

Nowitzki is now closer than he ever has been to relieving this burden and cementing his legacy. In the process he also has the chance to remove himself from some unwanted lists among great players.

Nowitzki, with 10 all-star selections, is tied for the sixth-most by a player without an NBA title in league history. The only players with more are Karl Malone (14), Charles Barkley (11), Elgin Baylor (11), Patrick Ewing (11) and Allen Iverson (11).

Malone, Baylor and, LeBron James are the only other players in NBA history besides Nowtizki with career averages of more than 23.0 points and 7.0 rebounds without an NBA championship to their credit.

His 22,792 points are 23rd-most all-time in NBA history, but 10th-most among players to never win a ring.

This postseason though, Nowitzki hasn't just pushed himself to the brink of a championship but has also established himself as one of the premier clutch postseason scorers.

Nowitzki has been at his best in crunch time, defined as those moments under five minutes left in game with the score within five points or fewer. He’s scored 26 points in those situations in the Finals while going 8-for-13 from the field. The entire 'Big Three' of the Miami Heat have combined to score just 21 points in crunch time.

Over the last 15 postseasons only O'Neal and Michael Jordan (1997 and 1998) have averaged over 10 points per game in the fourth quarter of an NBA Finals series. Each of those players led their teams to NBA Championships while also winning the Finals MVP award, something Nowitzki is well on his way to doing.

If the Mavericks win the title and Nowitzki takes home Finals MVP honors, the legacy that his coach was hyping up will be solidified. He would become the 11th player in NBA history to have at least 10 NBA All-Star appearances, a regular season MVP award and a Finals MVP.

Shaq's legacy by the numbers

June, 1, 2011
By ESPN Stats & Info
Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal, the oldest current player in the NBA at 39 years old, is retiring after 19 NBA seasons. Trying to wrap your arms around the man's NBA legacy is about as easy as it was to contain him in the post during his prime, but we'll try.

O’Neal is retiring with the fifth-most points scored in NBA history. In addition, O’Neal has scored 5,250 postseason points in his career, fourth-most all-time. The only men ahead of him on both lists are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan.

Shaquille O’Neal was an MVP (2000), a three-time Finals MVP (2000, 2001, 2002), a three-time All-Star Game MVP (2000, 2004, 2009) and four-time NBA Champion (2000, 2001, 2002, 2006). He won each of those during the 1999-00 season, which is a pretty unique accomplishment in NBA lore.

Only two other men can say they accomplished those things in a single season: Willis Reed in '69-70 with the New York Knicks and Michael Jordan in 1995-96 and 1997-98.

If you are looking for something unique that he accomplished, consider this: O’Neal averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds during 13 separate seasons. No other player was able to accomplish that level of consistent excellence.

He also led the NBA in field goal percentage 10 times. No one ever topped that as Wilt Chamberlain led the league in that category nine times.

Detractors are quick to note Shaq's Achilles' heel. O’Neal shot 52.7 percent from the free throw line for his career. That's the third-worst in NBA history among those players with 2,000 attempts. Only Chamberlain and Ben Wallace were worse.

Those facts were not enough to prevent O'Neal from becoming one of the most efficient players in NBA history. The highest Player Efficiency Ratings (PER) ever belongs to Jordan at 27.9. Another active player currently in his prime resides in second on that list -- LeBron James at 26.9. And third all-time is Shaq (26.4) just ahead of legends like David Robinson and Chamberlain.

Still for many, Shaquille O’Neal will go down as an entertainer. He appeared as himself on more than 100 movies and television shows including Saturday Night Live, Who Wants to Be a Millonaire, WWE Monday Night Raw and Curb Your Enthusiasm. He's also been the star of his own network shows such as Shaq vs and Shaq’s Big Challenge. On the silver screen, he was a central character in three movies -- Blue Chips, Kazaam and Steel.

Yes, Shaq was a star in every sense of the world. He was selected to the All-Star Game 15 times while playing in 12. Only one player in NBA history has been selected to more All-Star Games and he was a pretty visible entertainer in his own right: Abdul-Jabbar.

Dirk and Dallas do it again

May, 24, 2011
By ESPN Stats & Info
With 4:48 left in the fourth quarter, the Oklahoma City Thunder had two important things going for them: a 15-point lead and not having lost back-to-back games this postseason. What happened next was not only historic, but also “ri-DIRK-ulous.” The Dallas Mavericks closed regulation on a 17-2 run to force overtime and earn the eventual win.

The Mavericks have won five straight road games (longest postseason road streak since the 2005 Miami Heat) and are one win from their first NBA Finals trip since 2006. The Mavericks became the only team in the last 15 seasons to win a playoff game in which it trailed by 15 or more points with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

A huge part of the Mavericks' comeback was Dirk Nowitzki, who finished with his second 40-point game this postseason (both this series) and seventh of his career. After shooting 60.0 percent from the field in Game 4, and 80.0 percent in Game 1, the Elias Sports Bureau tells us that Nowitzki is the first player to record two 40-point games and shoot at least 60.0 percent from the floor in the same playoff series since Shaquille O'Neal for the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2000 Finals against the Indiana Pacers.

The Mavericks are 10-1 in playoff games when Nowitzki scores more than 35 points, with the only loss coming in a 42-point performance in 2001 against the San Antonio Spurs. Oh and if that’s not enough, Nowtizki is 50-for-52 from the free throw line in this series.

The Thunder were outscored by 15 points in the final minutes of regulation, and a lot of that was because their offense changed drastically when James Harden fouled out at the 4:48 mark. Prior to Harden fouling out, the Thunder focused their offensive attention on the inside game. After Harden fouled out, though, the Thunder settled for long-range shots, missing their only two field goal attempts inside of 15 feet in the last 9:48 of the game.

The Thunder’s lackluster offense without Harden was also exposed in the pick-and-roll game. The Thunder ran 25 pick-and-roll plays prior to Harden fouling out but ran just two afterward. The transition offense also stalled, with the Thunder picking up 17 points on 14 transition plays prior to Harden fouling out. Afterward, the Thunder failed to score on their only transition play. This postseason, Harden has scored the eighth-most points as a pick-and-roll ball handler and the sixth-most transition points.

Kevin Durant finished with his fifth double-double of the postseason, and Russell Westbrook recorded his first game of the series with more assists than turnovers. However, his six turnovers give him nine career postseason games with at least five turnovers.

Game 5 is Wednesday in Dallas, but this series might already be over. When a team goes up 3-1 in a seven-game series, it has gone on to win the series 96 percent of the time (192 out of 200, including 6-0 this postseason).

Boston's key to comeback is Shaq

May, 7, 2011
By Pete Newmann and Dean Oliver, ESPN Stats & Information

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
The key to slowing down the Heat and the surprising Joel Anthony is Shaquille O'Neal.
Shaquille O'Neal did not play much against the Heat in the regular season, appearing in just two of the four games for a combined 39 minutes. He has missed the first two games of the 2011 postseason series against Miami as well.

Head Coach Doc Rivers expects Shaq to play in Game 3 and though limited at this stage of his career, it could turn the tide in Boston's favor. During the regular season, Shaq's presence on the floor clearly improved the way that Boston played against Miami on both ends of the floor.

Celtics Improved Offensive Efficiency
With Shaq on the court in the regular season against the Heat, the Celtics averaged 121.1 points per 100 possessions, a stunning 26.2 points per 100 possessions improvement from when Shaq was off the court.

Boston shot a tremendous 54.1% from the field against Miami this season with Shaq on the court. That fell to 45.5% with Shaq off the court.

Some of the individual Celtics that saw the biggest differences were Rajon Rondo, who shot 34.5% from the field with Shaq off the court and 50% with Shaq on the court, and Ray Allen, who shot 50% with Shaq off the court and 68.8% with Shaq on the court.

Boston's passing is one element of this improvement as its percentage of assists on made field goals increased from 61.4% to 66.7% when Shaq was on the floor.

A more obvious result of Shaq's presence is Boston's rebounding, especially on the offensive end of the floor. The Celtics rebound percentage was 54.2% with Shaq on the court, compared to just 45.7% with Shaq off the court. Boston's offensive rebound percentage increased from 17.0% to 33.3% with Shaq on the court.

Limiting Miami Defensively
Miami's offense felt Shaq's impact as well. The Heat had a net offensive rating of +8.0 when Shaq was off the court. However, the Heat had a net rating of -28.3 when Shaq was on the court.

Miami's shots were about a foot-and-a-half closer when Shaq was out of the game. The average distance of a Miami field goal attempt with Shaq on the court was 15.1 feet. With Shaq off the court, the average distance of an attempt was 13.4 feet (a 1.7-foot difference).

Effectively, Shaq helped neutralize Joel Anthony. In the 15 minutes that Shaq and Anthony played head-to-head in the regular season, Anthony's plus/minus took a major hit (-17). That means the that the Celtics outscored the Heat by more than a point per minute with Shaq and Anthony on the court at the same time.

Considering that Anthony currently has the best plus/minus in the 2011 postseason at +91, including +20 in the conference semifinals against the Celtics, Shaq's ability to play becomes that much more significant.

Magic, Hornets and Blazers say goodbye

April, 29, 2011
By ESPN Stats & Info
On Thursday the phrase “win or go home” truly meant something for the Orlando Magic, New Orleans Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers. All three faced elimination, and after Thursday’s action, all three are going home.

Atlanta Hawks 84, Orlando Magic 81 (Hawks win series 4-2)
For the first time in franchise history, the Hawks beat the Magic in a playoff series. Atlanta has not lost a home playoff game in which it had a chance to clinch the series in the last 15 years. The last team to beat the Hawks in such a situation was the 1995-96 Indiana Pacers led by Rik Smits and ESPN analyst Mark Jackson. The Hawks will look to win two playoff series in the same postseason for the first time since moving to Atlanta in 1968.

The stars of the game were Jamal Crawford, who once again outscored the entire Magic bench 19-17, and Joe Johnson, who grabbed a playoff career-high 10 rebounds en route to his first career 20-10 playoff game.

The Magic finished 0-5 this season in Atlanta, regular season and playoffs combined. Their 3-point shooting was a huge issue as the Magic shot 26.3 percent in this game and 26.2 percent in the series. That's more than 10 percentage points below their regular-season average (36.6 percent).

Dwight Howard averaged 27 points and 15.5 rebounds per game, while making 63 percent of his field-goal attempts. The Elias Sports Bureau tells us that over the last 30 years, only one other player had a playoff series in which he averaged 27 points and 15 rebounds per game, while making at least 60 percent of his field-goal attempts. That was Shaquille O'Neal (38.0 points, 16.7 rebounds, 61.1 percent) for the Lakers against the Pacers in the 2000 Finals. In earlier playoffs, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reached those levels in four series, and Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Lanier each did it once.

This was the earliest the Magic were bounced from the playoffs in the Stan Van Gundy era. In each of his previous three seasons, they won at least one series.

The Hawks move on to face the top-seeded Chicago Bulls. Chicago took two of the three meetings this season, with the lone Hawks win coming in Atlanta after the Bulls blew a 17-point halftime lead.

Los Angeles Lakers 98, New Orleans Hornets 80 (Lakers win series, 4-2)
The Lakers led by as many as 21 points in the fourth quarter and won their first-round series for the fourth straight year. Phil Jackson improves to 56-21 (.727 win percent) in potential series-clinching games, which is the second-best mark in NBA history to Gregg Popovich (minimum 15 games). Kobe Bryant finished with 24 points including 22 in the first three quarters. Bryant had a string of eight straight 30-plus point games in road potential series-clinchers snapped. The Lakers, however, are 8-1 in their last nine potential road clinchers with Bryant averaging 38.7 points per game. Overall he is 32-14 in potential series-clinching games.

The Hornets fall to 0-5 in playoff series that go six games or more. Chris Paul finished two rebounds shy of a triple-double, which would have been his second of the series.
Paul was less aggressive on the offensive end in Game 6 compared to the earlier games in the series. In the four losses to the Lakers, Paul averaged 18 points and 10 assists, which is very respectable. Unfortunately for the Hornets, they couldn't win without their point guard playing nearly flawless basketball. In the two wins, Paul averaged 30 points and including assists, was responsible for more than 60 points per game.

So who will the Lakers take on in the Western Conference semifinals?

Dallas Mavericks 103, Portland Trail Blazers 96 (Mavericks win series 4-2)
The Mavericks advance past the first round for just the second time in the last five postseasons. Dirk Nowitzki led the way with 33 points and 11 rebounds for his second double-double of the series. Nowitzki improves to 10-7 in potential series-clinching games, averaging 26.2 points per game in those games. It's the second-highest scoring average in potential series clinchers among active players.

Gerald Wallace led the Blazers with a playoff career-high 32 points to go along with 12 rebounds. Brandon Roy added nine points off the bench. In Portland's two wins he averaged 20.0 points per game, while he averaged 4.0 points per game in the four losses.

The Mavericks will now face the Lakers in their first playoff meeting since 1988, which means Bryant and Nowitzki will be playing their first-ever playoff series against each other. The last time the Mavericks and Lakers met in the playoffs it was a Mark Aguirre-led Mavericks team against a Byron-Worthy-Magic-Kareem-led Lakers team. The Lakers won the Conference Finals in seven games and went on to win the NBA Finals.