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Tuesday, April 16, 2002
An MVP mystery: No love for Shaq

By Mark Haubner
ESPN.com

Certainly, there is no individual statistic in the NBA discussed more frequently than Shaquille O'Neal's free-throw percentage. The Big Aristotle once again trails the field in the category, shooting a paltry .555 at the line. "Why can't he just make them?" exasperated fans around the globe bemoan.

Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal blocked this last-second shot by Tim Duncan in a 96-95 Lakers win.
Yet, the obsession with the Big Fella's personal Kryptonite tends to overshadow the individual statistic which is truly the most notable and dominant in basketball today: Shaq's field-goal percentage.

Check it out: O'Neal's mark of .581 gives him a whopping lead of .049 over second-place Elton Brand. The difference between first and third (.058) is the same as the distance separating third place from 41st. Go back to 2000-01: same thing. The spread between first and third (.039) was the same as that between third and 29th. No other player holds such a dominance over such a major category.

What makes this statistic so significant is that there is no stat (beyond, obviously, points) which correlates to winning more consistently than field-goal percentage. In 2000-01, teams which outshot their opponents from the floor won 81.4 percent of the time. By contrast, teams which made more free throws than their opponents won 60.6 percent of the time. Having an edge in rebounding led to victory 66.0 percent of the time.

In its 1994-95 Basketball Scoreboard, STATS INC examined the "winningest stat categories" for the previous three seasons. The results were similar:

STAT		WIN%
Higher FG%	.788
More FGM	.773
More AST	.733
More REB	.687
More FTM	.656
More FTA	.644
Higher FT%	.556
More FGA	.453

The most interesting deductions related to the Diesel are that shooting a high free-throw percentage 1) is not as important as simply getting to the line and converting a large number of free throws, both of which Shaq does, and 2) pales in comparison to shooting well from the field and amassing a high total of field goals made, O'Neal's specialties.

In other words, for each exasperated instance where a fan or commentator wonders how in the name of Shot Doctor Buzz Braman is it that the Big Fella can't make a simple free throw, we should probably hear a couple exclamations of awe for how amazing it is that Shaq shoots such a high percentage from the field relative to the rest of the NBA, for it is ultimately much more important to the bottom line.

But things don't work that way, for relatively obvious reasons. There's disbelief that a one-in-a-billion athlete -- an unprecedented combination of power and agility -- cannot master the one skill which seemingly millions of Set Shot Bufords aged 8 to 80 can perfect with a few hours practice on the backyard hoop.

Conversely, from the field, he makes it all look so easy, punctuating nimble footwork with sheer, unstoppable explosiveness. "All he does is dunk." Well, yeah. You underestimate the quality and quantity of his post moves, but yeah, so?

Ultimately, my point is this: Y'all are taking the Big Everything for granted. Our esteemed panel of ESPN.com experts has split all of its MVP votes between Jason Kidd and Tim Duncan.

Both are worthy candidates, don't get me wrong. But not a single vote for the Big Fella? It almost reminds me of 1996-97, when Michael Jordan seemed to be disqualified with an unspoken acknowledgement that "well, of course we know he plays on a different level, we just need to spread things around."

The Case vs. Kidd
Statistically, Kidd, despite a poor individual shooting percentage, has been instrumental in vast improvements in team assists and team field-goal percentage, both offensive and defensive, all leading indicators of winning percentage.

Anecdotally, Kidd's contributions transcend statistics, such as in last week's thriller in Orlando, when Kidd -- seemingly outplayed by fellow MVP candidate Tracy McGrady statistically -- took the game by the throat in overtime, notching a bucket and an assist on two decisive break-neck fast breaks.

I would choose Shaq over Kidd for a few reasons. First, Shaq has led his team to a better record (57-24 vs. 51-29; additionally, the Lakers are 50-16 when Shaq plays, just 7-8 when he doesn't). Well, he has Kobe to help him, you say. Valid point, but I think that the return of Kerry Kittles, the additions of Todd MacCulloch and Richard Jefferson, and full healthy seasons by Kenyon Martin and Keith Van Horn are underestimated as complements to Kidd in the Nets' rise in '01-02.

Also, I do think that individual shooting plays a role in the difference between the two players. Kidd has shot 33.3 percent or worse from the floor a whopping 27 times, and his team is just 12-15 (.444) in those games, as opposed to 39-14 (.736) otherwise. While poor free-throw shooting by Shaq has hurt the Lakers relatively, the team is still a respectable 11-7 (.636) when he is under 50.0 percent from the stripe (as opposed to 39-9 -- .813 -- when he makes half or more).

The Case vs. Duncan
This one is a lot closer, I admit. While Shaq's numbers are down this year as he has struggled with the bad toe, Duncan has turned in the best stats of his brilliant young career. Take a look at the comparison:

SHAQ VS. DUNCAN (stats through April 15)
  G PTS REB AST BLK FG% FT%
O'Neal 66 27.3 10.7 3.0 2.11 .581 .555
Duncan 80 25.5 12.7 3.7 2.41 .506 .801

All things considered, that's about as tight as it gets, statistically. Duncan has been a better defensive player (Shaq's toe seems to have hampered his rebounding and defense more than anything). The Diesel, however, remains the offensive behemoth, although Duncan's improvements in assists and foul shooting are impressive.

Duncan gets extra credit for playing every game and carrying a team on his back. Shaq gets points for his team's stellar record in the games he played.

Ultimately, this race is about as close as the Lakers-Spurs nailbiter played on Final Four Sunday. Duncan dominated the action in the second half until Shaq switched over on defense and locked up the Big Fundamental down the stretch to secure a 96-95 win. That stretch run, however, included a dubious Shaq "block" of Duncan at the buzzer which looked like a lot more arm than ball.

In other words: Too close to call. Let's settle it in May.

I would vote for Shaq by a hair because, while Duncan is a great player, Shaq is still physically unguardable. But I can see the argument for TD. I'm just asking that you at least include the Big Fella in the conversation.

Mark Haubner, a former lead editor of NBA.com who can hit the three, is a producer for ESPN.com.