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J.A. Adande, who lives in L.A., and Israel Gutierrez, who lives in Miami, are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives.
When Shaquille O'Neal's No. 34 Lakers jersey goes up in Staples Center on Tuesday night, they might as well as retire the notion of the dominant big man along with it. Shaq belongs alongside George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Can you think of anyone coming along now who could one day belong in that group? Even next to Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing or David Robinson, for that matter? Check the Russells -- officially known as the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award. The last true center to win it was Shaq in 2002. The only other traditional big man to take home the honor since then was Tim Duncan in 2003 and 2005. Compare that to the first nine years the NBA gave out the award. Centers won it six times. And if it had been in place before 1969, you can be sure that Russell and Mikan would have shelves full of them. Teams aren't built around centers anymore, because centers don't want to be centers anymore. They want to be shoot 3-pointers. But just because they aren't built like Shaq doesn't mean they can't try to play like him. So while the Lakers say thanks to Shaq on Tuesday night, maybe we should all say goodbye to the last of the big men.
Well, when Shaq retired, we said goodbye to the first and last Shaq. He was so unique, even among the great big men of all time, with his combination of size, strength, agility and footwork. The fact that he dominated the game without even a semblance of a jump shot is proof enough that he's among the most unique players to ever lace 'em up. But his jersey retirement signaling a goodbye to all the big men might be a bit too strong a statement. The truly, truly dominant centers don't come around very often at all. We were spoiled in the '80s and '90s by a group that dominated the game seemingly all at once. We still had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar near the end of his career when Ewing, Olajuwon and Robinson came along. Couple that with Shaq dropping in near the end of that era, and it seemed that dominant big men would be around forever. But the truth is, that just isn't the case. The truly dominant center has always been a rare find. Mikan, Russell, Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar essentially held that position during their eras without a ton of competition. Even some of the players we called big men back in the day wouldn't really be considered centers today. Willis Reed (6-foot-10, 240 pounds) would probably be classified as a power forward today. Moses Malone (6-10, 260) was built a lot like Zach Randolph, a power forward. Even Russell, at 6-9, would've been dwarfed by some of the centers who followed him. So, to be fair, it's as much about labeling as it is about how much the game has changed. Go ahead and call Tim Duncan a power forward if you like, but his game and his size put him up there with the great centers of all time. And we would've had another dominant center still patrolling the paint, Yao Ming, if injuries hadn't shortened his career. Oh, and there's still Dwight Howard, who we forget sometimes. The game has evolved, yes, when a 6-8, 250-pound athlete like LeBron James only dabbles in the paint and essentially runs the point. But that doesn't mean we'll have some critical shortage of big men forever. They just never come around that often.
When you mention Dwight Howard, it reminds me: The strongest link between him and Shaq could turn out to be the fact that they're the two greatest players in Orlando Magic history, and it's possible that neither will have his jersey retired by the Magic. That's unfathomable to me. Yes, their departures were bitter. But while they were in Orlando, they produced the best memories associated with this franchise. From 1991 to 1998, only one team beat Michael Jordan in a playoff series: Shaq's 1995 Magic (true, it was in the postseason following MJ's late-season comeback). And, who knows, one day we might look back with the same degree of wonder that Howard's 2009 squad beat LeBron James. O'Neal and Howard were the central figures on Orlando's two Eastern Conference champions. O'Neal brought the franchise legitimacy. Howard provided a good reason to build that fancy new arena. Both of their jerseys should be in there to remind fans of what these players meant to the team. Admit it: Seeing that mini-'90s Magic reunion of Shaq, Penny Hardaway and Dennis Scott in the TNT studios made you nostalgic. That's what jersey retirements are all about: nostalgia. I'd hang all three of their numbers -- Nick Anderson's too -- and there could be a touch of that nostalgic feeling with every upward glance at each game. How can you say no to sentiment?
It's such an odd issue, dealing with retired numbers, because there is no set of basic standards by which every franchise makes these decisions. The Lakers and Celtics are the most difficult teams to earn a retired number for, but teams like the Heat don't even limit their retired numbers to their own players (there are still jokes annually about the "retired" numbers of Michael Jordan and Dan Marino). But when it comes to those big men and their time in Orlando, you can't argue with their impact on the franchise. The problem is, retiring those numbers would only serve as a reminder to Orlando that it isn't one of the elite franchises in the league, despite two trips to the Finals. Both Shaq and Dwight left because they felt they needed to play in a bigger market to (A) win at the highest level and (B) make the most out of their marketability. So retiring either of their numbers in Orlando would essentially feel as if the Magic were saying, "Hey, thanks for putting up with us for as long as you could." It would seem as if the Magic are settling for being that second-rate franchise, as opposed to one that competes for titles regularly. The Lakers can more than justify retiring Shaq's jersey because they won with him, and they've won without him, so his ugly exit doesn't mean nearly as much. But franchises like Denver (Carmelo Anthony), Toronto (Vince Carter) and to a certain extent even Cleveland (LeBron) have a lot of thinking to do -- or a whole lot of time to let pass -- before they would consider putting those jerseys in the rafters.
The Lakers' glorious tradition makes their decision to retire Shaq's jersey more admirable. They already have the equivalent of a wing of an entire floor of the Hall of Fame up there, and when Kobe's jersey joins them, all five of their most recent championships will be represented. But the Lakers realized the story would be incomplete with that guy who won an MVP and three Russells in the purple and gold. It comes down to asking how much did a player enhance the franchise. LeBron was the best thing to ever happen to the Cavaliers. He took them to their only NBA Finals. The beloved Mark Price-Brad Daugherty-Larry Nance teams never went that far, and all of their numbers hang in Cleveland. Carmelo is a different story. Yes, he got the Nuggets to the conference finals, but the two series he won to get there were the only two he won during his time in Denver. Ultimately he didn't do more than Alex English or Dan Issel. He never provided a moment as memorable as Dikembe Mutombo squeezing the ball after the Nuggets upset the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics in the 1994 playoffs. And Vince? While he lifted Toronto to within a game of the conference finals in 2001, it also felt like he let down all of Canada with the way he played when he wanted out at the end. After he was traded to the Nets in the 2004-05 season his scoring average "magically" jumped from 15.9 to 27.5. No matter how bad the breakup, I'm all for franchises giving departed players their due as long as the players gave the franchises their all.
Well, we started with Shaq, so I'll just end with Shaq. As much as I wasn't a huge fan of his personality sometimes (those who covered him on a daily basis know his jokes were crazy repetitive, and he got into rifts with teammates for a reason), he was such an enormous figure (slight pun intended) and made such a huge impact in his first three stops, you could justify retiring his number in any of them. Yes, Orlando would have to swallow its collective pride and admit the franchise wasn't "big enough" for Shaq, but at some point it's about the individual and not about the ego of those running the franchise, as you pointed out, J.A. He essentially put the Magic on the NBA map -- something the Charlotte Bobcats are still waiting for any great player to do for them. The Heat could justify retiring his jersey, too, despite his nasty exit and quick feud with Pat Riley. You could argue that if Shaq never came to Miami and legitimized the franchise with a championship that LeBron and Chris Bosh would never have considered teaming with Dwyane Wade in Miami. So he might not only be the last dominant "true" center, but he might eventually join Wilt in another, even smaller fraternity: retired jerseys in three different cities.