Shaq's impact often overstated
By Terry Brown
Thursday, August 12
Updated: August 12
10:26 AM ET
We've seen Shaquille O'Neal make opposing centers disappear with a single drop step. We've seen him leave piles of power forwards behind on his way to three Finals MVPs. For the past 12 years, we have watched him become what many analysts call the most devastating post player in the history of the game.
But does that really mean that 33-year-old Wesley Person, recently signed by the Miami Heat, will suddenly remember how to shoot and score in the NBA because he is now playing on the same team as Shaq?
The theory goes that with Shaq in the middle, opposing teams are forced to double and sometimes triple him thereby leaving the center's teammates wide open for jumpshots. And the individual statistics posted by Shaq seem to confirm this. Not only has he averaged 27.1 points per game over his career, but he's done so while shooting 57.7 percent from the field.
In his most recent Finals appearance, the Detroit Pistons decided to defend him in man-to-man coverage and O'Neal shot an incredible 63.1 percent from the field while scoring 133 points in five games.
The problem, though, was that his team still lost.
After Shaq scored 34 points on 13-for-16 shooting to open the series against Detroit, Pistons head coach Larry Brown decided against double or triple teaming him. When he scored 36 points on 16-for-21 shots in the fourth game of the series, Shaq still found himself in single coverage for the fifth game.
In between, he never shot below 50 percent and never had to go to the free-throw line more than 16 times in a game, averaging only 11 per contest after many playoff teams had resorted to a "Hack a Shaq" defense that once resulted in 31 free throws in a single contest.
Of course, many analysts argued that he should have gotten the ball more, taken twice as many shots, and his teammates should have force fed him with countless numbers of passes.
But there is no indication that even that would have taken the Pistons out of single coverage, which questions the theory that Shaq does make his teammates' jobs that much easier and their potency on offense that much better.
The more Laker coaches were calling for the ball down low, the more Brown knew that his opponent would run less for easy baskets, the less time his opponent would have on the shot clock once the half-court offense was set up and the more his opponent would become psychological dependant on Shaq at the actual expense of his teammates' games.
These things simply don't show up in the boxscore.
Unless, of course, a closer look is taken.
For the 2000 season, Ron Harper became a Laker after several years with the Chicago Bulls. He knew the triangle offense, and Phil Jackson wanted him to help teach it to the Lakers as the starting point guard.
In the two seasons prior to the move, an aging Harper shot 41.7 percent from the field and 25.4 percent from 3-point range. But in the two seasons that he played for the Lakers with O'Neal in the post, he shot 42.2 percent from the field and 29.2 percent from distance.
This seems to indicate that Shaq can and does help his teammates.
But on the other side of the argument is Robert Horry, who shot 38.7 percent from the field in last season with the Lakers, 39.8 percent from the field the year before that and 38.7 percent the year before that. Of course, he was getting older and it can be expected that his touch might be fading because of this.
But in his first season with the Spurs and without O'Neal in the post, he shot 40.5 percent.
This would have been the same season that Gary Payton went from Seattle and Milwaukee to Los Angeles only to see his shooting percentage go from 45.4 percent in 2003 without Shaq to 36.6 percent in 2004 with Shaq.
Of course, there are several reasons for all these numbers, but that doesn't change the fact that Shaq doesn't always make his perimeter players better shooters.
Perhaps a better example would be Eddie Jones, who once played more than two seasons with Shaq in Los Angeles and will now be paired with him again in Miami.
Before Shaq was signed as a free agent for the 1997 season, Jones shot a career-high 49.2 percent from the field. The following year, the guard's precision plummeted to 43.8 percent with O'Neal in the lineup. But he very next year, with Shaq still wearing the same uniform, Jones then shot a much better 48.4 percent. Jones' accuracy then dropped again in the 1999 season as he shot 42.3 percent from the field and was traded. In his new home in Charlotte without O'Neal, his shooting percentage went up to 44.6 percent.
Now, these numbers may have more to do with Jones than they do with O'Neal, and Jones has said how much easier his job was with Shaq than without. But easier, obviously, doesn't always mean better. Jones has since shot 44.5 percent from the field for Miami in 2001 and a career-high 40.7 percent from 3-point range in 2003.
We will have further evidence this year when the two players take the floor together again as we will when players like Derek Fisher, now in Golden State, and Devean George attempt to go at it without O'Neal for the first times in their careers.
But there is still other evidence to examine.
In 1996, the year just before O'Neal came to Los Angeles, the Lakers shot 48 percent from the field. In 1997, with O'Neal, they shot 45.4 percent.
But we can also see Shaq's impact on the floor as a passer and attention getter if we take his own shooting out of the equation to see how his teammates around him are doing as a result of his presence. If Shaq's own percentage of 55.7 percent is taken away, the Lakers shot only 43.6 percent in 1997.
In fact, if Shaq's personal numbers are subtracted in the ensuing seasons, the Laker shooters don't fare very well at all. In 1999, they shot 43.6 percent from the field again. In 2000, they shot 42.1 percent. In 2003, they shot 42.4 percent. Overall in eight seasons, the Lakers shot 43.5 percent from the field if Shaq's numbers are taken out.
Last year, the Lakers shot 43.1 percent from the field with O'Neal's numbers subtracted, which would have ranked them 22nd in the league between the Cavs at 43.3 percent and the Magic at 42.9 percent.
Similarly, if the Spurs had Tim Duncan's numbers taken out, they would have shot 42.8 percent. If the Pacers had Jermaine O'Neal's numbers taken out, they would have shot 43.5 percent. And if the Warriors had Erick Dampier's numbers taken out, they would have shot 43.1 percent or the same as the Lakers without O'Neal.
And no one is claiming that Dampier ever made Jason Richardson a better shooter.
Clearly, the Lakers were a better team with O'Neal in the lineup. They won three NBA Titles and reached the Finals in four of his last five seasons there. Their offense was more potent. They ground teams down in the post, and in the playoffs when the pace was slowed, they simply beat them up with Shaq doing the bulk of the damage. And as a result, O'Neal may have made his teammates' jobs easier.
His presence in Los Angeles allowed players like A.C. Green and Horace Grant to add year or two to their careers as well as some jewelry. He covered for younger players like Samaki Walker and Fisher. He even helped provide for the NBA education of Kobe Bryant.
But he, nor any center, can actually shoot the ball from distance for his teammates with the same efficiency that he is shooting from within the post. To say that he made his teammates better shooters is, well, statistically false.
And with Shaq taking up $30 million in cap space, the Heat are left with a shooting guard who averaged 5.8 points per game on 40 percent shooting last year simply because Person would sign for the $1.6 million veterans exception.