In his prime, Shaquille O'Neal was the best player on the best team in the NBA. Playing for Phil Jackson from 1999-2004, O'Neal won three NBA titles, three NBA Finals MVPs, a scoring title and a league MVP. Shaq dominated the post like no player in his era.
His embarrassed opponents ran away.
"The reason there are no big men is me and Phil killed them all off," O'Neal says.
Shaq's not wrong. O'Neal entered a different league as a rookie in 1992-93. When he led the league in scoring for the first time in 1994-95 with 29.3 points per game, four of the top six scorers were centers: O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing. In 2015-16, DeMarcus Cousins finished first among centers and fourth in the league with 26.9 ppg. Next up was Brook Lopez at 20.6 ppg, 20th in the league.
"When I was coming up, I used to watch Patrick Ewing and David Robinson," O'Neal says. "They played inside. I wanted to be like that. When I was playing, nobody wanted to battle me on the inside. Everyone would pick-and-pop. You had guys coming from Europe like Dirk Nowitzki.
"We killed 'em all off, so now you've got guys 6-9, 6-10, picking and popping. They're not called centers anymore, they're called pick and poppers. They go small ball."
O'Neal spoke alongside Jackson Monday on a panel in New York City. Jackson got a good chuckle out of O'Neal's assertion of the duo as killers. But in Jackson's mind, they did not land the fatal bullets on opposing big men. The league pulled the plug.
"They changed the rules," Jackson says. "They said, 'How many big men do we have like Shaq? Not too many. How many little guys do we have 6-5 and under? Quite a few.' They made it a more guard-oriented game, but it's all right. It's the way it is. The players in the post still have a role."
In terms of rule changes, Jackson references the NBA's leniency on zone defenses. The NBA just happened to lift its prohibition on zone defenses in 2001-02, the third year of Shaq's Lakers three-peat. This encourages defenders to switch off their men. "In the post, it's always a double team," Jackson says, noting that as long as the second defender is not in the lane, such a strategy is fair game. More than a decade later, the NBA is suited for shooters and slashers, or, at the center position, pick-and-poppers.
O'Neal knows this. And the next generation needs to see it. Speaking exclusively to ThePostGame, Shaq explained how he would encourage coaches to train teenage seven-footers. After all, he is going through the process with his son, Shareef O'Neal, a power forward in the high school class of 2018.
"I would train him to be like a guard, but teach him to be like a big man," O'Neal says. "That's what I'm doing for my son, Shareef. When he was young, I trained him to be like a guard because I thought he was going to be 6-9. I thought he was going to be like LeBron [James]. The fact that he has all that and he's going to be 7-0, I think it will be good for him in the style of game they play now. He can play down low or he can pick and pop. So if I was training a seven-footer, I wouldn't treat him like a seven-footer. I would make sure he has all the skills."
The changing anatomy of the NBA center can be seen in stats from O'Neal's rookie season to the present. These are the league leaders in scoring average by a center by year, from 1992-93 to 2015-16.
1992-93: Hakeem Olajuwon, HOU – 26.1
1993-94: David Robinson, SAS – 29.8
1994-95: Shaquille O'Neal, ORL – 29.3
1995-96: Hakeem Olajuwon, HOU – 26.9
1996-97: Shaquille O'Neal, LAL – 26.2
1997-98: Shaquille O'Neal, LAL – 28.3
1998-99: Shaquille O'Neal, LAL – 26.3
1999-00: Shaquille O'Neal, LAL – 29.7
2000-01: Shaquille O'Neal, LAL – 28.7
2001-02: Shaquille O'Neal, LAL – 27.2
2002-03: Shaquille O'Neal, LAL – 27.5
2003-04: Shaquille O'Neal, LAL – 21.5
2004-05: Shaquille O'Neal, MIA – 22.9
2005-06: Pau Gasol, MEM – 20.4
2006-07: Tim Duncan, SAS – 20.0
2007-08: Al Jefferson, MIN – 21.0
2008-09: Dwight Howard, ORL – 20.6
2009-10: Brook Lopez, NJ – 18.8
2010-11: Dwight Howard, ORL – 22.9
2011-12: Al Jefferson, UTAH – 19.2
2012-13: Brook Lopez, BKN – 19.4
2013-14: DeMarcus Cousins, SAC – 22.7
2014-15: DeMarcus Cousins, SAC – 24.1
2015-16: DeMarcus Cousins, SAC – 26.9
Notice after O'Neal, there is a significant dip in scoring for centers until Cousins dialed it back up in recent years. Here is where Shaq's pick-and-pop analysis comes back into play.
In 2015-16, Cousins made 70 of 210 3-pointers. He took 210 3-pointers!
Olajuwon, Robinson, O'Neal and Duncan, all Hall of Famers, did not take more than 168 3-pointers in their careers. (Yeah, we know, Tim Duncan hasn't even retired yet, but the vote for his induction is going to be a mere formality.) Cousins made the change in his game this season -- he had only taken 69 3-pointers in his first five NBA seasons. Meanwhile, 6-10 Anthony Davis, who only took 27 3-pointers in his first three seasons, took 108 shots from downtown in 61 games this season. Karl-Anthony Towns, the 7-0 rookie of the year, shot 88 triples this year.
When asked if Towns is the future of the NBA center, O'Neal acknowledges that Towns is "pretty good" and that he might be the new prototype.
"I was more of a guy who liked to bang around and beat people up more than get beaten up," he says during the panel. "I thought Dwight Howard would be that guy, but he's on his way out."
Hannah Storm, moderating the panel, presented by American Express, asks O'Neal where he thinks Howard, a free agent, will end up.
"I don't even care," he says with a straight face.
Howard was labeled Shaq's successor. He was 6-11 and drafted first overall in 2004. He had a massive frame to be a force on both ends of the post. One of O'Neal's nicknames was "Superman," and he even has a Superman tattoo. Howard won the 2008 Slam Dunk Contest wearing a Superman cape. Both started their careers with the Magic.
From 2007-08 to 2011-12, he made five All-NBA First Teams, led all centers in scoring twice, won three Defensive Player of the Year Awards and earned a trip to the NBA Finals. But his prime was short-lived. Howard's offensive numbers trailed off in recent years with the Lakers and Rockets. As the game has evolved, Howard has not kept up, according to Shaq.
"Dwight is a mixture of an old-school center and the beginning of the new center," O'Neal says. "Once he gets in the post, he has to face you up to determine his move. Old school is boom, feel it, feel it, OK, action. They take the action away, go to the counter-action move. He's like at the beginning, when guys used to get it and face up and you're not going to get doubled and then you make a move and score. That part of the game has passed him up. He needs to go old school, boom-boom, jump hook, boom-boom, drop step, or pick-and-pop. He's not going to be a pick-and-pop guy. Or he's got to resort to being DeAndre Jordan or Andrew Bogut, just be a role player and catch lobs."
Shaq could write an educational eulogy on the death of the post-up center. He is also a scholar in modern small ball. Chatting in between NBA Finals Games 2 and 3, O'Neal explained why he felt the Warriors were controlling the series, and it had nothing to do with home-court advantage.
"I'm talking about the team concept," he says. "If I don't have a shot, you shoot. Where are you from? New York? Carmelo Anthony holds on to the ball. That will never get it done.
"If you think about all the championships, people want to talk about the great players. The others have always made the impact. My favorite Chicago moment was Michael Jordan drinking water in Utah and he looks over at Steve [Kerr], and says, 'I missed you a couple times. They're doubling. I'm going to kick it over to you.' Big Shot Bob and Rick Fox and B Shaw, they saved my a** a lot of times. Ron Artest, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum saved Kobe's a** a lot. The other ones are the guys who are going to get you to the next level. We can't ever do it by ourselves. The fact they use everybody, that's why they're unbeatable. Their main two guys [Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson] haven't even played well yet. It's the others. Last year, in the Finals, an "other" was the MVP, Andre Iguodala. They play the game the right way, move the ball, backdoor cut, basic basketball. I don't want all that one-on-one, trying to score on five people. That s*** will never get it done."
On the other end of the NBA Finals is a Cavaliers team that looked downtrodden before a strong home performance in a Game 3 win. O'Neal played in Cleveland with LeBron James for one season, losing in the 2010-11 conference semifinals. He spent more time on the court with Tyronn Lue, the Cavs' head coach, who played for the Lakers from 1998-2001.
"Coaching and playing are two different things," O'Neal says. "Coaches get a lot of credit, but sometimes, they get too much credit. Players got to get out there and play. Period. I don't care what you write down. I don't care what your gameplan is. Players got to step up. Coaches that can motivate their players to step up are the ones who get recognized as great coaches. Phil didn't say anything to get us to just play. Either you're going to win or you're going to lose. See you later. And that was his way of motivating us. Oh s***, you don't believe in us. I just hope they're not overwhelmed to be playing in the Finals. It looked like some of their players, the pressure's too much. You've got to let that go and just play through it. Chances like this don't come, so you have to take advantage of the moment. The first time I went there, I got swept and I said, if I get back, I'm going to just take over. That's why I was able to get three Finals MVPs. I went there in '95 and I didn't get back until 2000. It ain't guaranteed every year."
James finally played like that Wednesday night. He dropped 32 points with 11 rebounds and six assists in a 120-90 blowout. But maybe part of the reason for the Cavs' victory was center Tristan Thompson's 14 points, his high this postseason. Centers can still make an impact. Just not the way they used before Shaq and Phil got through with them.
— ThePostGame.com (@ThePostGame) June 7, 2016
Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.