|Tuesday, October 24
Updated: October 25, 10:10 AM ET
Wilt ... Russell ... Kareem ... and Shaq?
By Mitch Lawrence
Special to ESPN.com
MIAMI -- Ladies and gentlemen, your attention, please: In this corner, from the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaquille O'Neal. His opponent in this fantasy basketball game of one-on-one, the One and Only Wilt Chamberlain.
Here's the opening tip, controlled by the Big Dipper and ...
So who'd win this encounter, the one Orlando senior VP Pat Williams calls "the ultimate fantasy matchup?" While we're at it, who would win encounters between Shaq and the other all-time greats? First of all, there are some who don't think Shaq belongs on the same court with the legendary centers of the game, even after sweeping both MVP Awards and winning his first championship last season.
"I like Shaq, but he's not in a league with guys like Wilt and (Bill) Russell," said Tom Heinsohn, the old Celtics forward and ex-head coach. "Shaq is this game's ultimate guy. But he's not a dominating guy at both ends of the floor. He doesn't sweep all the boards. Heck, those guys used to break up an entire defense by themselves. Look at the record book. Wilt averaged 50 points a game. Shaq, he's not playing against anybody his own size. So he's just knocking people over. Not only aren't there any centers anymore, there aren't that many power forwards, either."
Fair enough. It's a perimeter player's league now.
"At one time, there were 10 great centers in the league, seven feet or better," said Miami's Pat Riley, who played with Chamberlain and later coached another Hall of Famer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "Shaq is the only guy right now who is absolutely dominant, based on sheer force and talent."
Because of the dearth of big men, we're left with pondering "computer" matchups, a la Muhammad Ali vs. Rocky Marciano. So for argument's sake, how about Shaq vs. Wilt? Well we know one thing, nobody would want them to decide their battle on the foul line. It might take days.
Heinsohn, who went up against Wilt for years, favors Chamberlain because of his athleticism and skill-level. He's not alone. Others rate it a draw.
"Wilt would have to shoot his fadeaway and he wouldn't get a lot of dunks on Shaq," said Williams, the ex-Sixer GM. "But Wilt could defend Shaq. That would be the 300-pound Wilt, rather than the skinny Wilt at 21. Wilt would block a lot of his shots. The two giants would go toe-to-toe. To me, they'd play each other to a standstill and others would have to win the game."
Williams seemed equally intrigued by a Russell-O'Neal matchup. On paper, Russell would seemed to be overwhelmed by Shaq's size. Shaq would enjoy more than a 100-pound advantage on Russell, the 11-time champion with the great Celtics teams of the '60's. But don't discount William Felton Russell's brilliance as tactician.
"Russell couldn't have muscled him or matched up size-wise," Williams said. "But he would get into his head. In this era of trash-talking, he would probably work on him more than he would have back when he was playing. Shaq would be afraid to let the ball go. He wouldn't know where Russell was coming from. He'd deflect his shot. Russell would have had to have been at the top of his mental game. But he would have relished the challenge."
So would other great big men from the Great Era of Centers. For that reason we are going to disqualify George Mikan from this because he was from the first era and he had nobody of his ability or size. At 6-10 he literally towered over everyone in the game when he played in the 1950s -- the dark ages of the league. We can't subject him to a matchup against O'Neal. But as for the Great Era of Centers, as Hall of Famer Bob Lanier pointed out, back in the 1960's and '70's, centers had to go up against equally competent big men on a nightly basis.
"Shaq is not used to getting his shot off against people who have equal size and power," said the former Piston and Buck, who is now a special assistant to NBA commissioner David Stern. "Don't forget, Wilt played against guys who were much better defensively than Shaq, and who had a lot of versatility at the offensive end. Heck, Wilt used to put big numbers up against Russell, and he was the greatest defensive center who ever lived."
The greatest offensive center was one of Lanier's contemporaries, Abdul-Jabbar. The league's all-time leading scorer vs. O'Neal would have been a great matchup, just to see O'Neal try to defend the skyhook.
Some say that Abdul-Jabbar would have had to move his lethal move outside a few more feet, because Shaq would refuse to allow Abdul-Jabbar to station himself so close to the basket. But there's little question that Abdul-Jabbar would have been able to score.
"With all his talent and height, he'd give anybody who ever played a hard time," Lanier said. "It's like when you talk about Magic Johnson. When a guy is that talented and that big, he can play in any era. Kareem wasn't overly powerful defensively. But with his height and athleticism and length, he would affect Shaq's shots."
Wes Unseld would have affected Shaq in another way. With power. These days, Shaq sometimes has his toughest matchups with hulking, power forwards, like Portland's Dale Davis or Miami's Anthony Mason. They tend to do a better job than taller players battling O'Neal as he tries to establish himself in the low post.
"There's never been a center built like Wes," Williams said. "Not with those two redwoods that were his legs. Wes would have battled him. Shaq might have worn him out, physically, but he would have needed an ice bath for an hour after the game."
Lanier puts himself in that black-and-blue category, too. But he had great versatility, scoring 20,000 points over 11 seasons. He and another Hall of Famer, Dave Bing, ran the pick-and-roll, with Lanier's range extending out to 17-18 feet. But wait. Right there, they could have exposed Shaq, who has a glaring weakness when it comes to extending his defense to play the pick-and-roll. He just doesn't bother. So that would work in Lanier's favor.
"You've got to put pressure on Shaq with your offense," Lanier said. "That makes it hard for him to just play offense."
So it makes sense that Hall of Famers like Lanier, Dave Cowens and Willis Reed, all with good range, would have given him fits by staying on the perimeter and launching shots.
"Cowens was a 6-8 center, and there were ways we used him against bigger people," Heinsohn said. "We used speed and quickness to the ultimate degree."
Plus, Shaq often has been less than interested in playing defense. As much as he would probably overpower the good-shooting centers from years past with his enormous size and strength, he would have probably given up more than a few shots at the other end.
"Shaq still needs to get the defensive presence guys like Wilt and Russell had," said Charlotte coach Paul Silas, who played against those two legends, and most of the other great centers. "With those two, the intimidation factor was always there. They always had a presence. Shaq has improved at both ends, but he still doesn't have that kind of presence the great centers did."
Speaking of a great intimidator, Nate Thurmond was probably only second to Russell. Thurmond was a non-scorer -- although he had five straight seasons when he averaged more than 20 ppg. But the fascinating part of the matchup would be when O'Neal went on the offensive.
"Put it this way, Thurmond was quick enough to come out and challenge my shot," Lanier said. "But he was also quick enough to recover and get my layup if I got by him. Shaq has not played against anybody like that, I'll guarantee you."
The question is, will he ever?
Mitch Lawrence, who covers the NBA for the New York Daily News, writes a regular NBA column for ESPN.com.