I’ve never really been much of a Shaquille O’Neal fan. Okay, that’s an understatement. I think Shaq is an overrated assclown who thinks much too highly of himself. I’ve never liked him and I never will, so perhaps I’m a bit biased when Shaq opens up his big trap and starts spouting off, but so be it—the way I figure, any person that talks about himself in third person has invited all the contempt he gets.
So, it’s not a huge surprise, I suppose that as a basketball purest, I’m a little perturbed by Shaq’s recent comments aimed at San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. You see, for all of the things that Shaquille O’Neal does well, what he does not do well is shoot free throws. He’s horrible at it as a matter of fact. He’s also a “star player” though, so you can rest assured that he’s going to be in at the end of any game, or the tantrum he’ll throw will be monumental.
The problem with having him in a close game though, is that as time winds down, many coaches employ a strategy which has become known as the Hack-A-Shaq strategy. Simply put, anytime O’Neal touches the ball, he’s immediately fouled and forced to shoot free throws, which, as I’ve mentioned, he’s not very good at, so the end result is that the opposing team gets good opportunities to score every possession, while Shaq’s team is stuck with his poor free throw shooting as their only means of offense.
So, if you’re playing Shaq’s team and you’re losing, you employ Hack-A-Shack to help your team come back and if your team is winning, you employ it to expand that lead and keep the other team from coming back.
From a purely strategic point of view, it’s not only a great strategy, but one of the most long standing tactics in the game of basketball. Since the inception of the game, coaches have been using the foul as a means of making a comeback and the weakest free throw shooter on the other team has always been the favorite target.
Perhaps no player has been subjected to it more than O’Neal though. Not coincidentally though, this is because he’s probably the worst free throw shooter of any “superstar” the game has ever known.
For his part, Shaq has been whining about the strategy since it was first used against him. Recently, he called Popovich “cowardly” for using it in a playoff game in which his team was winning by 10 points. O’Neal also points out that the strategy makes the game less interesting for the fans.
And in a nutshell, this attitude is one of the reasons why I will never count O’Neal among the greatest big men to ever play the game. For someone who’s played the game so long, to not understand the importance of strategy over entertainment is a sad reflection on the state of the game at the professional level.
A coach is not and never will be a coward for exploiting the greatest weakness of the team opposing him. Poor baby Shaq can’t wrap his giant ego around the fact that the weakness is him. He is a liability to his team at the end of a game. About no other great of the game can this be said—which is why O’Neal cannot be a member of that club in my opinion.
If Shaq had his way, every game would be decided based on physicality and talent alone. Not surprising for someone whose only real talent is being bigger and stronger than everyone else, O’Neal has a certain disdain for the intellectual part of the game, especially when that intellect exposes him.
In fairness, Shaq goes on to say, “I just have to go to the line and hit [the free throws] and make them pay, and I will; I’m not worried.” Only he’s been saying the same thing for years now and his free throw shooting has never improved. And he’s never shy about speaking out against the strategy and even lobbied for a rule to be instituted against it.
I’ve taught grade school kids to shoot free throws at a higher percentage than Shaq makes them, though he is making millions of dollars to do it. Throughout a long career, he’s never seemingly made the effort to shore up this weakness in his game, he’s never eliminated this weakness from the teams he’s played on. He uses the fact that he’s bigger and stronger to bully defenders, but his skill lever is, and always has been suspect.
A little bit older and a little bit slower now, he’s far from the dominant player he once was and in a year or two, his career will be coming to an end. When it does, the talking heads will all discuss his place on the list of greatest big men of all time, and probably of the greatest players of all time. It’s sad that many of those talking heads will insist on giving him a status he does not deserve. He is not one of the best, either in the game or at his position. He is a fraud. He always has been. He always will be.
There is more to determining greatness than statistics and while Shaq’s stats may delude some into thinking he was greater than he was, it’s small things like these comments and these feelings that truly put him into the proper perspective. He is not a team player, though he plays a team sport. He is a strategic liability and weakness because of his lack of skill and practice. He is a brute force—nothing more, nothing less. If men of his height, weight and muscle were more common, if every team had one, Shaquille O’Neal would never have been more than average.
For my part, I enjoy watching O’Neal in the twilight of his career, no longer able to dominate a game. As his body wears down, he is paying the price of not having attained greater skill. He is no longer dominant. I can’t help but think back to the true greatest of all time, Michael Jordan, and how he seemed to get better with age, how his highlight film days were just a beginning, not the peak of his career. The same cannot be said of O’Neal. As his physical condition deteriorates, so does his game.
So, when the time comes and talking heads start to squawk about Shaq’s place in history, try to remember that no one ever mistook Pamela Anderson as one of the best actresses of all time, and don’t be fooling into thinking that O’Neal was anything more than an average talent in an amazing body.