When it comes to big men in the history of the NBA, Shaquille O’Neal certainly stands out as one of the biggest of the “bigs.” In a recent story for online magazine Inside Hoops, he talked about how he saw the game changing, right before his eyes, during his playing days.
Back during his playing days of the 2003 season, a reporter asked O’Neal what he thought of the New York Knicks of the day. For those that don’t remember, the Knicks were a dominant team in their own right, but by that season, had fallen on hard times.
Shaq said at the time that he wasn’t surprised to see the Knicks fall from grace, and he put the blame squarely on the team’s lack of a strong big man to fill the middle of the lane. Back in those days, there just weren’t many big, strong, dominating big men in the game.
Times were changing on the NBA landscape, Shaq noted. “No one stays dominant forever. No organization stays dominant forever. Mr. [Patrick] Ewing’s gone, Mr. [Charles] Oakley’s gone.”
He continued: “The game has changed, anyway. High school coaches and college coaches are breeding their big guys to step out and shoot jumpers like [Michael] Doleac. I think I’m one of the last big guys who likes to bang, so when I’m gone, the game’s going to be different.”
We’re sure that some people – back in the day – strongly disagreed with O’Neal’s prediction. They probably thought that Shaq was just talking himself up. And maybe that was the case, a bit. Yet it seems time and NBA history proved him right. For years after his retirement, there just weren’t the same kind of powerful, dominant big men in the league.
To be exact, there were plenty of “big” players in the game after Shaq’s retirement…there still are. Yet it seemed that that particular breed of big was just as comfortable shooting from the perimeter like the rest of the squad, rather than get down into the paint and impose some willpower on the defense.
Today that tide may be turning again. This season, we’ve seen big guys like Joel Embiid and Nikola (“The Joker”) Jokic bring back a more power-oriented big-man game. In fact, this season Embiid took home the trophy as the league’s scoring champion – the first time a big man did it since – you guessed it! – Shaq took the honors in the 1999-00 season. For the regular season this year, Embiid put up 33.1 points per game.
NBA history: The season Shaq won the scoring title, he was also voted MVP. For two decades, no other center earned the award (Tim Duncan played power forward when he won in 2002 and 2003.) Then came the man they call The Joker. Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets broke the drought in 2021, taking home the first of his two MVP awards that year.
For those that enjoy watching dominant big men like Shaq and his modern counterparts, things are definitely looking up. Will the trend continue? Hard to say. There are some dynamic big players coming out of college. Only time will tell what kind of impact they have on the game.