Stop slammin' Shaq
Despite total domination, O'Neal still has detractors
Sports Illustrated senior writer Phil Taylor will answer your NBA questions every week during the season. Click here to send him a question
I can't think of any star in NBA history whose talent has been the subject of as much disagreement as Shaquille O'Neal's. Shaq continues to put up gaudy numbers and set records -- in the first two games of the Lakers-Sacramento series, he became the first player in NBA playoff history to record back-to-back 40-point and 20-rebound efforts -- but there are still people who believe he's nothing but a freak of nature who gets away with turning basketball into a full-contact sport. For instance, I pulled this letter from Mark Ashley of Charleston, W.Va. out of the 'bag this week:
"Shaq is not a good ballplayer in my eyes. The man commits 20 offensive fouls a game, he catches the ball in the post and muscles and shoves his defender nearly under the basket, then he just dunks. ... Do you think that Shaq would even be in the NBA if he played in the '70s or '80s? Back then it was an offensive foul when a defender has an established position and the offensive player backs and shoves the defensive player out of his position."
It's true that O'Neal's game isn't pretty, and that he uses his bulk to clear out the low post like a chain saw in the forest. But his style isn't illegal; it's perfectly in keeping with the way the game has come to be played. There are lots of players who post up and try to back their way to the basket, they just don't have the power to knock defenders backward with each step, the way Shaq does. Sure his shoulder makes contact with an opponent as he spins toward the basket. So does Tim Duncan's and Karl Malone's and every other post-up player in the league, but the defender doesn't go stumbling out of bounds when those guys do it.
And if you think that Shaq wouldn't have been as effective in the old days when less contact was allowed, keep in mind that defenders wouldn't have been allowed to be as physical in trying to stop him, either. Can you imagine if Vlade Divac, Scot Pollard and the rest of the Kings weren't allowed to lean on O'Neal and bang him as they try to keep him out of the paint? Forget the 40-point games, he might have had 60.
This isn't to say that Shaq doesn't get away with the occasional offensive foul or three-second violation, but that's not what makes him the dominant player that he is. He's more than just powerful. He's agile, quick and smart. Maybe there are times he just looks as if he's bullying the opposition, when you want to tell him to pick on someone his own size. But it's not his fault that there's no one who fits that description. On to other matters:
Do you feel that Pat Riley might be a little overrated seeing as his team got
swept right out of the first round by the Hornets? Yes, he did win some
championships in L.A., but he had arguably two of the top players in NBA history
in Kareem and Magic, so that was rather expected. Do you think Riley will get
sacked or move
I still think that overall Riley is the best coach in the league. That doesn't mean he's perfect, or that he can lead a flawed team -- and the Heat were definitely flawed in the playoffs -- to a championship just on the strength of his skills as a motivator and strategist. If you had known at the start of the season that the Heat would play the Charlotte series essentially without Tim Hardaway and with Alonzo Mourning as a shell of his former self, I think you would have said that the Hornets could very well win the series. The fact that they ran Miami out of the gym three straight times was surprising, but the Heat were just ripe to be taken. Riley has made some mistakes as a GM -- especially staying with Hardaway too long -- but you have to remember that even though he hasn't won a title since he left Magic and Kareem, he transformed both the Knicks and Heat from mediocre teams into 50-win clubs and title contenders. Riley is going to spend the summer agonizing over whether to come back to Miami or not, but, in the end, he'll return. He's going to have to make some major adjustments next season, but I'm betting that he'll still make sure the Heat are one of the elite teams in the league.
Will -- or should -- Scottie Pippen retire now that his season is over? He
has been plagued by injury, poor choices in post-Jordan ball clubs and a
(perceived) diminished passion for the game. He's doing very little to uphold
his designation as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players. What are your
Scottie's not quitting, nor should he. He's not a great player anymore, but he's still got enough ability left to be a major contributor on a championship-caliber team. If the Blazers can clear out some of their disgruntled talent, Pippen can help them make a title run. I don't think his passion for the game has decreased, it's just that he saves most of his intensity and energy for the playoffs. At this stage of his career, he's overpaid, but that just makes up for all the years in Chicago when he was maybe the second-best all-around player in the game and his salary didn't reflect it.
I know that the NBA playoffs are drawn out to get as many games on Saturday
and Sunday afternoons as possible, but wouldn't the postseason generate a lot
more interest (and TV money per game) if it was compressed dramatically? It's
just really difficult to stay interested in the first two rounds when there are
three and even four nights between games. If the teams played every other night
and the networks had four games on per night (switching back and forth to cover
all the good action), I think more people would watch. I also think that the
good ol' days of 2-out-of-3 first-round series should be reinstated. Could the
NBA make as much money if it compressed the
The postseason, especially the first round, is like Spandex on Oliver Miller -- stretched much farther than it was meant to go. The league has heard so many complaints about that from fans and media that Commissioner David Stern says the opening round won't be as dragged out beginning next season, but the playoffs as a whole are still going to extend well into June. The reason is TV. NBC likes to air the Finals games during weeknights when the largest number of people are in front of their sets, and stretching the series out ensures that the network won't have to televise those games during May sweeps. Making it last well into June also gives the network some primetime programming at the start of the summer besides Will and Grace repeats. I agree that dragging things out drains some of the drama from the postseason, but with the money NBC and Turner Sports are paying, the NBA would play the games at midnight on the Fourth of July if television told it to.
Phil, who will be the biggest name traded this offseason? Do you think, like
last year, there will be many deals involving top players (Patrick Ewing, Eddie
Jones, Anthony Mason, Jamal Mashburn,
This could be a pretty active summer for big-name deals. If I had to pick one All-Star caliber player as the most likely to be dealt, it would be Gary Payton. He's not particularly happy in Seattle and the Sonics are apt to deal him now, while he's still got enough value to bring the Sonics at least two, maybe three, solid players in return. I keep hearing Jason Kidd's name mentioned in trade rumors as well, especially for Stephon Marbury, but I'm not at all convinced that Kidd is going anywhere. Then, of course, there's Chris Webber, who could go in a sign-and-trade deal or simply walk away as a free agent. New York and Houston, not necessarily in that order, are shaping up as the leading contenders for C-Webb.
I'm sick of seeing refs call double technicals every time there is a small
skermish between players. They are useless and absolve the referees of having
to assess blame for an incident when their job is to make judgement calls on
plays like these. It may be true that they keep players from getting into more
trouble, but too often an innocent player is assessed a T for someone else's
aggressive behavior. What's your take on this topic?
Amen. The double tech is usually a cop-out. There are occasions when both players deserve to be punished, but usually one or the other is at fault, and it's up to the ref to determine which one it is. If they miss the first blow and just catch the retaliation, so be it. The officials should call what they see and stand by it, because the double technical in meaningless.
There have been many arguments and debate about Jordan's Bulls being one of
the greatest NBA teams of all time. My question to you is this: Could any of
Jordan's clubs beat the following in a seven-game series: '86 Rockets, '79
Supersonics, '80 Lakers, '83
I'm not quite sure why you picked those four teams, but here's how I see it: Let's say for the sake of argument that the '96 Bulls team that went 72-10 was the best of their six title-winning squads. I think that team would have beaten all four of the clubs you mentioned. The Lakers and Sixers had great centers in Kareem and Moses Malone, but Dennis Rodman loved matching up against bigger centers and hounding them. Pippen would have taken on the defensive assignments against Magic Johnson of the Lakers and Julius Erving of the Sixers, freeing Jordan to do his thing. Basically, the Lakers and Sixers wouldn't have caused the matchup problems for Chicago that they did against other teams of their era. As for the Rockets and Sonics, Seattle didn't have a great player -- Gus Williams and Jack Sikma were good, not great -- and they were simply a solid, well-coached team that came along at just the right time to win a title. The Bulls would have taken them out in five or six. And the '86 Rockets? Are you kidding? That team had the Twin Towers of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, but it didn't even win the championship. Rodman would have driven a fragile player like Sampson absolutely crazy. The only question is whether the Bulls would have swept them.
I think it's more likely than not. I hear the Knicks are already talking with Houston about re-signing him for the maximum salary over seven years and that they want to find a way to go after Webber without including either Houston or Spree in the deal. New York would probably have to find a three-way deal to make that happen. In any case, if the Knicks were planning to deal Houston for Webber in a sign-and-trade, I think they'd wait until Sacramento's season was over so they'd have a chance to see where they stand with C-Webb. There are lots of variables that could change things, but right now there's a good chance Houston and Spree will still be together next season.
I was completely shocked by the way the Jazz played in the final quarter of
Game 5 against Dallas. Experience didn't help Utah at all in the final minutes.
I hate myself for saying this, but the Jazz really looked like an old team. What
changes should the Jazz make in the offseason? Do you think Jerry Sloan will
leave Utah with the retirement of John Stockton and Karl Malone on the horizon?
And why is Utah not an interesting place for better free agents. It's not the
Salt Lake, is
It's time for the Jazz to put Malone on the trading block and see what they can get for him. He's still got enough left to bring back a couple of players to help the Jazz rebuild. They might as well start the process now because even though Malone and Stockton are amazing physical specimens, they're never going to lead Utah to a championship at this stage of their careers. The Jazz are just going to continue to lose ground to the Lakers and Spurs, and up-and-comers like the Mavericks and Kings (if they can somehow keep Webber) are passing them by. Their desire to let Malone and Stockton retire as members of the Jazz is admirable, but Utah is going to pay for its loyalty. When those two retire, you can bet coach Sloan won't be far behind, and then the Jazz are going to be bad. I'm talking Chicago/Vancouver-type bad. The trade route is very important for the Jazz because they're always going to have a hard time attracting big-name free agents. Nothing against Salt Lake City, but it's no secret that because of its demographics, it's just about the last place in the league that many African-American players want to be. In Malone and Stockton the Jazz drafted two superstars who were unusually well-suited to playing in Utah. It's not likely they'll be so fortunate again.
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