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Shaquille O'Neal's Disrespected Legacy
Shaquille O'Neal is in no doubt one of the greatest centers of all time and one of the greatest players of all time. Yet he has been heavily criticized since his retirement in 2011 concerning what his career could have been with an improved work ethic. Basically, Shaq did not work hard enough to maximize his talents. That narrative is false but before addressing its falsehood, it's important to understand where the narrative came from.
If you're reading this then you probably know the story or at least the summary.
Kobe and Shaq were great together and won championships together but both disliked each other. Kobe didn't like Shaq's work ethic and that's what drove the two apart. After the 2004 NBA Finals loss, a 25-year-old Kobe gave the Lakers an ultimatum, it was either him or the 32-year-old Shaq. This was an easy decision, although Shaq was the best Laker in the 2004 finals he was still coming off his worst regular season ever and had only played 67 games.
To explain that decision, the Laker front office that was once neutral in the feud between the two stars promoted a narrative that suggested Shaq's decline was due to his work ethic. A narrative Kobe recently encouraged when he suggested Shaq would have been the greatest player of all time had he had his work ethic.
This narrative ignores the fact that Shaq would go on to win one more championship and make 3 more all-NBA teams.
They presented Kobe as the hard-working star while labeling Shaq as the opposite. The NBA reduced something as complex as a relationship between two superstars into a boiler point of Kobe worked hard and Shaq did not.
What they conveniently leave out is that Shaq was 32 years old at the time. An age where big men historically show a decline due to the demands of the game at that size. Shaq that last season with the Lakers was the only player 31 years or older outside of Hakeem in 94 to have averaged 21.5 points and 11.5 rebounds since 1979 . . . and no player has done that in the 15 years since. If you're keeping count, that's two players in 40 years . . . not bad for a guy who didn't "work hard". That's something legends like David Robinson, Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone, and Tim Duncan did not accomplish, guys who that lazy narrative would never be associated with.
Shaq is also the only player in NBA history to record 13 straight seasons of at least 21 points and 10 rebounds a game. That doesn't include his last NBA championship at 34 years old and the all-NBA team he made at 37 years old. Those aren't feats that are associated with someone who did not maximize their talents.
The truth is Shaq's decline is historically correlated to any player who has ever played basketball at that size. It had nothing to do with his work ethic and to continue a narrative that suggests he did not make the most of his talents is disappointing and inaccurate.
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