Friday, September 11, 2009

The Admiral Better than Superman?

Everybody knows that Michael Jordan is being inducted into the Hall of Fame today. He's entering with John Stockton, Jerry Sloan and David Robinson.

After reading an insightful post on the Painted Area, I began to reflect on just how much, in my mind at least, David Robinson’s overall value had fallen. My lingering memories of him were of his cheesy McDonald’s commercials, his devout love for Jesus and his complete dismantling at the hands of the Dream.

It got me thinking about the greatest centers of all time and where Robinson fits in. I’d always rated Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell as the top three centers, followed closely by Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal. Going over numbers and awards and quality of play, I’m leaning to exclude Mr. O’Neal from the top five and slip the Admiral right on in there.

First off, I understand that Shaq has four rings to Robinson’s two, and while they both have one MVP, Shaq has what many consider to be the more valuable finals MVPs (three of them). But I don’t think Russell was better than Kareem because he has 11 rings to Mr. Skyhook’s six. And O’Neal’s four rings have become Jordanesque in that many people believe he won them on his own. But that’s a discussion for a different blog.

O’Neal has eight all NBA First Team selections to Robinson’s four, but it must be noted the difference in eras. Robinson played and succeeded during an age of centers. Two years ago, ESPN ranked the top 10 centers of all time, and while I don’t agree with the order of the people on it, it will be noted here that five of those players played during Robinson’s career.

Robinson caught the tail end of Moses Malone’s career. He was subject to the Dream Shake of Hakeem. He tussled with Patrick Ewing and then he banged with Shaq (Robinson, was, of course, the fifth).

In addition, while not all-world, Robinson also faced off against Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutumbo, and Arvydas Sabonis, three centers, that in their prime, would have been the best center in the league (outside of Shaq) during Shaq’s prime reign.

Entering his prime at the age of 26, the Big Diesel spent the majority of his time playing against one of three kinds of centers. The past-their-prime rapidly aging group including: Olajuwon, Robinson, Ewing, Sabonis, Mourning and Mutumbo. The bad-to-the-pretty-good group that included: Kurt Thomas, Shawn Bradley, Vlade Divac, Greg Ostertag, Jermaine O’Neal, Erick Dampier, Zydrunas Ilgauskus and Marcus Camby. And the just-getting-their-feet-wet group including: Dwight Howard, Yao Ming and Pau Gasol.

While Howard will most likely grow into a HOF caliber player, with Yao Ming's career in question, the rest will have a hard time making anyone’s top 20 centers of all time list, let alone a top 10. So, looking at the centers and the conditions of the centers Shaq played against while he dominated the league, it’s no wonder about his dominance.

To put an exclamation on this point, the centers Shaq has faced in the finals on his way to three Finals MVPs include: Dale Davis/Sam Perkins; a 34-year-old Mutumbo and Todd MacCulloch; the fearsome combo of MacCulloch/Jason Collins; and the combo of Erick Dampier/DeSagana Diop. And while the Lakers did beat Duncan/Robinson, go back and check the history books on who really won those series for the Lakers (hint, hint, Kobe/Shaw).

When facing a legit center in the finals (Olajuwon and Ben Wallace), Shaq has gone 1-8.

As for Robinson, the Admiral beat Ewing for his first ring and the combo of Mutumbo/Collins for his second. He also ousted Shaq/Kobe in 02-03.

As for how well Robinson matched up against Shaq, the Diesel overall wins the battle in terms of production, but lost in the overall wins column 12-11. The stats follow:

Shaq: 26.1 ppg, 12.1 rpg, 2 apg, .5 spg, 2.7 bpg on 53.6 percent shooting
Rob: 18.6 ppg, 10 rpg, 2.6 apg, 2.1 spg, 1.6 bpg on 47 percent shooting

Looking at the numbers more closely, however, we see that Robinson played half of these games well into his 30s. If we compare the games from 2000 back, we see that it’s a lot closer.

O’Neal: 26 ppg, 12.1 rpg, 1.88 apg, .5 spg, 2.4 bpg on 55.6 percent
Robins: 21.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 3.11 apg, 2.35 spg, 1.7 bpg on 47.3 percent

Since we’re on numbers, let’s take a look at their careers.

O’Neal: 26.9 PER, 24.7 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 2.6 apg, 0.6 spg, 2.4 bpg, 58 percent
Robins: 26.2 PER, 21.1 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.4 spg, 3.0 bpg, 52 percent

The numbers are very close. Of course, Shaq has played three more seasons, going on four, but Robinson’s career numbers look mighty good next to Shaq’s, especially with that 1.4 career steals and three blocks(a feat only Olajuwon and Robinson share). Looking further at PER, here’s a list of their prime career numbers.

Shaq: 28.5, 28.6, 26.4, 27.1, 28.8, 30.5, 30.6, 30.2, 29.7, 29.5
Drob: 26.3, 27.4, 27.5, 24.2, 30.7, 29.1, 29.4, 27.8, 24.9, 24.6

O’Neal is clearly better over a sustained period of time, but I bet Robinson’s numbers surprise you. Not only that, but his best year, a year he averaged 30 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 4.8 apg, 1.7 spg, and 3.3 bpg on 50.7 percent shooting, tops O’Neal’s 30 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 3.8 apg, .5 spg, 3 bpg on 57.6 percent shooting by the slimmest of margins.

Offensively, PER does an adequate job of interpreting their relative offensive games and comes to the conclusion that O’Neal’s was better.

But basketball is played on two sides of the court, and here is where Robinson separates himself from O’Neal and where PER no longer helps us. While there is no perfect way of measuring defensive presence, even when Shaq was at his penultimate self, he still never showed on the pick and roll.

David Robinson led the league in rebounding on two separate occasions, was selected to the NBA All-Defensive First Team four times, the second team four times and also won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 91-92. In comparison, Shaq has never led the league in rebounding (was runner up on four separate occasions), has made the All Defensive Second Team three times, and has never come close to a DPY award.

Going further, only three of Robinson’s 14 seasons saw the Admiral with Defensive Win Shares below five and one of those seasons was the year he missed all but six games. For seven consecutive years, he had DWS over six—quite a bit better than known defensive stalwarts like Dikembe Mutumbo and Alonzo Mourning.

Robinson’s DFWs were also very comparable to Patrick Ewing and Ben Wallace during their prime stretches of defensive dominance. For reference:

P Ewing: 5.4, 6.7, 7.9, 7.8, 6.4, 6.1, and 6.9
Big Ben: 6.2, 7.2, 7.5, 8.9, 6.4, 6.6 and 6.7
D Robin: 7.2, 7.7, 6.8, 6.3, 6.3, 6.9, and 7.3

As for O’Neal, his DWS are quite a bit less impressive. He managed seven in his dominant 99-2000 MVP season, but only had one other season over five (his rookie year at 5.9). He’s played in a 130 more games, yet still trails Robinson in career DWS by 16.2.

To further exemplify this point, the Spurs, with David Robinson as an active member of the roster, never finished outside of the top ten in defensive rating. During Robinson’s career, the Spurs led the league in defensive rating four times, were second three times and third three times.

Obviously adding Duncan in 97 helped tremendously as Robinson aged, but Robinson-led teams still managed to lead the league twice and come in third two other times. Furthermore, Robinson’s team went from third in defensive rating with him, to last in the season he missed, back up to second when he and a rookie Duncan joined forces.

As for Shaq, his Orlando-led squads never finished higher than 11th and his Miami-led squads never finished higher than sixth. He’s also been a part of some of the worst defensive teams, including last year’s 26th ranked Suns, and while it certainly wasn’t all his fault, he did play 33 games for the 24th ranked Heat in 06-07.

In 1999-00, that one shining year, Shaq’s MVP season, he dominated the league as did the Lakers who led the league in defensive rating. However, the year before Shaq’s MVP, the Lakers were 23rd in defensive rating and the year after? They reverted back to 21st.

And here’s why I believe that in spite of O’Neal’s offensive brilliance, Robinson should be ranked ahead of him. O’Neal had all the tools to be the best center of all time, but he chose to coast on his athleticism and dominating size rather than hone his game.

Shaq’s career is continuing to be more and more the question of what could have been. What could have been if he could hit 60-65 percent of his freethrows? What could have been if he and Kobe stayed together? What could have been if he developed a couple of post moves or truly took to making Amare a better player? What could have been if he had simply worked as hard as Jordan or Bryant?

In fact, Robinson should be celebrated over Shaq because he was everything Shaq was and is not. He worked tirelessly to keep his body in peak physical condition. He didn’t chase money and fame in a bigger city but stayed true to the Spurs, a small market team, his entire career. He never needed to be the center of attention. He made 74 percent of his freethrows throughout his career. And while Shaq and the Admiral were and are both well-liked by many, Robinson never bad-mouthed anyone.

When Duncan joined the team, Robinson not only mentored and helped develop the blossoming star, but he stepped aside, adjusted his game and took a complimentary role. He amped up his already impressive defense and worked hard at rebounding and defending while letting Duncan shoulder more and more of the offensive load.

We all know Shaq’s story. A man who jumped the Orlando ship as soon as the glitz of Hollywood became available. A man who despite what he says, has always made it all about himself. A man who, after winning his first MVP, decided to take more and more time off during the offseason and come into camp in worse and worse shape. A man who, in spite of his lazy offseasons, demanded a raise while he was in the middle of a contract paying him $26 million. A man who spent most of his time off the court at other ventures besides basketball, including movies and music, but never improved any aspect of his game (save for that one season where he shot over 60 percent on freethrows). A man who has bounced from team to team and bad-mouthed everyone on his way out the door.

For a 7-foot-1, 350-pound man with nimble feet, crazy agility and uncanny speed to call himself the Most Dominant Ever and never lead the league in rebounding, pretty much sums up all the above points.

And while he did, in some ways, step down and let Dwyane Wade take center stage when the Heat won in 06-07, he was ultimately selfish with the Penny and Kobe situations and despite all his lip service, stunted Amare Stoudemire’s growth last year.

Maybe you disagree, maybe you think I’m just a Shaq hater, but due to Robinson’s defensive presence and his underrated offensive game that was both prolific and efficient, not to mention his leadership and ability to be a better teammate I’d say Robinson was a better overall player than O’Neal.

Congrats Admiral on the Hall of Fame. You clearly deserve it.

No comments: