clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

In The Hakeem Olajuwon vs. Shaquille O'Neal Debate, The Dream Remains Unbeatable

Shaq O'Neal is (allegedly) retired. This news has sparked fake internet controversy, pitting Shaq's career against Hakeem Olajuwon's. Two great players, two different styles. Who was better? Open your mind and read.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Getty Images

With one of the all-time NBA greats, Shaquille O'Neal, announcing his (alleged) retirement this week, a citywide debate was sparked over how Shaq's place in NBA history compares with arguably the most celebrated athlete in the history of Houston - Hakeem Olajuwon.

Did I say debate? What I actually meant was, Houston fans put on their outrage pants rather quickly, knowing how the national debate would go. Of course the world thinks Shaq is a better player. He has the rings, he has the resume, etc. I'm not here to hate on Shaq. I think he absolutely belongs near the top of the all-time best NBA players.

But we're talking about Hakeem Olajuwon.

Now, those of you that are militant in your belief that Shaq is the better player - just hear me out. Follow these three simple steps to enlightenment:

1) Confirm that you can actually read and (this is the important part) process and retain information.
2) Read the following article.
3) Learn stuff.
4) Pop in a DVD of Kazaam to reinforce your feelings of Shaq's dominance.

Now, for those of you who think it's not even CLOSE, and Shaq is far better, follow all the above steps as written but before you begin said steps, it is important for you to GET THE FULLY-PACKED CRACK PIPE OUT OF YOUR MOUTH.

Defense is kind of important.
While Shaq, at least statistically, bests Olajuwon in the scoring department, it might be important to note that NBA players spend half their careers on the court playing defense. Why this small detail is so overlooked, I have no idea. O'Neal is absolutely no slouch when it comes to defense, but his defense was more about his physical presence than his actual ability.

Hakeem Olajuwon, while playing 18 seasons to O'Neal's 19, had roughly a thousand more blocked shots than Shaq. That's ONE THOUSAND. With ONE LESS SEASON. You want to talk about how Shaq is dominant? THAT is defensive domination. Hakeem is THE all-time leading shot-blocker in the NBA, despite the fact that Shaq was taller and allegedly more dominant. Defense is about effort. Defense is about imposing your will on the other guy. Nobody - ever - beats Hakeem Olajuwon in that category.

Olajuwon is eighth all-time in the NBA in steals. Not among centers, mind you - among ALL PLAYERS. I'm looking at the list of all-time steal leaders in the NBA, and I don't see another center among them. Eighth all-time in steals. Hakeem Olajuwon, ladies and gentlemen.

Numbers favor Shaq on offense, but who was the more complete offensive player?
Sure, Shaq has the better offensive numbers, but they're not light years better. Still, what was Shaq's game? Catch the ball in the low post, turn, and dunk. That's not a criticism - if you do something better than anyone else, you have to do it until someone stops it... and with Shaq, nobody ever did, because he was just that good.

Olajuwon on the other hand, well - he was great in the low post. He could kill you on the baseline with the Dream Shake. He had the mid-range jumper. Then, when he could already rely on his skills and was already better than all his peers, he developed a jump hook. When the jump hook showed up on the resume, it was OVER. Hakeem could officially murder you from pretty much anywhere inside of 16-18 feet.

That said, I'm not going to take anything away from Shaq's offensive game. Nobody in the history of the NBA, aside from Wilt Chamberlain, can compete with what he could do offensively under the basket.

At the end of games, Hakeem was clutch, and Shaq was non-existent.
This one really gets the Shaq-pumpers irritated. Shaquille O'Neal was SO bad at free throw shooting, that the NBA created the Hack-a-Shaq strategy. Late in games, teams would foul Shaq, then wait as he predictably clanked his free throws. This worked with alarming efficiency, so much so that Shaq's coaches would pull him out of games. A seven-foot, one-inch dominator, first ballot Hall-of-Famer, and two-time scoring champion - reduced to cheerleader. Why? Because he couldn't make free throws. Why? Because he didn't work hard enough on his free throw shooting. Oh sure, he tried to get better, but the bottom line is - it didn't work.

I'm sorry, but if you are out of games in the final minutes because of one of your liabilities, you are automatically out of the conversation for being number one at ANYTHING. On the other side, Olajuwon had a history of making clutch shots late in games... and sinking clutch free throws. After all, they're only free throws.

Shaq's celebrity and style plays into the myth that he's better than Hakeem.
I could go on for paragraphs on this topic, but I'll give one example that encapsulates my feelings on the matter with precision. When Shaquille O'Neal had the opportunity to block a shot, he would swat it ten rows up into the crowd. It is the way of the ESPN-era that his career blossomed during. Shaq would scream, beat his chest, dance around, and interact with the fans. I'M SHAQ LOOK HOW DOMINANT I AM BE SURE TO CATCH ME IN MOVIES THIS OFFSEASON I'M A CELEBRITY BRAAAAWWWRRRR!!!!

With Hakeem, he almost always made it a point to keep his blocked shots in play. Could he have swatted them into the ether and done cartwheels? Sure. But it wasn't his way. Instead, he'd block the shot and haul it in himself, or often times he'd block a shot, and ignite a fast break scoring opportunity for the Rockets. It's just as worthy of an ESPN highlight, but since Olajuwon, much like the Honey Badger, doesn't give a sh*t about any of that stuff, he didn't get the run Shaq did. And that's fine. Shaq is good for the NBA, and again, I'm not here to deride him.

Head to head in The Finals, and it wasn't even close.
I think this is worth mentioning, but it's not something I consider overwhelming evidence in Hakeem's favor. When Shaq and Hakeem met in the 1995 NBA Finals, Olajuwon was in his prime, and Shaq was still in the early part of his career. But it's not like it was close. With less talent, and without home-court advantage, the Rockets swept the Magic, and Olajuwon bested O'Neal.

On the other side of the coin, in 1999 the Rockets met the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. Shaq absolutely dominated Hakeem in that series, but he was well past his prime. To maintain some objectivity here, it's probably safe to say that these two series effectively cancel each other out.

Shaq has the hardware, and that's impossible to refute.
Four rings to two. Shaq has Olajuwon there. Nothing I can spin can refute that, but it is certainly worth mentioning that while Shaq had Kobe, Kobe, Kobe, and Dwayne Wade at his side for his championships, Hakeem had NOBODY, and wild-shooting, 33 year old Clyde Drexler on his. While Hakeem was surrounded by role-players (and Clyde), Shaq always had a superstar.

Shaq's alleged physical dominance is overstated.
Ah yes, the go-to line for all Shaq-backers. He's the most physically-dominant NBA player ever! Well, not really. First of all, that title belongs to Wilt Chamberlain. Maybe Oliver Miller, but more for his pre-game meal performances. As Adam Wexler pointed out, Shaq never once lead the NBA in rebounding or blocked shots. Maybe people need to re-think their definition of dominant, because those are certainly two statistics that you should lead the league in at least once if you're even going to make the argument that a guy is the most dominant NBA talent of all time.

If Shaq had half of Hakeem's work ethic, this wouldn't even be a debate.
While O'Neal relied on his natural talents his entire career, Hakeem Olajuwon was constantly working, retooling, inventing, and tweaking his game. Shaq probably never felt the need to do that, and really - he was so gifted, I can hardly blame the guy. Shaq's game never truly evolved beyond his natural talent. Instead of putting in the hours tweaking, improving, and evolving, he spent a full third of his career (perhaps more than that?) out of peak shape. If he had Olajuwon's work ethic, we might be arguing about Shaq vs. Jordan vs. Chamberlain for the best all time. Instead, he never put in complete effort defensively, never developed another shot outside of that little baby hook (meh), and seemed to coast for a significant portion of his career.

The simplified version is this: I'll give you that Shaq was more dominant, and perhaps even affected games on offense more than Olajuwon, but it wasn't by much. For reasons stated above, you can make a legitimate case that Olajuwon was in fact a more complete offensive player. But even if I spot you Shaq's offensive game, Hakeem Olajuwon's defense is Manny Pacqiao's fist to Shaq's Shane Mosley face, and again - Shaq was a good defender. It's just that Olajuwon was MORE dominant as a defender than Shaq was as a scorer. ONE. THOUSAND. MORE. BLOCKS. EIGHTH ALL-TIME IN STEALS. Offense is half the game. Defense is the other half. If Shaq is slightly ahead of Hakeem on offense, and Hakeem is FAR ahead of Shaq on defense, well, draw your own conclusions. I've shown you facts.

I think this is a well-reasoned, if not unbiased look at the comparison between Shaq and Hakeem. Sure, I'm a Hakeem fan, but I've got nothing at all against Shaq. I'm also a big fan of, you know, factual information - and there's more than enough out there to solidify what I will call a FACT, that on a player-to-player basis, Hakeem Olajuwon is superior to Shaquille O'Neal.

I leave you with a quote. I think this guy knows something about basketball:

If I had to pick a center, I would take Olajuwon. That leaves out Shaq, Patrick Ewing. It leaves out Wilt Chamberlain. It leaves out a lot of people. And the reason I would take Olajuwon is very simple: he is so versatile because of what he can give you from that position. It's not just his scoring, not just his rebounding or not just his blocked shots. People don't realize he was in the top seven in steals. He always made great decisions on the court. For all facets of the game, I have to give it to him.
-Michael Jordan

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.