Illustration by Daniel Rowell
#HOOP10 is our summer project where through a collaborative and democratic effort, we try to pinpoint the top 10 individual seasons of all time. We kept it simple: We polled a few opinions of some voices (complete list below) that know a thing or two about the NBA, tallied up the results and present one every Monday and Thursday.
As divisive as he was dominant, Shaquille O’Neal has powered his way to the top of our #HOOP10 list.
It’s been a wild few days for O’Neal, as the Big Aristotle was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this past Friday. In a week where we’ve spent a lot of time talking about O’Neal and fellow inductee Allen Iverson’s triumphs, failures, and larger-than-life personalities, it seems timely that we now find O’Neal at the pinnacle of this list.
O’Neal benefited from having one clear season shine above the rest. Unlike Michael Jordan, who had eight seasons nominated, or LeBron James, who had five, O’Neal had 22 of 23 votes for his 1999-00 season. The campaign is a clear example of dominance and nailed the checklist of all-time accomplishments.
O’Neal was and is larger than life. It’s a cliché you’ve likely read a dozen times this week, but in 2000, he convinced even the most cynical fans that he was more than just dunks and jokes.
The list of accomplishments was already long. O’Neal had gone No. 1 overall in a 1992 NBA Draft that was filled with top shelf talent. As he says in Fu-Schnickens’ “What’s Up Doc?,” “Now’s who’s the first pick? Me, word is born’in/Not Christian Laettner, not Alonzo Mourning.” While bigs who came before him historically had trouble selling shoes, Shaq would be the rare rookie who got his shoe deal from day one, with his Reebok Shaq Attaq moving the needle. O’Neal starred in multiple commercials and got the confidence of Hollywood with a few featured movies. Perhaps most importantly, he was part of the last team to send Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls home early from the playoffs. At this point, the sole benchmarks eluding O’Neal were a championship and the coveted Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
The 1998-99 season was filled to the brim with opportunity. By now, Shaq had made his big move from Disney World to Disneyland to team up with Kobe Bryant. Jordan was gone, the Houston Rockets were old, the Utah Jazz were old. The West was ripe to be plucked, and with it, the NBA Championship. However, instead of O’Neal and his Lakers, it was another burgeoning big man that seized the fruit. Tim Duncan led the San Antonio Spurs to its first championship.
The following season, the Lakers were on a mission. Los Angeles hired proven ring-bearer Phil Jackson, Bryant was now three years removed from high school and ready for prime time and GM Jerry West brought in veteran Ron Harper, who no doubt sensed the opportunity at hand.
The Lakers won 67 games to open the millennium, the most in the NBA that season. It would also be the highest total of the O’Neal/Bryant era and the second highest total in franchise history.
As mentioned, to this point O’Neal didn’t have an MVP award and had been an All-NBA First Teamer just once (he did, however, get named to the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History during the League’s 50th anniversary celebration). But factor in the high win total and dominating performances like the 61-point, 23-rebound clubbing of the rival Los Angeles Clippers, and O’Neal was an easy choice for the MVP hardware that season.
O’Neal won the Maurice Podoloff Trophy in style. He posted an utterly savage line of 29.7 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 3.8 APG, 3 BPG, not to mention a 30.6 PER and 18.6 Win Shares (WS). The PPG, PER, and WS were all the NBA’s top mark.
The Lakers rode into the playoffs, but it was a struggle from the start. The team was no doubt talented, but not without its flaws, and it showed during the postseason when teams would get a long look at them. They couldn’t merely rely on Superman to overpower the opponent; they would need the guile of Batman to carry them as well.
After going up 2-0 in the First Round against the Sacramento Kings in what was then a five-game series, the Lakers let the Kings grab momentum by tying the series up. Going into Game 5 against Chris Webber and the rest of the Kings, it was do or die for O’Neal, Bryant, Jackson and company. The Diesel delivered big time: 32 points, 18 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks and a 113-86 win to keep the dream alive.
Friend to foe was the story of round two. A resurgent Penny Hardaway and a scrapper with blonde curls by the name of Jason Kidd led the Phoenix Suns into a Pacific throwdown. Unfortunately for the Suns, there was no answer for O’Neal. He averaged 30.2 PPG, 16.2 RPG, 2.6 APG, and 2.6 BPG, dispatching Phoenix in a gentleman’s sweep.
Jackson was representing the purple and gold and Jordan was gone, but in Scottie Pippen, wearing the black and red of Portland, there still stood one last beacon of the previous Chicago dynasty. The Trail Blazers were well prepared to upset the Lakers, its roster filled with a multitude of big men to counter O’Neal. Arvydas Sabonis was 35, but at 7-3 and 280 pounds, he matched Shaq in size and possessed Hall of Fame experience. Rasheed Wallace had the range and athleticism to give O’Neal trouble on the defensive end. Brian Grant was undersized but as strong as an ox and not afraid to mix it up down low. Joe Kleine was a wily 14-year vet who had six hard fouls to offer up every game. In an embarrassment of riches, the Blazers even had future All-Star Jermaine O’Neal marinating at the end of its bench.
Initially, things went swimmingly. Los Angeles went up 3-1, and despite the best efforts of a young Wallace, the Lakers were large and in charge. Then, well, then things got messy. Portland won the next two and headed into the fourth quarter of Game 7 with an upset in mind, as the Lakers trailed by 13. But the Lakers surged late and the Blazers imploded. With the Lakers up four with less than a minute to go, Bryant drove past Pippen and dropped off the alley for O’Neal’s oop to put an exclamation mark on the series. It was perhaps the most joyous moment of a bizarre and often tense partnership.
So memorable was the play that the League highlighted it as part of a playoff campaign.
Free of his last hurdle, O’Neal completed the formality by pillaging the Pacers in the 2000 Finals. A performance worthy of a century bookmark. No disrespect to Reggie Miller or Jalen Rose, but 2000 O’Neal gave the people what they really wanted. Bryant had his worst Finals showing of the threepeat run (to be fair, Kobe was battling an ankle injury after Jalen Rose stuck his foot underneath him after a jumper in Game 2), averaging just 15.6 PPG on a lowly 37 percent shooting. With all apologies to the Kobe stans, even if Kobe had been replaced with an average shooting guard, the Lakers would’ve prevailed.
Shaq had all of Los Angeles on his back: 38 PPG, 16.7 RPG, 2.3 APG, 2.7 BPG, and he topped it off with 61 percent shooting. Shaq flicked away Indiana’s center tandem of Dale Davis and Rik Smits like gnats. Twice did O’Neal grab 20 or more rebounds, thrice did he score 40 or more points. It was the beginning of a dynasty and the peak of Shaq Daddy, the confluence of physical ability, motivation and conditioning for a player who was often maligned for not taking full advantage of his gifts.
“CAN YOU DIG IT?!”
Carson Cunningham of KOCO-TV:
“The most dominant force the NBA has ever seen. Sure, you remember the dunks (ohh, the dunks), but Shaq’s post moves defied the narrative that that’s all he did. Great on defense (3 BPG) and an absurd 3.8 APG. He was an all-around juggernaut who left the NBA in his wake.”
Lang Greene of Basketball Insiders:
“The Diesel at his best. Period. This is O’Neal’s only MVP campaign, and he also reeled in a Finals MVP and a regular season scoring title for added measure. Any young hoop head seeking to find out what true domination once looked like in the post should save time researching and just plug O’Neal’s name in the search field.”
Justin Rowan of the FearTheSword:
“Shaq won the regular season MVP, Finals MVP, was an NBA Champion, second team All-Defense, led the League in scoring and field goal percentage. He may not be viewed on the same level as Jordan, Kareem, James, Magic or Bird, but at Shaq’s absolute peak, you could make an argument that no player has ever been as dominant as he was. Shaq was unstoppable and produced the most impressive season in NBA history.”
Chris Walder of The Score:
“Shaq was such an imposing force that he basically got whatever he desired on offense, and was next to impossible to attack on defense. He was a walking cyborg who bulldozed his way to (surprisingly) the only MVP win of his career. From start to finish, I have never seen one talent be as assertive and downright powerful as the Diesel was while putting up astonishing numbers.”
Anthony Irwin of LakersSBN:
“That this season would be Shaq’s lone MVP is utterly laughable and speaks to the systemic flaws in how it’s handed out. During Shaq’s time in Los Angeles, precious few teams, if any at all, would not have immediately traded anything they could for him. This was the absolute greatest season from the most dominant player ever, and could be called the most dominant campaign ever, in NBA history.”
Adam Joseph of SB Nation:
“The Big Diesel’s first championship was undoubtedly his finest, and he displayed a dominance perhaps never replicated in NBA history. Shaq was downright unstoppable in the paint, and it took foul trouble to stop him or nothing would. He led the League in field goal percentage, whilst setting career highs in PPG, PER and Win Shares per 48. Kobe wasn’t the Black Mamba yet, and it resulted in O’Neal’s only MVP award. It’s hard to believe such domination only resulted in on MVP, when he claimed all but one of the 121 available first place votes.
He became the third player to win MVP, All-Star MVP, an NBA Championship and Finals MVP all in one season. The 61 points and 23 rebounds against the rival Clippers was certainly a highlight, though his Finals averages of 38 points, 17 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 3 blocks per game on 61 percent shooting is mind-blowing. It was a historically epic Finals campaign.”
Adi Joseph of Sporting News:
“The best part about the season that very easily stands out as O’Neal’s best is how much better his defensive metrics were. Consider that he set career highs in Defensive Win Shares and Defensive Box Plus-Minus while posting more blocks and rebounds than he had since he was a foul-happy, jump-for-everything rookie. O’Neal also set a career high in points and led the Lakers to a 67-15 record, the best of Kobe Bryant’s career—not surprisingly in the final season in which he was unquestionably a supporting player. Throw in a career-high 3.8 assists a game and the best physical fitness of his post-Magic career, and this was an easy standout performance from one of the most talented players in NBA history who rarely ever showed all of it.”
Sam Esfandiari of Warriors World:
“Shaq averaged 29.7 points (57.4), 13.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists, leading the Lakers to the second best record in franchise history (67-15). The gaudy numbers don’t quite illustrate how unguardable he was. Double and triple teams rarely fazed Shaq. Arguably the most physically gifted big man, blessed with nimble footwork, there was simply no guarding him in his prime. And when Kobe Bryant struggled with a high ankle sprain in the 2000 Finals, Shaq was there to carry the team. Shaq averaged 38 points (61.1 FG percentage) and 16.7 rebounds in the Finals victory over the Pacers, a performance which will stand the test of time.”
Maxwell Ogden of HoopsHabit:
“The single greatest display of dominance in NBA history. Shaquille O’Neal left no questions about who the best player in the Association was in 1999-00. He won league MVP, Finals MVP, and All-Star Game MVP as he collected his first career championship. O’Neal also won the scoring title and made the All-Defensive Second Team. He averaged 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 4.3 offensive rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 3.0 blocks per game on 57.4 percent shooting from the field. Aside from O’Neal, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1974-75 has averaged at least 25.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 3.0 blocks.”
Brandon Anderson of The Cauldron:
“If I hadn’t limited things to one season per individual, there would’ve been about 5-7 Shaq seasons up for discussion — but this was his greatest. Motivated Shaq was as unstoppable as any basketball player ever. Teams invented entire Hack-a strategies and carried an extra pair of big guys just to have 12 more fouls to give. It literally felt like Shaq could score every time he felt like it unless you had a guy draped over each arm, and even then, he still could half the time. He won MVP, All Star Game MVP, and of course Finals MVP with an ungodly 38/17 stat line. Shaq could’ve been the greatest player in NBA history, if only he had wanted it.”
Michael Gallagher of Rotoworld:
“A 30-14 points and boards line with 3.8 assists, 3.0 blocks and 0.5 steals is just massive production for Shaq’s best season. It doesn’t hurt he took home a title this year either.”
Andrew Bailey of Bleacher Report:
“The year of Shaq’s first title in L.A., when he led the league in scoring at 29.7 points, averaged 13.6 boards, 3.8 assists and three blocks.”
Marc Griffin of Press Basketball:
“Shaq was a domineering monolith to the point they had to change the technology of the game and make the rims retractable. His peak year was Y2K, with highs of 29.7 points, 13.6 boards, and 3.8 assists per game. His infamous dunk and dismissal of Chris Dudley continues to entertain in its YouTube glory. More importantly, Diesel garnered his first of four Fu-sized rings.”
|The #HOOP10 results will be shared one season at a time every Monday and Thursday.
No. 9 LeBron James 2012-13
No. 8 Michael Jordan 1987-88
No. 7 Larry Bird 1985-86
No. 6 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1970-71
No. 2 Michael Jordan 1990-91
No. 1 Shaquille O’Neal 1999-00
Full List of Contributors: Josh Eberley, HOOP; Daniel Rowell, HPBasketball and FearTheSword; Brandon Anderson, Medium and The Cauldron; Andrew Bailey, Bleacher Report and Today’s Fastbreak; Carson Cunningham, KOCO-TV; Jabari Davis, Basketball Insiders; Tommy Dee, SNY; Matthew Drappel, Sportsnet; Sam Esfandiari, Warriors World; Michael Gallagher, Rotoworld; Lang Greene, Basketball Insiders; Marc Griffin, Press Basketball; Anthony Irwin, LakersSBN and LakersOutsiders; Tony Jones, Salt Lake Tribune; Adam Joseph, SB Nation and BBallBreakdown; Adi Joseph, Sporting News; Robert Littal, BlackSportsOnline and BSO ENT; Oliver Maroney, Basketball Insiders; Coach Nick, BBallBreakdown; Maxwell Ogden, DailyKnicksFS and HoopsHabit; Carter Rodriguez, FearTheSword and 120Sports; Justin Rowan, FearTheSword, HoopsHabit and HoopsLounge; Brad Rowland, Peachtree Hoops, FanSided, and UPROXX; Keith Smith, RealGM and Today’s Fastbreak; Allana Tachauer, HoopsHabit and AllUCanHeat; Justin Termine, NBA Today, SiriusXM NBA; Chris Walder, The Score; Phil Watson, HoopsHabit