Duncan v. Shaq: Long Live the Big Man

Duncan v. Shaq: Long Live the Big Man

Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan represent the pinnacle of the modern big man in an NBA that’s resoundingly become wing-centric as each team searches out the next Michael Jordan, the next Kobe Bryant. This popular modern model has robbed us of such historicly epic battles to control the paint, the likes of which Shaq and Timmy personified, as development and game-planning has increasingly become centered squarely on the elbows of the league.

I can still picture Shaq backing down his man with those man-sized dribbles, then spinning to the rim in an attempt to break California right off of the mainland United States. One can only assume he was after beachfront property on two sides with the ferocity with which he attacked the iron.

This was a man so dominant, so strong, the league was forced to reinforce their standards of standards. More than once.

More than twice.

Maybe only Wilt Chamberlain was as ahead of his class as Shaq in shear physical dominance. None has ever been more an Atlas than a prime Shaquille O’Neal, carrying a team on his shoulders, making possible all the other facets of the game played outside the realm of giants. Neither Kobe nor Wade could have –indeed haven’t yet– won it all without that interior threat making their perimeter and driving games a viable reality.

He was unstoppable, popularizing an idea spawned by Don Nelson to take advantage of a poor-free-throw shooting Dennis Rodman –a plan that backfired miserably, but later was adopted by virtually every coach in the league in an attempt to have some semblance of control over the seemingly superhuman Shaquille O’Neal.

Born was the Hack-A-Shaq, and with it’s ripples, another wave upon the league when new rules found themselves conceived in direct response.

That’s how dominant Shaq was. The man literally shaped the league around him, forcing it to conform to his game both in equipment standards and the rules itself designed to try and contain him. Yet it couldn’t possibly.

Name me another player, any sport, that can lay claim to the same.

At the opposite end it’s not difficult to recall the grace with which Timmy would reel in an entry pass somewhere around the block, search with craning neck and wide eyes for an opening or a cutter, then many times smoothly turn, falling away ever so slightly, then deftly sink one off the glass with the softest of touches in an unassuming manner that so often belied his skill level to the untrained eye.

They would fight for the right to dominate the painted area 32 times in the regular season, each averaging a head-to-head 20/10 as well as career 20/10 averages. For some perspective only two big men averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds last season, Dwight Howard and Zach Randolph. Shaq and Timmy have career 20/10 averages.

If you didn’t relish these clashes when they happened I feel for you –we may never see the like again. Such opposing styles and opposing, yet equal, forces of basketball nature.

Most of these battles of will for supremacy came when each was in their prime, and O’Neal in L.A. as a Laker, each the focal point of the offense. Duncan’s 18.3 regular season FGAs versus Shaq would have been tops among centers in the NBA in the 2010-11 season, Shaq’s 5th-most at the position. Their 9.3 and 8.7 FTAs, respectively, would have come in 2nd and T-3rd in the league last season.

Again, some perspective on where this particular head-to-head matchup would rank in today’s NBA: Dwight Howard led the league in FTAs last season. After that there’s not another center on the leaderboard in the category until Brook Lopez who comes in 2nd at the position with a paltry 6.0 attempts-per-game.

A grinder of a game on March 9, 2001 would see Duncan and Shaq combine for an astounding 39 trips to the free throw line, 21 for Timmy, 18 for O’Neal. Believe it or not, no one would foul out of the game. The teams would later meet that postseason in an anti-climatic sweep by the Lake Show. But Duncan would have his vengeance.

Each would only get better, more dominant when it counted most; in the postseason.

The only center in the league that comes anywhere near those FGA totals is Dwight Howard, who averaged 13.5/game in 2010-11. He’s the highest C on the list, barely in the top 25 of playoff players last season.

There’s a glaring lack of big-man play today in a league whose usages are now dominated by on-ball wings and combo-point guards.

A playoff semi-final series game betwixt the pair on May 11, 2003 would see the players combine for 65 points and 43 free throws, as the 3-time defending champion Lakers would even the series 2-2. This particular playoff run was Tim Duncan at his finest as he carried both an aged David Robinson and Kevin Willis to the title.

And make no mistake, Duncan is a center despite what his personal megaphone Marc Stein may say. Duncan doesn’t play outside of 15 feet, at least not well, and he knows it. That’s why he stays within the boundaries of the traditional man-in-the-middle when he plays. He definitely hasn’t played any semblance of power forward since Rasho Nesterovic was last a Spur several years ago.

Only one outlet –and a mighty powerful one– continues to list Duncan as a PF, and that’s robbed us of many-an-All-Star due to the stubborn insistence that he be labeled as such, including  more-than-deserving LaMarcus Aldridge last season.

It’s also led to some questionable players getting nods for the game at the 5 because of a proliferation of forwards in the West the last few years coupled with the aforementioned lack of big-man development.

That stubborn insistence has seemingly led to Tim Duncan becoming the poster boy for a “Centers aren’t cool” movement. Some very deserving players have been snubbed for Duncan’s powerful “F” label on the All-Star ballot out of some misguided need to place him on a “best ever at his position” pedestal, leaving me as incredulous and Duncan-face bug-eyed as Timmy when a whistle sounds in his disfavor.

It’s because “COUNT DA RINGZ” is a whole lot easier of an argument to make over Karl Malone and Charles Barkley than it is over Shaquille O’Neal or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, or a host of other dominant big men that didn’t fear their rightful places at the 5 in the basketball world.

Duncan’s Clark Kent-like demeanor leaves his staunchest-of-fans-in-high-places feeling a need to find a way to immortalize him, to do the defending for him, since Timmy surely never would stoop to such a thing his humble self.

And don’t even start in with the “Meh. A big’s a big” thing. That trivializes those deserving that have felt the sting of rejection at February’s festival break.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that regardless of where you, personally, place Duncan in the hierarchy of big men  we could be waiting a very long time indeed for his and Shaq’s ilk to come along again.

Both men hold career 20/10 averages –although in Duncan’s case that amazing career-spanning stat is holding on by just a thread as he wanes– something even the heir apparent, the undisputed best big man in the league Dwight Howard cannot lay claim to.

The NBA big man is dead.

Long live the big man.


You can follow Clint on Twitter at @Clintonite33

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2 discussions around Duncan v. Shaq: Long Live the Big Man
  1. CP…

    I’ve never been big on comparing the two, even though many have and will continue to.

    Yes, Shaq was larger than everyone else and yes, he was dominant. I rank him in the top five centers of all time, behind Wilt, Kareem, Russell and Hakeem.

    The reason I don’t compare Shaq and Timmy is that I’ve always considered Tim a PF. A throwback power forward who played with his back to the basket. Because he was bigger and the league had gotten smaller, or at least featured fewer dominant centers, he’d sometimes be forced to play center after the Admiral retired. Depended on the individual match-ups. But Duncan, in my mind, was always a forward. And again, in the top five all-time. Maybe the best. Tough to argue. Karl Malone gets lost in that argument.

    Either way, great piece.

    And if you want a suggestion on athletes they changed their games for, I’d offer up the names of Babe Ruth and Tiger Woods.

    Yay? Nay?

  2. Clint Peterson says:

    Agree that’s it’s a subjective debate in it’s entirety. That’s part of what makes it such a good one. Normally, I try and stay away from these, but it was a request so I went for it.

    Good examples, Ruth and Woods. But did both change both aspects, the standards and rules? In Woods’ case it was the standards of the playing field only. I’m not sure on Ruth though. Maybe you could elaborate?

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