What Kept Shaq from True Greatness?

| by David Berri

Shaquille O’Neal has finally retired.  And now it is time to wonder where Shaq ranks among the all-time great players in NBA history.

Shaq was obviously a “HUGE” player.  This is obviously true in a physical sense.  And it is true in a statistical sense as well.  He was an outstanding rebounder; and as a scorer, he was both efficient (from the field) and prolific.  But he did have one deficiency.  He never really learned how to hit free throws consistently.

Across his entire career he only hit 52.7% of his shots from the charity stripe.  And only once – in 2002-03 – did he hit more than 60% in a season.

A couple of years ago I looked at how this one weakness impacted Shaq’s career production.  Now that Shaq’s career is finished (assuming he doesn’t come back), let’s update this examination.

Across Shaq’s career he posted the following numbers:

  • 252.8 Wins Produced
  • 0.289 Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48]

His most productive season was 1999-00, when he produced 27.1 wins and posted a 0.411 WP48.

Now let’e imagine how this story changes if Shaq converted about 75% of his free throws (about the NBA average).  With this one change to Shaq’s production, the above numbers would be as follows:

  • 333.9 Wins Produced
  • 0.382 Career WP48
  • 33.1 Wins Produced in 1999-00 with a 0.502 WP48

Here is how these WP48 marks compare to a sample of all-time great players (with all-time beginning in 1977).

As one can see, the inability to hit free throws consistently leaves Shaq a bit short of players like Magic, MJ, Sir Charles, the Admiral, and Bird.

As I noted two years ago, a similar story is playing out with another Orlando Magic center.  Dwight Howard is also an amazingly productive big man who has trouble hitting his free throws.  Across Superman’s career he has only hit 59.8% of his free throws.  Despite this weakness, Howard has already produced 139.2 wins and posted a 0.328 WP48.  And this past year – his most productive so far – he produced 23.8 wins with a 0.389 WP48.  Had he converted about 75% of his free throws, though, these numbers would have jumped to

  • 0.464 WP48 in 2010-11
  • 0.387 Career WP48

And here is how Howard’s numbers compare to some current great players:

Once again, Howard’s best is not quite as good as KG, CP3, and King James at their best.  But if he hit his free throws, Superman would be the most productive player in the game today.

Obviously it is too late for Shaq to change this aspect of his game.  It is reported, though, that Howard will spend the summer working on his free throws.  And if that work pays off, Howard should be an even more amazing player next season (assuming there is a next season).

Let me close with two more observations from the above tables.

First… LeBron at his best is not quite as productive as MJ was at his best (but it is close).

And secondly… Nowitzki – despite what he did last night – is not as productive as Larry Bird, and he is not one of the top ten players of all time.

- DJ