Shaq is Still the Best

Posted on December 6, 2007 by

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A milestone in Shaquille O’Neal’s career is rapidly approaching.  On Friday night the Heat will take on the Golden State Warriors.  And assuming Shaq plays (and that he plays Thursday night against Portland), this will be O’Neal’s 1,000 regular season NBA game.

Given this milestone, I thought it would be a good idea to briefly look back on Shaq’s career and ponder where his game is at today.  And not to give away my punch line, but my pondering is going to reveal that Shaq is still the best.  Before I get to that, though, let’s go back in time.

Fifteen years ago I had just finished my first year of graduate school.  At that point I had not spent any time measuring player performance in the NBA.  And the only people who thought I was “stupid” were my girlfriend (now my wife) and most of my graduate school professors.  Of course, now everyone has caught on to the secret they knew a long time ago.  But that’s a story for another day.

Reviewing Shaq’s Career

Today we are thinking about Shaq.  Fifteen years ago O’Neal was the first player taken in the draft.  And he immediately rewarded the Orlando Magic, his new employer.  In 1992-93 a young Shaq produced 21.7 wins with a Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] of 0.339 (average WP48 is 0.100).

Across the next twelve seasons Shaq continued to produce.  His lowest WP48 – in 1995-96 – was 0.284.  In every other season — except 1999-2000 when his mark hit 0.428 – Shaq’s per 48 minute mark was between 0.300 and 0.400. 

Entering the 2005-06 season Shaq had a career WP48 of 0.344 with 236.2 Wins Produced. Yes, his career WP48 was quite close to his rookie performance. In sum, across the first 882 games of his career, Shaq was consistently an extremely good player.

And then in 2005-06 his performance slipped.  He was still good, just not as good. Specifically, his WP48 fell to 0.225 and for the first time in his career he failed to reach double figures in Wins Produced.  The story at the time was that O’Neal was hurt.  After all, he missed 23 games due to injury. 

In fact, when the Heat went on to win the NBA Championship – the fourth title Shaq won in his career – it appeared that O’Neal was still as good as ever.

Last year, though, his performance slipped again.  His WP48 was 0.128 and in 40 games he only produced 3.0 wins.  Again, though, with 40 games missed due to injury, it looked like Shaq’s health was the excuse.

Still the Best

And perhaps this excuse was valid.  This year Shaq is supposed to be healthy.  And after 17 games, as Table One reveals, he’s once again the most productive player on his team.  Yes, Shaq is once again the best.

Table One: The Miami Heat after 17 games in 2007-08

Okay, this is not quite the achievement it would appear to be. After Shaq, the highest WP48 on the Heat is offered by Dorrell Wright.  And Wright’s mark stands at 0.128.

Although Shaq is the most productive player on this team, his WP48 is only 0.150.  Given this level, it’s not surprising the Heat are a very bad team.  With Seattle winning on Wednesday night, only the Timberwolves have won fewer games. 

The Heat’s efficiency differential, and Wins Produced (which is derived from efficiency differential), tells us this team is not quite as bad as their record indicates.  A 4-13 mark indicates this team is on pace to 19 games.  But with an efficiency differential of -5.7, a final mark of 26 wins is predicted. 

For Miami fans, I am not sure 19 wins is much different from 26 victories.  Both marks are quite bad and suggest the 2006 NBA Champions are either at rock bottom or rapidly approaching that mark.

When we look at Table One, we see one major problem.  Dwyane Wade – the player who has led the Heat in Wins Produced each of the past two seasons – has only been about average this year.  If Wade returns to what we saw last year this team’s projection would rise from 26 to 37 victories.

Two Shaq Questions 

And that might indeed happen.  What may not happen is a return to the Shaq we saw in the past.  To see this, let’s consider two questions.

Where has Shaq slipped? and

Why has Shaq slipped?

Table Two answers the first question.   This table reports what Shaq has done recently and for his career, relative to the average NBA center.

Table Two: Shaq’s Recent and Career Performance

As Table One notes, Shaq’s shooting efficiency from the field remains high.  He’s also still blocking shots and continues to have problem from the free throw line.

But with respect to rebounds, turnovers, and assists, Shaq is not what he used to be.  His work on the boards has especially declined, with Shaq now grabbing 2.5 fewer rebounds per 48 minutes (relative to his career average before the 2005-06 season).

So we can see where Shaq has faltered.  Now for the big question: Why has Shaq slipped?

We could keep using the injury excuse.  But at some point we have to acknowledge something that, if not true today, must be true at some point.  Shaq must eventually lose out to Father Time.

Remember, Shaq entered the league in 1992.  Fifteen years later, few members of his draft class are still in the Association.  Alonzo Mourning – Shaq’s teammate with Miami – is logging 16 minutes per game with the Heat. And Robert Horry has been on the court for only twelve minutes this year (not per game, for the entire season) for the Spurs. Other than that, every other player (I think) who arrived with Shaq on draft night in 1992 is now out of the NBA.

But while most of his draft class is spending their time watching basketball, Shaq is still out there toiling for 28 minutes per night.  Certainly he is still, as he has been most of his career, the most productive player on his team.  But his productivity, in absolute terms, is not what it used to be.

Every once in awhile, of course, the Shaq of old might re-appear.  For example, back on November 23rd he scored 26 points and pulled down 14 boards against Houston.  His Win Score for that game was 18.5.  Unfortunately for the Heat, that was the only game this season that he posted a Win Score the eclipsed his career per game average of 13.4. 

Motivating Shaq

All of this may or may not be a matter of motivation.  Remember back in mid-November, Dwyane Wade called out the Big Aristotle.  

“Probably this year more so than any year I have been more vocal with Shaq, talking to him and trying to motivate him,” Wade told reporters on Thursday. “But the main thing is Shaq has got to be self-motivated. He has got to be willing and ready to do it.”

Whether Shaq is self-motivated, or he needs Pat Riley and/or Flash to provide motivation, may not be the point anymore.  There is going to be a time, and we may indeed have reached it, where Shaq will no longer be able to dominate a game. And all the motivation in the world is not going to change that fact.

Let me close by asking on last question: When should Shaq give up?  Many people argue that great players should try and leave when they are still great. I completely disagree.  We would all pay money to take the court in the NBA.  As long as Shaq has fun playing, he should do what Rickey Henderson did in baseball. Keep playing until they send you home.  Remember, this is just a game.  If Shaq wants to play, and they let him, he should play.  Let silly sportswriters worry about his legacy.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.

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