Shaquille O’Neal was dominant from the day he stepped into the league.
In his first-ever NBA game, a 20-year-old O’Neal tallied 12 points, 18 rebounds and 3 blocks for the Orlando Magic. In his second game, he notched 22 points, 15 rebounds and 4 blocks, which started a six-game streak of games where he recorded at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks.
However, as memorable as O’Neal’s four seasons with the Magic were (especially the three seasons he played alongside Penny Hardaway), his star shined the brightest during the eight seasons he played for the Los Angeles Lakers, starting in 1996.
The 1996 NBA free agency class was stacked with elite talent like Michael Jordan, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutumbo and O’Neal. Unfortunately, the Lakers didn’t have the financial flexibility to make a big splash in free agency, at least not without making a few moves first.
Once it became clear that the Magic were going to play hardball with their superstar big man, the Lakers’ general manager, Jerry West, dumped the salaries of Vlade Divac, George Lynch and Anthony Peeler in two separate trades — one of which netted them the No. 13 pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, Kobe Bryant — and began their pursuit of O’Neal. That pursuit came to an end on July 18, 1996, when O’Neal agreed to a seven-year, $120 million contract with the Lakers, making him one of three players in the NBA with a $100 million contract. The two others were Juwan Howard and Mourning.
O’Neal was as good as advertised in his first few seasons with the Lakers, but the team as a whole was too young to compete against teams with veteran superstars like the Utah Jazz, who swept them in the 1998 Western Conference Finals. One year later, the front office decided that it was time for a change at the head coaching position, and the Lakers agreed to terms with Phil Jackson — the coach that led the Bulls to six championships in the span of a decade.
With Jackson at the helm and the duo of O’Neal and Bryant on the rise, the Lakers were poised for a breakout, and O’Neal made sure it came sooner rather than later.
During the 1999-2000 season, O’Neal averaged a league-leading 29.7 points per game on 57.4% shooting from the field. To this day, O’Neal is the only player in the 3-point era to have led the league in scoring without making a single 3-pointer. Imagine if he had made more than 52.4% of his free throw attempts.
O’Neal also averaged 13.6 rebounds and 3 blocks per game that season, which made him the third player in NBA history to ever average at least 29 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks per game. No one has done it since.
O’Neal and Bryant led the Lakers to a 67-15 record — their best record since the 1971-72 season — and entered the postseason as the No. 1 seed. They had a relatively easy time getting through the first two rounds, but it took seven games for them to get past the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals.
In Game 7, the Lakers trailed the Blazers for most of the game, and went into the fourth quarter leading Los Angeles 71-58. With their playoff lives on the line, the Lakers went on a 27-8 run, capped off by an alley-oop from Bryant to O’Neal to give the Lakers a six-point lead with 41 seconds left on the shot clock. The crowd at The Forum exploded — they knew the game was theirs.
That alley-oop is widely regarded as the moment Shaq and Kobe knew what they could do together, and in the following three years, they won three championships together.
Could they have won more if they learned to put their differences aside and co-exist? Sure, but their three-peat was still a remarkable feat, and something no one has done since.
For that reasons, Shaq — Diesel, The Big Aristotle, Superman, Shaq Daddy, The Most Dominant Ever — is worth remembering.