In this series, I’ll take a look at modern superstars and examine how their clubs’ wins and losses rose and fell over time with the presence and absence of their aces. As much as I love comparing and discussing players’ individual statistics and their advanced impact stats, the only reason I do so is to try to figure out which players affect their teams’ fortunes in the most significant and positive ways. What I’ve decided to do with It’s All About The W’s is stop looking too closely at superstars’ stats and start looking closely at their teams’ records with and without them in the lineups. Michael Jordan won 6 titles in the 90’s, but in the middle two seasons during his first retirement the Bulls never reached 57 wins (their least amount during his 6 title runs) or even the third round of the playoffs; that’s significant. Bill Russell won 11 titles in 13 seasons, yet the Celtics couldn’t make the playoffs the year before or after his career, plus he was injured during one of those two non-title playoffs; that’s significant.
I’ll be using that same logic to examine today’s stars and how their clubs improved (or didn’t) with their presence. The stats are great, but if they don’t correspond with more wins, then what’s their value? Obviously I’ll have to consider the sample size of games missed, injuries to fellow teammates, and the context of the games, so those facts will be noted and considered.
Without further ado, here’s It’s All About The W’s: Shaquille O’Neal.
Orlando Magic (’92-93 to ’95-96)
If you had to make a complete 30-selection, first round draft out of the last 30 #1 picks, Shaq’s credentials going into the draft (we’re talking about perceived potential at the time of being drafted) probably would have earned him the #1 spot in our hypothetical draft. Ewing, Duncan, Webber, James, and Hakeem would be considered, but we’re talking about a very nimble and athletic 7-footer who had the strength of 303 pounds behind him. Statistically he was far more dominant than those other five: he shot 61% in college, averaged 26 ppg and 14 rpg his last two years, blocked 412 shots in only 90 collegiate games, and he began his freshmen season as a 17-year-old. There was no doubt he would help the hapless Magic who had won 21, 31, and 18 games in their first three seasons, a 70-176 (.285) record overall. Immediately they improved to 41-41 in O'Neal's rookie season, losing their only game he missed. They improved moreso to 50 and 57 wins in their next two years, making the Finals in 1995. As much as we also remember Anfernee Hardaway’s talents on that team and Orlando getting swept by Houston in that Championship series, Shaq actually outplayed an at-his-peak Hakeem in the '95 Finals (28 ppg, 60% FG, 13 rpg, 2.5 bpg versus 33 ppg, 48% FG, 9 rpg, 2.0 bpg) and almost had as many assists as Hardaway, Orlando's All-Star PG, in that series (25 to 32). Shaq only missed 5 games those first 3 years, but it was clear that he was by far the biggest contributor to their substantial increase in success.
His fourth season, ’95-96, was the first time he missed significant time, but the Magic didn’t take a massive hit on paper for it. They went 40-14 (.741) with him and a similar 20-8 (.714) without. Shaq left to play in the bright lights of LA in the summer of 1996, and the Magic quickly fell to 45 wins the following year, although it must be noted that Orlando experienced an onslaught of injuries that season with no one starting more than 68 games. Obviously Shaq’s absence had a lot to do with 15 less regular season victories, but we’re talking about a really injured club that still made it to the playoffs; you'd expect more of a drop-off under those conditions.
Shaq’s impact on W-L’s: We don’t see a lot of difference in the team’s W-L records with and without him in his first four seasons, but watching a really bad franchise improve by leaps and bounds in the regular season and make it to the Finals on the back of a 23-year-old says a lot, especially when we then watched the franchise crash into consistent mediocrity for the next 11 seasons without him. I’m going to say Shaq’s impact was very significant, but I don’t want to get too carried away after seeing those W-L numbers for ’95-96 and how the Magic still remained at or above .500 for each of the next 7 seasons.
Los Angeles Lakers (’96-97 to ’03-04)
Shaq joined an improving LA team that had won 53, 48, and 33 games over the previous three seasons, but they quickly became a legitimate contender that won at least 60% of its regular season games in all 8 of his years on the team. And oh yeah, they won three titles. Considering Kobe Bryant joined the Lakers as a rookie in 1996 as well, any examination of W-L records will also have to include considerations for his presence. In the most straight-forward way of doing so, the Lakers were 261-101 (.721) when both players played, 32-10 (.762) with Shaq but no Kobe, 23-25 (.479) with Kobe but no Shaq, and 2-6 (.250) when both were hurt. That last number is virtually meaningless considering it covers 8 seasons, but those first three indicate just how important Shaq was to this “two-headed” club – basically he was the reason they were winning games at the rate they were. He won the Finals MVP in all three championship seasons, but with Kobe increasing his own scoring role at the expense of Shaq's offense even as LA returned to the Finals in 2004, Shaq skipped town shortly after the Pistons raised the 2004 banner (Shaq shot 59% FG vs. Bryant's 41% FG in those playoffs, their final one together, but Kobe still took 460 shots to Shaq’s 307 that post-season).
Shaq and Phil Jackson left the team in ’04-05, and the Lakers who had just been in the Finals immediately fell to 34-48 (.415), further cementing the then-commonly-accepted opinion among fans that the Lakers’ success was the product of O’Neal as the #1 and Kobe as the #2 as opposed to some sort of 1a and 1b scenario that the media enjoyed toying with at the time.
Shaq’s impact on W-L’s: To an extenet that's much more obvious than during his time on Orlando, Shaq’s impact on the Lakers’ record and post-season success was extremely significant to a very high degree.
Miami Heat (’04-05 to ’07-08)
Shaq landed in South Beach as a disgruntled 32-year-old, but he showed again that he could take a so-so club and make them great. With rookie Dwyane Wade missing 21 games the previous year, the Heat had gone 42-40 (.512). Shaq missed a significant amount of games in each of his 3.5 seasons with Miami, so I’ll just lay out their W-L records with and without him during each one.
In ’04-05, Miami went 53-20 (.726) with him and 6-3 (.667) without. Shaq played injured throughout the post-season, but they still took Detroit to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In ’05-06, Miami went 42-17 (.712) with him and 10-13 (.435) without. The Heat won the title in 2006, yet they still couldn’t win 50% of their games in the regular season without Shaq, even when popular opinion has been that Dwyane Wade was the team’s best player. I’m not so sure.
In ’06-07, Miami went 25-15 (.625) with him and 19-23 (.452) without. Wade only played 51 games, but the team was a much worse 27-24 with him in, and they managed to win 9 in a row (by far their longest win streak of the year) in March with Wade sidelined but Shaq playing. Their next longest streak was 5, and both were present for that. No matter how you slice it, Miami wasn’t having much success without Shaq around, but they managed without Wade.
In ’07-08, the injuries really started to mount up for Miami (Jason Williams lead the squad with 53 starts on the year), and they traded Shaq mid-season in order to shake things up. Before the trade, the Heat went 8-25 (.242) with him and 0-8 (.000) without. After he was traded, they went 7-34 (.171) the rest of the way.
Shaq’s impact on W-L’s: Even though we think of the Heat as having been less dependent on Shaq for their success than the Magic were many years earlier, it looks like his impact on the Heat was extremely significant, and it’s probably been underrated over time.
Phoenix Suns (’07-08 to 08-09)
Shaq joined the Suns just two weeks before turning 36 as a bloated, 350-pound shadow of his former glory. He played less than 30 minutes per game for his remaining 27 games that season, but he still averaged 13 ppg, 11 rpg, and he shot 61%. His ’08-09 season is his last one of note, playing exactly 30 minutes per game for Phoenix, averaging 18 ppg on a league-leading 61% FG, while also pulling down 8.4 rpg. He was realistically only the team’s third-best player but he was actually quite durable, missing only 8 games in his 1.5 seasons in the desert. Although it means very little considering his reduced role and the small sample size of missed games, the team went 61-41 (.598) with him and 3-5 (.375) without in his season-and-a-half.
Of course he also played a year with Cleveland (’09-10, 37 years old, 53 games, 23 minutes per) and with Boston (’10-11, 38 years old, 37 games, 20 minutes per), but it’s not even worth looking at those teams’ records with and without him considering his drastically reduced roles on these franchises, although I will mention that he recorded 10 double-doubles over the past two seasons.
Shaq’s impact on W-L’s: He was old, oft-injured, and fat, but it’s safe to say Shaq still had some positive impact on the Suns. Beyond that, he at least made you think he might help LeBron have a chance at a title in Cleveland, plus he started the most games of any center on a very good Boston club last year (36).
It makes perfect sense and the numbers spell it out pretty clearly: Shaq was without question the most important piece to that Lakers’ three-peat. They weren’t doing much before he showed up, they sucked after he left, and they won less than 50% of their games when he sat but Kobe and that great supporting lineup was still playing. What’s a little surprising is that it’s clear he was much more responsible for the Heat’s success than most people generally think, especially when compared to his time on the Magic, a club he unquestionably turned around but maybe didn’t push over the top quite to the degree we often assume. All in all, we’re talking about a dominant big man who changed the fortunes of three clubs in a huge way. You can't say that about many players.