It’s no secret that Shaquille O’Neal has played on an abundance of great teams. Arguably one of the three best centers of all time, the Big Whatever has been in the playoffs in every season of his career except last year when the Suns fell short. He has played in the NBA Finals six times (one with Orlando, four with the Lakers, and one with Miami), and has won four titles. So needless to say, the man knows a thing or two about playing with greatness.
Thursday, when talking with the media, Shaq took the opportunity to state that this Cavaliers team is the best team he’s ever played on. The Plain Dealer’s Mary Schmitt Boyer was covering the story, and she wrote:
O’Neal raised a few eyebrows after practice Thursday by declaring this Cavaliers team “the best team I’ve ever played on. On paper, anyway.”
When skeptical reporters questioned O’Neal about the comment, he said: “I’ve always begged management to get me the power forward I’ve needed and the shooters I’ve needed. Here you’ve got a guy that’s been starting 10 or 11 years [Zydrunas Ilgauskas] that’s backing me up, you’ve got Varejao who’s one of the top forwards in the league and you’ve got D-Block [Jackson] coming off the bench. We have a lot of great shooters, so on paper, I’d say yes.”
Now, I’m not going to make the obvious Kanye ‘I’mma let you finish’ joke here, no matter how much I want to, but this statement is a little tough to believe. After all, it’s not like Shaq isn’t a little well known for his hyperbole. The Lakers dynasty he took part in was an unbelievable collection of talent.
Having said that, though, a bold statement like this deserves some deeper consideration. When you look at the three Lakers teams he won Championships with, the first one (1999-00) won 67 games, but had to survive by staging a late historic 2nd half rally against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in order to advance to beat the Pacers in the Finals. The Lakers also struggled with the Kings in the first round of that year.
The 2nd Championship (2000-01) put themselves on cruise control for the regular season, “limping” to a 56-26 record. When they got to the playoffs, though, the team turned it on and simply demolished the competition. They swept the Blazers this time in the first round, then they swept the Kings in the second round before sweeping David Robinson, Tim Duncan, and the rest of the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. In the NBA Finals, the 76ers stole a stunning Game 1 victory in OT, but the Lakers then took the next four games to win the title. They finished those playoffs with a stunning 15-1 record. They averaged 103.38 points per game while holding their opponents to 90.63 points per game.
The 3rd Championship (2001-02) came as things started to unwind a bit for the Lakers. You were beginning to hear about the fracture in the relationship between Kobe and Shaq, and many were starting to question Shaq’s conditioning and dedication. The Lakers still won 60 games that year, and they still swept the Nets in the Finals and dismissed the Blazers and Spurs without breaking a sweat in the playoffs, but this team will forever be tainted for their performance in the Western Conference Finals against the Kings. Down 3-2 in the series, the Lakers took 40 FTA (compared to just 25 for the Kings) in Game 6 to squeak past the Kings, and then narrowly got past the Kings in Game 7.
So how do the Cavaliers compare to those teams? Well, I will always believe the 2000-01 version was the best team. I’ve never seen a team dominate the playoffs the way that Lakers team did, and that includes MJ’s Bulls teams. It’s hard to imagine the Cavaliers could possibly be better than that team. You had Shaq and Kobe Bryant, both in the prime of their careers. Shaq averaged 28.7 ppg and Kobe averaged 28.5 ppg. You might say LeBron James right now is right on par with where those two players were, and I would agree, but the Cavaliers don’t have anyone close to the #2 player that those Lakers had.
Having said that, I do believe this Cavaliers team is much, much deeper than that Lakers team was. After Shaq and Kobe, the Lakers had key contributors in Horace Grant, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, and Ron Harper. After that, though, you had a whole mess of mediocre role players (Isaiah Rider, Brian Shaq, Tyronn Lue, Devean George) and one key playoff contributor (Robert Horry).
This Cavaliers team has a full two-deep roster full of players who can make a difference. If the starting five is Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, LeBron James, Anderson Varejao, and Shaquille O’Neal, and the second unit is Daniel Gibson, Delonte West, Jamario Moon, JJ Hickson, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, you have to give the depth advantage to the Cavaliers. This doesn’t even include the boost they will get when Leon Powe returns, and you still have Darnell Jackson who can play and contribute along with rookie Danny Green who has shown a lot of promise thus far.
If you look at a comparison of PERs for the two teams, the Lakers look like this:
Shaq – 30.2
Kobe – 24.5
Grant – 14.3
Fisher – 14.0
Fox – 13.8
Harper – 12.5
Rider – 11.8
Penberthy – 11.2
Horry – 11.0
Shaw – 10.9
Now we don’t yet know how the Cavaliers will perform as a team this year, but here’s last year’s PERs for the current Cavs:
LeBron – 31.76
Shaq – 22.33
Ilgauskas – 18.03
Williams – 17.25
Powe – 17.25
Varejao – 14.62
West – 14.16
Moon – 13.35
Hickson – 12.59
Parker – 12.16
When you look at it in that manner, the Cavaliers actually compare pretty favorably. The Lakers’ cumulative PER for their top 10 is 154.2, or an average of 15.42 per player. The Cavaliers’ cumulative PER is 173.5, or an average of 17.35 per player.
Of course this doesn’t mean the Cavaliers will be better than that Lakers team, but it does show that they certainly could be and that Shaq’s bold claim may not be as crazy as it initially sounds. This is a limited measure of greatness of course, and it’s important to remember that the Lakers coasted through the season that year and never turned it on until the playoffs, so their PERs for that season undoubtedly reflects that fact. Then, when you factor in that the Cavaliers still have to find a way to fit all these pieces and all this depth into a way that can maximize efficiency, and it’s clear that a lot of work still needs to be done.
It’s dangerous to start talking about this team being one of the NBA’s all time great teams this early. But it’s not just Shaq thinking big. It’s not just the Cavaliers thinking Finals. Even the Wages of Wins’ David Berri is wondering just how good this Cavaliers team might be. As a lifelong Cleveland sports fan, you know better than to put the cart before the horse, but I also know that it’s exhausting to keep thinking this way. Shaq knows how to win, and he knows what it takes for a team to embrace its own greatness. He seems to be injecting a dosage of confidence into the team. Not the Cavaliers lacked confidence last season, but with Shaq, you get the sense he’s working on rallying the team together around the central idea that this team can do something special. Lets hope he’s right that, and not to be greedy, but lets hope he’s also right that this is the best team he’s ever played on.
(Photo Credit: Chris Covatta / NBAE via Getty Images)