NBA History: 50 best NBA players of the 21st century

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Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O’Neal STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images /

20. . C. Los Angeles Lakers. Shaquille O'Neal. 9. player

50 greatest NBA players from 21st century: 9. Shaquille O’Neal

Shaq was tricky. A lot of his best basketball came before the turn of the century, so if we are talking strictly about performance in the 2000s-on, it becomes difficult to properly evaluate the unstoppable force that was Shaquille O’Neal. In the end, it was impossible to leave him outside the top 10.

With the Lakers, O’Neal won three consecutive championships from 2000 to 2002, winning Finals MVP in each of them (technically, only the last two were in the 21st century). He would later win his fourth ring with Miami in ’06, where he took a backseat to Dwyane Wade. O’Neal, who began the century in the middle of his prime, was the most dominant physical force in basketball. Injuries nagged him along the way, but Shaq didn’t need much skill outside the paint to abuse the vast majority of NBA defenses.

Eight of Shaq’s 15 All-Star appearances came after the turn of the century. He was also named to two All-Defensive teams in that span. O’Neal’s dominance waned as his career pushed on, but from 2001 to 2006, he led the NBA in field goal percentage five out of the six seasons. The NBA has never seen, and will probably never see again, a player who controlled the paint as forcefully as Shaq.

In the broader context of NBA history, Shaq stands toe-to-toe with the greatest centers the league has ever seen. Listed at 7-foot-1, 325 pounds, there were precious few who stood even the slimmest chance of slowing O’Neal’s momentum towards the basket. Some would call Shaq a throwback big, a vestige of a lost era. I think the opposite is true. His game was timeless, his dominance so severe that no player and no era could have fully contained him.