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Just The Sports: When Reputation Meets Reality

Just The Sports

Thursday, April 15, 2010

When Reputation Meets Reality

No matter how great an athlete once was, there will come a day when the game simply passes him by. His pace will fail him, younger players will surpass him in ability, and he will no longer be able to dominate the game the way he used to, forcing him to accept a more subordinate role. Some of these over the hill athletes will try to deny that they are in the declining phase of their sports lives, but age is an opponent that refuses to be bettered in the realm of sports. Usually, the media recognizes when a player is no longer performing like he used to, but every now and then comes along a player who was so dominant in his prime, journalists and analysts seem unable to recognize his inferior statistics and proclaim that his career is over and he will no longer make much of a difference for his team. Right now, we are witnessing such a phenomenon regarding the undeserved adulation with which Shaquille O'Neal still enjoys.

When O'Neal was traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Cleveland Cavaliers, there were those who wanted us to believe O'Neal was the final piece to the Cavaliers' championship puzzle. Wherever those people obtained their information it was not based in reality. Even before this season began, O'Neal was only a knockoff of the player he had been. Never one to take care of his body, over the last few seasons he has had to deal with multiple injuries, a decreasing role in the offense, a decline in production, and an inability to really help his teams win on a consistent basis.

Therefore, it is little surprise O'Neal turned in such a lackluster season for 2009-10. This season saw him average the fewest minutes per game, the fewest points per game, have the second-lowest true shooting percentage of his career, and account for the fewest win shares per forty-eight minutes of his career. Yet, there were those who would still have you believe that O'Neal's return to the Cavaliers' lineup for the playoffs will actually make a difference in how far they progress in the playoffs for no other reason than that his name is Shaq.

The truth is the Cavaliers do not need O'Neal to return; he will not raise the level of play for the Cavaliers above what it already is. I know this because O'Neal was kind enough to get injured as been his wont, allowing the Cavaliers to play a sizable number of games without him. O'Neal played a total of fifty-three games for the Cavaliers this season and in those games, the Cavaliers outscored their opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions. In the twenty-eight contests without him*, the Cavaliers outscored their opponents by 7.3 points per 100 possessions. A truly dominant player would surely make more of a difference than a single point over 100 possessions; a role player, which is what O'Neal is now, would not.

Moreover, keep in mind that of the twenty-eight games where O'Neal did not play, there were also five games where LeBron James did not suit up. James's absence means the results of the games without O'Neal are probably skewed lightly and there is not even a true point per 100 possessions difference between the two sample sets since the Cavaliers lost four of those five contests without their best player.

When O'Neal does return for the Cavaliers for the playoffs, it will really mean nothing. The Cavaliers do not need him as they have clearly shown when he was out injured no matter what any analyst says. The time has come for everyone to admit the truth and not be afraid to say it out loud; Shaquille O'Neal is not a difference maker for an NBA team nor should he be talked about as one.

*I did not include the last regular season in my comparison as neither the Hawks nor the Cavaliers were interested in putting their best lineups on the floor.



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