It’s another day, and another former NBA superstar is lamenting about the current state of the game and its players. This time it is Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal. The 15-time All-Star, 14-time All-NBA, four-time champion, and three-time Finals MVP was the dominant big man of his era. He sees the position of center through a specific lens and inside-out paradigm. The problem is that’s not how the game is played any longer.
“Most of these big guys they have now are powder puffs,” said O’Neal. “They want to shoot jumpers.”
Whom do we think O’Neal is referring to? Certainly not Denver Nuggets two-time MVP Nikola Jokic or Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid. Both can dominate in the low post as well as step out and face up 25-plus feet from the basket.
In today’s NBA, teams play five out basketball and having a center who can also space the floor makes it all the more challenging for a defense.
The problem for Shaq and players of older generations is they aren’t a part of the change that has happened in the league. The evolution happened when he was beyond his prime and left the game. He can’t properly discuss what’s happening because he doesn’t have a frame of reference.
A dominant big man getting double-teamed in the ’90s and 2000s and passing out to an open shooter was the extent of a lot of offenses. The motion and multiple-side action we see today doesn’t lend itself to a slow plodding pace and style.
The idea that big men are “powder puffs” in today’s game is comical. Centers shooting jumpers nowadays is a good thing. It provides space for their teams, by pulling the opposing big man away from the rim. The best centers in the game can punish defenses at all levels offensively.
Big men also need to be adept passers and super skilled in the art of the dribble handoff to function in today’s offenses.
Centers also have much more responsibility now than they did in O’Neal’s day, particularly on defense. Big men have to switch out onto smaller and quicker perimeter players and protect the rim.
So it isn’t that players are soft or powder puffs it’s just that slow plodding post play given the pace and space era is not the most effective way to score consistently.
If Shaq watched closely and truly studied the modern game he would see that it’s not just big men shooting jumpers. There is more nuance and subtlety to their games.
But these are easy fall back responses for Shaq because he has a role to play. He’s the old-school legend that likes to rattle the cage and hate on the “new big man.” It’s a role he plays well and it’s part of his shtick.
The game will continue to evolve and players from the past will just need to accept that how they played and dominated isn’t how it’s done in the modern game.
As the geometry of the court continues to stretch, players will have to adapt to survive.