Shaquille O’Neal vs. Wilt Chamberlain: if there’s anyone who will supplant the Stilt as basketball’s most dominant player ever, it’s Shaq – One-on-One – Statistical Data Included

Reggie Theus

SAY WHAT YOU WANT ABOUT Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s longevity or Bill Russell’s rings, but let’s get one thing straight: No one’s put up gaudier numbers than Wilt Chamberlain. I could spend this entire article breaking those numbers down for you: Of the top 23 single-game scoring outputs in NBA history, Wilt owns 15, including his all-time NBA record 100 (making a record 36-of-63 field goals and a record 28-of-32 free throws); he owns three of the top six single-game rebounding efforts, including his all-time NBA record 55 (vs. Russell);[Pi]also recorded the only triple double-double in NBA history, on February 2, 1968, going for 22 points, 25 boards, and 21 assists.

What does Shaq bring to the table vs. Wilt? More than you might think. First off, he’s got a more varied set of skills. He already owns as many rings as Wilt, and he should finish his career with more.

Wilt’s stats are overwhelming. But what’s fishy is how he could have been so dominant statistically, yet win only two titles. Was the NBA weaker back then? If not, there’s no excuse for Chamberlain not having won more. His stats are awesome–but how tainted are they?

In a strict numbers sense, there’s no way O’Neal–or any player in the history of the NBA–can measure up to Chamberlain. But what we have here is a battle of stats vs. skills.

Scoring (Shaq 15, Wilt 15)

Both these players can score; in fact, heading into this season the difference is negligible (Wilt’s 30.1 ppg vs. Shaq’s 27.7). Wilt led the NBA in scoring in his first seven seasons, never averaging less than 33.5 ppg and putting up an NBA-record 50.4 ppg in 1961-62. O’Neal has no problem shouldering the load as a scorer, either.

But both players had to learn to share the ball: Chamberlain with Hall-of-Famers like Paul Arzin with the Philadelphia Warriors, Hal Greer (76ers), and Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Gail Goodrich (Los Angeles Lakers), and O’Neal with Penny Hardaway on the Orlando Magic and now in L.A. with Kobe Bryant).

Shaq is a better ball-handler than Wilt ever was, and boasts a sweet signature spin move in going for a lob. Shaq also boasts a baseline jumper out to 10 feet. Wilt was pretty restricted to a finger roll and fall-away bank shot.

There’s never been a man as large as Shaq who has been as light on his feet. Mix that with his quickness and strength–and mean streak–and you’ve got a force no one can reckon with.

Field-Goal Shooting (Wilt 10, Shaq 10)

Wilt led the NBA in field-goal shooting a record nine times. Who’s second? Shaq, with five seasons atop the league. And O’Neal has a better career shooting percentage than Wilt (.577 to .540).

But here’s something that really impresses me about Chamberlain: as his career wore on and the teams he was playing on got better and better, he got smarter. He took smarter shots. Look at his last season, with the record-breaking 1972-73 Lakers. Teamed with great scorers like West and Goodrich, Wilt averaged only 13.2 ppg, playing more of a role being the centerpiece. But he shot an amazing .727 from the floor. That’s the best mark ever recorded in the NBA.

Shaq is brilliant at using contact to his advantage. Despite Wilt’s reputation as a “giant” back in the 1960s, Shaq is the same height (both 7’1″) and outweighs his average opponent by a greater margin than Wilt did (a 70-pound advantage vs. Wilt’s 47). O’Neal knows just how to back his defender down–sometimes underneath the rim–for easy scores. Shaq is also more athletic, with more nimbleness and offensive moves than Wilt ever had. Both players’ primary weapons are slam dunks, but compare Shaq’s effective secondary move, a five-foot baby hook, to Wilt’s finger roll. Wilt was known to drive coaches and teammates crazy by opting for finesse rather than power, Shaq makes no such mistakes.

Free-Throw Shooting (Shaq 1, Wilt 1)

It’s tempting simply to skip this section. Yes, Shaq’s .531 career mark is better than Wilt’s .511. But I’ll give Chamberlain some credit for being willing to experiment with different approaches: He shot underhanded, he shot from the right and left sides of the free-throw line, he even shot his throws near the top of the key.

Shaq’s free-throw shots are painfully bad, with the kind of spin that makes you duck on the blocks. But rarely has Shaq’s inability to make charity shots cost his team a win. Throws will always be a problem for Shaq, just as they were for Wilt.

People think free throws are psychological, but that’s not always true. A big man’s hands are so large the bail feels like a volleyball in their hands. A stationary shot is all touch, and big men don’t have that touch; it’s not second nature for them. A stationary shot from 15 feet is not part of their natural game, which leads to struggles from the stripe.

Defense (Wilt 19, Shaq 18)

Both of these centers have been unfairly overshadowed on defense. Because Russell was such a weak offensive player, people automatically assume he was a better defender than Chamberlain. The numbers don’t support that, though.

Shaq has always played second-fiddle defensively to rivals like Dikembe Mutombo or Hakeem Olajuwon. That’s not fair. The effort and intensity hasn’t always been consistent, and he might look less the part of an agile, lithe defender as Mutombo, but O’Neal is in there mixing it up with the best of them.

The slight difference here is that Wilt was a little more defensive-minded. For Lakers to threepeat, Shaq is going to have to concentrate even harder defensively.

Shot-Blocking (Wilt 5, Shaq 4)

Blocks weren’t kept as an official statistic until after Chamberlain retired, but it’s safe to say that Wilt was a more potent shot-blocker than O’Neal, although both have a great sense of the ball and will go after it.

Passing (Wilt 5, Shaq 4)

Imagine David Robinson or Alonzo Mourning suddenly leading the league in assists while averaging more than 20 points and rebounds. That all-around effort has never been seen at center, save for Wilt’s first two Sixers seasons. To follow up the 7.8 apg he averaged in 1966-67, Wilt led the NBA in 1967-68 with 8.6 apg.

Shaq fits nicely into Phil Jackson’s triangle offense as a talented passer, more talented than the average center today. Shaq is also becoming a smarter offensive player as he gets older, and that transfers to his passing ability as well.

You can’t say enough about these guys as passers. As a shooting guard, the thing I most wanted was a center who could move the basketball.

Basketball was different in Wilt’s day. Passing and moving without the ball, high and low splits off the center, were common building blocks of the offensive game; the game isn’t played that way any more. Wilt’s era featured a lot more movement off the ball and cutting off the center, using the center as a screen. Today, the court is spread, and that kind of off-ball movement just doesn’t happen.

Rebounding (Wilt 20, Shaq 18)

There’s never been a rebounder as good as Chamberlain. Not Russell, not Moses Malone–and no, not Dennis Rodman. Wilt led the NBA in rebounding in 11 of his 14 seasons. He averaged 22.9 boards in his career, highlighted by an NBA-record 27.2 rpg in 1961-62.

Shaq does his job on the boards, but his career average of 12.4 is nearly doubled by Chamberlain. Yes, 12.4 rpg holds up among his peers today, but he shouldn’t just be challenging for a league rebounding title, he should be putting up Malone or Rodman numbers and leading the NBA by two or three boards a game. He’s too talented not to be a better rebounder.

One concession to Shaq is that while Wilt was a low post center, Shaq moves around more, and gets spread out by teams. And the closer you are to the rim, the more boards you’ll haul in.

Leadership (Shaq 5, Wilt 2)

Shaq is becoming a better leader as he gets older. Evidence of that comes from the changes we’ve seen in less than a year. For much of last season, Shaq showed little leadership with his whining game in the press with Kobe. But as the playoffs neared, and trickling through into this season, Kobe and Shaq getting it together on the same page was a move initiated by Shaq than anything. The big man has been the bigger man by publicly trying to mend fences and talking now about getting Kobe an MVP award. More than anything, the team needed that leadership. Shaq tells me he’s happy with who he is and what he’s accomplished, and he wants to see Kobe be the best player he can be. When Shaq says that championships are what’s most important, I know he really means it.

Wilt gets low marks as a leader because his teams simply didn’t win the big ones. The most devastating force ever to play the game comes away with two rifles in 14 years? That’s not good enough. Leadership is more than just carrying a team on your back.

Mental Toughness (Shaq 4, Wilt 2)

O’Neal is the most talented center–perhaps the most talented player–in the game. He doesn’t shy away from that; in fact, he relishes it. Wilt had a tendency to shirk his status as the biggest and baddest force on the planet. It’s amazing to say, but Wilt was prone to playing not to win.

Shaq’s mental toughness is incredible. It amazes me how well he stands up to the hack-a-Shaq. To have to play knowing people are going after him hard on every play–even trying to hurt him–is perhaps Shaq’s most impressive feat of strength.

Durability (Wilt 10, Shaq 8)

Wilt averaged 45.8 mpg. Not in his best season, but in his career. In every game he played for 14 seasons, Wilt sat out an average of two minutes. O’Neal has been durable of late, but has played less than seven fewer games per season than Wilt (75 vs. 68 games per season).

You see from my scorecard that this is other tight one. In fact, I’d say that Shaq finishing a hair behind Wilt is really a win. When you’re talking about dominance, winning is the biggest key. And with a couple more titles, Shaq can point to good numbers and more rings than Wilt, making him the most dominant center–and most dominant player–in the history of the game.

Reggie’s Scorecard


15 Scoring(15) 15

Shaq’s got the moves, but both players can score–and share.

10 Field-Goal Shooting(10) 10

Two of the most efficient shooters of all time.

1 Free-Throw Shooting(5) 1

Um, pass.

18 Defense(20) 19

Shaq is (and Wilt was) an underrated defender.

4 Shot-Blocking(5) 5

Wilt’s advantage? He was more defensive-minded.

4 Passing(5) 5

Chamberlain was a perfect passer for his time, and Shaq’s no slouch.

18 Rebounding(20) 20

There’s never been a better rebounder than Chamberlain.

5 Leadership(5) 2

Shaq’s maturity stands out in ending his “feud” with Kobe Bryant.

4 Mental Toughness(5) 2

Hack-a-Shaq’s failure tells you everything you need to know.

8 Durability(10) 10

Wilt simply went out and played; Shaq’s health has been on the rise.

87 Total(100) 89

O’Neal and Chamberlain are rated relative to other NBA players,

with the maximum score in parenthesis.

Reggie Theus starred for 13 NBA seasons, and since retiring has worked as an analyst and coach. If you have a suggestion for a future “One-on-One” matchup, e-mail Reggie at

COPYRIGHT 2002 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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