28-15 Or Fight: How Shaq Hates Dwight

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No one really needs a reason to dislike Dwight Howard, which is another way of saying that there are enough to go around. But Shaquille O'Neal particularly seems to resent him. This is Shaq's business, although it is also sort of everyone's, given that O'Neal spends so much time doing it on TNT's Inside The NBA.

Beyond the other stuff—the Skittles and the protracted and mismanaged departure from Orlando and the amphetamized teenage vibes and general Dwight-ness—Shaq has a more Shaq-intensive reason to hate him. Howard came in with the same game as Shaq and made people in Orlando forget about him. Howard more or less stole his Superman nickname from Shaq, and he even followed O'Neal's career path by bolting to Los Angeles, although that worked out much better for the Big Aristotle than it did the Big Skittle. It must irk Shaq tremendously that the player he’s now most often compared to isn’t a Hall of Fame legend like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell. It’s Dwight Howard. Dwight Howard, his cocky, loathsome wannabe clone.

When Shaq is talking about Howard on TNT, it's clear that he’s restraining himself—which is saying something, because Shaq undermines and faint-praises and semi-discreetly shits on him constantly. You can tell Shaq wants Howard to know that he’s nothing compared to him, that he was an infinitely better player than Howard could ever be, and that Howard needs some stripes before he could so much as liken himself to him. Shaq wants to say these things, but for whatever reason—it could be that he wants to seem professional, although the rest of his body of work suggests that's not it—he hasn't. So Shaq has concocted a go-to criticism for Howard, which he can repeat as often as he wants without appearing to be nonobjective.

It's this: according to Shaq, Dwight Howard needs to average 28 points and 15 rebounds a night, and until he does, he cannot be considered a great player. Period. End of discussion. You can’t get 28-and-15? Then you’re not great. You're nothing. Anyway, you're definitely not Shaq.

***

Shaq has repeated this canard so many times on the TNT set that Kenny and Charles no longer even argue with him on whether or not Howard is a great player. But what’s gotten lost in the hundreds of times he’s asserted this is that this is insane. Nobody averages 28-and-15 anymore. It has only been done 20 times in the history of the NBA, and more to the point hasn't been done since 1974, when Bob McAdoo averaged 30-and-15 for the Buffalo Braves, who are now the Clippers and found time to be the San Diego Clippers in between. The only players who’ve averaged 28-and-15 while playing at least 41 games in a year are Wilt Chamberlain (who did it seven times), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (three times), Elgin Baylor (three times), Bob Pettit (three times), Elvin Hayes (twice), Walt Bellamy and McAdoo.

You've noticed who's not on that list. Not just Shaq himself, but: Alonzo Mourning, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Dikembe Mutombo. They never came close to averaging 28-and-15. Neither did Bill Russell, for what it’s worth. And, of course, neither did Shaq. Somehow Kenny, Charles and EJ have yet to bring up the most salient comeback to Shaq’s criticism of Dwight Howard, which is that he himself never averaged 28-and-15, and yet seems clearly pretty settled on the question of his own greatness.

In fact, Shaq never even averaged 14 rebounds per game, which is something that Howard has already done three times. And while Shaq did twice average 15 rebounds per game in the playoffs, Howard has also already done that three times, and he isn’t even 30 yet. Howard has never been much more than a 20-point scorer, and Shaq averaged close to 30 points per game a few times and led the league in scoring twice. There’s no question that Shaq is a better basketball player than Howard. That’s inarguable. But that’s also not the point.

***

We need to get back to the fact that Shaq has made this particular attack his signature criticism of Dwight Howard. Shaq has not only defined greatness as a linear statistical benchmark, he’s made that benchmark utterly unattainable. The only way Howard can be great, apparently, is if he matches the statistical prowess of a player from 40 years ago, who was playing on a team that doesn’t even exist anymore, when Shaquille himself was two years old. That Shaq himself never matched those numbers is the hypocritical cherry on top.

Even if this wasn’t a horrible way to gauge if a center is great or not—apologies to Tim Duncan, who I guess sucks—Shaq doesn’t spread this criticism around evenly. He’s never poo-poo'ed Joakim Noah or Marc Gasol or Paul Millsap or Roy Hibbert for their equal inability to be a 28-and-15 man; if anything, Shaq should love Howard, since he and Kevin Love are the only active players who even approach the mythic/random heights of 28-and-15.

And that’s the point. The reason Shaq is so fixated on Howard isn’t that he thinks Howard isn’t living up to his potential—because, despite the lack of rings and general aura of immaturity, he actually has. For better or worse, if there’s one positive thing you can say about Howard, it’s that he’s come awfully close to maxing himself out as basketball player, or at least that he is what he is. (You'll notice, too, that Shaq leaves free-throw shooting out of the equation, which is a sort of kindness to Dwight.) The reason Shaq is so hard on Dwight has less to do with Dwight than it does with Shaq.

This is all very unprofessional and dumb. But credit to Shaq for doing one thing that Dwight Howard has never accomplished. With all this goofy dudgeon, he's actually managed to make Dwight Howard sympathetic.

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