Shaquille O’Neal has many nicknames, several of which he has bestowed upon himself, including the “Big Aristotle” and the “Big Deporter” (coined after his Lakers eliminated several playoff teams that started foreign-born players at center). In order for the Cavaliers to maximize their chances to win a championship this year, O’Neal may have to turn into the “Big Bill Cartwright.”
That comparison may sound like an insult to future Hall of Famer O’Neal but it is not insulting at all: Cartwright made the All-Star team in 1980 as a New York Knick and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting that year (behind Larry Bird and Magic Johnson), averaging nearly as many points (21.7 ppg) as O’Neal did in his first season (23.4 ppg in 1992-93 with the Orlando Magic). Cartwright averaged 20.1 ppg in his second season but then injuries—and the arrival of Patrick Ewing in 1985-86—reduced his role. In 1988, the Knicks traded Cartwright to the Chicago Bulls for power forward Charles Oakley; the Knicks now had the perfect complement for Ewing, while the Bulls had a legitimate center to team with Michael Jordan and young, promising forwards Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. The Bulls won the first of three straight championships in Cartwright’s third season with the team (1990-91); that year, Cartwright averaged fewer than 10 ppg (9.6) in a full season for the first time in his career but he still ranked fourth on the Bulls in scoring while shooting a solid percentage from the field (.490). Cartwright finished third on the team in rebounding (6.2 rpg, trailing only Grant and Pippen) and provided a solid defensive presence in the post while playing 28.8 mpg; in the playoffs Cartwright’s minutes (30.1 mpg) and field goal percentage (.519) increased as the Bulls rolled to a 15-2 postseason record.
What does this have to do with O’Neal and the 2009-10 Cavaliers? When O’Neal teamed with Kobe Bryant to lead the Lakers to three straight NBA titles (2000-02) O’Neal routinely produced 30-plus points and 15-plus rebounds per game in the postseason but O’Neal has not averaged 20 ppg or 10 rpg in the playoffs since 2004. O’Neal averaged 40-plus mpg in the playoffs during his prime but in each of his last four trips to the playoffs O’Neal has averaged 33 mpg or less. Even though O’Neal made the All-NBA Third Team and won co-MVP honors in the All-Star Game last year he can no longer carry a team on a night in, night out basis—but he can still be a force in the post at both ends of the court and that is a critical component for any team that is trying to win a championship.
Cartwright averaged a then career-low 8.2 field goal attempts per game during the 1991 championship season but he was still an important part of Chicago’s offense; Bulls Coach Phil Jackson often went to Cartwright in the post early in games, forcing the opposing team to reveal when/if they planned to double team in the paint. By establishing the threat of a post up game, the Bulls spread out the court for Jordan and Pippen to operate. Jackson told Jordan that if Jordan had the ball all of the time then the defense could shine a “spotlight” on him but that if he passed the ball into the post and cut then he could obtain easier scoring opportunities early in the game, conserving energy for the fourth quarter if the team needed him to perform game-saving solo operations. In his book “Sacred Hoops,” Jackson explained that his assistant coach Tex Winter—the developer of the famous Triangle Offense—believes that there are “seven principles of a sound offense,” with the first one being “The offense must penetrate the defense.” This penetration can happen by a drive, a pass or a shot but Jackson said that the preferred method is “to pass the ball directly into the post and go for a three-point power play” (p. 88, “Sacred Hoops,” paperback edition).
O’Neal averaged 18-20 field goal attempts per game during his prime years but this season with Cleveland he is averaging a Cartwrightesque 9.1 field goal attempts per game. O’Neal is the focal point of the offense early in the first and fourth quarters, establishing a post presence, easing the load on LeBron James and potentially creating foul trouble for the opposing team; this season we have already seen O’Neal take Dwight Howard out of the game with foul difficulties and almost singlehandedly put the Cavs in the bonus in the fourth quarter versus the undersized Mavs. O’Neal is averaging career-lows across the board (11.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, .510 field goal shooting, numbers that are much like Cartwright’s 1991 statistics) but O’Neal’s impact cannot be judged by numbers alone, particularly considering his role with the Cavaliers; if O’Neal is compressing the defense into the paint and/or creating foul trouble for the opposing team then he is doing his job even if his statistics are not exceptional. In “Sacred Hoops,” Jackson wrote (p. 117, paperback edition), “The incessant accusations of the judging mind block vital energy and sabotage concentration. Some NBA coaches exacerbate the problem by rating every move players make with a plus-minus system that goes far beyond conventional statistics. ‘Good’ moves—fighting for position, finding the open man—earn the player plus rating points, while ‘bad’ moves—losing your man, fudging your footwork—show up as debits. The problem is: a player can make an important contribution to the game and still walk away with a negative score. That approach would have been disastrous for a hypercritical player like me. That’s why I don’t use it. Instead, we show players how to quiet the judging mind and focus on what needs to be done at any given moment.” There is no substitute for watching NBA games with an educated eye, whether you are a coach, a member of the media or a fan; neither highlight reels nor reams of statistics tell the full story about a team or a player.
O’Neal also should strive to emulate Cartwright’s defensive role. Cartwright was not particularly mobile defensively—and even in his prime he was never a great shotblocker—but he used his size and “educated elbows” very effectively, making it difficult for All-Star centers like Ewing to score. O’Neal used to be a highly mobile, powerfully athletic player—and a devastating shotblocker—but at this stage of his career his most important defensive assets are size, strength and intimidation; he can use his body to keep opposing post players out of the paint and he can be a physical presence discouraging opposing wing players from casually strolling through the paint on the way to the hoop: O’Neal has never hesitated to deliver a hard foul.
“Big Bill Cartwright” is a nickname that is not as flashy or grandiose as O’Neal’s other nicknames, but if O’Neal can play like Cartwright did for Jordan’s Bulls then O’Neal can help LeBron James win his first NBA championship in James’ seventh NBA season, much like Cartwright’s statistically modest—but important—contributions helped Jordan capture his first NBA title in Jordan’s seventh NBA season.