Legendary big man Shaquille O’Neal saw Michael Jordan in the playoffs twice during his career. The first was in 1995 when Jordan made his comeback after two years of playing baseball in the White Sox farm system. O’Neal’s Magic, led by the big man’s 24.3 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists, won that series against a rusty Bulls team in six games. The following year, when the Bulls were in peak juggernaut form, they exacted revenge with a sweep, winning the four games by an average of nearly 17 points per game.
O’Neal left Orlando for Los Angeles in 1996 and never faced off against Jordan again. The Lakers were a massive disappointment in O’Neal’s first three seasons but finally won a title in 2000, when the Jordan-era Bulls were long broken up. The Lakers won three championships in a row, going 12-3 in their Finals series in that stretch.
But, in another of an endless stream of what-ifs that have filled the void left by a lack of on-court action because of the suspended NBA season in recent weeks, O’Neal was asked on ESPN’s SportsCenter whether his Lakers could have beaten those Bulls teams.
If you’ve paid much attention to O’Neal over the years, you can guess his answer: “Of course. Yes. Easily.”
Bulls Centers Were No Match for Shaquille O’Neal
O’Neal said the difference would have been himself. The one weakness of the Bulls during their 1990s dominance was the center position, where they employed a long list of so-so bigs: Bill Cartwright, Will Perdue, Stacey King, Scott Williams, Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, Bison Dele, Joe Kleine, 44-year-old Robert Parish.
In the six years in which the Bulls won championships only one center averaged double-figure scoring for an entire season—Longley, who averaged 11.4 points in 1997-98.
“I would have killed Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, Cartwright, yea,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal acknowledged that the weakness would have been his well-documented struggles at the free-throw line. He was a career 50.4 percent free-throw shooter in the playoffs. He was a bit better in his eight postseasons in L.A., making 52.0 percent and he still averaged 27.7 points in those years.
“The factor is me and my free-throw shooting,” O’Neal said.
‘If I Was On, We Win’
O’Neal wondered, too, whether Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson would have been on the sidelines for the Lakers or for the Bulls. He coached both of those teams at their peaks, winning six rings with Chicago and three with O’Neal’s Lakers (plus two more after O’Neal was traded from L.A.).
Giving Jackson to Chicago, O’Neal said the Bulls would have employed the Hack-a-Shaq strategy, intentionally sending O’Neal to the line.
“I still would have averaged my 28, 29,” O’Neal said. “But the key would have been the free-throws. With me, it’s always 50-50, so hopefully I would have been on. If I was on, we win, if I was off, we lose.”
It’s a hypothetical, of course, and with the pending release of the ESPN documentary about the final season of the Bulls’ dynasty, The Last Dance, there has been no shortage of hypothetical debates. O’Neal is always up for it.
“I love having these conversations—they would have done this, we would have done that,” O’Neal said. “But I can say, I think we would have beat them.”