It is apparently time to make a new entry in the Dictionary of
Sports Nicknames, right after Big Country and Big Daddy and just
before Big Unit. Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal
sauntered through the locker room at the Staples Center last
week and declared that he had dubbed himself Big Stock Exchange.
When someone asked the inevitable question--why?--a broad smile
spread across his face. "Numbers, baby," he said. "Numbers."
The moniker may not stick, which won't bother O'Neal, who gives
himself a new one almost daily. Thanks to Big Stock Exchange and
a new dedication to defense inspired by coach Phil Jackson, the
market is Bullish on the Lakers, who are flourishing the way
Jordan & Co. once did. Through Sunday, Los Angeles had ridden a
14-game winning streak--capped by a comeback from a 19-point
deficit for a 110-100 victory over the SuperSonics in Seattle--to
a league-best 29-5 record, and O'Neal was laying waste to any
unfortunate center who wandered into his path. His scoring
average of 27.8 was tied for second in the league, he was
shooting a second-best 57.6% from the floor, he led the NBA with
14.5 rebounds per game, and, most significant, he was averaging
3.18 blocks, his most since he was a rookie. "I definitely think
they're the favorites to win the championship," says Philadelphia
76ers coach Larry Brown. "Kobe Bryant is playing at a high level,
Glen Rice is playing at a high level, and Shaq is playing off the
But talk of a title in January is especially premature when it
involves the Lakers, who have made a habit of sizzling in the
regular season and then flaming out in the playoffs. In 1997-98
they opened with 11 straight victories and went on to win the
Pacific Division with a record of 61-21, only to be swept by the
Utah Jazz in the Western Conference finals. Last season they were
wiped out in four straight in the second round by the San Antonio
Spurs. "With our history we can put up all the numbers we want,
and no one is going to take us seriously until we do it in the
playoffs," says forward Rick Fox.
There's no denying, however, that the Lakers' success is built on
a firmer foundation than in previous years. Even the sometimes
shaky relationship between O'Neal and Bryant, the spectacular
shooting guard, has never been better. The two were watching
television in the locker room before a game last week when Bryant
commented on how silly the commercial they had just seen was.
"That was almost as bad as you and Hakeem on those little bikes,"
Bryant told O'Neal, referring to a fast-food commercial Shaq made
with Hakeem Olajuwon a few years ago.
"Hey, that won awards," O'Neal said, laughing. "It wasn't as bad
as you in that one where you wore that cook's uniform." Bryant
donned an apron in a recent soft-drink ad. "'If I was a cook,
would you care what I drink?'" O'Neal said, mimicking Bryant in
the commercial. On they went, two stars good-naturedly needling
each other about their thespian turns.
With the notable exception of his abysmal free throw
shooting--44.9% at week's end--there is nothing about O'Neal's
primary career to poke fun at these days. He is almost
unanimously thought to be playing his best basketball since he
entered the league. The only dissenting opinion comes from Shaq
himself. "I played better my second year," he says, referring to
1993-94, when he averaged 29.3 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.8
blocks and finished fourth in the MVP balloting. "After that year
I got my first taste of being injured, and I was a couple of
steps slow. The last couple of years I've had stomach injuries
that kept me from doing a lot of things defensively that I used
to do. Now I'm 100 percent, and I'm getting back to where I was
early in my career."
O'Neal might have been better then, but so was the competition,
which leads to a frightening thought: Even though he has been
abusing backboards and opponents for seven years, even though he
has career averages of 27.1 points and 12.2 rebounds, the era of
O'Neal's true dominance might just be starting. When he and
Alonzo Mourning broke into the league, the centers who were at or
near the top of their games included Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing,
David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, Rik Smits and Brad Daugherty.
Today Daugherty is retired and Olajuwon, Ewing, Robinson and
Smits are in varying stages of decline. The number of traditional
back-to-the-basket pivotmen is dwindling as more teams turn, by
necessity, to glorified power forwards to man the middle, which
is like offering bite-sized snacks to the 7'1" O'Neal. After
watching him rack up 22 points and 24 rebounds against 6'9",
206-pound Jerome Williams of the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 12,
Pistons coach Alvin Gentry said, "That's not fair. Shaq eats more
for lunch than Jerome weighs."
You could argue that O'Neal has to face only four topflight
pivots who are in their prime: the Spurs' Tim Duncan, the Atlanta
Hawks' Mutombo, the Miami Heat's Mourning and the Sacramento
Kings' Vlade Divac. More often he has his way with centers who
lack either the bulk or the quickness--or both--to offer much more
than token resistance. No player in the NBA is so often hacked as
a last resort, and not just because of his free throw woes. In a
118-101 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 5, O'Neal was
the main reason that the lead-footed Michael Olowokandi fouled
out in just 18 minutes. O'Neal treated Olowokandi's
matchstick-thin backup, 7'3", 212-pound Keith Closs, the way a
wrecking ball treats a window pane. He bulled his way through
Closs for prime post-up position and then turned and dropped the
ball in the net as casually as if he were placing a book on a
shelf, finishing with 40 points and 19 rebounds.
It is that apparent ease that has caused O'Neal's superiority to
be taken for granted. While acrobatic slashers such as Bryant and
the Toronto Raptors' Vince Carter seem to create a new move every
time they take to the air, there is a repetitiveness to O'Neal's
dominance that is almost numbing. Amid the aerial spectacle
presented each night by the league's young stars, it's easy to
forget that dumping the ball inside to Shaq is as sure an
offensive play as there is in the league.
O'Neal has proved this year that his game is also adaptable,
readily adjusting to the triangle offense installed by Jackson
and assistant Tex Winter. The system calls for Shaq to find
cutters with his passes, which accounts for the modest rise in
his assists. (He's averaging more than three for only the second
time in his career.) The triangle's spacing and ball movement
also have allowed O'Neal to get even better low-post position
because it is harder for defenses to sag on him. "This is an
offense that should enhance the abilities of a dominant center,
not take away from them," says Winter.
But the most pronounced difference in O'Neal's--and L.A.'s--game
this season is on defense. Until this year O'Neal hadn't averaged
more than three blocks since his rookie season, having swatted a
career-low 1.67 a game in 1998-99. His renewed propensity for
rejecting shots has helped make his teammates better defenders.
The Lakers gave up 96.0 points per game last year, which ranked
them 25th in the league. This season, even as rules changes have
increased scoring, they're allowing 90.4--fifth best. "We can
really be aggressive knowing Shaq's back there to clean up
anything that gets by us," says Rice, L.A.'s sharpshooting small
forward. "We can take things from teams on the perimeter and
force them to go into the lane knowing the big fella will be
there for us."
There are three reasons for O'Neal's surge in swats: His nagging
injuries have fully healed, he has trimmed down (to close to his
listed weight of 315), and Jackson has demanded it of him.
Jackson has an air of authority that his predecessors with the
Lakers, Del Harris and Kurt Rambis, didn't; it's apparent that
O'Neal is playing for the first coach who has commanded his
complete respect. He has said that Jackson reminds him of his
stepfather, Phil Harrison, a retired Army sergeant, in the
discipline he imposes. Jackson's six championships with the Bulls
don't hurt, either. "I went out to see him in Montana before the
season, and I saw the sun hitting all those trophies," says
O'Neal. "It was like, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling.
When a man with his track record asks you to do something, you do
In a way, the Lakers' defensive improvement leaves no doubt that
they didn't come close to getting the most out of their talent in
the past. There is no equivalent to the triangle on defense, no
new system or philosophy. Jackson realizes he doesn't have the
kind of athletes to apply the perimeter pressure that his Bulls
could. In fact, the Lakers don't have great individual
defenders--they traded their only exceptional one, forward Eddie
Jones, to get Rice from the Charlotte Hornets last season--though
adding the savvy of forward A.C. Green and guard Ron Harper has
helped their team D. "There's no big secret to how we've done
it," says Bryant. "We're just working harder. We're quicker to
rotate when someone gets beat. We fight through screens a little
Jackson hasn't used any of his favorite stratagems for
manipulating players that he employed in his days with the Bulls.
"He hasn't handed out books for the players to read or spliced
scenes from movies into the game films," says Bryant. Jackson
doesn't need those tricks, at least not yet, because he can
motivate his team by just walking into the locker room. On Jan.
4, after the Lakers allowed the Clippers to score 61 points in
the first half, Jackson gave his team a brief but stern address.
"I told them I was looking for players interested in investing
the game with some emotion and energy," he says. Left unsaid, but
understood, was that he would be willing to sit the starters if
they didn't prove to be those players. The Lakers responded by
limiting the Clippers to 37 second-half points and winning
"When Phil Jackson tells you to defend the pick-and-roll a
certain way, you do it because he's proven he knows what he's
talking about, and you know you'll be sitting next to him if you
don't do it that way," says O'Neal. "Guys know that listening to
him could get us over the hump. If we don't win now, we won't
have any excuses."
The prime objective for Jackson has been to run a tighter ship.
He set the tone early by saying that O'Neal, who reported to camp
a good 15 pounds over his listed weight, needed to be lighter and
in better condition. Jackson has soft-pedaled the issue since,
but it is probably no coincidence that he has been giving O'Neal
heavy minutes (39.1 a game) to help him shed pounds. That
approach has paid off, though the added playing time for O'Neal
also points up one of the Lakers' weaknesses--they lack a genuine
power forward or backup center to help him shoulder the burden on
the boards. Green and Robert Horry have done their best, but
Green is 36, and Horry is a small forward playing out of
An even bigger trouble spot may be the unresolved status of Rice.
He can become a free agent at the end of the season, and Lakers
management has shown no willingness to give him the maximum
contract, which starts at $14 million per for a player with his
years of service. Sources close to Rice say they would not be
surprised to see a trade before the Feb. 24 deadline, and Jackson
refuses to rule one out. Rumors abound involving forwards P.J.
Brown of the Heat, Juwan Howard of the Washington Wizards and
Tracy McGrady of the Toronto Raptors. Rice, who has only
sporadically looked comfortable in the triangle offense, politely
declines to discuss his future, but the Lakers have to decide to
take one of two risks: Either tinker with a successful lineup and
trade Rice, or keep him for the rest of the season and hope his
performance isn't affected by the knowledge that the team doesn't
want to re-sign him.
Maybe O'Neal, whose largesse is legendary, can come up with a
little bauble to keep Rice's spirits up. He did, after all, give
backup point guard Derek Fisher a $5,000 Rolex watch as his
secret Santa gift last month, and when O'Neal found out that
equipment manager Rudy Garciduenas was driving an old pickup
truck last season, he bought him a new one, which Garciduenas
adorned with the vanity license plate THNX SHAQ. The best news
for the Lakers is that they have three months to pave over
potential potholes before the playoffs start. "May and June are
the only months that matter," says O'Neal.
Everything else is just numbers, baby.
COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH COVER Coming Through! Why Shaq and the Lakers are steamrolling the NBA
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Big Time Elevated by the outsized play of Shaquille O'Neal(far right, with Ron Harper), the Lakers are looking down on the rest of the NBA [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH SHAQ SNAQ O'Neal has gobbled up an NBA-best 14.5 boards a game, which helped L.A. devour 14 straight opponents.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH DRIVE TIME After missing 15 games with a broken right hand, the acrobatic Bryant has averaged 22.8 points.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH UP, UP AND AWAY? Because of his lofty contract demands and difficulty fitting into the triangle offense, Rice may be traded.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
Adding D for Dominance
Shaquille O'Neal's improvement on defense has lifted the Lakers
from 25th in the league in points allowed last season to fifth
through Sunday. If Shaq keeps up his pace in blocked shots--a
category in which he ranked 14th in 1998-99--this will be the
fourth time a player finished in the top three in scoring,
rebounding and blocks since the blocked shot became an official
statistic in '73-74. --David Sabino
SCORING REBOUNDING BLOCKED
AVG. AVG. SHOT AVG. SUM OF
PLAYER, TEAM SEASON (NBA RANK) (RANK) (RANK) RANKS
Lakers 1975-76 27.7 (2) 16.9 (1) 4.12 (1) 4
Lakers 1999-2000 27.8 (2) 14.5 (1) 3.18 (3) 6
Lakers 1976-77 26.2 (3) 13.3 (2) 3.18 (2) 7
Buffalo Braves 1973-74 30.6 (1) 15.1 (3) 3.32 (3) 7
"We can put up all the numbers we want," says Fox, "but no
one is going to take us seriously until we do it in the
It is apparent that O'Neal is now playing for the first coach
who has commanded his complete respect.