The NBA has seen its fair share of great big men thought its long and illustrious history, but some of the best ones played during the '90s, which many would consider the golden era of NBA centers. But through all the great big men of that era, two really stood out and got labeled the cream of the crop. Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Comparing careers and accolades
Shaquille O'Neal (23.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 2.3 bpg)
3x Finals MVP
2x Scoring champion
Rookie of the year
Hakeem Olajuwon (21.8 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 3.1 bpg)
2x Finals MVP
As you can see, these two Hall-of-Famers had unbelievable careers filled with numerous individual and team accomplishments, making it extremely hard to differentiate the two and say one is better than the other. But that's where the eye test comes into play. Shaq was a brute force and psychical specimen, unlike anything we had ever seen before, while Hakeem, on the other hand, had the skill of a guard in a center's body, being known for probably having the best post-game in the history of the NBA.
Two different playstyles, but each unstoppable in their own way. When facing each other in the 1995 Finals, Hakeem got the better out of Shaq in a sweep, even though the young O'Neal still had a good series. Those Finals made a lot of people take Hakeem over Shaq and with good right, but as time went on, the narrative would change. Hakeem would start to slowly fall off as he got up there in age, while Shaq entered his prime with the Lakers and led them to a three-peat, establishing himself as the consensus best big man in the game. At the end of Shaq's career, there really couldn't be said with confidence that one was better than the other.
Gary Payton believes "The Dream" was better
Hall-of-Famer and one of the most notorious trash talkers ever, Gary Payton had the opportunity to see both of them closely as his Sonics had many battles with the Rockets and the Magic in the '90s. To add to that, Payton would play later in his career alongside Shaq on with the Lakers and the Heat and even win his only ring in 2006 with the "Big Diesel."
But despite spending some time together with Shaq, Payton still thinks Hakeem was the better player:
"I think Dream was way way better, and Shaq had a lot of power. Dream was way better. That's my opinion. The Dream had a lot of shake and bake. He could fadeaway on you. He shot free throws, he did a lot more. Shaq was more of a dominant basketball player. I'mma give it to Dream. Dream could run the floor really well. Shaq could run… but then he became a player that you put him on the block and we had to double him because he was so strong. With the Dream, Shaq couldn't guard Dream. Shaq couldn't guard Yao Ming. The two players he couldn't deal with them. He couldn't deal with Yao Ming because he couldn't move Yao Ming. He could go through Dream, but Dream would work him."
Gary Payton,"> BASKETBALL KINGZ PDX
GP appreciates Hakeem more because of the sheer skill and finesse in his game, as the moves "The Dream" had in his bag made for some of the prettiest highlights you will ever see. On the other hand, Shaq wasn't nearly as skilled, but his brute size and strength made him virtually unstoppable by itself. That's why he really didn't need to perfect other elements of his game, while Hakeem had the complete package. Surprising choice from Payton, as you would expect him vouching for his former teammate, but kudos for being honest and offering an interesting perspective on the Shaq-Hakeem debate.