The Orlando Magic drafted O’Neal with the 1st overall pick in the 1992 NBA Draft. During that summer, prior to moving to Orlando, he spent a significant amount of time in Los Angeles under the tutelage of Hall of Famer Magic Johnson. O’Neal was named the Player of the Week in his first week in the NBA, becoming the first player to do so. During his rookie season, O’Neal averaged 23.4 points on 56.2% shooting, 13.9 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks per game for the season. He was named the 1993 NBA Rookie of the Year and became the first rookie to be voted an All-Star starter since Michael Jordan in 1985.
In 1993-1994, O’Neal’s second season, Hill was the coach and Guokas was reassigned to the front office. O’Neal improved his scoring average to 29.4 points (second in the league to David Robinson) while leading the NBA in field goal percentage at 60%. On November 20, 1993, against the New Jersey Nets, O’Neal registered the first triple-doubleof his career, recording 24 points to go along with career highs of 28 rebounds and 15 blocks. He was voted into the All-Star game and also made the All-NBA 3rd Team. Teamed with newly drafted Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, the Magic finished with a record of 50–32 and made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. In his first playoff series, O’Neal averaged 20.7 points and 13.3 rebounds in a losing effort as the Magic lost every game to the Indiana Pacers.
In 1994-1995, his third season, O’Neal’s 29.3 point average led the NBA in scoring. He finished second in MVP voting to David Robinson and was voted into his third straight All-Star Game along with Hardaway. They formed one of the league’s top duos and helped Orlando to a 57–25 record and the Atlantic Division crown. The Magic won their first ever playoff series against the Boston Celtics in the 1995 NBA Playoffs. They then defeated the Chicago Bulls in the conference semi-finals. After beating Reggie Miller‘s Indiana Pacers, the Magic reached the NBA Finals, facing the defending NBA champion Houston Rockets. O’Neal played well in his first Finals appearance, averaging 28 points on 59.5% shooting, 12.5 rebounds, and 6.3 assists. Despite this, the Rockets, led by future Hall-of-Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, swept the series in four games.
O’Neal became a free agent after the 95–96 NBA season. He joined the Los Angeles Lakers on a seven-year, $121 million contract.The Lakers won 56 games during the 1996–97 season. O’Neal averaged 26.2 points and 12.5 rebounds in his first season with Los Angeles; however, he again missed over 30 games due to injury. The Lakers made the playoffs, but were eliminated in the second round by the Utah Jazz in five games.
The following season, O’Neal averaged 28.3 points and 11.4 rebounds (1997-1998). He led the league with a 58.4 field goal percentage, the first of five consecutive seasons in which he did so. The Lakers finished the season 61–21, first in the Pacific Division, and were the second seed in the western conference during the 1998 NBA Playoffs. After defeating the Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle SuperSonics in the first two rounds, the Lakers again fell to the Jazz, this time in a 4–0 sweep.
With the tandem of O’Neal and teenage superstar Kobe Bryant, expectations for the Lakers increased. However, personnel changes were a source of instability during the 1998–99 season. Long-time Laker point guard Nick Van Exel was traded to the Denver Nuggets; his former backcourt partner Eddie Jones was packaged with back-up center Elden Campbell for Glen Rice to satisfy a demand by O’Neal for a shooter. Coach Del Harris was fired, and former Lakers forward Kurt Rambis finished the season as head coach. The Lakers finished with a 31–19 record during the lockout-shortened season. Although they made the playoffs, they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs, led by Tim Duncan andDavid Robinson in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. The Spurs would go on to win their first NBA title in 1999.
On July 14, 2004, O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat for Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and a future first-round draft choice (who would turn into Jordan Farmar in the 2006 Draft). O’Neal reverted from (his Lakers jersey) number 34 to number 32, which he had worn while playing for the Magic. Upon signing with the Heat, O’Neal promised the fans that he would bring a championship to Miami. He claimed one of the main reasons for wanting to be traded to Miami was because of their up-and-coming star Dwyane Wade, to whom he gave the nickname “Flash.” With O’Neal on board, the new-look Heat surpassed expectations, claiming the best record in the Eastern Conference in 2004-05 with 59 wins. He played in 73 games, his most since 2001 season, averaged 22.9 points a game along with 10.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. Shaq also made his 12th consecutive All-Star Team, made the All-NBA 1st Team, and won the Eastern Conference player of the Month award for his performance in March. O’Neal also narrowly lost the 2004–05 MVP Award to Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash in one of the closest votes in NBA history.
In the 2006 NBA Playoffs, the Heat first faced the younger Chicago Bulls, and O’Neal delivered a dominating 27 point, 16 rebound and 5 blocks performance in game 1 followed by a 22 point effort in game 2 to help Miami take a 2-0 lead in the series. Chicago would respond with two dominating performances at home to tie the series, but Miami would respond right back with a victory at home in game 5. Miami returned to Chicago and closed out the series in the 6th game, highlighted by another dominating performance by O’Neal who finished with 30 points and 20 rebounds. Miami advanced to face New Jersey, who won a surprising game 1 victory before the Heat won four straight to assure a rematch with Detroit. The Pistons had no answer for Wade throughout the series, while O’Neal delivered 21 points and 12 rebounds in game 3 followed by 27 points and 12 boards in game 4 to help Miami take a 3-2 series lead. The Pistons would win game 5 in Detroit, and Wade would once again get injured, but the Heat held on to win game 6 with O’Neal scoring 28 points with 16 rebounds and 5 blocks to help Miami reach their first ever NBA Finals.
In the Finals, the Heat were not favored to win the title against the Dallas Mavericks led by Dirk Nowitzki, and the Mavericks won the first two games at home in dominating fashion. The Heat led by Wade and a balanced effort by O’Neal, Antoine Walker and Jason Williams would go on to win all three of the next games at home, before closing out the series in Dallas to deliver the first NBA title for the franchise and O’Neal fourth title. With Wade carrying the offensive load, O’Neal did not need to have a dominating series, and finished with an average of 13.7 points and 10.2 rebounds for the series.
Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday …salutes Shaq Disel …Shaquille O’Neal.