Shaq's retirement leaves a gaping hole in the NBA, as the big man's wide body and planetary statistical profile defines the NBA in his prime. And while O'Neal, who nicknamed himself the "Most Dominant Ever," may not have quite lived up to that billing, he was certainly a great, transcendent player.
O'Neal's early career with the Orlando Magic was rife with stunningly athletic plays and abused backboards, but while more than a few players have shattered glass, Shaq pulled one down:
Shaq didn't win an NBA title with the Magic despite reaching the NBA Finals in 1995, and headed west in 1996 in hopes of brighter lights and bigger successes; he found them in Los Angeles with Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant, winning three consecutive NBA championships from 2000 to 2002, and destroying the Western Conference in the low post on the way, blending savvy with exceptional athleticism to become an almost unstoppable NBA center.
In the 2000 and 2001 playoffs, Shaq averaged — averaged — over 30 points and 15 rebounds per game, and he punctuated the Lakers' first trip back to the NBA Finals since the Magic Johnson era by finishing a Bryant alley-oop in the 2000 Western Conference Finals and giving fans one of his most iconic celebrations.
One series later, in the 2000 NBA Finals, he decimated the slighter Pacers, averaging 38 points and 18.3 rebounds per game and dropping 43/19 and 40/24 performances in Game 1 and 2, respectively, to give the Lakers a 2-0 series lead.
After that third title, the Lakers dynasty ebbed, and the Shaq and Kobe feud tore the Lakers apart. Shaq was valiant in the Lakers' 2004 NBA Finals loss to the Pistons, even throwing up a vintage 36/20 in Game 4, but Los Angeles lost in five games, and O'Neal would be gone before the summer was over, traded to Miami for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and Brian Grant.
Post-Lakers Shaq was a different sort of player: no longer able to consistently overpower defenders, and no longer healthy enough to be 100% for even 70 games of a season, Shaq went from dominant to complement in short order. The Shaq who teamed with Dwyane Wade to help the Heat win the 2006 NBA championship, his fourth, was a situationally dominant player who had just one game of 30 points in the 2006 playoffs.
After another year of getting old on South Beach, O'Neal's twilight odyssey began: the Heat sent him to Phoenix in February 2008 for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks, where an excellent training staff and Steve Nash could only revitalize him so much; the Suns flipped him to Cleveland before the 2009-10 season for Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, and trinkets, where Shaq foundered as a potential sidekick for LeBron James. In 2010-11, after signing with the Celtics for one final run at an NBA title, Shaq played in just 37 games.
Shaq's career is one with an incredible peak and a long, painful decline.