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Wednesday, 13 November, 2002, 16:37 GMT
Filling an MVP void
Kobe Bryant (left) and Shaquille O'Neal (right)
Kobe Bryant (left) is missing Shaq's presence

If there was ever any doubt who the real MVP of the NBA is, it can now be cast aside.

However strong the claims of Tim Duncan and Jason Kidd, one man stands head and shoulders above the rest.

That man is Shaquille O'Neal.

With O'Neal - who has been passed over for the last two season MVP awards - the Los Angeles Lakers are a special franchise.

Phil Jackson, LA Lakers coach
Jackson's Zen touch has failed

They cruised to their third-straight NBA title in June with a rare finals sweep against the New Jersey Nets and, in so doing, secured their legacy as one of the all-time great teams.

But perhaps the word "team" is misleading.

Without Shaq, as this season has shown, the rest of the Lakers can look ordinary.

While the big man has been sidelined after toe surgery, LA have slumped to six losses in eight games.

They have also lost Rick Fox to suspension for his part in an ugly brawl, and have had replacement centre Soumaila Samake banned for steroids abuse.

Neither the Zen mastery of coach Phil Jackson, nor the undoubted genius of star guard Kobe Bryant, have been able to fill the gaping 7ft 1in void left by Shaq.

So what, besides his obvious size, makes O'Neal so special?


Power:

Size and power are two very different things.

Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt was the first truly dominant centre

The NBA has long been populated by wiry seven-footers who can make a big - if flimsy - target for their playmakers under the hoop.

Only occasionally, however, does a centre come along with the physique to dominate in the paint.

Wilt Chamberlain cast the mould in the 1960s scoring 100 points in a single game and blocking shots for fun.

And O'Neal is the best reproduction that basketball has seen since.


Touch:

What sets Shaq apart from seven-foot defenders like Dikembe Mutombo is his scoring touch.

Mutombo has always made a mark picking up rebounds, but has never been able to match that effort at the offensive end.

O'Neal, meanwhile, is productive at both ends.

He is derided for his poor free-throw average (53%), but this chink in his armour is made up for by a reliable, close-range jump shot and by an unstoppable slam dunk.


Triple teams:

Very few NBA players regularly command triple coverage.

With only five men on a team, it is a severe drain on resources to commit two of them to an opposing player, let alone three.

Tim Duncan
Even Duncan struggles to post up with Shaq

But teams are often forced to surround Shaq in order to stop him running riot.

They do this in the knowledge that Bryant, one of the best scoring guards in the league, is lurking on the perimeter.

And, one way or another, they usually pay the price.

If O'Neal is closed down, his team-mates are wide open; if he is left in single coverage, a backboard-shattering dunk is likely to follow.

More than anything else, it is this presence that makes O'Neal the most valuable player around and one of the biggest impact players in the history of basketball.

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