Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal will forever be linked together since they were both physically dominant superstars that changed the game and rulebooks forever. Both players played for the legendary Los Angeles Lakers franchise, with Wilt Chamberlain winning 1 ring with them while Shaq won 3 NBA titles in 4 straight NBA Finals appearances.
When discussing the greatest centers of all time, the same names come up. Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal are always mentioned in the conversation, especially when top-10 rankings are brought up. Wilt Chamberlain owns most of the NBA’s unbreakable records while Shaquille O’Neal is the most modern player who was unguardable in every way.
Shaq and Wilt were often compared and it is time to compare the skillsets of two of the greatest players to ever play the game. While Shaq was a player that relied on brute force and physicality, Wilt simply jumped higher and was taller than every player in the league during his time. But which player has the greater impact? It’s time to find out.
Scoring – Wilt Chamberlain
This one is close because Shaq in his prime was simply unstoppable. In fact, he might have had one of the most dominant runs in NBA history. Over his career, Shaq averaged 23.7 PPG on 58.2% FG shooting. O’Neal was a force inside thanks to his size and strength and had a career-high average of 29.7 PPG in 1999-2000. Unfortunately for him, he was a very poor FT shooter and shot 52.7% from the stripe. While Shaq was a locomotive down low, he never came close to matching Wilt’s scoring prowess (and nobody will).
Wilt Chamberlain once dropped 100 points in a single NBA game, something that will likely never be repeated. Chamberlain also had multiple seasons of averaging at least 33.5 PPG and even averaged 50.4 PPG during the 1961-1962 season. Chamberlain, even when playing among smaller players, knew how to get buckets at an inhumane rate and it is hard to pick any center over him in terms of scoring. Chamberlain’s 30.1 PPG career average usurps Shaq and gives him the advantage.
Athleticism – Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt was clearly a better athlete in terms of speed and vertical, although Shaq’s physical strength allowed him to be unstoppable in modern NBA defenses as well. The edge goes to Wilt in the end because it was his athleticism that led him to break a host of NBA records including scoring 100 points in a single game or grabbing 50 rebounds in another game.
O’Neal literally would flush the ball through the rim at times, overpowering every defender as if they were rag dolls. Nobody had his size, but he was surprisingly quick and explosive for such a large person. O’Neal had the physical ability to completely change the game, and his record of broken rims is a clear testament of them. Shaq was just a powerhouse but he couldn’t jump or leap like Wilt, which gives Chamberlain the edge here.
Defense – Wilt Chamberlain
Shaq was never much of a defender as he got older despite averaging 2.3 BPG and 0.6 SPG over his career. These are great numbers for any ordinary center, but a player of Shaq’s physical dominance could have done more. Still, he could be a force on that end in his prime and his presence altered shots because running into Shaq was running into a brick wall.
Wilt was a better defensive player. He was excellent at being a rim protector simply because he was so tall and long. Only one could imagine how many BPG Wilt Chamberlain would have averaged in his day if those stats were recorded because shots by smaller players couldn’t get past him. He had the tremendous leaping ability and could influence a game more on defense. Chamberlain was a better defensive player at the center position than Shaq.
Clutch – Shaquille O’Neal
Wilt was an impactful player of course, and he consistently remained a presence during an entire game. However, Wilt shot a putrid 51.1% from the line and was limited within 10 feet of the basket on offense. This meant he wasn’t always the first option in the clutch, and he was lucky to play with guys like Jerry West who could easily be the clutch shot-maker. Chamberlain is perhaps the most extraordinary athlete in NBA history, but his skill set didn’t allow him to be successful in the clutch as much.
Shaq could score anytime he wanted in his prime, but struggled from the free-throw line and avoided going there at all costs. Luckily for Shaq in this debate, Wilt was just as poor as a free throw shooter and only shot 51.1% for his career. As with Wilt, Shaq would get fouled in crunch time with the hopes he missed both. While O’Neal wasn’t a marksman by any means, he was known to always hit than when it counted and his 4 NBA rings are proof of that. He gets the edge.
Leadership – Shaquille O’Neal
Shaq and Wilt were both very vocal and imposing forces on the court, and led through their dominance in the paint and impact on games. But Shaq was a better leader, mainly because he was the undisputed leader for a 3-peat Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty that featured a young Kobe Bryant. Shaq was a winner and a very competitive player who won his 4th NBA title as the veteran for the Miami Heat, later on, making it clear he knows how to lead teams to success.
Wilt Chamberlain is renowned for his play on the court and is one of the biggest icons in NBA history. He won 2 NBA titles over his career and has plenty of individual success, so clearly, he knew how to handle the spotlight and fame that came his way when he was the best player on a team. The difference is that Shaq won more rings, Finals MVPs, and had more postseason success than Wilt. Chamberlain was probably a great leader, but Shaq gets the edge here.
Impact – Shaquille O’Neal
This one is difficult to decide. Wilt has the record book with a host of unbeatable statistics to forge his case as a dominant player, and he managed to win 2 rings to show for it. As amazing as Wilt’s individual statistics are, Shaq’s impact in his prime can’t be denied. There was no answer for Shaq and he would literally bully his way to winning rings. He won three Finals MVPs in a row and didn’t mind being second-fiddle to Dwyane Wade in Miami to get another one.
Wilt impacted the game on an individual level probably better than any NBA player ever, but Shaquille O’Neal managed to be the force of 4 NBA championship teams that always attracted top talent. When Shaq was on the block, everything stopped and he controlled the game on a team level more.
1 on 1 – Wilt Chamberlain
Shaq was unstoppable one on one but was obviously limited in what he could do because he needed a guard to get him the ball and also put him in position. Of course, when Shaq had the ball there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. Wilt needed the ball too of course, but he had the luxury of literally going up and grabbing it anytime he wanted. Wilt Chamberlain must be the best one on one center ever if he managed to score 100 points, grab 50 rebounds, and even average 50.4 PPG over a single season.
Shaq was unstoppable one on one in the post, but Wilt’s insane ability to score any amount of points he wanted with a soft touch around the rim gives him an edge. Defensively, Wilt was longer and more active than Shaq as well. In a one-on-one situation, Wilt could score every time and get a rebound on the other end which gives him the advantage here.
Career – Shaquille O’Neal
Overall, their careers are very close. Many will tend to place Shaq above Wilt on the all-time list, while others prefer Chamberlain. In the end, what settles this debate is the amount of NBA rings because winning is the goal of playing in an NBA game. Shaq managed to usurp with 2 more NBA rings and 2 more Finals MVPs. Shaq was the man mainly responsible for creating a legendary Lakers Dynasty and creating the best 1-2 punch duo ever with Kobe Bryant.
Shaq never scored 100 points in a single game or averaged as many rebounds or assists as Chamberlain, but he did make 15 All-Star Teams (compared to Wilt’s 13) and 14 All-NBA Teams (compared to Wilt’s 10). Add to the fact Shaq won 2 more rings and 2 more Finals MVPs means he had a longer and better career than Wilt. Shaq gets the nod here because he won more rings as the best player on his team.
Shaquille O’Neal vs. Wilt Chamberlain 4-4
This one is too close to call, and the two legends are equally as great. Wilt has the individual statistics and the record books to his advantage, while Shaq has the NBA rings and leadership on and off the court to his advantage. Shaq’s 4 NBA rings and 3 Finals MVPs match up very well to Wilt’s outrageous statistics and records which include a 100-point game to his name and a career PPG average of 30.1. Due to the dominance and impact of each player for their respective teams, this comparison is even.
What many won’t dispute is that both players belong among the ten greatest players to have ever lived and that will likely never change. Shaquille O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain will always go in the same breath when talking about the greatest centers ever, and it is very unlikely we will ever see a big man with their type of dominance anytime in the near future.