Traditionalists miss the day of a center that could rule the offense. Someone they could dump the ball into the paint and let them work their respective defenders. In the 90s, the league was ruled by skilled centers. Right up there with the best was Shaquille O’Neal and once the decade turned to the 2000s, it was his kingdom to run.
In his era, O’Neal was the best at finishing, rebounding, and sometimes shot-blocking. He was one of the most efficient big men in the game that helped Orlando rise to the top. After that, he helped both the Lakers and Heat become kings of the castle. There was a reason he was paid like a pro. The evolution of his contract is an interesting one for sure.
Here is Shaquille O’Neal’s salary throughout his NBA career.
1992-93 Orlando Magic - $3,000,000
Stats: 23.4 PPG, 13.9 PPG, 1.9 APG, 0.7 SPG, 3.5 BPG
O’Neal was drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1992 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic. He was the Player of the Week during the first week of the season. He had a great season where he finished second in the league in rebounding and blocks. O’Neal finished the season as the Rookie of the Year, so not too bad for a “small” investment of $3 million.
1993-94 Orlando Magic - $3,900,000
Stats: 29.3 PPG, 13.2 RPG, 2.4 APG, 0.9 SPG, 2.9 BPG
In his second season, O’Neal led the league in field goal percentage by shooting 60% from the field. He led the league in made field goals and overall shooting percentage with 59.9%. He finished second in the scoring race to David Robinson, was an All-Star, and made the All-NBA team. The Magic won 50 games and the team made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
1994-95 Orlando Magic - $4,800,000
Stats: 29.3 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 2.7 APG, 0.9 SPG, 2.4 BPG
In his third season, O’Neal nearly won the MVP. He was the runner-up, which meant he was the second-best player in the league and he didn’t even make $5 million in salary. The Magic won 57 games and won the division. The Magic also made the NBA Finals before the team was swept by Finals MVP Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets.
1995-96 Orlando Magic - $5,700,000
Stats: 26.6 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 2.9 APG, 0.6 SPG, 2.1 BPG
In the last year of his rookie contract, O’Neal missed significant time due to injury. He missed 28 games, but averaged a double-double and made the All-NBA Third Team. The Magic won a franchise-record 60 games and had the second-best record in the NBA. The Bulls and Magic played each other in the Conference Finals, but it was Michael Jordan’s team that eliminated the Magic. Regardless, the Magic were getting a bargain or the production Shaq put out on the court.
1996-97 Los Angeles Lakers - $10,714,000
Stats: 26.2 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 3.1 APG, 0.9 SPG, 2.9 BPG
With Hollywood as tempting as ever, the Lakers were able to double the salary of O’Neal’s previous team and make him one of the premier players in the league. O’Neal wanted to play in a bigger market, which also comes with its perks of higher salaries. In his first season, the Lakers won 56 games and made the playoffs. It was also the rookie season of Kobe Bryant, which would eventually become one of the best duos of all time.
1997-98 Los Angeles Lakers - $12,857,143
Stats: 28.3 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 2.4 APG, 0.6 SPG, 2.4 BPG
O’Neal was back to dominating the league, which helps justify his $12 million salary. O’Neal led the league in field goal percentage, which would be the first of five years. The Lakers won 61 games and the Pacific Division. O’Neal led the league in two-point field goal percentage as well. He was the most efficient player in the league too. In the playoffs, the Lakers lost to the Jazz in the Conference Finals.
1998-99 Los Angeles Lakers - $9,146,341
Stats: 26.3 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.7 SPG, 1.7 BPG
With Kobe Bryant developing and O’Neal getting the feel of being a big town name, the Lakers finished the lockout season 31-19. However, the team was swept by the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs. O’Neal had a great year on paper, leading the league in total points, field goal percentage, two-point field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage, made field goals, and free throw attempts. He also owned the highest win shares among all players, which makes his $3 million less salary from last year a kick to the stomach.
1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers - $17,142,858
Stats: 29.7 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 3.8 APG, 0.5 SPG, 3.0 BPG
Back to being paid like a top player in the league, O’Neal played like the best player in the league. Well, that was because he was the best player in the league. With Phil Jackson taking over as the new coach, O’Neal won the league MVP Award and helped the Lakers win their first championship since the days of Magic Johnson when he won the Finals MVP Award. He missed winning regular season MVP by one vote.
2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers - $19,285,715
Stats: 28.7 PPG, 12.7 RPG, 3.7 APG, 0.6 SPG, 2.8 BPG
O’Neal kept the momentum going the following season. He finished third in the scoring race but led the league in field goal percentage, which included another year of leading the league in two-point field goal percentage. He had the most win shares and was the highest efficient player. The Lakers made the NBA Finals again and won their second straight title, which included O’Neal winning another Finals MVP.
2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers - $21,428,572
Stats: 27.2 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 3.0 APG, 0.6 SPG, 2.0 BPG
O’Neal had surgery before the year began, but managed to lead the league in player efficiency rating. The Lakers made a run to the NBA Finals, which included a tough seven-game series with the Kings and a win over Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets. O’Neal won his third straight Finals MVP. For $58 million invested into one player, the turnout converted into three titles and three Finals MVPs for the player. That is not a bad investment at all.
2002-03 Los Angeles Lakers - $23,571,429
Stats: 27.5 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 3.1 APG, 0.6 SPG, 2.4 BPG
O’Neal missed 12 games for the season due to knee surgery. The Lakers struggled without him playing and finished the season with the No. 5 seed. O’Neal finished fourth in the scoring race, but the team came up short as a whole. The Lakers lost to the Spurs in the second round in six games. It was just the Lakers' time to fall from the top of the mountain.
2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers - $24,749,999
Stats: 21.5 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 2.9 APG, 0.5 SPG, 2.5 BPG
The 2003-04 season featured the second-highest salary that O’Neal was ever paid. Everything O’Neal did was about right, except winning a championship. O’Neal helped the Lakers make the NBA Finals, but the team lost to the Detroit Pistons despite being favored. Players like Karl Malone and Gary Payton came to town and took less money for a chance to win a title. With his contract up, and a feud with Kobe Bryant, O’Neal refused to do the same and ultimately played his last season in Los Angeles.
2004-05 Miami Heat - $27,696,430
Stats: 22.9 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 2.7 APG, 0.5 SPG, 2.3 BPG
O’Neal was traded to the Heat and paired with up-and-coming star Dwyane Wade. O’Neal led the league in field goal percentage, as well as two-point field goal percentage. The Heat finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference with 59 wins. It was also the most games played for O’Neal since 2001. The Heat made the Conference Finals before falling to the Pistons in seven games. For his play, O’Neal was rewarded with a five-year contract extension after playing out the final and highest-paid salary of his Lakers contract.
2005-06 Miami Heat - $20,000,000
Stats: 20.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.9 APG, 0.4 SPG, 1.8 BPG
O’Neal was determined to win a championship before Bryant’s Lakers. He accomplished that in his second season with the Heat. O’Neal played through an injured right ankle that forced him to miss 18 games. With that said, he led the league in field goal percentage and helped the Heat march to the NBA Finals, where they defeated the Mavericks. While O’Neal didn’t win Finals MVP, which was awarded to Wade, he did win his fourth championship and was a prime factor in Miami winning their first title in team history.
2006-07 Miami Heat- $20,000,000
Stats: 17.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 2.0 APG, 0.2 SPG, 1.4 BPG
O’Neal missed 35 games due to a left knee injury. The Heat struggled with O’Neal out. When he returned, he struggled as well. It was the first time in his career that O’Neal averaged less than 20 points per game. It was also the first time in his career he failed to make the second round of the playoffs. With age and injuries piling up, there were doubts about O’Neal’s future as an All-Star in the league.
2007-08 Miami Heat/Phoenix Suns - $20,000,000
Stats: 13.6 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.5 SPG, 1.4 BPG
While some had those doubts, O’Neal had over $60 million remaining on his contract extension. O’Neal didn’t live up to the salary as he had one of his worst individual seasons. He had a career-low in points. His relationship with Pat Riley was deteriorating. He was traded to the Suns, where the team lost in the first round of the playoffs.
2008-09 - Phoenix Suns - $21,000,000
Stats: 17.8 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.7 SPG, 1.4 BPG
With a full offseason with the Suns, O’Neal saw significant improvement. He helped Steve Nash and Co. compete in the Western Conference. He returned as an All-Star and shared MVP honors with his former teammate in Bryant. He scored 45 points at one point in the season and led the league in field goal percentage for the first time since 2006. While the Suns were ousted early in the playoffs, O’Neal looked like a player that deserved $20 million.
2009-10 Cleveland Cavaliers - $20,000,000
Stats: 12.0 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.3 SPG, 1.2 BPG
In the final season of his contract extension, he was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he was paired alongside LeBron James, who was coming off winning the league MVP. O’Neal suffered a thumb injury that limited him to 53 games. O’Neal had lows in points, rebounds, and blocks. At 37 years old, his role was diminished and the Cavaliers did not make the NBA Finals despite heavy expectations.
2010-11 Boston Celtics - $1,352,181
Stats: 9.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 0.7 APG, 0.4 SPG, 1.1 BPG
With Bryant winning his fifth title, O’Neal was convinced to come back for a final season. He joined a Celtics squad that had just lost to Bryant in the NBA Finals. O’Neal battled an assortment of issues that limited him to 37 games. O’Neal also missed the first round of the playoffs due to injuries. When he returned, he was limited to 12 minutes of playing time. The Heat, where James joined after the season, eliminated Boston in the second round of the playoffs.
Career Earnings - $286,344,668
Career Stats: 23.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 2.5 APG, 0.6 SPG, 2.3 BPG
O’Neal nearly made $300 million in his career when the $20 million players were scarce. The NBA was not like it was today back in the 90s. Getting paid $20 million meant that you were one of the best players in the league. O’Neal, who has publicly talked about the inflated salaries of players alongside Charles Barkley, was truly the best of the best in the NBA during his heyday.
He left the league a four-time champion, and three-time Finals MVP, and led the league in field goal percentage 10 times. That also included leading the league in scoring two times with numerous All-NBA and All-Star appearances. When a team invested in O’Neal, they got their money’s worth, which is why this investment over time is one of the best when you look at true production per dollar amount.