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Chris Russo: Malone Outperformed Shaq in '81 NBA Finals

Chris Russo: Malone Outperformed Shaq in '81 NBA Finals

ESPN Panel Dives into NBA Legends' Ranking Debate.

by Nouman Rasool
Chris Russo: Malone Outperformed Shaq in '81 NBA Finals
© Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

In a riveting debate on ESPN's "First Take," sports pundits Stephen A. Smith, Jay Williams, and Chris 'Mad Dog' Russo engaged in a heated discussion about Shaquille O'Neal's legacy in the pantheon of NBA greats. The conversation took a dramatic turn when Russo boldly placed O'Neal as only the fifth-best center in NBA history, a statement that sent shockwaves across the studio and sparked an intense debate among the hosts.

Russo's controversial ranking listed legends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, and Hakeem Olajuwon ahead of Shaq, sparking a fiery rebuttal from Smith and Williams, especially over Duncan's position as a forward rather than a center.

The debate escalated when Russo further asserted that O'Neal wasn't even superior to Moses Malone, questioning the caliber of opponents Shaq faced in the NBA Finals.

Malone's Finals Legacy

Russo passionately argued for Malone, emphasizing his six-time lead in NBA rebounding and three MVP titles.

He highlighted Malone's phenomenal performance in the 1981 NBA Finals against Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale, quoting impressive stats of 31.5 points and 17 rebounds per game. He also lauded the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers, led by Malone, as one of the NBA's all-time great teams.

However, a fact-check reveals that Malone's actual averages in the 1981 Finals were slightly lower, at 22.3 points and 15.7 rebounds per game. The conversation then shifted to Shaq's place among the all-time greats. In 2021, O'Neal himself shared a list on Instagram ranking the top ten centers, where he was placed fourth, behind Kareem, Wilt, and Bill Russell, with Malone in sixth and Olajuwon fifth.

This somewhat aligns with Russo's assessment, although it opens up a broader debate about Shaq's overall impact. While acknowledging Malone's superior rebounding skills and prowess in offensive rebounds, the panelists discussed O'Neal's dominance in scoring, passing, shot-blocking, and shooting accuracy.

Beyond statistics and accolades, Shaq's influence in transforming the game and the rules due to his sheer dominance was highlighted. This aspect of his legacy, often overshadowed by raw numbers and achievements, was emphasized as a crucial factor in evaluating his historical significance.

The debate underscores the complex nature of ranking all-time greats, where statistical achievements intersect with individual impact and the changing dynamics of the game. Both Malone and Shaq are celebrated as top-tier centers in NBA history, each with their unique contributions and unforgettable moments on the basketball court.

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