O’Neal spoke out in a segment of The Big Podcast with Shaq on Monday, discussing Duncan’s place in the pantheon of the NBA’s best in the aftermath of the 40-year-old’s retirement (h/t Jordan Heck of Omnisport, via Sporting News):
I only have one beef with how they’re throwing this around. They’re saying he’s one of the greatest big men. Do you count power forwards as big men? Because I don’t.
I was always taught that the big man was a center. I know we got new rules, and they don’t have the center spot no more, but no.
On the show, O’Neal also debated whether Duncan was a top-five player of all time. When that topic arose, per Heck, O’Neal named six players in the following order: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
Stretch 4s have become more of the norm in the NBA over recent years—take New York Knicks 7-footer Kristaps Porzingis, for instance—while Duncan represents a throwback power forward who is more of a center.
Many consider Duncan to be the best power forward ever, but because the expectations from that position are evolving, his place in that hierarchy may radically change within the next decade.
Draymond Green, for example, plays power forward for the Golden State Warriors despite being only 6’7″. Green averaged 7.4 assists in 2015-16 as part of the Warriors’ record-setting 73-win team.
Power forwards have to be more versatile, and Green may be the prototype for what to expect in the future. That could render O’Neal’s “beef” obsolete.
Even the definition of traditional centers has shifted as the lines between positions blur. Several of the better centers in the game, including Al Horford and younger players such as DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Tristan Thompson, have all logged time at power forward as well.
Given the league’s emphasis on long-range shooting and defensive versatility, centers aren’t as prominently featured as they were during O’Neal’s heyday. Regardless of Duncan’s position or colloquial label, though, the five-time NBA champion should indeed be included in the conversations of the best all-time players.