Shaquille O’Neal is one of the greatest players in NBA history. Shaq finished his illustrious career with 15 All-Star appearances, 14 All-NBA selections, four NBA Finals victories, and three Finals MVP Awards. He has also carved out a successful media career as one of the main studio analysts for NBA on TNT.
O’Neal joined ESPN’s First Take to discuss a variety of NBA topics with host Stephen A. Smith. When asked who the top threat was to his Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference, Shaq gave a surprising answer.
Shaquille O’Neal thinks the Utah Jazz are the biggest threat to the Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers hold a special place in Shaq’s heart. In eight seasons wearing the Purple and Gold, O’Neal averaged 27.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks while winning three of his four titles. But the big man was quick to think of a team that could challenge LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook out west.
“Utah,” O’Neal said. “You heard what I said.”
Smith followed that up by asking who else besides Donovan Mitchell made the Jazz a threat. Earlier in the year, Smith famously said Mitchell was the greatest player in franchise history, putting him ahead of Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton.
“I won’t be so hard on Rudy [Gobert] this year. Rudy coming with a vengeance,” Shaq responded. “Rudy is coming this year.”
Utah’s dynamic duo of Mitchell and Gobert is one of the best in the league. Mitchell, a two-time All-Star, averaged a career-best 26.4 points last season. Meanwhile, the 7-foot-1 Gobert is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year coming off of a 14.3-point, 13.5-rebound season with a career-best 2.7 blocks per game.
Shaq also thinks the Golden State Warriors can be a threat
In discussing the age of the Lakers, Smith mentioned the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers as two teams that also have age concerns. While downplaying the Clippers, O’Neal agreed that Golden State’s experience is ultimately a positive.
“My favorite player is Steph Curry,” O’Neal said to Smith. “Klay [Thompson] is coming back, my main man Draymond [Green], the young fella [James Wiseman], they have some interesting pieces. The way they play, the way they move the ball, that fast-paced game. If they can get it rolling like they used to get it rolling, they’re definitely going to be a problem.”
Interestingly enough, Shaq’s reason for not believing the Clippers are real contenders is because they haven’t won anything yet. However, that did not stop him from picking the Jazz as the Lakers’ biggest threat when Utah also has zero championships as a franchise.
Who is the biggest threat to the Lakers?
Shaq’s decision to go with Utah may be surprising to some, but they’re hardly a team that came out of nowhere. The Jazz finished last season 52-30, earning the No. 1 seed in the West, but fell to the Clippers in six games during the second round of the playoffs.
Speaking of the Clippers, LA’s other team is still trying to capture its first ring. It’ll have to rely on Paul George more than ever, as Kawhi Leonard’s partially torn ACL will keep him out for the majority of the season. The Warriors should also be competitive, as O’Neal mentioned, particularly if Thompson is similar to his old self following two season-ending injuries in a row.
Other possibilities include the defending conference champion Phoenix Suns, who, led by Devin Booker and Chris Paul, came within two games of their first championship. The Denver Nuggets should also be a threat again with reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and a healthy Jamal Murray returning to the lineup. And then there are the Dallas Mavericks, who can never be ruled out with Luka Doncic on the roster.
The West is sure to be wild again in the 2021-22 season. But if O’Neal is correct, the Lakers and Jazz will be the two best teams out of the pack.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.