On Tuesday night Shaquille O’Neal saw his jersey join those of other former Laker centers. Wilt Chamberlain. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. George Mikan.
That’s right, four of the top seven or eight centers of all time have donned Laker gold for significant portions of their respective careers. That’s not counting Dwight Howard, who may or may not return to his once dominant Orlando form.
Hardly seems fair, does it?
That’s how Jazz fans must feel when they look at their own notorious line of men in the middle, one that didn’t even start until after the Mikan and Chamberlain days and fizzled after the Mark Eaton era.
Here’s a look at each generation of centers for both teams starting in the 1980s:
Los Angeles Lakers: Kareem Abdul-Jabaar (24.6 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.6 blocks per game)
Utah Jazz: Mark Eaton (6.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.5 blocks per game)
Eaton might be the Jazz’s first and only counter to the string of Hall-of-Fame centers Los Angeles has rolled out, though the era in which he flourished made his career even more impressive in retrospect.
Aside from battling the likes of Ralph Sampson, Akeem (later Hakeem) Olajuwon, Moses Malone and Jack Sickma, the former Jazz big man was subject to at least four games a year battling against all-time leading scorer — and former Laker center — Kareem Abdul-Jabaar.
Eaton’s first four seasons in the league were Abdul-Jabbar’s last scoring at over 20 points per game. In those four seasons, Eaton held his Laker counterpart under 20 points in 10 games, including two 10-point outings in the 1984-85 season.
The Jazz, with Eaton and the young-and-talented duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone, could never get out of the Western Conference playoffs, however, while the Lakers went to the Finals nine times in 12 years.
Abdul-Jabaar was involved in eight of those trips.
Los Angeles Lakers: Vlade Divac (11.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.4 blocks per game); Shaquille O’Neal (23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.3 blocks per game)
Utah Jazz: Eaton, Felton Spencer (5.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 0.8 blocks per game); Greg Ostertag (4.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game)
After Eaton retired in the early 90s, the Jazz underwent a patchwork era in the middle that saw Spencer as the starter for three years. He put up career numbers while in Utah, but his progress was quickly derailed by a torn Achilles tendon in the 1994-95 season.
It’s unfortunate that the Eaton-to-Spencer dropoff occurred when the Lakers experienced a similar downgrade from Abdul-Jabaar to Divac, though the latter was hardly a pushover. Divac only made the All-Star team once, and that was as a Sacramento King in 2001. That’s hard to fathom given his production in 1994-95, when the European product put up 16.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 blocks per game.
The mid-90s, however, ended up providing the last great crop of true big men, a crop that the Lakers would eventually reap in the form of Shaquille O’Neal as a free agent in 1996.
The Jazz? They countered with Greg Ostertag, who is remembered more fondly than he might be as a member of the back-to-back NBA Finals teams of 1997 and 1998.
Ostertag provided a definitive presence in the paint, something Utah sorely needed against the likes of O’Neal, Olajuwon and David Robinson. Injuries and a lack of offensive production made the position a continued weakness, however, and led to Utah often employing smaller lineups when they could get away with them.
Los Angeles Lakers: O’Neal, Kwame Brown (6.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 0.6 blocks per game); Pau Gasol (18.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks per game)/Andrew Bynum (11.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.6 rebounds per game)
Utah Jazz: Ostertag; Mehmet Okur (13.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 0.7 blocks per game)
The Ostertag/O’Neal era ended in 2004, when Shaq was traded to Miami and Ostertag spent his last two years in the league as a reserve.
Okur’s signing with Utah and Brown’s trade to L.A. marked the first time in the Jazz-Lakers history that Utah held an advantage at center. Not coincidentally, the Lakers experienced one of the least successful periods in franchise history.
Brown, the No. 1 overall pick in 2001, may or may not have been a factor.
Meanwhile, Okur provided one of the few bright spots in the post-Stockton/Malone era until the Jazz returned to the playoffs behind Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams. Okur’s ability to stretch the floor on offense while providing decent numbers on defense enabled the Jazz to at least be relevant in the Western Conference.
Unfortunately, the Jazz’s return to the playoffs was immediately followed by the Lakers’ acquisition of Spanish big man Pau Gasol and the emergence of Andrew Bynum.
The result? The Lakers eliminating Utah from the playoffs three years in a row (2008-2010).