Shaquille O’Neal woke up this morning in a position that can’t be anything but disheartening to a one time world-beater: nobody wants him.
Or, at least no one seems to agree with Shaq that he’s worth $5.8 million. Many have suggested some teams would take him for about $2 million.
It’s depressing to see him named on trade rumor lists with such has-beens as Allen Iverson and Tracy Macgrady. The explicit message is that these three one time great players are available, but the implicit message is that Shaq is just as corrosive to a team’s championship aspirations as the troubled Iverson and the human injury report that is T-Mac.
So although he’s probably going to play for a couple more years, I’m going to put Shaq’s career to bed now. I can’t stand to watch the shell of the Superman who’s footprint on the centerfold of SI for Kids inspired such wonder in my 3rd grade mind.
The last few years of Shaq’s career have made it hard to remember him as the human juggernaut that terrorized the league during the 2000-2001 season. In that season the Big Aristotle averaged 29pts, 13 rips, 4 dimes and nearly 3 swats. There isn’t a player alive today that I can imagine ever averaging those numbers for a month, let alone an entire season.
For old time’s sake, let’s just take a gander a younger Shaq.
Enjoy the devastating combination of pure, overwhelming force and the deft footwork of a ballroom dancer. The dynamite-blast dunks that left the splattered remains of his competition all over the baseline. The whirling post moves, the way he released the ball about 2 feet above the rim on his jump hook. The way he sprinted back down court after a ferocious lob slam, eyes wide as though the terror of his own supremacy was moments from overwhelming him.
To this day, there’s nothing that can prepare you for seeing Shaquille O’Neal in person. The experience really fails words. Amongst the largest professionals in the world, Shaq looks like the first kid to hit his growth spurt at a 6th grade hoops jamboree. As the parents chuckle about wanting to see the overgrown youngster’s driver’s license, somewhere in their head they think, “good lord I hope he doesn’t fall on my son.”
Perhaps because of, rather than in spite of, his outlandish physical advantages, Shaq has had one of the more complicated careers on and off the court.
With a personality to match his oversized physical presence, O’Neal has played on five teams and with basketball luminaries such as Anfernee Hardaway, Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, Steve Nash and LeBron James (all in their primes!). Even as I write that list I can’t believe a once in a lifetime talent like Shaq ever played with four different Hall of Fame guards on four different teams (and it may have been five if Penny hadn’t been robbed of his absurd gifts by injury).
Shaq’s migrations have somewhat robbed him of the identity a talent like his deserves. While he will have his jersey raised in City of Angels, it’s hard to say that LA is his “home.”
He is a nomad, a hired bazooka who had to win on his terms. He left the Wild West because a young gunner was encroaching on his territory. When he teamed up with Wade, even though Shaq was the lesser player, he established himself as the center of attention. Even the act of bestowing Wade with his nickname, Flash, indicated who would be running South Beach. If language is the way that man exerts some measure of control over the universe he perceives, there are few stronger acts of control than that of naming. When Wade had outgrown the nickname and become his own man, with a NBA Finals MVP as proof, it was time for Shaq to mosey on down the road.
Shaq’s free agent value has steadily declined since he left LA in 2004. In search of a fifth title, he again offers his preposterous frame, and all that comes with it, one last time. For the first time, few are clamoring to take him off the market.
Unlike the lithe Kareem, who played effectively for twenty years (with only two teams), Shaq’s body has betrayed his spirit. He no longer has the foot speed to offer much more than rebounds, fouls and the ability to frustrate Dwight Howard. While this skill set garnered a contract from Cleveland, who besides the Heat and the Celtics are in need of his services after LeBron’s departure?
Perhaps the answer is Atlanta, though at this point in his career I believe Shaq takes more off the table than he puts on it.
The pro game now emphasizes the pick and roll or pop so uniformly, and Shaq’s inability to defend away from the hoop has increased so dramatically, that he almost always turns the p-n-r into a 2 on 1.
Though he still occasionally flashes the paradoxical power and quickness that defined his prime, Shaq can no longer offer the offensive dominance that always outweighed his defensive difficulties on the perimeter.
Worse still, Shaq’s once coveted locker room presence has come under scrutiny. In the Cleveland-Boston series, Shaq continued to see heavy floor time in part because Mike Brown did not want him throwing a fit if J.J. Hickson saw more run.
The fact that he left Phoenix and they immediately became, to paraphrase Steve Nash and Grant Hill, the funnest team to be on in the league, is also evidence that Shaq is an annoyance at best and a burden as worst.
You have to feed the beast, but Shaq can no longer pull his own weight.
The problem is that unlike a legendary guard who, recognizing that he is being toasted nightly by younger, quicker players, transitions into a “veteran spot up shooter”, Shaq , despite all his shortcomings, is still a top ten center in the league. To this day there is no one as powerful as him, no one who can bully him the way he used to bully the entire league.
So it’s hard to begrudge the Big Diesel-Baryshnikov-Aristotle-Shaqtus-Galactus for trying to find a way to win another title. He loves to win, he loves the attention, but does he still have the game that rightfully bestowed both upon him?
That’s for NBA GMs to decide, and I’d be surprised if no one bit.
However, Shaq’s many travels have left him with more baggage than even a man his considerable size can carry. It may be time to go home, wherever that is.
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