They brought Shaquille O'Neal(notes) to the Cleveland Cavaliers to manipulate his obsessive grudge – Dwight Howard(notes) – and thumb surgery shouldn't stop him. The rest of the job, the Cavaliers can do without Shaq. Privately, scouts will tell you the Cavs sometimes are sleeker and sharper without him. Nevertheless, the truth has stayed unchanged: LeBron James(notes) needs Shaq to reach Kobe Bryant(notes) and the Lakers.
The Cavs still need Superman to get them through Superman.
"It doesn't hurt them, except for guarding Dwight Howard one-on-one in the post," one Eastern Conference scout said Sunday night. "Otherwise, I guess we'll just see him in May."
See you in May, Shaq. O'Neal has surgery on his right thumb Monday, and a source close to him told Yahoo! Sports he'll be out six to eight weeks. Boston's Glen Davis(notes) delivered a harsh hit on Thursday, and down went Shaq for the rest of the regular season. LeBron is delivering the most brilliant ball of his life, Mo Williams(notes) is making shots, Antawn Jamison(notes) is fitting fine and Anderson Varejao(notes) is playing his peskiest. Rest assured, center Zydrunas Ilgauskas(notes) will be back on March 22.
This is where the commitment of Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert comes into play, where his willingness to employ the highest payroll in the NBA absorbs the blow of losing O'Neal. He made the deal for Jamison, signed a rehabilitating Leon Powe(notes) in the summer to play these final months. These Cavs never have been so deep, never surrounded James with so much talent, so much versatility.
For all the doubts about the trade for Shaq, give him this: He has gone out of his way to fit seamlessly into the Cavs. He came to camp in shape and never wavered. He never has grumbled about shots, never challenged the power structure that begins and ends with LeBron. Yes, O'Neal wants that fifth title to separate himself from Tim Duncan(notes). Most of all, he wants it to go through Howard – a young star whom he believes has stolen his act – and the Lakers, whom he never, ever wanted to leave.
The Cavs gave O'Neal this shot, and he has made the most of it. To start the season, the Cavs had the natural struggle of incorporating O'Neal into the lineup. He no longer is a dominant player, but he still commands that everyone on the floor – his teammates and opponents – account for him. It took time, but the greatness and will of James gets everything to work together. The bigger test will come when Shaq returns to the floor in the playoffs, and Cleveland has to work him back into the lineup, back into shape.
Boston is fading fast as a legitimate Eastern Conference force, and the Cavs don't need Shaq for the speed and athleticism of the Atlanta Hawks. They just remember they won 66 games a season ago, and Howard destroyed Ilgauskas in the conference finals. With all those shooters surrounding him, double-teaming Howard is a doomed proposition. Rest assured, Cleveland-Orlando is the conference final and Shaq still could have a full playoff series to prepare a path to Howard.
So far, the Cavs have won four out of five games against Orlando and the Lakers. So far, so good. All along, Shaq has insisted he wanted to play a part in keeping James in Cleveland, and he has done everything asked of him. Now, his job is to stay in shape, stay vigilant and give the Cavs the month of ball they're paying him $20 million to deliver.
See you for the Superman championships.
See you in May, Shaq.
- Dwight Howard