Perhaps nothing inspires Shaquille O’Neal(notes) as does the prospect of vengeance and vindication. Yes, LeBron James’(notes) best chance to be an NBA champion is born of that relentless rage. The Cleveland Cavaliers have laid it all out for Shaq: Go through Dwight Howard(notes) and Stan Van Gundy, and get us to Kobe Bryant(notes) and Phil Jackson. Here comes Shaq to the Cavaliers, and in his mind, here comes hell to pay for slights real and imagined.
Shaq is the gift that never stops giving for David Stern and the NBA. He’s 37 years old and past his prime, and yet there are no major moments on the NBA calendar when he isn’t still the biggest story of all. Yes, the Rent-a-Shaq tour hits Cleveland now and the commissioner is the most relieved man of all. His dream Finals – L.A. and Cleveland – could be the most anticipated in the NBA’s history.
Now, Shaq is salvation from the tedium of a lousy draft. He was the salvation in the Finals between his old teammates and coaches. He was the salvation of a lost All-Star weekend in Phoenix, where he did the dance of the Jabberwocky and raised a co-MVP trophy with Kobe. He is like the aging prom queen forever finding a younger beau for his arm: From Kobe to Dwyane Wade(notes) to LeBron now.
As Yahoo! Sports first reported, the trade came down in the late hours of Wednesday, when Cleveland GM Danny Ferry finally realized he couldn’t pry Vince Carter(notes) out of New Jersey for his expiring contracts and junk players. The Cavs didn’t do this trade without some reservation. “They aren’t sure how he’s going to roll with being LeBron’s sidekick,” says an executive source close to the Cavaliers’ front office. Yet, the Cavaliers made this trade without apology:
Whatever LeBron wants, LeBron gets.
Once LeBron told management he wanted to see Shaq on his side, well, what choice did they have?
“Great name, great presence – not nearly enough game left,” one Western Conference GM warned on Wednesday night.
Ferry had no choice. He has to pray the immensity of Shaq’s stature doesn’t grind with James. O’Neal did have a fabulous season at his advanced NBA age, but he was desperate to become relevant again come playoff time. When he’s been out of the playoffs these past two springs, Shaq has repeatedly popped off with rap, with Tweets, with half-joking malice.
For Shaq, the Suns were a chance to restore his value in the NBA, his standing as something more than a bitter, aging relic. He never did fit in Phoenix. His revival infringed on the freedom of Amare Stoudemire and Steve Nash(notes). As one Eastern Conference coach told me this week, “At Shaq’s age, it’s still too much getting his touches.”
How Shaq fits with the Cavaliers, with LeBron, is ever the intrigue. LeBron has never had to play with a persona, an ego. Forget his time with Team USA. It isn’t the same. LeBron doesn’t need to dominate the ball the way Kobe did, but he does need to dominate the conversation. Nevertheless, he’s probably watched enough of Zydrunas Ilgauskas(notes) getting thrown around by Howard in the conference finals to understand he’ll have to sacrifice some ego with Shaq, some face time.
The Rent-A-Shaq tour comes to Cleveland without much of a price paid. Perhaps the most dominant center in the NBA’s history came for two contracts the Suns might buy out, a second-round pick and $500,000. As one prominent agent said Wednesday. “Don’t blame Steve Kerr for this. That owner [Robert Sarver] will do anything to save a buck right now.” The Suns could save millions on the deal, but they don’t save face.
League executives were surprised Ferry closed the deal without having to give up the Cavaliers’ first-round choice in the draft. “I thought for sure Danny was resigned to giving them the 30th pick,” one rival GM said. “I’m surprised the Suns didn’t hold out a little longer.”
In the end, this trade was inevitable. The Cavaliers make the boldest move of the offseason, a deal they wanted to believe was unnecessary back at the trade deadline in February. The Cavaliers had the best record in basketball, the best defense and it turned out to be fool’s good. The Magic embarrassed them in the Eastern Conference finals, and LeBron James stomped into the summer without a handshake, without so much as a word of congratulations to Dwight Howard.
Now, LeBron goes and gets the biggest bully of all, Shaquille O’Neal, and brings him back to the gym for next season. The greatest storyline in the sport returns to relevance, with Shaquille O’Neal back in the chase for his fifth championship. Dwight and Stan, Kobe and Phil are waiting in the distance now, and Shaq is desperate to have the final word for them all.
The hate fuels his fury, inspires his journey and the Cavaliers need to stoke it all within Shaq. Here Shaq comes to Cleveland, here comes hell to pay.