For all of the games the NBA has staged on Christmas, none may have been more hyped than when Shaquille O’Neal(notes) returned to Los Angeles five years ago. O’Neal had won three titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, but his relationship with Kobe Bryant(notes) had soured before O’Neal was dealt out of town to Miami in the summer of 2004. There was speculation Bryant had demanded O’Neal be traded.
O’Neal had an impersonal exchange with Bryant just before tipoff, and someone in Shaq’s circle held up a sign with a picture of Bryant with a rat’s head. O’Neal fouled out in the fourth quarter, but the Heat won after Bryant missed a potential game-winning shot at the overtime buzzer. The game registered the NBA’s highest TV rating in 18 years.
“I know how [the media] was looking at it: ‘Are they going to shake hands? What is going on with these guys?’ ” Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James(notes) said. “I was looking at the competitors, two of the best in the world going at each other. Two of the best teams going at each other.”
This Christmas, O’Neal returns to L.A. to again face Bryant. No longer, however, is Shaq the main attraction. The spotlight has instead been reserved for Bryant and James, widely considered the planet’s two best players. Whether Shaq and Bryant shake hands … well, few people may even notice.
“It’s going to just be a game for us,” O’Neal said.
While O’Neal paid respect to the Lakers by saying they won the 2009 championship “fair and square,” his relationship with Bryant still seems iffy at best. The two have engaged in an on-and-off war of words since their breakup, highlighted by O’Neal degrading his old teammate while rapping at a New York club. After being urged by legendary former Boston Celtics center Bill Russell to bury the hatchet, O’Neal and Bryant shook hands and hugged before a Jan. 16, 2006 game. When the former teammates were named co-MVPs of last season’s All-Star Game, O’Neal sounded nostalgic about their time spent together.
“When I first met old boy out there, I was still young. And we were younger,” O’Neal said. “When I got with what-ya-call-’em, I was medium and he was young. Now I am old. This is old and young, so this is different.”
One thing hasn’t changed: O’Neal still remains proud of the “major” impact he had on the Lakers. He led the Lakers to three titles, four NBA Finals appearances and won three Finals MVP awards. He averaged a dominating 27 points and 11.8 rebounds during his Lakers career. After O’Neal retires, it should be only a matter of time before his old No. 34 jersey hands in the Staples Center rafters alongside Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich, James Worthy and Magic Johnson.
“I’ll always be a major part of their history,” O’Neal said. “Some guys are not a part of history, but I’m a major part of their history. Major, major – 60 percent.”
Now 37, O’Neal isn’t the old “Superman” the Lakers were accustomed to seeing. He’s averaging 10.2 points and seven rebounds while shooting 50.5 percent in 22.5 minutes per game – all career-lows for the 18-year NBA veteran. Four games have passed since O’Neal has scored in double-figures. And when his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Sacramento Kings 117-104 in overtime on Wednesday night, O’Neal sat the final 10 minutes, 47 seconds while backup center Zydrunas Ilgauskas(notes) flourished. Frustrated, O’Neal declined to speak to reporters afterward.
“I’m on a team where I don’t really have to do much,” O’Neal said. “LeBron is going to carry most of the load. Our job is that when he gets off the ball, make him look good.
“I realize I’m not going to get 20-25 shots. I understand that, and I’m cool with that.”
But will a reduced role be enough to keep O’Neal interested in playing beyond this season when he becomes a free agent?
He described Cleveland as “cool and nice” and said he plans to sled down a snowy hill next week when he gets a day off. He also spoke highly of the Cavaliers’ organization, describing it as “pleasant” and “not so uptight.” For now, he sounds interested in returning.
O’Neal believes there is still a lot of basketball left in him should he choose to continue playing. But if he does win a championship this season, retirement might be a stronger option.
“I would like to go out on a good note and win,” O’Neal said. “If I win, I don’t know. But I haven’t thought about [free agency] yet. I’m trying to get No. 5. I’m trying to pass up my daddy, [Abdul-Jabbar]. I still got two to get that out.”
McGrady chomping to play … for someone
Tracy McGrady’s(notes) $23 million salary makes him difficult to trade – but not impossible. While McGrady is playing a limited role for the Rockets since returning from knee surgery, he is confident that if he’s traded his new team won’t be disappointed.
“I will tell you what … if anything were to happen, whoever [trades for him] is going to get a hell of a player,” McGrady said. “A hungry one, too.”
McGrady has gone from one of the NBA’s most feared scorers to now averaging 3.2 points in 7.3 minutes over six games. McGrady has “no idea” when his minutes will increase.
“I’m feeling good and as the minutes start to increase, I’ll show that,” McGrady said. “It’s really hard to do anything on seven minutes. It is what it is at this time and I’m just rolling with it. I’m definitely back.”
Advice for LeBron
Sabathia and James, who is a big Yankees fan, became friends when the former played for the Cleveland Indians. The Vallejo, Calif., native exchanged pleasantries with James during the second half of Cleveland’s overtime win while sitting near the Cavaliers’ bench at Arco Arena.
“I’d be excited if he came,” Sabathia said. “He’s a great player and that’s the biggest stage. It’s a great place to play and a great place to win, so we’ll see what happens.
“It would be tough [to leave Cleveland]. He’s homegrown from there. But it’s his career and his decision to make.”
As the Warriors turn
Golden State Warriors general manager Larry Riley said he is weary of all the trade rumors hanging over his team and claims he is not shopping any player – despite rumblings throughout the NBA indicating otherwise.
One NBA executive said the Warriors are “trying to unload” forward Corey Maggette(notes) (no surprise, given his mammoth contract) and would trade young forward Anthony Randolph(notes) for “the right veteran.”
“There is a lot of conversation right now,” Riley said. “I’m looking around as a GM of a team with seven wins. But there is no shopping of any player. I’ve followed up on things, but we’re not shopping around.
“I did not shop Randolph this year or last year. We have guys that we are not willing to trade.”
For now, the Warriors hope big men Andris Biedrins(notes) and Ronny Turiaf(notes) are able to finally return from their injuries and play Saturday against the Phoenix Suns. If either player returns, the Warriors likely won’t seek a second injury exception to expand their roster.
While two NBA sources said the Sacramento Kings are considering trading sharpshooter Kevin Martin(notes) because of the emergence of rookie guard Tyreke Evans(notes), one source with the team offered a reason why the Kings would be better off keeping Martin. Trading Martin, the source said, “would be foolish. [Opposing defenses] are clogging up the middle. We need him now more than ever.” … … An NBA executive says the struggling Washington Wizards are “open for business” for trades. The source said the Wizards are obviously very open to moving guard Gilbert Arenas(notes), but don’t think they will have any takers because of his hefty contract. “Someone will take the fall,” the source said. The source added that Washington management “loves” young center JaVale McGee(notes) and would only deal him in a trade that includes Arenas. …An NBA source said the Cavaliers are seeking a power forward who can shoot the ball. The source said that Cleveland has been floating center Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ expiring contract as bait and is also open to moving power forward J.J. Hickson(notes). …No surprise here, but after season-ending injuries to centers Greg Oden(notes) and Joel Przybilla(notes), the Portland Trail Blazers are scouring the league in hopes of acquiring a big man. … Boston Celtics forward Glen Davis(notes) told Yahoo! Sports on Thursday he is physically able to play after being sidelined all season with a broken right thumb – and could even make his debut against the Orlando Magic on Christmas. Davis had surgery on Oct. 27 to repair his thumb, which he broke while fighting with a childhood friend less than two days before the season opener. He said he’s in “good shape,” but acknowledged he will still have some game rust to knock off. Davis had previously been projected to return as early as Sunday’s road game against the Los Angeles Clippers or as late as the beginning of 2010. “I’m real excited to get back,” he said. “It feels like forever.” …Cavaliers forward Leon Powe(notes) is still projected to be sidelined until around the All-Star break after having reconstructive surgery on his left knee. But if the Cavs were in desperate need of some help, Powe thinks he’s actually healthy enough to aid them now in limited action. “They won’t let me go earlier anyway because of my past issues and to let [the knee] heal,” Powe said. “I told coach I can go out there right now and give you 15 [points] and 10 [rebounds]. I think I can play. I just won’t be taking off from the free-throw line, but I can dunk with two hands off of two [feet].”