As Howard grows in stature, Shaq shrinks

LOS ANGELES – The greatness of Shaquille O'Neal(notes) demands that his name, his legacy, never drifts far from an NBA Finals. Even when he's long out of the league, that'll still be true. For the immortals, the lifetime benefits include the exhaustive examination of the next generation's stars to your standards.

How does Tom Brady measure to Joe Montana?

Kobe Bryant(notes) to Michael Jordan?

And, yes, Dwight Howard(notes) to Shaq.

Mostly, here's how a burgeoning talent is born: A gifted young star emulates his idol and eventually becomes his peer.

So why does Shaq get such glee out of belittling and ridiculing those centers who came before and after him?

"Sometimes I wonder about his maturity," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told Yahoo! Sports on Friday. "He doesn't need to do that. He's achieved so much.

"I don't know why he stoops to that."

Abdul-Jabbar doesn't need Shaq's approval, but Howard is 23 years old and Shaq owes it to the league, to common decency, to be civil with this kid. His treatment of Howard has been kind of sad, especially considering that Howard grew up wanting to be him.

Howard marveled at Shaq's strength and roared at his comedy and tried to emulate him in every way. They were drafted into the NBA as the No. 1 overall pick to the Orlando Magic and turned losers into NBA finalists. Howard always seemed to crave Shaq's counsel, his respect, but Howard long has been the target of humiliating insults.

In the past year alone, Shaq called Howard an "impostor" and insisted that, "Everything he's done, I've invented," and on and on. On opening night of the NBA Finals, Shaq posted a goofy photo on Twitter of what a Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy child would look like. After five years of this, Howard still doesn't get the reason that Shaq revels in ripping him.

"I can't tell you why he's said a lot of discouraging things," Howard said Friday at the Staples Center. "I wish he wouldn't say it because he's one of the few guys that we all look up to."

For most, O'Neal's motives are transparent. Somehow, Shaq thinks it diminishes his own legacy if Howard achieves something significant sooner than he did.

"That's why Shaq wants [Howard] to get swept in the Finals," a league source close with Howard and O'Neal said Friday. "He doesn't want Dwight to win a game because he didn't win a game in the Finals when he got there at a young age with Orlando."

It's funny, but Jordan never takes offense that Bryant and LeBron James(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes) emulate him. To Michael, it was an honor. He embraces it. He always believed that was his responsibility to pass wisdom and encouragement to the next generation's icons. Julius Erving did it for him. And Michael does it for them.

Nevertheless, Shaq mostly has been about, well, Shaq. Now, at 37, Shaq still has a chance to get back to a contender, to get back into the championship chase. He was surprisingly spry for the Phoenix Suns this season, and with his expiring contract of $20 million next season, he will be an intriguing possibility on the summer trade market. Many league executives believe that Cleveland will revisit its trade deadline discussions with Phoenix and consider making a deal for Shaq this summer. Cavs general manger Danny Ferry knows his team needs a bigger, stronger force to guard Howard, especially in the final season before LeBron James' free agency in 2010.

Where does Shaq want to go? Multiple league sources, including with the Lakers, believe Shaq wants a return engagement with the Lakers. They think that's why he has spent this season trying to repair the damage done to his relationship with Bryant. He tried to buddy up on All-Star weekend when they were co-MVPs, but give Bryant credit: He refused to engage with Shaq on a revisionist make-believe about how it never was so toxic between them.

There's little chance the Lakers would make a move for Shaq, and no chance Bryant would accept a return to that hell. Shaq's rap last year about Kobe ended any chance at reconciliation. Bryant is three games away from winning his first title without Shaq, and all he'll want to do next season is win another – without him.

Lost in that rap was the line, "That's like Kareem saying to himself that he's better than me." Well, remember this: Abdul-Jabbar averaged 22 points and eight rebounds on a Laker championship team when he was 37 years old. When I asked him how that lyric made him feel, Abdul-Jabbar said, "The gratuitous insult? I considered the source and I slept very well that night."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doesn't need Shaq's approval, nor his validation. Yet all Dwight Howard ever wanted was to be the next Shaquille O'Neal, and when did that become a crime for a young basketball player? Michael Jordan always had been secure enough in his legacy, his greatness, to embrace Kobe and LeBron.

So, yes, you have to wonder: Will Shaq ever be?