Between MRIs and rehabilitation, losing games and luster on his legacy, Shaquille O’Neal is caught in a cycle that promises no fades into a golden sunset. For reasons of his own negligence and nature itself, his body has betrayed him. So did his Miami Heat boss. Pat Riley squeezed one final championship out of Shaq and long had been willing to live with the consequences of a crippling contract.
This isn’t the way Superman should spend his golden years. This isn’t how it should end. He’s left the Heat for the third time this season. His hip and quadriceps are inflamed and Shaq needs rest. This is no revelation, but Superman is broken. His days of dominating are done, and there’s no supporting cast to ease him into his golden years.
The Heat have lost 14 consecutive games. They’ve lost with Shaq and without Shaq.
Soon, Shaq will be 36 years old and for his own good, his own legacy, he should take a buyout on the two years and $40 million left on his deal. No one wants to watch him limp around on a lottery loser, watch him embarrassed to the end.
Riley is counting the days until Shaq and millions of dollars more dead weight comes off the cap in 2010. The run is over. Suddenly, Superman is disposable.
“If he’s hurting and not playing good, he is being talked about,” Dwyane Wade said. “If he is not playing and trying to get healthy, he is being talked about for taking time off.
“It’s a lose-lose situation.”
Nothing changes that now. For the Lakers, the thought of squeezing one more championship out of Shaq with a contract extension suffocating the franchise was unappealing. For the Heat, the prospects of winning one elusive title was intoxicating. Riley was desperate in Miami and Shaq was wildly motivated after Kobe Bryant and Jerry Buss shunned him in Los Angeles. Owner Micky Arison gave him five years, $100 million and Shaq gave Riles his undying loyalty. As much as anything, that bond made it easy for Riley to usurp Stan Van Gundy’s authority as coach and take back his old coaching job on the way to the 2006 title.
In a lot of ways, Riley and Shaq needed a post-Lakers championship to validate themselves. Together, they won it. And together, deep down, they exhaled. All those extra pounds that Shaq let go on his body frightened the Lakers and ultimately speeded up Shaq’s demise.
Riley could’ve had hip surgery in the post-championship summer, but chose to travel the world. He bailed on his team when it was losing to have the procedure the next season. Had they been winning, Riley confessed, he could’ve coached through the pain. As an executive, no one had a worse year than him. He lost James Posey and Jason Kapono, and got played for raises by two restricted free agent Milwaukee Bucks and took Smush Parker, Ricky Davis and Mark Blount into his team.
When Riley made the trade for Shaq in 2004, he was sacrificing the long-term for the short. Shaq couldn’t do it alone. Truth be told, he no longer could be the centerpiece of a champion. Yet, Miami couldn’t do it without him. Wade transformed into a galactic star and delivered everyone – Shaq and Riley – to the title.
Now, Wade has been surrounded with serial losers and selfish players. Riley’s quick fixes have turned the Heat into a halfway house. A fallen Alonzo Mourning can no longer play hall monitor, and the Heat, one of the league’s toughest franchises, has been overrun with a culture of unprofessionalism.
Wade can be a free agent in 2010, which is when Miami can reshape itself through free agency. Who knows? Maybe Miami will get the kind of high lottery pick in 2008 (Kansas State’s Michael Beasley, perhaps) who’ll make a difference. Nevertheless, Riley no longer runs the franchise to serve Shaq’s advanced age. The window’s been declared closed. What’s more, there just doesn’t seem a scenario where a trade to a contender makes sense.
No one wants to watch basketball’s biggest kid, best ambassador, on stage without that cackle, without that wise-crack spitting out of the side of his mouth. The All-Star weekend in New Orleans won’t be an All-Star weekend without Shaq. In Las Vegas in ’07, Shaq was the instigator who dared Gilbert Arenas to run onto the floor with the mascots and take a turn leaping off those trampolines for a dunk.
His whole persona, his whole being, has been bigger than life for the NBA. In that way, there’s no replacing him. This year, Dwight Howard will be voted the Eastern Conference center. Shaq stays home and the big party in New Orleans goes on without him.
For a lot of reasons, O’Neal doesn’t have a chance at the productive twilight years that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had with the Lakers. Kareem had a different body, a different game, a skyhook that stood the test of time. As much as anything, Jabbar had Magic Johnson and James Worthy. All around Shaq now, there’s just dysfunction and despair. Wade can go for 40 a night and it doesn’t matter. No rehab out of Shaquille O’Neal, no renaissance, can change that anymore.
To watch Superman limp through 2½ more seasons of this promises to be a blight on the game, on his legacy, and you just wish Shaq would let Arison write him a check, take his bow and fade into that golden sunset. You just wish Superman would leave with his cape.