LOS ANGELES – If you believe the wonders of the Internet, Shaquille O’Neal moonlights as a goalie, ranks as the tech-savviest 320-pound center in the NBA, and, yes, apparently rolls with Mickey Rourke. These days, he’s also making his free throws, so that much has changed.
Shaq will turn 37 in a week. He still multitasks, his shadow still swallows the longest of NBA hallways and, as All-Star weekend proved, he’s forever the life of the party. If you’re wondering where the years have gone, the league has kindly cued up a seven-day reunion tour. O’Neal and his Phoenix Suns lost to the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday, and they’ll see them again on Sunday. Then it’s off to Florida to rekindle memories with the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat.
Four franchises, 17 seasons, and O’Neal knows his passport might have to collect at least one more stamp before he lumbers off into retirement. A week ago, the Suns tried to trade him. Those same trade winds will continue to blow this summer, and that’s why more than a few people would like to see him make next season his last. He’s been too good for too long to have to schlep his bags from team to team.
“This is just as a friend, with what he’s accomplished in this league, there’s no sense in him hanging on when he doesn’t have to,” Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. “… I think one more season after this season could be a good finish to a great career.”
This isn’t about whether O’Neal can play, but whether he should. O’Neal has proven he can still play. On Friday, he bullied the Toronto Raptors for 45 points. He doesn’t command a double-team as often as he once did, which lessens his impact, but the 17.4 points and 8.8 rebounds he’s averaged exceed the offensive production of Kevin Garnett. Shaq’s All-Star selection wasn’t a gift. He earned it.
The problem is the Suns are paying roughly $20 million for those 17.4 points and 8.8 rebounds. If O’Neal, like Garnett, was the missing piece for a championship team, his salary could be reasoned, in NBA terms, as a necessary expense. But O’Neal doesn’t defend like Garnett and the Suns certainly aren’t the Celtics.
The Suns tried to trade O’Neal for the same reason the Lakers and Heat traded him: They no longer wanted to pay him. Suns owner Robert Sarver has watched his fortune take a hit as the banking and mortgage industries have taken theirs. And while Sarver can dip into the slush fund the NBA just created to help ailing franchises, the economy isn’t going to suddenly rebound over the summer. At some point, O’Neal and Amare Stoudemire likely will both go back on the trading block.
“Business is different,” O’Neal said. “A lot of guys want to do certain things to save money. I know at the end of the day any businessman is going to do what’s right for his or her business.”
The Cleveland Cavaliers were still discussing a deal for O’Neal on the day of the trade deadline, but only wanted to take him on if they could unload Ben Wallace’s own burdensome contract. O’Neal will be in the final season of his contract next season, so he might attract a few more suitors, particularly if he treats a few more opponents the way he did the Raptors.
Fisher, among others, thinks the trade talks wore on O’Neal to some degree. O’Neal refused to speak to reporters the day after the deadline and was said to be upset upon hearing the Suns had investigated trying to send him to Portland. He has since gone out of his way to compliment Suns GM Steve Kerr, who “called me and asked me what I thought.” Still, that has only raised skepticism that O’Neal is using his praise for Kerr as a veiled shot at Sarver.
O’Neal has never exited well. He ripped Lakers owner Jerry Buss and GM Mitch Kupchak for trading him to Miami then later criticized Heat president Pat Riley after he was sent to Phoenix. He now calls both trades “all about business.”
“I’m an up-and-down kind of guy,” O’Neal joked. “I get in and get under people’s skin and all that stuff. But you will remember me. That’s all that matters.”
The Suns remembered enough of what O’Neal did for the Lakers and Heat to gamble he could do the same for them. Since his arrival, however, the Suns have failed him more than he has them.
From Terry Porter’s hiring to the trade of Raja Bell and Boris Diaw for Jason Richardson, the Suns have been victimized by bad decisions and, more recently, bad luck. Unable to find a suitable offer for Stoudemire, the Suns opted to keep their All-Star forward, replace Porter with assistant Alvin Gentry and try to make a playoff push. The team quickly recaptured some of its confidence under Gentry only to learn an hour after the trade deadline that Stoudemire would likely be lost for the remainder of the season because of an eye injury. Steve Nash then rolled his ankle on Tuesday, leaving the Suns to face the Lakers without either their starting point guard or power forward.
“We don’t get a stimulus package where they send us Kevin Garnett and someone else for a couple games,” Gentry said. “It doesn’t work like that. You have what you have and you try to do the best you can.”
Against the Lakers, that wasn’t good enough. Late in the first quarter, O’Neal found himself part of a lineup that featured Richardson, Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley and Matt Barnes. Afterward, he lamented receiving only seven shots.
“I've been telling them I need more the whole season if they want me to produce,” O’Neal said.
One night later, he proved as much. His teammates gave him 25 attempts and he made 20 of them. More shots or less, O’Neal hasn’t given up hope of saving this season. Aside from the Lakers, only the San Antonio Spurs have made any headway in distancing themselves from the West’s other seven playoff contenders. The Suns figure to get Nash back sooner rather than later. For better or worse, they’ll get another crack at the Lakers on Sunday.
The Lakers made quick work of the Suns on Thursday, blowing open the game by the end of the first quarter. The sold-out Staples Center crowd still rewarded O’Neal with a fairly warm ovation, one of the first he’s received since leaving Los Angeles.
“That era will never be forgotten,” he said. “I’m the most dominant, most controversial big man in Laker history. That’s how I want to be remembered.”
That’s how he should be remembered. As a four-time champion. As the man who lifted three different franchises to the NBA Finals. Better to look back than ahead. For Shaq, the reunion tour isn't over yet.