Shaq's Stature Is Critical To Lebron James' Development

Daniel LockeContributor IJune 25, 2009

DENVER - FEBRUARY 20:   (L-R) LeBron James #23 and Shaquille O'Neal #32 of the Eastern Conference All-Stars smile on the bench in the final moments of the East's win over the Western Conference All-Stars the 54th All-Star Game, part of 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend at Pepsi Center on February 20, 2005 in Denver, Colorado.  The East won 125-115.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

LeBron James' career in the NBA has been remarkable.  Only 24 years old, he has been to the NBA Finals, won a regular season MVP award, two-time All-Star game MVP, regular season scoring champ, and multiple time All-Star selection.

He not only is the undisputed best player and leader on his team but the whole city worships him.  Everything he does, from wearing a Yankees hat at a baseball game to how many points he scores at Madison Square Garden merits comment and discussion. He is followed and scrutinized as closely as anyone in Cleveland.  

The team ownership is terrified of losing him to free agency in a year.  They make trades and push the players fervently to get better and win a championship.  There is an unspoken ultimatum to win a championship before 2010 or he will leave.  

LeBron is bigger than his teammates, bigger than his coach, than the team ownership; and one has to ask, is all this good?

No one in Cleveland, in any sport and in any era, has the clout to call him out.  He works hard, yet no one can tell him to work harder.  If he shoots too much or too little, no one has the credibility to call him out.  If he dominates the ball, no one can demand it from him.

My purpose here isn't to belittle LeBron James; he is the best player in the NBA. But how much better can he be?  The simple fact is neither he nor anyone else plays perfectly.  Neither LeBron nor anyone else has no room for improvement.  

But now Shaquille O'Neal has arrived, a 7'1" center, weighing over 300 pounds, and bringing equally as much weight in awards and championship rings. 

To LeBron's regular season MVP award, he has one as well.  To LeBron's Finals appearance, Shaq has six (and four championships).  Three Finals MVP awards to none.  

Here, finally, is someone with equal stature to LeBron, a peer for the King.  When LeBron was winning state championships at St. Vincent-St. Mary, Shaq was winning national championships with the Lakers.  LeBron won the mythical high school national championship his senior year; Shaq has won the real national championship.  Four times!

My point is this: LeBron himself has admitted he has no rival or peer.  No Magic and Bird rivalry.  No Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan.  He isn't Kobe Bryant chasing Michael Jordan (fruitlessly).  He just is; he exists singularly.

But now there is a difference.  Cleveland fans should hope that Shaq and LeBron argue.  They should hope they challenge each other and push each other to improve their games.  And it won't be pretty, either.  Shaq definitely has ideas about how the offense should work and will likely challenge Mike Brown if he doesn't do what Shaq thinks is right.  Shaq will change how LeBron plays and how much he gets the ball.  It will be a real paradigm shift for Cleveland basketball.  

It will be a unique arrangement for these two players.  But there is a strong possibility they will emerge from the East and challenge for a championship.  Also, Cleveland fans shouldn't be worried if Shaq misses a lot of games early in the season.  In fact, I think they should hope he does.  Its better to have him fresh for the playoffs rather than exhausted after a grueling season.

Its better to finish the season with wins than begin the season with wins.  Right, Cleveland fans?