Yes, Shaquille O’Neal changes things. His presence in Phoenix put a screeching halt to the Suns fast-break offense, which has been revived since the Big Anchor moved on.
He’s doing the same thing in Cleveland, where the suddenly schizophrenic Cavs don’t know whether to get out of Shaq’s way, or get out of LeBron’s way, or get out some reading material while Brown takes another season to decide what the team’s offensive philosophy is.
Other than offensive, that is.
At 4-3, Cleveland looks nothing like the championship contender everyone expected them to be. But they aren’t worried, they’ll tell you. It’s a long season. They’ll be in the playoffs. They’ve got 75 games to get the kinks out. Everything will be fine.
Could be. But I like the notion of going into the playoffs with momentum, with swagger, with confidence. And it doesn’t hurt to have the best record in your conference, if not the entire league.
So the regular season means something, which is why Brown should consider promoting Shaq, right now, for one of the NBA’s time-honored postseason awards: Sixth Man of the Year.
Which means, of course, that Shaq would have to be the sixth man. As in coming off the bench. As in not starting.
O’Neal would have to approve, of course. But, with all his talk of the team coming first, not caring about stats, and doing whatever it takes to win, I’m sure that would just be a formality—right, Shaq?
So far this season, the Cavs have looked their best, for the longest stretches of games, when the core of last year’s team is on the floor: James, Anderson Varejao, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mo Williams, and Delonte West. They haven’t looked their best—at least, not consistently—when Shaq is on the floor at the start of games.
So why fight it? Bring O’Neal off the bench. And if Ilgauskas can’t cut it as a starter anymore, bring him off the bench, too. Start Varejao at the post. Keep J.J. Hickson at power forward. Play for the present, while building for the future.
Varejao’s their equal, if not more. And he’s more than enough, when you have LeBron James on your side. Besides, I'd still take Ilgauskas over those '90s retreads the Bulls trotted out every night.
What Chicago had that the Cavs still can't equal was Scottie Pippen. Which means it will be tougher for James to do what Jordan did even once, let alone six times.
But the Bulls didn’t have Shaq coming off the bench. Once upon a time, the Cavs did. His name was Nate Thurmond.
One of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History—“Nate the Great,” he was called—Thurmond arrived on the shores of Lake Erie in the fall of 1975 with a Hall of Fame resume and a wealth of knowledge to impart to his young and impressionable teammates.
And he led them to the brink of a championship. The memorable run—still known as “The Miracle at Richfield” to the die-hard Cavs fan—was derailed only by an injury to the man Thurmond was understudy to, Jim Chones.
Shaq could do that. He could survey the court each night from his spot on the bench, and then alter the course of a game by coming in fresh and dominating the floor. Already this season he showed he’s capable of it, in an inspired performance (21 points, eight rebounds in 29 minutes) in a win over Washington.
He did it plenty of times last year, when, at 36, he showed he was still one of the NBA’s best big men.
So why not play to his strengths? The Cavs have looked uncertain at the start of games, roaring out one night, stumbling along the next. There’s no flow, no consistency.
Yes, the ongoing drama of West’s personal life remains a distraction, and it might end badly—for West and the Cavs. But while he’s there, the old adage applies: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The Cavs were a regular-season juggernaut last year. They didn’t stumble until the playoffs. Why then? Because they didn’t have an answer for Orlando’s Dwight Howard inside, and Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis outside. So they brought in O’Neal, plus Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon.
When will you need them? The playoffs. What do you need until then? To fire on all cylinders. And the cylinders of a year ago are still in working order.
Why not dance with the one that brung ya? Stick with the proven formula. And fit the new pieces into the puzzle. Bring Shaq in off the bench. Who else in the league can counter with anyone as imposing?
Twenty-five years ago, Nate Thurmond played just a year and a half in a Cavaliers uniform. Yet his number hangs from the rafters at Quicken Loans Arena, a testimony to the respect he earned from a city and a franchise for showing them what winning is all about.
Shaq could be that guy for the 2009-2010 Cavaliers. He already has four rings. He’s been to the mountaintop. He could show them the way.
Who cares if he does it coming off the bench? For one season, at least, he would have a front row seat to history, the kind Cavaliers fans have been thirsting for for 40 years. And he'd be a lock for the Sixth Man of the Year award—something new for his trophy case.