This NBA off-season has been one of the busiest and most impactful we’ve seen in decades with what could be argued as the greatest free agent class in history. Never before have so many A-Level superstars been not only on the open market, but looking and truly willing to leave their teams. In any other post-season, a free agent Shaquille O’Neal, even an aging free agent Shaquille O’Neal, would be big news. But in this market, the 2010 free-agent market, he can’t even garner enough interest to generate a legitimate educated guess as to where he might end up. His salary for last season was a ridiculous twenty million dollars, which is an unbelievable gross overpayment for his production, which was a meager 12.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.2 blocks per game. Those numbers might be respectable for some players, but for Shaq Daddy, all those stats are career lows.
With so much attention focused on the power shifts that have occured this year, Shaq, the NBA’s walking media sound bite, has managed to fall between the cracks. Now that most significant free agents have found themselves homes, the speculation has begun regarding Shaquille O’Neal’s future team. The rumor mill has churned out such beauties as, “he wants to play with Duncan and Parker,” or “Shaq looks into European leagues for one more ten million dollar payday.” The truth is, I don’t think anybody has a clue exactly where the Big Aristotle is going to end up.
As a Laker fan since the day I could open my eyes, I hold a special place in my heart for the NBA’s first Superman (Sorry Dwight Howard, kind of lame that you stole the persona of your franchise’s original star center). He helped take my beloved Lakers to three straight championships while in his prime. Watching his footwork in the post was like watching Mikhail Baryshnikov perform. His defensive presence stopped any and all traffic headed toward the iron and if the rock was on its way up anywhere remotely near him he was sending it into the stands. His rim rocking dunks have shattered backboards, dropped basketball standards (shot clock included) to the hardwood, delayed games, and left fans’ jaws hanging open and their eyes lit up in awe. He was possibly the most dominant to ever play the position. The only argument to be made is for Bill Russell who dominated the position, and the league, for a decade. It’s hard to say anyone was more dominant than Russell. Ask any Laker who played in the 60’s.
This brings me to the only rumor that disturbs me. As a Laker fan I was sad to see Shaq go but I felt that the team’s management made the correct long-term basketball decision in keeping Kobe. Since Shaq and Kobe refused to play nice, it was the only smart business move left. The Lakers resigned Kobe and Shaq was shipped to Miami for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a first round draft pick. To quote his former teammate, the Big Egomaniac, the Big Diesel was “taking his talents to South Beach.” He was later traded back to the Pacific Division to play with the Phoenix Suns. Soon thereafter, the Big Cactus was sent to Cleveland in an attempt by the Cavalier’s front office to provide LeBron James with the talent he needed to win. That is where the self-proclaimed MDE (Most Dominant Ever for those of you unfamiliar with that one) spent his last season to date. But now it is rumored that he is being wooed (and supposedly reciprocating said wooing) by the Boston Celtics.
As a Lakers fan, the idea of Wilt Chamberneezy playing in Celtic green makes me queezy (I minored in poetry… Don’t act like you’re not impressed, it ain’t easy rhyming Chamberneezy.). I accepted that Shaq had to part ways with the Lakers due to chemistry issues and the butting of heads between two strong personalities vying for the top dog position. But the Celtics? Any other team but the Celtics!
Despite winning his last championship with the Miami Heat, I always envisioned Shaq’s number 34 jersey hanging in the rafters next to Chamberlain’s, West’s, Jabbar’s, Magic’s, and all the other Laker greats. His jersey should rightfully be retired with the most storied franchise in the NBA. After all, he won three straight championships, three Finals MVP trophies, and his only regular season MVP trophy all while wearing the purple and gold. In the 1999-2000 season Shaq became the only player in NBA history to win the regular season MVP award, the All-Star MVP award, and the Finals MVP award. He literally swept the MVP’s that year! On top of all that (as if that weren’t enough) he won the scoring title, was named to the All NBA First team, named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team, and won his first NBA championship that year. Any player that has a season like that deserves to have his jersey retired for the team he played for while achieving those accolades. It doesn’t hurt that he followed that performance up with two more championships and two more Finals MVP trophies.
Despite all these accomplishments and the wonderful things he did for the Lakers franchise and the city of Los Angeles, if he were to play for Boston it would all be for naught. If Shaq-Fu were to finish out his career, or even play a single game, for the Boston Celtics there is absolutely no way I could handle having his jersey retired as a Laker. All else is forgivable, but defection to the Celtics is not. It’s the one unforgivable sin a Laker cannot commit and still expect absolution from the fans.
Some may say that other Lakers have played for both teams. Rick Fox, for example, began his career in the Boston Garden, but he ended it with the Lakers. That was a reverse defection. And more importantly, Rick Fox will never have his jersey retired. Shaq is a superstar; the centerpiece of a franchise. Easily one of the top twenty players in history, his star shines brighter than 99% of players that pass through this league. His betrayal would leave scars that last much longer from wounds that cut much deeper than any role player could ever inflict.
So with the summer growing shorter, decisions need to be made by the remaining free agents. I’m not saying Shaq should come back to L.A. In fact, I think that could be potentially disastrous. He doesn’t owe the Lakers anything. They cut him loose in favor of a younger, fiercer talent. But while he may not owe the organization anything, and he may not owe Laker fans much, he owes us just this little bit: Don’t break our hearts by sleeping with the enemy… Not that enemy.
We love Shaquille O’Neal here in L.A. It’s programmed into our DNA. His big cheerful grin and fun loving demeanor make him a favorite among fans who remain so loyal some still hold Kobe accountable for what they perceive as chasing Shaq away. His personality was bigger than his massive body and he dominated the court while he played for us. We have watched him play in cities near and far after leaving our locker room. He’s played with some of our greatest foes such as Nash, Wade, and LeBron but in the end we still love the Big Kazaam. Most importantly, we want to welcome him home someday by hanging his jersey in the rafters of the Staples Center. So long as he stays out of the green, he always has a place in the hearts of Laker fans…