Is it true? Could the difference between a third consecutive championship and a June playoff-exit, for the Los Angeles Lakers, be the non-signing of the three time former Finals MVP award recipient, Shaquille O'Neal?
It actually could be...
Right now the Los Angeles Lakers are sitting pretty at 9-2 in the Western Conference. But there are some dark clouds just over the horizon for Phil Jackson's bunch.
The 37-year-old Theo Ratliff is out for six weeks after undergoing successful arthroscopic knee surgery. That may not seem like a long time. And Ratliff's eight minutes per-outing may not seem like such an enormous void that the Lakers need to fill. But it is.
Pau Gasol is averaging 39.2 minutes per-game through the first eleven games this season. In each of the last three games, he has played over 41 minutes—two of which were Lakers' losses.
With Andrew Bynum's status never certain, it is essential that Jerry Buss finds some help inside for his star big man who has arguably been the most valuable Laker so far through the young season. He will not be able to last for another 70 plus games at the pace which he is going right now. These Lakers love to play an up-tempo style, which means more possessions, thus, more miles and wear-and-tear on, both, Gasol and Lamar Odom.
Derrick Caracter is the only front-court player on the active L.A. roster other than Odom and Gasol. That does not bode well for the two-time defending NBA Champions, who now are forced to depend on the recoveries of an aging veteran center and their young, undependable rising star, Andrew Bynum.
Looking into the Eastern Conference, we see the Boston Celtics: a team that recently embarrassed the much-hyped Miami Heat team (two times). And a team that forced the Lakers to a seven-game war last June.
Since the Lakers Game 7 victory, Boston has added Delonte West, Jermaine O'Neal and former Lakers' phenom Shaquille O'Neal. And Kevin Garnett is now reportedly void of all knee pain that had plagued him for the entire 2009-10 season.
The Lakers, who dominated the Celtics under the glass in last year's finals, now will need to fend for boards with the likes of Shaq and J.O. If Kendrick Perkins is healthy then Boston could possibly be five-deep in their front-court heading into the 2011 NBA Playoffs.
So could the Lakers be having regrets about not signing their former superstar center? Absolutely.
He is now contributing on a Boston team that is lighting it up in the scoring column and still perhaps the standard of defense in the NBA today. Rajon Rondo is now averaging an astounding 15.1 assists per-game, and there is cause for this feat: a healthy KG scoring from mid-range, Paul Pierce's versatility, Ray Allen gunning off-the-ball, and a combination of Glen "Big Baby" Davis and "The Big Shamrock" scoring down in the low-post.
The reason that the Boston Celtics were not the 2010 NBA Champions, instead of the Lakers, came down to rebounding. That was the key factor in determining the outcome of that series. With the difference in quality being so little between the two teams, the addition of Shaq alone could be the x-factor if we again see a Lakers-Celtics series in June.
He adds the rebounding presence for Boston that they had lacked for so long. It is rare that we see a team ranked below 27th in rebounding enter the NBA Finals. But the Celtics did just that, and still made it as far as they did.
If the Lakers' idea of a solution is to trade Shannon Brown for a serviceable big man, all that will do is create a different problem for Phil Jackson—who would be forced to play Kobe Bryant extra minutes as the team's only true slasher.
If they would have thought to sign Shaquille O'Neal in the offseason, not only could they have helped to solve their depth issues, but they could have prevented their rivals from attaining him a missing piece of their Championship puzzle.
Can we imagine the would-be implications if a 39-year-old Shaq faced his former Lakers and won a fifth ring to match Kobe Bryant? Is it possible that we will see Shaquille O'Neal holding up the Larry O'Brien trophy at center court of the Staples Center...as a member of the Boston Celtics?
That would surely end a lot of Shaq-Kobe debates—as irrational as they tend to be...
And, to just imagine all of the positive publicity that the Lakers could have generated by signing Shaq...it would have been a fitting way to end his great career. He could have been a mentor to Andrew Bynum (or at the very least taught him how to dance and/or rap).
The Lakers could be talking about building two statues outside of the Staples Center of Shaq and Kobe.
Instead, the decision to not sign Shaquille O'Neal could lead to the Celtics' 18th Championship banner hanging above the TD Garden—instead of the Lakers' record-matching 17th title.