Multiple Nicknames; Dwindling Openings
By HOWARD BECK / http://www.nytimes.com
There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when Shaquille O’Neal rumbled across the country collecting nicknames and championship rings by the bundle, his career one great, giddy joyride, set to his own thumping soundtrack. He was the Diesel and the Big Aristotle, the Big Cactus and the Big Witness and always the life of the party.
Except the greatest, giddiest free-agent party in N.B.A. history is proceeding without him. Shaq is the Big No-Show, which prompts the question: Is it time for the Big Farewell?
Twenty-three days have passed since the free-agent market opened. Sixty-five players have signed new contracts, including 13 centers. Darko Milicic got $20 million. Johan Petro got $10 million.
Yet O’Neal — the Most Dominant Ever, according to the syntactically awkward title he gave himself — is unemployed. Is this the end? Possibly.
This limbo is largely self-created. O’Neal, according to team executives, is seeking an $8 million salary. He wants a two-year deal. He is 38. He has trouble staying healthy. He can be helpful in spurts, but he is no longer the menacing figure who once ruled the paint.
“I don’t know who takes him,” said an Eastern Conference scout, citing O’Neal’s diminished production.
Potential suitors keep drifting away.
The Dallas Mavericks had interest, but balked at O’Neal’s salary demands. Instead, they re-signed Brendan Haywood for $55 million over six years, traded for Tyson Chandler and signed Ian Mahinmi.
The Atlanta Hawks were similarly intrigued, and similarly spooked by O’Neal’s price tag. They are working to re-sign Jason Collins as their third center. The O’Neal talks are “dead,” according to a team official.
The Boston Celtics needed a veteran to fill the void while Kendrick Perkins recovers from knee surgery. They found a younger, cheaper O’Neal — Jermaine, 31, who signed for two years and $12 million.
The Houston Rockets needed insurance for Yao Ming. They signed Brad Miller.
Miami needed an enforcer behind LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the so-called SuperFriends. Instead of calling Superman, the Heat called Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Jamaal Magloire.
In Cleveland, where he spent last season, O’Neal is superfluous. Without James, there are no title hopes and no need for an aging All-Star center.
“I think he can definitely help a contender,” the Mavericks’ owner, Mark Cuban, said in an e-mail message. “It just didn’t work for us once we signed Brendan.”
There should be a soft landing spot for O’Neal, a future Hall of Famer: a contender who can offer one last shot at a title. The problem is that O’Neal torched the most fertile ground.
He would surely welcome a return to Los Angeles, where he won three championships with Kobe Bryant. But O’Neal alienated everyone from Bryant to staff members to the owner, Jerry Buss, before demanding a trade in 2004.
In theory, O’Neal could be a backup and mentor to Dwight Howard, the Magic’s All-Star center. But he has repeatedly insulted Howard and mocked Orlando’s coach, Stan Van Gundy. Nor would he be easily forgiven for calling Orlando “a dried-up pond” when he bolted for Hollywood in 1996.
The Heat provided O’Neal his last breath of postseason glory, a furious sprint to the title as Wade’s co-star in 2006. That bridge was burned, too, after O’Neal’s trade to Phoenix in 2008. He derided the Heat’s medical staff, ripped the roster and — as he has done in nearly every city — complained about his role in the offense.
Even O’Neal’s generally amicable departure from Phoenix last year was tinged with controversy — an allegation that he stole a television-show concept from Steve Nash, the Suns’ star point guard. No one in Phoenix is pushing for a reunion.
If O’Neal is determined to retire with a contender, he might be out of options. The San Antonio Spurs are not interested. The Denver Nuggets are inundated with outsize personalities. He is too big for Utah, too demanding for Portland and too risky for Oklahoma City.
This has always been the Shaq package: muscle, mirth and bouts of mayhem. In his prime, he was worth the gamble. In his twilight, teams must hesitate — especially at a cost of $8 million.
To make that sum, O’Neal needs a sign-and-trade deal with the Cavaliers. That, too, is a complicating factor. And the longer O’Neal holds out for his price, the fewer jobs that remain.
Allen Iverson, another fading superstar, miscalculated the market last summer and had to wait until September to find a job. He signed with the Memphis Grizzlies, a middling franchise in a small market, for $3 million. It is hard to envision O’Neal doing the same.
Yet it still seems unlikely that O’Neal will remain unemployed. Although he averaged just 12 points and 6.7 rebounds last season — both career lows — he shot .566 from the field and can be an effective deterrent in the lane.
After losing the last 29 games of the season to a thumb injury, O’Neal returned for the playoffs, looking rusty but fit. He accepted a small, defined role and seemed fine with it.
A rival executive said O’Neal looked “better than I’d seen in a long time.” But he no longer commands double teams or scrambles game plans.
If he retires now, after 18 seasons, O’Neal will leave with four championships, three finals most valuable player trophies and 15 All-Star appearances. He is fifth on the career scoring list, with 28,255 points, and second in field-goal percentage, at .581. His ticket to Springfield is ensured.
In his prime, O’Neal boasted of sending All-Star centers into retirement — Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing, Rik Smits and David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning and Vlade Divac. Now he marks the time by watching inferior big men snap up roster spots: Aaron Gray and Timofey Mozgov, Tony Battie and Ben Wallace.
On his Twitter page, O’Neal still lists his location as “Cleveland/Everywhere.” In the background is a promotional graphic for his TV show, “Shaq Vs.” His last N.B.A.-related tweet came on July 1, the day free agency began: “Yup, I got 720 days left.”
The Big Optimist is still waiting for that final payday. But the Big Farewell might have already begun.
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