The last contract Shaquille O’Neal signed was a five-year extension worth an even $100 million. He is one of the most dominant players to ever step onto an NBA court, he’s a four-time NBA champion, and he’s a lock for the Hall of Fame when he retires.
Of course, none of that mattered when the Cavaliers played the Celtics in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals. O’Neal stopped the ball on offense, couldn’t score on Kendrick Perkins, and the Celtics completely exposed O’Neal defensively. In that series, O’Neal looked like a post-up dinosaur watching a drive-and-kick league pass him by.
The few post-up threats remaining are players like Pau Gasol or Dwight Howard, both of whom are athletic enough to be effective on both offense and defense even if they aren’t being force-fed in the post. Shaq needs his team to adjust its game-plan to his strengths in order for him to be effective, and that puts him at a significant disadvantage in today’s NBA.
With Shaq’s horrible series against Boston fresh in the minds of NBA executives, nobody wants to pay Shaq his reported asking price: at least $8 million a season, as well as a guaranteed starting spot. The Atlanta Hawks were supposed to be one of the few teams with legitimate interest in the big fella, but after sigining Josh Powell to a discount contract, they might not want Shaq either.
It’s a shame that Shaq has been so unwilling to be flexible, because there’s a solid case to be made for signing him. Consider the following:
-O’Neal had perhaps the worst season of his career last year, but he’s also only a year removed from putting up 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, with a PER of 22.33
-Before his thumb surgery, Shaq was playing some excellent basketball. He averaged 14 points per game on 64.8% shooting in January, and 13.6 points on 59.6% in February. He never got back into a rhythm after the surgery, but he was playing like a very good NBA center before it.
-O’Neal was signed to guard Dwight Howard and/or Andrew Bynum in a playoff series, neither of which he got to do. O’Neal will get lost trying to keep up with faster players, but he can still defend the post. The Magic and Lakers are going to make deep playoff runs next year, and there aren’t a lot of guys who can slow down Howard or a healthy Bynum the way Shaq can.
At this point in his career, Shaq is a very good situational player. There are still some things he can do as well as anybody else in the league can, but his strengths can’t cover up his limitations as easily as they once did. Against some lineups, Shaq can be invaluable. Against others, he should hardly see the floor. If Shaq can come to terms with the player he is now, he’ll be a very good pickup for the team that signs him. If not, his pride may force him into retiring when he can still contribute to an NBA squad.