The Shaq Trap

The news last week was not good for Lakers fans. Anxiously awaiting the June 20 deadline for Shaquille O'Neal's decision to stay or (via contract option) go, they heard O'Neal's agent, Leonard Amato, utter ominous words: “I think Shaq is very happy being a Laker. And I don't anticipate any movement.”

Short of hearing him add, “Oh, and Benoit Benjamin is going to coach the team,” the news could not have been worse. O'Neal's departure would be the first step toward setting the team on a path to compelling basketball and ultimately back among the league's elite. Using the money they would save from his departure ($81.4 million over the next four years), the team could sign or trade for a top point guard (Gary Payton cannot be happy in Seattle, where the Sonics have fallen apart), addressing its most pressing need. With a serviceable center to rebound and play, the Lakers could base their attack—both offensively and defensively—on their strengths (speed and athleticism) instead of the current game plan culled from the Mesozoic.

The Lakers are not going to win championships with Shaquille O'Neal. I wish I was wrong, but I'm not. He is not the type of player around whom you build a championship team. Orlando tried:they traded for Penny Hardaway, signed Horace Grant away from Chicago, and still got bubkes. In his first two seasons with the Lakers, O'Neal showed neither the ability nor the desire to lead the team through a difficult playoff series. He blamed others and demanded the team acquire the league's best rebounder and its best shooter. He got both and did nothing.

You know all this. And yet so many of you persist. He's so big! So is Shawn Bradley. He's so athletic! So was Ralph Sampson. He scores so many points! So did Dominique Wilkins, Tom Chambers, Adrian Dantley, David Thompson, George Gervin, Kiki Vandeweghe, Alex English and . . . But he averaged 26 points per game last season—26 points! Please. Study your history: big-scoring centers may win their share of MVPs, but they don't win many championships. The game's greatest, Bill Russell, averaged 15 points per game while dominating the '60s. Who won championships in the '70s? Dave Cowens (17.6 points per game), Jack Sikma (15.6) and Wes Unseld (10.8). The Lakers need only look back to 1972, when scoring machine Wilt Chamberlain led them to the title, averaging a modest 14 points per game. He did that season what he had done in his only other championship year, 1967: rebound, block shots, draw defenders down to the post on offense, and then pass to open teammates.

Ancient history? Okay, let's go back over the past dozen seasons. In that time, only two championship teams, the Houston Rockets in 1993 and '94, had a center (Hakeem Olajuwon) who averaged more than 20 points per game. Kareem? In the Lakers' back-to-back title years of '87 and '88, he averaged 17 points and 14 points.

Oh, but the Spurs are going to win the title this season, and Tim Duncan averaged more than 20. Again, please. The Spurs will win the title because they are the best defensive team in the league, because Duncan and front-line mate David Robinson are disciplined and skilled and understand that defending and rebounding are their main responsibilities.

The lesson of history? Centers don't win championships by scoring. They win by making sure the other team doesn't score. They win by blocking shots, clogging the middle and making it a dangerous place for guards to venture. They do it by cutting down an opponent's second-chance points by grabbing every available rebound. (Historical example: Russell averaged 22 rebounds in the regular season and 25 during the playoffs.) In other words, centers do everything that O'Neal—who ranked 14th in blocks behind Greg Ostertag, bum-legged Pat Ewing and the redoubtable Ben Wallace; seventh in rebounding behind Danny Fortson and 6-foot-5-inch octogenarian Charles Barkley—does not.

Could he learn? Probably. Will he? No. Why? Well, here's the dirty little secret about O'Neal: he's a nice guy. You can see it. The smile. The kidding around. It's all real. As much as he and his basketball team and his record company try to hide it, as much as his wild boasts and flimsy threats try to hide it, he's a nice guy. He is not driven to win. For all of Michael Jordan's polish, for all of Larry Bird's folksiness, for all of Magic Johnson's toothy charms, they shared a competitiveness that bordered on psychosis. They didn't want to win; they had to win. Anything less tore at their innards like a gulp of lye. It wasn't pretty to watch—Johnson's near-disemboweling of his best friend Isiah Thomas in the key during the '88 championship series—and it's probably not entirely healthy. But there you have it. When Jordan's legs could no longer ensure his team success, he willed himself to become the game's best jump shooter. When Johnson's team needed him to score more points, he willed himself to that despite the fact that he had no jump shot mainly because he couldn't jump.

There are so many things O'Neal needs to work on to become a championship center. But he won't work at them because he doesn't need to. It's not his fault. It's who he is. It's who a lot of very tall players are. They don't choose basketball as much as they are conscripted by their size. Singled out, prized and pushed ahead, they play not out of passion but because their size makes them good at it.

And O'Neal's lack of passion for the game is palpable, rubbing off on teammates. In perhaps the most telling moment from last season, O'Neal, the Lakers' centerpiece player, said it didn't matter to him if the Lakers finished in fourth or fifth, just as long as his team made the playoffs. Can you ever, ever, imagine anything like that falling from Jordan's lips? From Jerry West's?

It would be better if he would leave. But it appears the Lakers are stuck with O'Neal. Stuck with a No. 1 offensive option who doesn't have a go-to offensive move save for knocking over someone and throwing up some slop. Stuck with a team leader who has no desire to lead and who attempts to hide his lack of passion for the game with post-dunk curses. A lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Certainly not a championship. Nice.

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