There has been a lot of discussion about the Thunder filling out the roster with a legitimate big man. Most of the talk has focused on Toronto’s soon-to-be free agent, Chris Bosh. But, considering there are six teams with more than max money that will be targeting him (most located in HUGE markets) and the Thunder will probably be about $4MM shy of being able to compete with the market, let’s assume he’s out of the question.
The other guy often mentioned as a possible target is New York’s “center” David Lee. His offensive stats are inflated by the system Knicks’ coach Mike D’Antoni implements and some people call him Avid Lee because he plays no defense. Of course, even if those things weren’t true, had Thunder GM Sam Presti been interested in signing Lee, the time to do it would have been last Summer. At that time, with the Knicks clinging to a strategy that precluded them from signing anyone to a contract greater than one season, Presti could have poached Lee at a bargain. Given that he passed then, I assume he isn’t going to offer him the exorbitant contract Lee will command this Summer. Remember, with half a dozen teams looking to sign marquee players and a likelihood that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade re-sign with their current teams, that means second tier superstars will be offered first tier money by franchises who don’t want to be shutout after selling their fanbases on the idea that current mediocrity would pay off in the Summer of 2010. It would be completely against Presti’s nature to pass on a player when he could be had cheaply and then go after him in a bidding war.
So, who does that leave? Well, just the greatest active big man…The Big Shaqtus, Shaq Diesel, Superman (co-opted by Dwight Howard), The Big Aristotle, Shaq Daddy, Shaq Fu, and as his momma calls him (at least on the birth certificate), Shaquille O’Neal.
Somehow forgotten because of the young talent that will flood the market in about three months, Shaq also has an expiring contract. That means he will have the freedom to sign with whomever he wants, and due to his declining state, there is no way he commands the $20MM a year he’s making currently.
Sure, Shaq is not the dominant force he was when he was carrying the Lakers to back-to-back-to-back championships and forcing the rest of the league to overspend on bulky seven footers just so they’d have an additional six fouls to use when they played L.A. He has put a lot of mileage on his body since entering the NBA in 1992, and taken a ton of hard fouls. These days, he’s still a starter caliber player, but he can only play about half the game.
He has, however, indicated he wants to play two more seasons after the one currently going on. He is still 7’1″ and built like a bull. He still makes 57% of his shots from the floor. He still rebounds at about the same rate he has his entire career (to the point where opposing players basically concede when a shot comes off in his direction). He still averages more than a block a game and still finds the open man coming out of a double team.
All of those attributes sound like qualities a team like Oklahoma City could benefit from having on the floor. Factor in that he also possesses world class charisma, a championship pedigree, plus a newfound willingness to play the part of sidekick, and Shaq sounds like the perfect piece to complete this young Thunder team.
The question then becomes, can Oklahoma City sign him? Obviously, he is going to take a paycut whatever he decides to do. Only Cleveland can offer him a contract that comes close to matching what he currently makes (thanks to possession of his “Bird Rights”), but even they would demand he takes much less to return. That means money will probably be only a small part of what it takes to woo the Shaqtus.
At this stage in his career, O’Neal’s primary focus will be on winning another championship–even if he wins with Cleveland this year. He wants to be remembered as the greatest center to ever play the game and he knows that ring count is going to be the most important statistic he can build up. While he cannot come close to matching Bill Russell’s sixteen banners won, one thing he can take as an advantage is that he has basically turned every team he’s played on into a contender. He played in the Finals with Orlando, won three times (and lost once) with the Lakers, won a title with Miami, and could possibly get another with Cleveland in June.
Getting him to play with the Thunder would mean convincing him that he would put the team over the top from a “team on the rise” to a team that could take it all. Miami did that by pairing him with Dwyane Wade, and Shaq has been clear that he’s just in Cleveland to help LeBron get his first. Considering how much this has appealed to him, being able to assist Kevin Durant should be an attractive selling point.
So, Shaq, come to Oklahoma City. Think about how much of a bow it would put on your resume to say you helped propel the smallest market in the league to a championship (or two) in the twilight of your career. With you commanding double teams in the post, that would free up our already outstanding perimeter players for more open shots, and with your rebounding and lane presence our good defense would become great. In addition, you could help mentor our budding young post players, like Serge Ibaka, assisting him in assuming your role as the most dominant big man in the league when you walk into the sunset.
And if it helps, we can offer you as much money as anyone else.