One is the King, a reigning MVP who at age 24 needs only a championship to complete his résumé. The other is a larger-than-life personality who may be past the prime of his career but remains an undeniable force and hungers for a fifth NBA title.
LeBron and Shaq. Team-mates.
The Cleveland Cavaliers executed a blockbuster trade last week to unite the superstars, acquiring Shaquille O’Neal from the Phoenix Suns in hopes he can help LeBron James deliver this seemingly sports-cursed city its first major pro championship in 45 years.
The deal creates a tandem that instantly rivals any in sports today and calls to mind some of the great duos in NBA history: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Cousy and Bill Russell, Shaq himself and Kobe Bryant.
More important, if Cleveland’s gamble works and O’Neal, 37, delivers a title, it could keep James around. James is an Akron native, knows Cleveland’s pained sports history and has always maintained he wants to stay in his home state, but there is no guarantee he will sign an extension with the Cavs. Cleveland can offer him one as early as this summer.
But that’s for another day.
Hours before an NBA draft that figured to be overshadowed by the Shaq-to-the-Cavs move, the reality of James playing with O’Neal, a 15-time All-Star, was just sinking in.
‘Shaq is an incredible ballplayer and a four-time NBA champion,’ James said. ‘I have a lot of respect for him and his game. It will be a real honour to play with Shaq as my team-mates and I look forward to another great season with the Cavs.’
The Cavs sent center Ben Wallace and swingman Sasha Pavlovic to the Suns, along with a second-round pick in the 2010 draft and $500,000 in cash, for O’Neal, the 7ft 1in center who won three straight titles from 2000 to 2002 with Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. His fourth title came with Dwyane Wade in Miami in 2006.
The teams first talked about a deal in February but couldn’t work out an agreement before the deadline, a missed opportunity that cost the Cavaliers in this year’s playoffs when they had no answer inside for Orlando center Dwight Howard in the Eastern Conference finals.
After the Cavaliers were eliminated with a Game 6 loss, a frustrated James stormed off the floor in Orlando without shaking the hands of any Magic players, including Howard, his US Olympic teammate.
Ferry completed the deal because he wants to win a title. Now.
‘Our goals are aligned with what our players want, including LeBron, and that’s to win a championship and win it next year,’ Ferry said.
‘We don’t want to be patient. We want to be a team that has sustainable success. We want to be a team like we were this year when if you don’t win a championship you lose some sleep.
‘But at the same time we want to be more than that. We want to be the team that wins it. This was a move made towards putting ourselves in better position next season.’
For sheer celebrity value, the O’Neal-James tandem is as captivating as any on the sports landscape. And if it works, and lasts, the pairing may one day belong in the same company as some of the all-time combinations: Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice.
For now, the Cavaliers, who came up short this year despite winning 66 regular-season games and their first eight playoff games, are thinking only of unseating the Lakers as champions next June.
O’Neal could be the missing piece. But there’s no guarantee he’ll stay healthy, and it’s way too early to know what impact his arrival will have on Cleveland coach Mike Brown‘s offense or the Cavs’ chemistry — or whether he and James, who have been friends for several years, can coexist.
Ferry said he isn’t worried about there being any kind of personality clash between the megastars.
‘They both badly want to win,’ Ferry said. ‘Our team and organization want to win. With that leading it, everything else is going to work out.’
O’Neal is coming off an All-Star season with the Suns, averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds in 75 games, but there were times he clogged Phoenix’s high-powered offense under coaches Mike D’Antoni, Terry Porter and Alvin Gentry. Still, the giant, 325-pounder can be a defensive stopper.
‘He is a force,’ Ferry said. ‘Always has been, still is. He’s a wall around the basket — a tall, long wall. Offensively, he’s going to get double teamed. He’s a good passer, a great receiver and he’s a smart basketball player and he’s a guy that our guys will respect. I think it’s going to work very well.’
The Shaq experiment failed in Phoenix. The Suns won one playoff game in O’Neal’s season and a half, and this spring the Suns failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Ferry, who said O’Neal’s arrival could push longtime starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas to a backup role, is convinced O’Neal will be able to adjust to Cleveland and vice versa.
‘Phoenix played a different way when they had him. It was a drastic change. We’re more of a half-court team. We play more of the tempo that fits Shaq’s game.’
The Suns got little in return for O’Neal, but the deal gives them financial flexibility in the future. All told, they will save $10 million. For the Cavs, up-front costs are less important than a chance to finally win it all.