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NBA - Shaq's Still the Man

By Rich Levine
Saturday, November 30th, 2002
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Hey, did you hear that Shaq came back the other night? Well, unless you are living under a rock, or actually, not living at all, this should not be of any surprise. In recent days, the return of Shaquille O'Neal has been over-analyzed and over-discussed by the likes of Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, David Aldridge, and Tim Hardaway (well, at least Timmy makes an attempt at an analysis), but in the end, it is plain impossible to explain just how significant his return is to the entire makeup of the NBA.

The season is a month or so old, and while Shaq has been sidelined (only rising periodically to fight with Doug Christie's wife or to make a moronic sound bite), many interesting stories have surfaced. We have had the Mavericks with 14-1 start, the emergence of Yao Ming as something more than a freak show (two weeks ago, he wasn't too far from lacing up the skates for a minor league hockey team), and we have also seen the Sonics surprisingly develop into a Western powerhouse. But does any of this matter anymore?

The answer is no. No player in the NBA's last 25 years, and that includes Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and, dare I say, Larry Bird, has had the type of impact on the game that Shaq does. As far as pure skill goes, sure, Shaq is not in the same league. But when measured by shear impact on one's teammates, opponents, and the game in general, Shaq is far and away at the top of this list.

After the Lakers completed their three-peat last June, sportswriters everywhere had their own takes on what made the Lakers what they were. Some were ready to declare the Zen-master, Lakers coach Phil Jackson, as a man who could take any bunch of NBA players and turn them into champions. Others contended that the maturation and development of Kobe Bryant into the league's premier big-time player was what set the Lakers apart from the rest. Then it was the clutch shooting of Robert Horry, then it was the consistency of Derek Fisher and Brian Shaw, and then it was the dancing of Mark Madsen...

All anyone needed to say was "Shaq is the biggest, strongest, and best basketball player the world has seen since Wilt Chamberlain, and that is why the Lakers win." That would have been enough. Anyone who had the unfortunate experience of watching the Lakers play during the first month of the season needs to agree with me. They were miserable.

Watching a Lakers game over the course of the last few weeks was like watching a fifth-grade basketball team. There is always that one player (usually the coach's son) who is, for whatever reason, more developed than the rest. As a result, he feels the need to do everything. He takes shots he shouldn't, mouths offs to coaches who are too afraid to reprimand him, and goes off on teammates for not being able to find a rhythm in a game that he has hardly let them become part of.

That was Kobe Bryant. Need a better example? Take a look at the Beavers Varsity Basketball team from Teen Wolf. Now substitute the Wolf with Kobe and the Beavers with the Lakers. Get the picture?

I credit assistant coach Tex Winters for stepping up to Kobe earlier this year and calling him "uncoachable," but in the end, that did not have much effect on how the Lakers organization or coach Jackson would deal with Bryant.

After last year, I was one of those fans ready to hand Kobe the title of NBA's greatest player. Words could not explain how impressed I was by his game. He shot, played defense, rebounded, and when all else failed, even passed the ball once or twice. I thought he had changed. I thought "selfish Kobe" was a thing of the past.

Man, was I wrong. Seeing him post over 40 shots this year in a game against Boston may have been the straw that broke this camel's back. Without Shaq in the middle, L.A. was a one-man team, and that one man was not even that impressive. Sure, he scored some points and posted some assists, but he had the ball nearly 100% of the time.

Every single player on this year's Lakers struggled as a result of Shaq's absence. Despite averaging 27.8 points a game, Bryant tried to do too much. He is second in the NBA in shot attempts, many of those forced, and he is sixth in turnovers. The rest of the starting five, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, and Samaki Walker, also struggled as not one of them is shooting over 40% for the season. At the time of Shaq's return, L.A. was 3-9 and everyone was convinced that this was the year the dynasty was going to end.

Maybe Phil Jackson has lost it? Did all the success go to Kobe's head? Has Robert Horry's luck run out? Can Derek Fisher take the pressure? Has Mark Madsen found some rhythm? But then it happened: last Friday night, the "man" returned, and everyone and everything stopped.

The Lakers immediately won two straight games in a convincing manner. Kobe took a total of 29 shots in the two games. He had been averaging 28 each game before. Derek Fisher shot 50% from the field. He had been shooting 36% before Shaq. The Lakers' two opponents, the Bucks and Bulls, shot a combined 38%, while up to that point, Lakers' opponents had been shooting over 42% for the season. Mark Madsen still didn't play. Could this all be a coincidence? Yes, I guess it could be, but let's get serious.

For the first 12 games of the year, every other team in the Western Conference got a chance to get a little bit of a head start on the defending champions. But it doesn't matter anymore. It really doesn't. The Mavericks and Yao Ming will continue to make headlines, but the Lakers will continue to win games. Shaq is going to have to rest now and then. His team may not win the Pacific; they may not even finish in the top four positions in the West. When the Lakers have Shaq, they don't need home court advantage. After two games with their big man, they have all the confidence they need for another title run.

Dallas goes to L.A. on December 6, and there is a chance they will still be undefeated when they take the court at the Staples Center. But as long as Shaq is there, their run will be over. Who on the Mavericks can stop him? Shawn Bradley will block some shots playing help defense and that is about all he is good for. Dirk Nowitzki is great, but he plays D about as well as Jose Canseco. Who does that leave? Eduardo Najera?

The fun is over for every other team in the NBA. Shaq is back. No matter how annoying, outspoken, or uneducated you think he might be, he is the best. And as long as he is healthy, so are the Lakers.

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