Posted 3:40 p.m., ET, July 14
As the old saying goes, those who ignore history's mistakes are doomed to repeat them. Or something like that.
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The Lakers just gave away one of the 10 best players of all-time. He has two Hall of Fame years left in him, maybe three, maybe four. It all depends on where he ranks on the Vengeance Scale. We'll get to that in a second. They're getting a borderline All-Star (Lamar Odom) in return, as well as an up-and-coming role player (Caron Butler) and an overpaid rebounder (Brian Grant) with one of the worst contracts of the past 10 years. Oh, and they're getting a No. 1, which gives them the inside track on the 27th best rookie in next year's draft.
That's the whole trade. That's it. That's what Shaq was worth.We've been here before. In 1992, Philly made the EXACT SAME MISTAKE with a disgruntled Sir Charles, swapping him for 40 cents on the dollar (Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry). In 1982, Houston traded Moses to Philly for Caldwell Jones and a piddling No. 1. In 1975, Milwaukee traded Kareem for Brian Winters, Junior Bridgeman, Laverne and Shirley. In the 1960's, even Wilt was freaking traded . . . twice. Every one of those guys ended up playing in the Finals within two years of said trade. You can look it up. During that time frame, only one franchise held strong with an unhappy superstar: the Rockets with Hakeem. They shopped him around, couldn't secure equal value, worked everything out with him and ended up winning consecutive titles in '94 and '95.
(And yes, there's a reason I only used first names for the guys in the preceding paragraph. They earned the right to be mentioned on a first-name basis. And that's a good rule of thumb, for any team in any sport -- you probably don't want to lose someone who can carry off a single name. Call it the One-Name Litmus Test.)Unless you're getting two legitimate All-Stars in return, you can't trade a dominant player with something left in the tank. You just can't. If you're sending them from a bad situation to a good one, that's even dumber. And if you're sending them away with a chip on their shoulder, you just clinched the gold medal in the Dumb Olympics. A few weeks ago, I compared Shaq's recent ordeal to the time when Red Sox GM Dan Duquette decided that Roger Clemens was in the "twilight of his career." Clemens reacted like a spurned girlfriend, getting himself into impeccable shape and winning two straight Cy Youngs in Toronto. When I was considerably more bitter about this turn of events, I compared the experience to dumping your girlfriend, then watching her hire a personal trainer, shed 20 pounds, get breast implants and join the cast of "Baywatch." Now it makes more sense. Clearly, Clemens wasn't properly motivated during those last few years in Boston, despite being the highest-paid pitcher in the sport. For whatever reason, that dense hick needed an extra kick in the butt. Something Duquette unknowingly provided. You could say the same about Shaq. He did everything he ever wanted: Made tons of money, won three straight titles, cemented his status as one of the dominant players in history. What else was left? He hated playing with Kobe, hated the constant punishment underneath, hated how referees called the game differently for him (simply because they had no other choice). He suffered an endless array of nagging health problems, many of them directly related to his poor conditioning. Somewhere along the line, Shaq decided to take summers off and play himself into shape during the season. You can get away with that in your 20s. Not in your 30s. In fact, if you watch the 1993 All-Star Game on Classic some time, you'll see someone who looks like Shaq's younger, skinnier brother playing center for the East: a 7-foot-1, 308-pound monster with eight-percent body fat. Over the next decade, he probably packed on another 75 pounds -- most of it inevitable, some of it avoidable. Bigger Fatter Shaq still dominated games, but not consistently, as he grew tired of fighting Kobe for control of the team. His last hurrah occured in Game 4 of the Finals, when Shaq threw up a heroic 36-20 against the Pistons, a remarkable effort against a superior team. After the game, Phil Jackson sounded like a coach discussing a legendary player past his prime, bemoaning how the Lakers wasted such a singular performance by their star center. Reading between the lines, Jackson was insinuating that it couldn't happen twice in the same week. And he was right.
So that's where we were with Shaq: Banged-up, exhausted, satisfied. A superstar ready for the next phase of his career.And if Kobe didn't turn the last 36 months into an extended season of "The Real World: Hollywood," Shaq would have settled into the old "David Robinson after Duncan came aboard" role -- happy to step aside, happy to contribute his 19-11 every night, happy to collect his eight-figure paycheck, always ready to step out of the phone booth with the Superman cape on for emergency duty. Kobe had other ideas. Just like Johnny Sack, he wanted to run his own family. He wanted to step out of the shadows of Shaq and Jackson. He didn't want to share the credit anymore. So he organized a palace coup. (Big mistake, by the way. When they produce a "Behind the Music" special about him years from now, they will re-hash everything you just read, and the narrator will say, "What Kobe didn't know was that it would all come crashing down." You think Magic would have won titles in '85, '87 and '88 if he pushed an aging Kareem out of town? Please. Unless your initials are "MJ," you need the big guy. You ALWAYS need the big guy. Kobe should have known this.)
Hey, nobody wanted to see Shaq and Kobe part ways more than me -- partly because they were so dysfunctional to watch, partly because it makes the league roughly 432.5 percent more fun to follow with them on separate teams -- but I always thought the Lakers would secure something close to equal value. Instead, Dallas held strong; they wouldn't give up Nowitzki, the German Bob McAdoo. Sacramento wouldn't include Peja Stojakovic in any potential deal, and you can't blame them -- he's been a crucial part of those Kings teams that choke every spring. Indiana refused to dangle Jermaine O'Neal, who's a full notch below KG and Duncan (the Kilmer to their Cruise & Hanks).This was absolute madness. What were these teams thinking? This was Shaq! Still in his prime! A potentially ticked-off, ready-to-destroy-everybody Shaq!!!! I mean, isn't the point of having an NBA team to win the title? Why lock into winning 55 games a year and losing every May? Why even have a team then? If I were a Dallas fan right now, and the Mavs allowed Nash to leave after Cuban overpaid everyone else on the roster by 50 percent, then they refused to trade Nowitzki and Walker for Angry Shaq, I'm not sure what I would do. Angry Shaq, Jamison, Nash, Finley, Daniels, Howard and Najera . . . that team wins the title! It wins the freaking title! There's no question about it! Isn't that the whole point of having a team?!?!?! Faced with a dwindling market, desperate to appease young Kobe before he skipped over to the Clips -- which could still happen -- the Lakers panicked and placed Shaq in virtual escrow. Now that the Miami deal has gone down, everybody wins. Shaq gets a fresh start. Kobe gets his own team. Indiana, Sacramento and Dallas keep their franchise players, plus their owners won't have to worry about splurging for championship rings. The NBA gets a marketable franchise in the Heat, a guaranteed sellout across the country. Miami gets a championship contender out of nowhere. And we get the 15-percent possibility of a Shaq-Kobe Finals, which would dwarf just about everything that's happened since Magic and Michael in '91. Best of all, the world gets to find out about Dwyane Wade, one of the rare guards of the past 25 years, someone prudent enough to appreciate Shaq in ways that Kobe and Penny simply couldn't stomach. Wade doesn't care about being The Man; the dude just wants to win. He will tailor his game for Shaq, involve him every step of the way, stroke his ego . . . and quietly take over for him at crunch-time. As one of the 19 remaining NBA diehards, I'm legitimately ecstatic about this. What a development.
And then there's Angry Shaq. He needed this to happen. Honestly, he hasn't given a crap about basketball for four years, since they won that second title and crushed the Sixers. After that happened, Satiated Shaq stuck around and kept playing, knowing that he could accomplish more on cruise control than just about every other player in the league. I don't think it was a malicious act on his part. It was his version of MJ scurrying off to hit baseballs for two years.Maybe we were insulted as basketball fans, but this was also the one quality that made him stand out over everyone else: This is a good guy. He takes care of his family, looks out for his friends, never stops having fun. He dabbles in movies, music, TV, even comedy roasts. He figured out how to handle the media early in his career -- mumble through your answers, use intimidation when necessary; and eventually, everyone will leave you alone. I think he's one of the smartest athletes in any sport. Seriously. Who leads a better life than him? What team athlete makes more money than him? Who balanced the characters of Public Superstar and Private Superstar more brilliantly than him? We don't know ANYTHING about him, yet we feel like we do. And he likes it that way. Which made it especially ironic that, for years and years, Shaq wore the "black hat" and Kobe wore the "white hat" on the Lakers. To the general public, Shaq was just a big mumbling monster, a physical freak with no discernible basketball skills, someone who couldn't even make a damn free throw. Casual fans (and Lakers fans, which is basically the same thing) gravitated towards Kobe, partly because he reminded them of a young MJ, partly because he seemed like such a decent guy. Nobody realized that Kobe was an impossible prima donna behind the scenes, a brooding loner consumed with basketball and nothing else, someone lacking the requisite social skills to get along with teammates on even a rudimentary level.
We reward these qualities because, from what we were seeing, Kobe played hard every night. Kobe seemed to care. Kobe answered questions. Kobe had a nice smile. Kobe came through in the clutch. Everything came too easy to Shaq, so we resented him the same way that parents resent one of those mutant 12-year-olds who seem too big for Little League. In retrospect, we were ignoring one of the dominant stretches by any athlete in the history of sports. Look up his stats some time. They're unbelievable. Respected basketball statistician Elliott Kalb even wrote a book last year arguing that Shaq is the greatest player ever, even better than Jordan and Wilt.But he still needed Kobe. As it turned out, Kobe was the best thing that ever happened to Shaq . . . twice. If Shaq has a weakness, it's that you can't feed him the ball exclusively at crunch-time, only because other teams will foul him and he might miss one or both free throws. Once Kobe matured, Shaq's one weakness became irrelevant. Kobe simply took over at crunch-time. Could Shaq have won three straight titles with any other teammate at the time? Probably not. That was Best Thing Ever No. 1. As for Best Thing No. 2, Kobe's petulance this summer could inadvertently salvage Shaq's career, the same way Magic's emergence invigorated Kareem in the early '80's, or Red Auerbach's decision to make Russell a player-coach breathed an extra three years of life into Russell's career. After a transcendent player rattles through the checklist of Transcendent Player Accomplishments -- MVPs, Titles, Alpha Dog Status, Richest Guy In the League, Most Endorsements, and so on -- there's only so many ways you can keep motivating yourself. This is where the Vengeance Scale comes in.
Now . . .Deep down, I think Shaq is much more competitive than he lets on. I think he still believes that he's the best player in basketball, better than Duncan, better than KG, and definitely, definitely, DEFINITELY better than Kobe. I think he's positively apoplectic that the Lakers chose Kobe over him. I think he's insulted that they couldn't do better than "Odom, Grant and Butler." I think he's forming a mental list of players and teams he wants to destroy on a basketball court, a list that includes the Mavericks, Kings, Clippers, Lakers and Pacers; Nowitzki, O'Neal and Brad Miller; and whatever team that gainfully employs Kobe next season, even if it's the Colorado Penal League's Cell Block C All-Stars. I think he keeps hearing this "Shaq's hitting an age where great centers start to decline" stuff and it makes him want to put a fist through a wall. For the first time in years, I think Shaq gets himself in ridiculous shape this summer. There's no other way. He has too much to prove, too many scores to settle. In fact, here's how the Vengeance Scale looks right now, with a "1.0" being Mike Piazza's reaction after Clemens threw the bat at him in the 2000 World Series.
5.0 -- Andre the Giant (after Killer Khan broke his leg)5.5 -- MJ (against Drexler in the '92 Finals) 6.0 -- Roger Clemens (after the Red Sox gave up on him) 6.5 -- Marvin Hagler (in the Hearns fight) 7.0 -- Jimmy Snuka (after Roddy Piper rammed the coconuts in his head) 7.5 -- MJ (after Karl Malone won the '97 MVP Award) 8.0 -- Seagal in "Hard to Kill" (during the "I'm gonna take you to the bank, Trent . . . the blood bank" scene) 8.5 -- Shaq (after finding out that the Lakers were trading him for Odom, Grant and Butler) 9.0 -- Ali and Frazier (in Manila) 9.5 -- Uma Thurman (in "Kill Bill" I and II) 10.0 -- John Rambo in "First Blood 2" (during the "Murdock? I'm coming for you!" scene) That looks about right. Remember, Shaq's favorite movie is "The Warriors," the '70's classic where the top gang leader in New York City (Cyrus) holds a gang summit and tries to organize the first-ever gang revolution. As Cyrus points out, the total number of gang members doubles the number of police officers in the city, which logically means that they can overpower them and take over everything. Apparently, he didn't know about the National Guard, the FBI, the Army and the Marines. Anyway, Cyrus gets assassinated at the gang summit -- one of the most devastating screen deaths ever, right up there with Sonny Corleone and Hooch -- and everyone incorrectly blames the Warriors, an unassuming gang from Coney Island. Now the Warriors have to fight their way back to Coney with every gang in the city gunning for them. Nobody believes they can make it back alive. It's only a matter of time. Well, they make it back to Coney. Alive. (Except for the guy who gets thrown on the subway tracks, as well as the guy who ended up playing Ganz on "48 Hours" and owning the hotel on "North Shore.") They even find the guys who killed Cyrus. At the end of the movie, the leader of the Riffs tells Swan (the Warriors warlord), "You guys are good . . . you guys are real good." Swan stares back at him. Hard. "The best." And he's right. Even if Swan did end up starring in "Xanadu" two years later. Here's the point: This is Shaq's favorite movie. He's probably seen it 600 times. And if you don't think he slipped that DVD in this summer and compared his situation to the Warriors every step of the way, you're crazy. For Shaquille O'Neal, getting back to the top of the mountain is like getting back to Coney. Nobody believes in him. He has to fight his way back. And he's pinning his hopes on that one moment when somebody hands him that NBA trophy next summer, and David Stern tells him, "You guys were good . . . real good," and he can come back with two words: "The best." And yes, I can dig it. Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN The Magazine and Page 2. You can reach his Sports Guy's World site every day on ESPN.com.