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Shaun Powell

With LeBron James leading the Cavs, Shaquille O'Neal (rear) is happy to fit into the background.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

As career winds down, Shaq finds new ways to shine

Posted Dec 31 2009 10:05AM

The superstars are always the last to know they're not superstars anymore. The same enormous pride that made them great is also blamed for keeping them somewhat delusional when their careers enter the sunset.

We've seen it already this season. After major resistance, Allen Iverson finally had to drop a hint to Allen Iverson that it wasn't the same anymore. (Tracy McGrady, however, is still holding out until he gets word from T-Mac.)

And then there's Shaquille O'Neal, who has come to grips with his own mortality here in his 18th season, after hearing it from the Big Aristotle himself that gravity can't help but keep a good 37-year-old man down. Literally, anyway.

Even if someone snuck up behind him and made a loud noise, Shaq probably couldn't jump too high nowadays. Highlights don't lie, and he's not naïve about his physical limitations at this point in his Hall of Fame-bound career. The only time he's guaranteed to really get off the floor is, well, when the game's over.

That's why Shaq hardly makes the same demands with LeBron James that he did with Kobe Bryant.

"We all realize LeBron is going to get 20 or more shots and me, being 37, I have no problem with it," Shaq said. "Nobody wants to see a 37-year-old guy take 20 shots. If I were 27 or 28 I'd have a big problem with it."

He smiled, and for emphasis, repeated himself. "Big problem."

The evolution of Shaq has been an interesting phenomenon to behold as he moved from being a force in L.A., to a somewhat-willing sidekick in Miami, to a square peg trying to fit into a round hole in Phoenix, and finally, to a (very important) role player in Cleveland. He's made peace with his place in the Cavs' big picture, and at the same time, still keeps a sense of pride that allows him to correctly believe he still carries significant value to the Cavs.

"I can help this team get to where it needs to go," he said.

Shaq is getting 10 points and seven rebounds a night, which are numbers that will likely stay consistent through the season. For comparison's sake, think of Wilt with the Lakers in the early-1970s, although Wilt was still a top rebounder then despite a sharp drop in his scoring average.

The Cavaliers are giving up fewer points in the paint than anyone in the league and Shaq is blocking two shots a game.

Yes, a player who once filled up box scores is resigned to doing things that don't show up in them.

"Everybody's wondering if Shaq really makes them better," said Hawks coach Mike Woodson. "Well, I'll take Shaq if they don't want him."

It's unrealistic for anyone -- or even Shaq's ego -- to think his double-doubles will be anything bolder than 14 points and 12 rebounds most nights. With Zydrunas Ilgauskas around to take some of the slack, Shaq's minutes are being carefully rationed and the Cavs aren't making the kind of major demands that he may not be able to meet. It's a wise approach, since Shaq came into the season with almost 48,000 minutes of wear and tear on his body, including playoffs.

So he's at a different stage, one where his biggest contributions often happen when he doesn't have the ball. For example, when teammate Delonte West had personal issues and legal trouble last offseason, he soon found himself being constantly pulled aside by a 7-foot-1, 300-whatever-pound counselor who took particular interest in helping someone in need.

West is taking a low public profile this season, refusing all interviews. But when he learned the topic was Shaq, there were some strong thoughts West wanted to share, that he needed to share.

"This is about Shaq?" he asked.

About Shaq, yes.

"Well then, you need to know something. He's like a big brother for me right now, as far as everything that's going on in my life. Just seeing how he handles things is an inspiration to me. This is someone who has been around the world. He gives me advice every day. He'll lay down and die for you, and that's my type of guy. He's an amazing person, someone I can't even begin to describe. A big influence in my life."

Those are the roles Shaq willingly accepts nowadays: Big brother, mentor, leader and 25 minutes-a-night contributor. Of course, once April comes, his evolution must take another spin, because the Cavs are championship-driven.

His minutes will likely increase then and the expectations, whether reasonable or not, will rise as well. The Cavs need him against Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett. The playoffs will travel through those big men.

"We'll be there," Shaq said. "I never panic. LeBron is like that, I'm like that. As a team we're like that. You don't see panic in our eyes, whether we're down by 20, whatever. The more time we get to know one another, the better off we'll be as the season goes on. That's why I believe in this team."

And why he believes in himself. As with all the great ones, the legs go long before the pride.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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