Posted Sep 6 2010 3:36PM - Updated Sep 7 2010 2:01PM
Shaquille O'Neal was big even when he was little -- same as former NFLer William (The Refrigerator) Perry, who once uttered that line -- so he surely knows the big man's credo about picking on someone his own size. His father, Army Sgt. Phillip Harrison, probably was in his ear and in his grill about that like R. Lee Ermey on "Pvt. Pyle" as soon as he glimpsed O'Neal's Marmaduke-sized, pre-school paws.
O'Neal, for the most part, has heeded that advice through his 18 NBA seasons. Lucky for the NBA -- imagine if he hadn't. At 7-foot-1 and 325 pounds or more, a truly nasty Shaq would have left a trail of mayhem and carnage beyond octagons and steel cages.
Which is why it was so unseemly and disappointing when O'Neal decided to bully Mo Williams and the Cleveland Cavaliers at the start of the Labor Day weekend.
At his charity golf tournament Friday in Springfield, La., O'Neal talked with reporters about his recent signing with the Boston Celtics and how he was drawn by what he saw as the Celtics' unselfish play. "I like that they play together and nobody really worries about shots, " O'Neal was quoted in the New Orleans Times Picayune. "When I was with Cleveland, guys who couldn't even play were worried about shots. Why was Mo [Williams] taking 15 shots, and I'm only taking four? If LeBron takes 20 shots, that's cool. So I said, let me get with a good team for the last two years."
Guys who couldn't even play? Ouch. O'Neal might as well have physically crushed Williams, his teammate for one disappointing season in Cleveland, the way he pancaked Rajon Rondo in the paint late in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals this spring, a happier snapshot all around for the Cavs and their fans from the great Shaq gamble of 2009-10.
It could be that O'Neal was responding in kind, and that word had gotten back to him of Williams' own comments on a golf course from earlier in the week. Interviewed at the Cavaliers' youth-fund charity event in Westfield, Ohio, Williams touched again on one of the topics he's been social-media-ing about regularly since LeBron James made his announcement in early July about signing with the Miami Heat.
"I want to look back at my legacy and say, 'I had a great career in Cleveland,' " Williams said last week. "I don't want to say I had a great career in Cleveland, Portland, Chicago and Dallas. You can't have a legacy that way."
OK, Williams never called out O'Neal by name but the Cleveland point guard's point, if it reached him, might have pricked O'Neal, whose burgeoning list of forwarding addresses brings to mind Chris Gatling or Jim Jackson more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or George Mikan.
Still, the big guy was wrong in his facts and wrong in his form on this one.
Williams averaged 12.4 field-goal attempts last season to O'Neal's 8.7, not "15 and four" as Shaq exaggerated. Adjusted for playing time, O'Neal actually shot more often: 13.4 attempts per 36 minutes to Williams' 13.0. Keep in mind that Shaq's stubbornly miserable foul shooting encouraged opponents to turn what would have been several more nightly field-goal attempts into adventurish trips to the line. Williams, a jump shooter with a 90 percent accuracy rate from the foul line the past two seasons, wasn't having shots swapped out for free throws at nearly that rate.
In fact Williams, perhaps more than any other Cavs player, shrank his offensive game to suit the additions of first O'Neal and then Antawn Jamison, as Cleveland tried to boost its firepower and (more important) convince James that he could stay and win long-term with the Cavs. Four years ago with Milwaukee, Williams averaged a career-high 15.4 FGA as the Bucks' second option behind Michael Redd (and first when Redd missed 29 games to injury). He averaged 13.9 in 2007-08, when Cavs GM Danny Ferry liked what he saw enough to trade for Williams that summer. And he averaged 13.4 again the following season, when he at least was a bystander All-Star reserve thanks to Cleveland's 40-11 mark at the break.
O'Neal, despite the grumbling, shot about as often as he did two years ago with Phoenix (13.4 FGA per 36 minutes) and more than he did in 2007-08 splitting time with the Heat and the Suns (11.5). Fact is, back in 2003-04 -- when O'Neal still saw himself as carrying a team to The Finals -- he averaged only a half shot more (13.9) than this season, adjusted for minutes.
Last season, the Cavaliers and coach Mike Brown labored to accommodate O'Neal in the team's attack. O'Neal got "his" well enough, 12.0 points on 56.6 percent shooting, but it came at a different gear, from a drastically different style. When the big man went down with a thumb injury in February for the rest of the regular season, the offense essentially moved on with J.J. Hickson as a quicker, more complementary replacement. Shifting back against Chicago and Boston in the playoffs was difficult, unsuccessful and, within the Cavs' locker room, unpleasant from every angle.
And if Shaq really wants to play the stats game, he can consider this: Cleveland won 66 games in 2008-09, improving by 21 victories in Williams' first season with the club. Last season, with O'Neal in town, the Cavs dropped back to 61 and were put out of the playoffs one round sooner.
O'Neal's shot at Williams and the Cavs lacks class because it shrugs off the responsibility he bore -- and seemed happy to shoulder at the start -- for getting that "ring for the King." About the only public admission that we've gotten from Shaq about the failure to produce was his response in an August New York Times interview to a question about Cleveland's declining fortunes without James and him. "We would have liked to have given them a better ending," O'Neal said.
Convenient, isn't it, how O'Neal can switch so fluidly in his pronouns. When things go wrong, it's all "they," "he" and "me." When he can strain to stay linked to current difference-maker like James, this former difference-maker breaks out the "we."
Look, Shaq's candor in general is great, and he gets the entertainment component of pro sports better than any athlete of his generation (maybe overgets it, given his distracting side ventures). But at 38, with a veteran's minimum contract, having played for more franchises that didn't win titles with him than those that did, he needs to adjust. O'Neal is at the Robert Parish-in-Chicago, Glenn Robinson-in-San Antonio, John Salley-in-L.A. stage of his impact and career. He needs to sound like it.
Come to think of it, maybe Shaq's diminishing stature makes it easier for him to find targets his own size after all.
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