Maybe it was all a matter of expectations. Cleveland expected Shaq to be a star. Boston expected, well, almost nothing. And now Boston gets to enjoy Shaq blowing our expectations to smithereens, while Cleveland gets to enjoy, well, very little.
Don’t think Cleveland expected Shaq to be a star? Read this sentence from an AP report discussing Shaq’s goal to “Win a Ring for the King”:
Acquired last week in a blockbuster trade with the Phoenix Suns, O’Neal was welcomed by a team that believes he can bring this title-thirsty region its first major pro sports crown in 45 years.
Meanwhile, in Boston, when Shaq was acquired in a minor veteran minimum free agent signing, he was welcomed by a team — and a city — that just hoped he wouldn’t fuck things up.
We saw last season in Cleveland, where a disjointed offense was hindered by Shaq’s presence. We saw how the team played far better with Anderson Varejao in the lineup, and so we tempered our hopes. Shaq wasn’t considered a savior when he signed in Boston, or even close. He was just a high-profile backup who once was something special. We expected very little out of Shaq. Some people even thought signing him, for the league minimum, was a bad idea.
But maybe it isn’t just a matter of expectations. Whatever Cleveland’s expected from Shaquille O’Neal last season, their disappointment isn’t entirely explained by Shaq’s failure to be a star. There was also the matter that the Cavaliers were worse — far worse — with Shaq on the floor. 12.3 points per 100 possessions worse. That doesn’t just happen because of expectations. For whatever reason, Shaq’s presence on the floor in Cleveland hurt matters for the Cavs. Big time.
Why? I’m not going to pretend I know. Maybe it was because Mike Brown didn’t know how to incorporate the Big Fella into Cleveland’s offense. As we have seen this year, Shaq is far better as a finisher than when he has to create offense by himself out of the post. Too many post touches make Shaq less valuable. Maybe it was because the Big Fella couldn’t adjust to Cleveland’s defensive schemes. It’s no secret that Shaq isn’t exactly the best pick-and-roll defender in basketball. Maybe the Lebron-Shaq mixture just never gelled. Maybe Delonte West was sleeping with Shaq’s mother. (Kidding, people.) Really, who knows?
What I do know is that most folks blamed Shaq. It was his fault, all his fault, because he clogged the lane. It was his fault, all his fault, because he couldn’t slide his feet swiftly while hedging pick-and-rolls. It was all Shaq’s fault.
Then why is he playing so well for the Celtics? Why was he second on the team in net plus/minus (behind only Rajon Rondo) entering last night’s game against Atlanta? Why is he part of Boston’s most productive five-man unit? Why is he wiping his ass with Al Horford? Why is he fitting in so well, when his time in Cleveland was generally seen as one giant failure?
Shaq said his savior days are over, that he came to Boston so he could take a back seat. Maybe that’s all it took. Maybe Shaq no longer had the ability to succeed in a leading (or semi-leading) role. Maybe he just needed to be the fifth option, just needed to focus on offensive rebounds, putbacks, and easy lay-ins and dunks. Maybe Rondo makes him that much better. Maybe playing around so many stars has rejuvenated Shaq and added springs to those 38-year old legs. Maybe he simply worked out harder this summer. Maybe he heard all the doubters and returned this season with redemption on the mind.
I don’t know. Really, I don’t care. Shaq fits in Boston like a comfortable glove. That’s all that really matters.