Blockbuster: Cavs acquire Shaq from Suns
AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) – One is the King, a reigning MVP who at age 24 needs only a championship to complete his resume. The other is a larger-than-life personality who may be past the prime of his career but remains an undeniable force and hungers for a fifth NBA title.
LeBron and Shaq. Teammates.
The Cleveland Cavaliers executed a monster trade Thursday to unite the superstars, acquiring Shaquille O’Neal from the Phoenix Suns in hopes he can help LeBron James deliver this seemingly sports-cursed city its first major pro championship in 45 years.
The deal creates a tandem that instantly rivals any in sports today and calls to mind some of the great duos in NBA history: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Cousy and Bill Russell, Shaq himself and Kobe Bryant.
More important, if Cleveland’s gamble works and the 37-year-old O’Neal delivers a title, it could keep James around. James is an Akron native, knows Cleveland’s pained sports history and has always maintained he wants to stay in his home state, though there is no guarantee he will sign an extension with the Cavs. Cleveland can offer him one as early as this summer.
But that’s for another day.
Hours before an NBA draft that figured to be overshadowed by the Shaq-to-the-Cavs move, the reality of James playing with O’Neal, a 15-time All-Star, was just sinking in.
“Shaq is an incredible ballplayer and a four-time NBA champion,” James said in a statement sent to The Associated Press. “I have a lot of respect for him and his game. It will be a real honor to play with Shaq as my teammates and I look forward to another great season with the Cavs.”
The Cavs sent center Ben Wallace and swingman Sasha Pavlovic to the Suns, along with a second-round pick in the 2010 draft and $500,000 in cash, for O’Neal, the 7-foot-1 center who won three straight titles from 2000 to 2002 with Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. His fourth title came with Dwyane Wade in Miami in 2006.
“I was elated about the trade because I get to play with one of the greatest players to ever play the game in LeBron James,” O’Neal said during ESPN’s draft telecast. He expects “a lot of fun, a lot of just having a good time and a lot of smiling, and a lot of winning.”
The teams first talked about a deal in February but couldn’t work out an agreement before the deadline, a missed opportunity that cost the Cavaliers in this year’s playoffs when they had no answer inside for Orlando center Dwight Howard in the Eastern Conference finals.
After the Cavaliers were eliminated with a Game 6 loss, a frustrated James stormed off the floor in Orlando without shaking the hands of any Magic players, including Howard, his U.S. Olympic teammate.
Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry and Phoenix GM Steve Kerr, former teammates and close friends, never closed the book on the O’Neal deal and finally reached an agreement early Thursday morning.
Ferry completed the deal because he wants to win a title. Now.
“Our goals are aligned with what our players want, including LeBron, and that’s to win a championship and win it next year,” Ferry said. “We don’t want to be patient.”
The Cavaliers didn’t expect to find immediate help in this year’s draft, and selected raw forward Christian Eyenga from the Republic of Congo with the final pick (No. 30) in the first round. The 20-year-old Eyenga played in Spain last season. Cleveland used the No. 46 pick on North Carolina forward Danny Green, who played more games than anyone in school history.
Cleveland then purchased the No. 57 pick from Phoenix and selected Turkey’s Emir Preldzic, who can play both guard positions and small forward.
For sheer celebrity value, the O’Neal-James tandem is as captivating as any on the sports landscape. And if it works, and lasts, the pairing may one day belong in the same company as some of the all-time combinations: Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice.
For now, the Cavaliers, who came up short this year despite winning 66 regular-season games and their first eight playoff games, are only thinking of unseating the Lakers as champions next June.
O’Neal could be the missing piece. But there’s no guarantee he’ll stay healthy, and it’s way too early to know what impact his arrival will have on Cleveland coach Mike Brown’s offense or the Cavs’ chemistry – or whether he and James, who have been friends for several years, can coexist.
“They both badly want to win,” Ferry said. “Our team and organization want to win. With that leading it, everything else is going to work out.”
O’Neal is coming off an All-Star season with the Suns, averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds in 75 games, but there were times he clogged Phoenix’s high-powered offense under coaches Mike D’Antoni, Terry Porter and Alvin Gentry. Still, the 7-foot-1, 325-pounder can be a defensive stopper.
“He’s a wall around the basket – a tall, long wall,” Ferry said.
The Shaq experiment failed in Phoenix. The Suns won one playoff game in O’Neal’s season and a half, and this spring the Suns failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Ferry, who said O’Neal’s arrival could push Zydrunas Ilgauskas out as a starter, is convinced O’Neal will be able to adjust to Cleveland and vice versa.
“Phoenix played a different way when they had him,” he said. “It was a drastic change. We’re more of a half-court team. We play more of the tempo that fits Shaq’s game.”
The Suns got little in return for O’Neal, but the deal gives them financial flexibility in the future. All told, they will save $10 million.
“Obviously the last few years we’ve had a very high payroll,” Kerr said. “We’ve had a very good team and we’ve made a big, strong push. Clearly the last couple of years we’ve been on the decline, and things have not worked out as well as we had hoped, so now it’s time to adjust.”
The 34-year-old Wallace, who after the season said he may retire, is in the final year of a $14 million deal while the Suns plan to buy out Pavlovic, who has $1.5 million of his $4.95 million contract guaranteed.
For the Cavs, up front costs are less important than a chance to finally win it all.
AP Sports Writer Bob Baum in Phoenix contributed to this report.