- LZ Granderson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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First things first: Shaq ain't going to Atlanta.
That isn't to say the Hawks don't want or need him. According to a source with knowledge of the pseudo negotiations, they're just not willing to pay his asking price. He wants more than the $5.8 million midlevel exception.
He ain't going to San Antonio, the Mavs or the Celtics, either. They've all recently pulled out of the Shaq-stakes.
So it appears the future Hall of Famer has two choices: swallow his pride, or take his ball and go home.
Whatever home means to him.
Shaq apparently wants to play for a team with a title chance, and if he gets that wish, it will be his third stop in as many years. That isn't exactly the kind of ending one might hope to see for a player who at one time was arguably the game's most dominant center. In a relatively short period of time, he's gone from potential game changer to cankerous, ring-chasing journeyman whose years of bridge-burning seem to have caught up with him.
He's handled his free agency this offseason as if he holds all the cards, when actually he's the only one sitting at the table.
He can't go back to the Magic. (The Shaq years there: 1992-96.)
He'd have to eat a lot of crow to rejoin the Lakers. (The Shaq years there: 1996-2004.)
He isn't wanted in Phoenix. (The Shaq years there: 2008-09.)
And most daunting, the Cleveland center LeBron James took with him down to Miami earlier this month, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, was Shaq's backup with the Cavs. Not Shaq. Not that Chris Bosh -- whom Shaq called "the RuPaul of big men" after he dropped 45 on Bosh's Raptors this past spring -- is disappointed in that. And not that Pat Riley -- who feuded with Shaq during his tenure with the Heat and then traded him to Phoenix in February 2008 -- would seriously consider adding him for a second time, anyway.
Keep in mind, even at 38, Shaq finished in the top third in player efficiency rating for centers in John Hollinger's ESPN.com statistical ratings. And on paper, Shaq is a better option against the likes of Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol than Ilgauskas, Jamaal Magloire or Juwan Howard -- the veteran big men Riley signed to round out the Heat's roster.
A number of NBA folks with rings believe Shaq, who went for about 12 and 7 on 57 percent shooting last season, could still help a championship team, albeit in a diminished role.
But as we all know, a diminished role is something Shaq's giant-sized ego doesn't allow him to accept very easily. He's complained about touches his entire career, and last season was no exception. One source referred to him as a "nightmare" in the Cavs' locker room.
Watching Allen Iverson's vagabond search for a team last season was hard, but Shaq's aimless wandering through free agency right now feels more like karma.
For years, Shaq has cultivated a public persona as a loveable giant. He's mastered the art of minimizing knowledge of his selfishness, allowing other guys to take the popularity fall, especially in feuds with Kobe Bryant and Penny Hardaway. He broke plays in Phoenix to pad his own stats, but then we'd read about his incredible philanthropic heart and continue to see him as a team player -- flawed, but still for the team.
This is why, while his on-court numbers drop (his points and rebounds per game last season were career lows), his Q rating remains high -- demonstrated by the $15 million in endorsements he earned over the past year and the announcement of a second season of his reality show, "Shaq Vs." I've always been a Shaq fan, but by insisting on eating up so much of a team's cap space at this stage of his career, even I have to admit he's become the wizard who pulls his own curtain back.
I don't know his personal financial obligations -- he's earned more than $290 million over the course of his career, most in NBA history -- but at this point, it seems as if his salary pursuit is more about his ego than the money. That might have been tolerable when he was breaking down backboards. Now it's just annoying, with a dash of bitter. (I mean dude, c'mon, let Dwight Howard have his "Superman" fun in peace.)
The game's best players -- Kobe, LeBron, Wade -- have all publicly lobbied for their teams to sign specific players this offseason, and none of them mentioned Shaq's name. And it's becoming increasingly clear that the teams that have engaged him this summer are doing so more out of respect for what he has done than what he could do. If he had controlled his tongue and ego more, he might've been able to go out like the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- win a couple more rings as a role player and have a franchise he could call home.
Now he's more akin to Barry Bonds and Terrell Owens, great players who struggle to get back in the game because they can't get their baggage through the front door.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
He's a Hall of Famer. But he's also old and obstructive, and he's burned a lot of his NBA bridges. Shaq's free agency isn't as appealing as his ego makes him think it is.