Shaq trade won't answer Bron question
While Shaquille O'Neal's arrival in Cleveland alters everything from the Eastern Conference landscape to the NBA schedule (get the feeling we'll be seeing the Cavaliers versus the Lakers on Christmas Day?), there's one four-digit number that won't change: 2010.
The dreaded/anticipated summer of LeBron James' free agency is as nebulous as ever after the trade that brings O'Neal in from Phoenix in exchange for Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, the 46th pick in Thursday's NBA draft and $500,000. Even if the Cavaliers win the championship next year, it doesn't necessarily make them the best team for James in the long term.
By the end of next season, O'Neal will be a 38-year-old free agent. If the Cavs re-sign him to a multiyear contract, he'll be eating up salary cap space while we learn what happens when a guy who's been carrying well more than 300 pounds for his career turns 40.
If the Cavaliers let O'Neal go after one season, they'll have Mo Williams, Delonte West and Daniel Gibson under contract with plenty of salary cap room to bring back James and one of the prime members of the 2010 free-agent class. But what if there isn't as much player movement as everyone anticipates? The best financial option usually is to sign with your current team, and in an era of declining revenues leaguewide, with collective bargaining negotiations expected to result in less player-friendly terms starting in 2011, next summer could go down as the last big cash-grab.
The 2009-10 season could be James' only chance to play with a future Hall of Famer in Cleveland. Everything beyond that is murky -- or risky, if you're James and deciding where to spend the prime of your career.
James is going to have to make some major adjustments next season. O'Neal isn't the type who can just play off another guy. He's at his best when the offense starts with him and runs through him. James hasn't played with someone like that before. He also hasn't played with someone who occupies so much space in the paint, something it took Steve Nash a while to get used to after O'Neal was traded to Phoenix in February 2008.
The Cavaliers will be getting the motivated version of O'Neal, who is entering a contract year and apparently wants to earn another big payday, judging by the way he has been working out and watching what he eats. O'Neal also yearns to get back to the days when he was responsible for taking teams to unprecedented levels. The Orlando Magic made their first NBA Finals with him. The Lakers won three consecutive championships with him. The Miami Heat won their lone championship with him. That pattern ended in Phoenix, where the Suns won exactly one playoff game while he was on the roster.
But O'Neal's legacy is not the main story here. It's about James' future. There has to be a championship in his path somewhere. Will it be this next season in Cleveland? The chances just got better. Will he be there in the years that follow? We're no closer to knowing.
At least Cavs GM Danny Ferry has shown he can make the bold move to bring in another proven star to play with James. The thing is, he might have to do it again in a year just to keep James.
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