- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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After responding to several recent questions about his future with a mock growl, O'Neal told ESPN.com: "You know who needs me, right?" Asked whether he was referring to the Mavericks, O'Neal added: "You write it."
But Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, in response, made it sound Wednesday as though he would prefer to keep his longtime friendship with O'Neal on a mostly Twitter level.
Cuban wouldn't completely rule out a deal for O'Neal this summer, but he likewise offered only limited encouragement when asked before Dallas' crucial 130-101 drubbing of the Utah Jazz whether he plans to keep lobbing headline-grabbing Tweets back and forth with Shaq.
"As long as it's not about basketball," Cuban said.
O'Neal has quietly and publicly lobbied for trades to the Mavericks at various points in his career going all the way back to his time with the Lakers. O'Neal and Cuban are genuine friends, and O'Neal owns property in Dallas and has always liked the area.
The Mavericks have explored the possibility of acquiring O'Neal in recent years, but most of those inquiries were dependent on a long-shot scenario in which they were hoping O'Neal would pursue a contract buyout (first with Miami, then with Phoenix) so they could sign him at reduced terms as a free agent.
Sources with knowledge of the Mavericks' summer plans on Wednesday reiterated recent proclamations by Cuban that the Mavs plan to be aggressive on the trade front. They believe that several yet-to-be-identified established players will be shopped by financially strapped teams, as seen before the Feb. 19 trading deadline, when the likes of New Jersey's Vince Carter, Milwaukee's Richard Jefferson, New Orleans' Tyson Chandler and, of course, O'Neal were made available.
Yet sources indicate that O'Neal, due to make $21 million in 2009-10 in the final year of his contract, would be a second-tier choice for Dallas. Although he could address some long-standing shortcomings for the Mavs -- with his low-post scoring and physical presence as well as an ongoing ability to sell tickets -- they are believed to be looking to inject their Dirk Nowitzki-Jason Kidd-Jason Terry-Josh Howard core with younger legs if possible.
Cuban declined invitations to speculate on specific names that might become available -- amid a growing belief around the league that the Toronto Raptors will at least listen to trade proposals for Dallas native Chris Bosh this summer. But Cuban restated his willingness to be on the league's short list of "buyer" teams open to taking on long-term salary in trades.
"I'll just get another job at Dairy Queen," Cuban joked of taking on more long-term salary at a time when teams are increasingly looking to shed those contracts because of the faltering economy. "Ice cream is still in."
"I still want to win," Cuban added.
He has spoken often this season of keeping star forward Nowitzki for as long as he can. He also would like to find a "Pau Gasol deal" that puts another difference-making sidekick next to Nowitzki, similar to what Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers did in February 2008 by absorbing Gasol's big contract in a deal with the cost-conscious Memphis Grizzlies. The Mavericks were initially among the teams hoping to make a major free-agent score in the summer of 2010 but have apparently reached the conclusion that they could have less competition if they try to upgrade this summer via trades.
"I think we've got the No. 1 trading asset available, and that's money," Cuban said in a recent ESPN Radio interview in Dallas. "It's not so much cap room. It's are you willing to take back money from other teams, particularly in these [tough economic] times?"
The Mavericks are coming off consecutive first-round playoff exits and are still headed for a dreaded first-round matchup with the Lakers as the West's No. 8 seed even after Wednesday's comprehensive win. When pressed Wednesday by a German reporter about his willingness to trade Nowitzki, Cuban insisted: "Dirk will be saying auf wiedersehen to me before I say auf wiedersehen to him."
O'Neal, meanwhile, is bracing to be shopped again this offseason after the Suns -- despite a victory Wednesday night in New Orleans -- were officially eliminated from playoff contention by the Mavericks' victory. O'Neal's statistical resurgence at 37 resulted in a spot on the West roster in the All-Star Game in Phoenix and co-MVP honors with Bryant, but, just days later, the Suns discussed a deal to send O'Neal to Cleveland that fell through on deadline day.
After the Suns spent nearly two full days in Dallas after Sunday's crushing loss to the Mavericks, practicing here Tuesday before traveling to New Orleans, O'Neal acknowledged that he expects to be pinpointed as the chief scapegoat for the Suns' failure to reach the playoffs after the firing at the All-Star break of new coach Terry Porter.
"Of course," O'Neal said. "I always get the blame. I accept that [expletive], though. I understand that."
Said Cuban of an O'Neal trade: "You never say never because it's such a crazy league. But you can say that about any player in the NBA."
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban downplayed speculation that Dallas would try to trade for Shaquille O'Neal.