— The Shaquille O’Neal era debuts Tuesday night at The Q, but nobody, even Shaq, can be sure what it portends for the Cavaliers.
After a trade with the Suns, he arrived here in early summer with a big smile and big promises. Shaq said he was willing to play the enforcer’s role — to be the man whose task it was to ensure nobody messed with LeBron James.
Shaq would be LeBron's sidekick.
The Cavs had tried to find complements the past couple of seasons. They brought in Donyell Marshall and Larry Hughes a few years ago, and Lorenzen Wright came here last season.
All are gone now.
They brought in Mo Williams and Delonte West last season. They remain, serving as an able supporting cast for the player that David Stern dared to suggest might be a better talent than Michael Jordan.
Stern’s high praise seems premature, if not downright blasphemous. For Jordan won more than a handful of championship rings. LeBron, well ... he has none.
But that has less to do with LeBron and more to do with his waiting for the Cavs to find him a dependable Scottie Pippen. They are counting on Shaq to play that part, too — to be Reggie Wayne to LeBron’s Peyton Manning.
Is that asking too much of Shaq?
Without a doubt, he will be an upgrade over the plodding Zdrunas Ilgauskas in the middle, which is faint praise. Ilgauskas might have a hard time beating Bill Russell up the floor, and Russell’s 75.
Shaq’s no young man, either, though he’s a lot younger than Russell. Age isn’t but a number, Satchel Paige used to say. It’s what you can do, no matter what the number next to your age reads.
That’s the question about Shaq: What can he still do?
He has a lot of miles on his tires, and a man of his age doesn’t have the wheels to run the court like a gazelle. Up-tempo basketball is what LeBron favors, and he might not have the patience to wait for Shaq to settle into the paint.
Running the floor isn't one of Shaq’s strengths these days. What is his strength is his ability to dominate inside, giving LeBron someone who can occupy Magic star Dwight Howard and push around Celtics centers Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace.
That’ll be the difference in these Cavaliers. They should be a stronger team on defense, a point of emphasis with Cavs coach Mike Brown. Yet as much as he preaches tough defense, Brown knows the Cavs have to score, and scoring is what LeBron does best.
He’s an unstoppable force inside and out, but he’s no one-man team. No player ever has been in the NBA, including Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird.
Shaq was once as close to that one-man team as anybody who ever played the game. Those days are in his past. He’s still good; he’s not great anymore.
In LeBron’s mind, greatness would be nice, if it were possible. It’s not, so the Cavaliers and LeBron will have to settle for good — or at least better than Ilgauskas — if they hope to win an NBA championship.