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The early list for next season's NBA Executive of the Year should include every general manager who doesn't make a serious play for Shaquille O'Neal, because trading for The Big Available is about the worst mistake a GM could make. That's right, a big boo-boo. As in drafting Bryant Reeves. Or signing Jon Koncak.
Go ahead and scream. Call El Hombre a blasphemer. He understands. Shaq is an icon. A brand name. But lost in the hysteria surrounding the impending breakup of the Shaq/Kobe/Phil axis is the undeniable fact that Lakers owner Jerry Buss is making the right decision by choosing seven-to-10 more years of Kobe (unless he's doing 10-to-20 years somewhere else) over two-to-four of Shaq.
Yes, Kobe is selfish, petulant and aloof -- not to mention on trial for rape. He needs the ball too much. He doesn't play nice with others. But he's supremely talented. And he's 25. Shaq is 32. A heavy and heavily worn 32. And that's why his long-term prospects aren't good for Los Angeles -- or any other NBA team. The Big Cholesterol is clearly in the second half of his glorious career, which has already lasted 12 seasons (and an estimated two more if you count playoff games). While the Diesel does have fuel left and is not ready for the junkyard, he doesn't have four more years of high-octane play at his disposal. Not that it hasn't been a great ride. Shaq has been one of the biggest interior forces in NBA history. He's great with the press. He's funny as hell. He never shows up in the police blotter section of the sports page. But four more years? It's a mistake. Here's why:
* Big Money: Shaq is due about $58 million over the next two years. He wants a two-season contract extension after that and isn't interested in taking a pay cut. So, based on his 2005-06 salary of $30 mil, figure on another $60-65 million outlay until 2008. One player in NBA history has been worth that kind of cabbage that late in his career, and we all know who that is.
* Big Change: Only two teams in the NBA run their offenses through a traditional center: the Lakers and Houston. Whichever team gets Shaq will have to switch its focus, because The Big Back to the Basket needs the ball. A lot. That means surrounding him with players who thrive in a halfcourt setting and who excel at feeding the post. They are not found in abundance in today's NBA.
* Big Power Struggle: You don't think Shaq's going to join a new team and play consigliore to someone's Don Corleone, do you? Nope, the Diesel has to be in charge, and that could lead to a war that nobody wants. Whoever ran the locker room before Shaq arrived had better leave town for LA in the deal, or there's going to be some bloodshed.
* Big Deterioration: Shaq is listed at 340 pounds. If he admits to that much, figure that he goes about 360, minimum. Yes, he is big-boned, but that skeleton of his isn't built for 15 years of heavy-duty wear. He has already struggled with injury problems and played just 67 regular-season games in '03-04. At some point, the whole machine is going to scream "NO MAS!" and just stop working. Do you want that two or three years into a $120 million commitment? Didn't think so.
* Big Misfit: Dallas can offer the most attractive package to LA, but adding an aging center who plays little defense and isn't a nightly glass eater to players who have little enthusiasm for "the other end" of the court isn't the best idea. Not that Mavs coach Boris Yeltsin cares. He'll still try to win every game 125-124. As for the Clippers, well, let's just say Shaq is way too smart to play for owner Donald Sterling, no matter how convenient it is. Besides, does anybody want to trade Jack Nicholson for Billy Crystal?
So, there you have it. A team that trades for Shaq is looking at the possibility of some short-run prosperity, but the long-term prospects look shaky. Shaq has been great, but NBA teams would be best-served to let him stay in LA and fight it out with Kobe for two more seasons. That would be the best move of all.
No tears for Tiger
El Hombre isn't one to spend much time writing about (or watching, playing and considering) golf, but the whole Tiger Woods collapse warrants some mention, if only to bridge the gap between diatribes against Bob Knight. Woods' insistence that prosperity is just around the corner smacks of the same self-denial favored by Red Sox fans who think THIS is the year their heroes finally win it all. It's amazing, but in two years Mr. Swoosh has gone from the Greatest Golfer Ever to No. 2 on the PGA popularity charts behind Phil Mickelson, with Ernie Els charging.
Tiger's distance is down. Let's face it, when five-footer Shigeki Maruyama is outdriving you, there's trouble. Perhaps those Nike clubs aren't as good as advertised. They make nice shoes and clothes up there in Oregon (or Southeast Asia), but it seems like they have some problems with titanium and graphite.
What Tiger really needs, of course, is some lessons. And Butch Harmon is more than willing to take complete credit for getting his star pupil back in the majors mix. Of course, telling anyone who will listen that Tiger won't ever win another major unless he comes crawling back to Obi-wan No-bogey isn't the best sales pitch, but everyone has his own style. One thing Tiger definitely doesn't have to do is eighty-six the hot fiancée. If the "she's-ruining-his-game-with-her-smoking-body" theory were true, the entire NBA would be useless every night. Tiger isn't falling apart because he landed Miss Scandinavia 2000-04. He's falling apart because he's playing like Judge Smails.
As a final gesture, el Tigre should definitely dump that horse's backside of a caddy, Steve Williams. Let's hope the next time Williams goes into the gallery to stop a shutterbug -- as he did last week at the U.S. Open -- he comes out with a broken nose and a few less teeth, rather than a Nikon. Can't you see some martial arts expert showing up at the Mrs. Butterworth Open and snapping shots, just to entice Stevie to come on over?
It's a great plan, and it should land Tiger back in the major hunt. Or at least get him some TV time on Sundays.
El Hombre Sez ...
Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton have reportedly turned down invitations to be part of the U.S. Olympic hoops team. The good news is that Emeka Okafor and Carmelo Anthony are in. Looks like we'll have a team of collegians representing America after all. Just don't hire John Thompson to mess it up. ... Devil Rays fever is sweeping the Tampa-St. Pete metroplex. Why, just last week nearly 5,000 people turned out for a game. Since one was season-ticket holder Dick Vitale, at least it sounded like 35,000.
One more for the road
Even if Martina Navratilova loses her second-round match at Wimbledon to Gisela Dulko, her return to winning singles play is refreshing and should be applauded. The 47-year-old, nine-time Wimbledon champ is doing something she loves -- and winning. It's pure inspiration for the over-40 crowd. Meanwhile, former men's champ Michael Stich says Navratilova's win is "terrible for women's tennis." Nice to know such an authority is watching. Now get back to those club tournaments or whatever it is you're doing these days, Michael, and let the pros have the stage.
El Hombre pursues truth and justice in the world of sports from his headquarters in suburban Philadelphia.