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Posted: Tuesday June 16, 2009 12:04PM; Updated: Friday June 19, 2009 2:59PM
Scott Howard-Cooper Scott Howard-Cooper >
INSIDE THE NBA

Biggest storylines of NBA summer

Story Highlights

A possible Shaq trade (to Cavs?) is among the biggest storylines of the offseason

NBA finalists Orlando and the Lakers have key free-agent decisions to make

Many middle-class free agents could be squeezed because of the economy

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Shaquille O'Neal, coming off an All-Star season and entering the last year of his deal, could be on the move again this summer.
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The champagne stings the eyes. No getting around that. And it puts a stench in clothes as the locker room turns into a joyous sweatbox of smashed bodies.

And then the winners clean up, go home, and everyone starts over again.

The NBA offseason officially arrived Sunday as one team partied in Orlando and 29 others either began (the Magic) or continued (everyone else) to mount a response. Every team headed into summer confronting at least one major issue -- even the Lakers, and maybe the Lakers as much as anybody because their hard calls come with the microscope that follows a champion.

This is not summer 2010. Nothing is summer 2010 and its LeBronathon of speculation and franchises being affected for years by decisions from the class of free agents, but this is still pretty good stuff to be resolved between now and the start of training camp. Kobe stuff. Shaq stuff. Eastern Conference champions stuff. Franchises deciding between putting another hotel on Marvin Gardens or trying to nurse along the next few months of financial uncertainty.

In winning the title, the Lakers may have forced the call in favor of keeping the roster together. In reaching the Finals, the Magic may have done the same, because suddenly it is much too soon to let this group break apart without seeing where the potential leads. Likewise, in losing in the third round, the team with the MVP and the best record in the regular season, the Cavaliers, dictated that change was necessary.

That is why what happens next takes on major proportions, beyond the usual business of free agents and trades. Because of what has already happened.

A closer look at the storylines that will shape the offseason:

The Cavaliers and their response to losing in the conference finals.

The news has already started to come out: talks that would send Shaquille O'Neal to Cleveland after Orlando forced the Cavs to reconsider their inside game.

O'Neal going anywhere is big. O'Neal going to the team that will count on him to help deliver a title is galactic. The Lakers and Heat did, and both got the prize. The Suns were more trying to jump-start something and got a productive 2008-09 season that increased his trade value but could not save the team.

If not Shaq, the Cavs will be under great pressure to do something. They probably could have had him at the trade deadline, but chose to keep expiring contracts and young players, neither of whom did anything in the playoffs, and Cleveland paid for it. To pass again, with the decreased risk of O'Neal in the final season of his contract, management better have something else lined up.

The Suns and their direction.

O'Neal is not an automatic to be dealt, but he is the likely candidate, ahead of Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Nash. Coming off a season in which he played 75 games, averaged 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds and shot 60.9 percent from the field, and, again, with only 2009-10 left on the books, this is the time to move him. Not specifically to Cleveland. Somewhere, though.

Except that Phoenix could make a major investment to re-sign Nash, 35, at a time when trading the 37-year-old O'Neal would be signaling a transition to the future. Any Shaq deal would likely be for prospects or picks or, as in the Cleveland option, the chance to save big money. Spending heavy to keep some older players in the final stages of their career -- the Suns are already aiming for the return of Grant Hill, 36, on a one-year deal -- while shipping out a credible center with similar AARP qualifications is a mixed message on the direction. Either push to win now or work to reload, not both.

The money -- more intrusion by the real world.

Some free agents will still get a big payday. But others, many of whom have been pointing to this moment for years, anticipating their turn at the pot of gold, are about to get a door slammed in their face.

Players who thought they'd get a jackpot will have to settle for the mid-level exception. Players who thought they'd get the respect of the full mid-level will have to suck it up and take $3.5 million as opposed to $5.5 million. The middle class is about to get squeezed more than ever.

The worldwide financial crisis was a gloomy part of NBA life the entire season. It just has never been part of an offseason like this.

The Timberwolves face a decision on Kevin McHale.

Just because all the coaching vacancies have been filled doesn't mean all the coaching issues have been resolved. Minnesota's new president, David Kahn, is evaluating McHale's tenure on the sideline and has done well to avoid putting himself on a public timetable for an announcement.

It is not a particularly anxious moment in itself; McHale was merely the interim coach, sent down from his former role as personnel boss to replace the fired Randy Wittman. But McHale is one of the greatest homegrown stars in state history, a Hibbing kid and University of Minnesota young man. What's under consideration is McHale's break from the state's NBA team.

The Magic and their latest mad-money moment.

This is not a test of owner Rich DeVos' determination to build a champion, not after the stacks of million-dollar bills that went into signing Rashard Lewis and Mickael Pietrus and re-signing Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson. The commitment is not in doubt.

But Hedo Turkoglu is about to become a free agent with the expectation of joining the Filthy Rich Club. The Magic payroll is already bursting at the seams. It's hard to imagine being able to take on another player at eight figures a year. Except that it's even harder to imagine Orlando losing Turkoglu, an integral part of the roster that won a conference title and had a competitive Finals in defeat.

The Magic are stuck. Another massive salary vs. risking a very good thing. How can they pay him? vs. How can they lose him?

The Lakers have their own predicament.

No negotiations will take place with Kobe Bryant. If he becomes a free agent, it will be with the intention of getting a new contract, not with leaving, a notion that had become obvious before he made it official during the Finals. He'll state a price, the Lakers will agree. End of negotiations.

But Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom are free agents of considerable debate. In an ideal world, L.A. keeps both and returns for the title defense with the core of the roster intact. In the real world, the one where the Lakers are paying the luxury tax and, say, $7 million a year to Odom is actually a $14 million hit for owner Jerry Buss, they could easily have to choose between the two in an interesting call.

Odom is the unique dimension, and teams never like to lose those because they create matchup problems, a 6-foot-10 backup small forward and power forward who handles the ball, rebounds and shoots with range. Ariza, though, is the starting small forward and better defensively and about five-and-a-half years younger. In no small consideration, he's likely to be cheaper, too.

Odom will obviously be taking a pay cut from the $11.4 million of 2008-09. How much of a reduction he is willing to take, based in part on competing offers, is the issue. After the champagne haze lifts, of course. There is no avoiding getting on with the hard decisions, even for the Lakers.

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