SHAQUILLE O'NEAL just loves his young Heat teammate Dwyane Wade, who has leaped not only to superstardom in two seasons but also to PEOPLE's 50 Most Beautiful list. We know this because O'Neal tells us so at every opportunity, and, anyway, what's not to love about a charismatic and humble guard who can pour in 25 a night without cutting into your shots?
Though O'Neal rarely raves about Miami power forward Udonis Haslem, it can safely be assumed that he loves this quiet young rebounding whiz, too. Haslem does not demand the ball in the low post, is active on defense and generally stays out of Shaq's way unless they happen to be pursuing the same board.
Shaq also loves new Heat point guard Jason Williams, his off-season homey in Orlando and an unabashed Shaq fan. That relationship will flourish depending on how frequently White Chocolate feeds the Diesel in the low post.
Which brings us to O'Neal and 29-year-old forward Antoine Walker, who was acquired from the Boston Celtics over the summer in a trade to do ... what exactly? Plant himself in the lane, which is Shaq-rosanct territory? Launch a hail of three-point shots just when the Big Postman has finished carving out space with his ample posterior? Seize control of the offense after O'Neal has begun training his guards in the fundamentals of see- Shaq-first?
This it not to say that Walker isn't a fine player. In fact, in this age of specialization the Kentucky product is a 6'9", 245-pound throwback who scores (19.8 points per game over nine seasons), rebounds (8.7), passes (4.1 assists) and makes steals (1.39). Heat president Pat Riley is not exaggerating when he says, " Antoine Walker is one of the very best multifaceted, versatile players in this game." But that doesn't necessarily mean that Riley is correct on this score: "[Antoine] is in his prime, and I think he will [perform] brilliantly with Shaquille, Dwyane and the rest of the team." Indeed, all of Walker's stats, with the possible exception of the rebounds, present potential trouble for a team that came within one game of reaching the 2005 Finals.
Walker will want to maintain his scoring numbers, usually by launching ill-advised three-pointers: Over the last five years he has taken an average of 495 three-pointers per season, more than anyone else in the NBA. Alas, Shaq isn't crazy about chasing down the crazy caroms that result from errant treys.
Walker won't want to lose his rep as a big man who sees the floor like a point guard, sometimes by moving to point forward. Alas, Shaq would like the quarterbacking to be performed by J-Will and, when, necessary, D-Wade, thank you very much.
Walker loves to sneak into the passing lanes to get his steals. Alas, Shaq, for whom mobility is an ever-increasing issue, needs to play alongside by-the-book, stay-in-front-of-your-man defenders.
Shaq is also most comfortable when a teammate isn't competing with him for the spotlight. It's unlikely that Walker will challenge O'Neal for the role of Big Paterfamilias, but Walker's skills and style (the capricious threes, the flashy passes that sometimes catch both opponents and teammates off-guard, the head fakes and body torques that define his post-up game) stamp him as a player craving attention. And Toine does not have the personality of Wade, who willingly--even gratefully--cedes the spotlight to Shaq.
Walker has said most of the right things about sublimating his offensive game. "In past years I had to come in and score 20 to 25 points a night for my team to win," Walker says. "Now I don't have to worry about that. I can just come in and play ball. Whatever the night calls for us to do to win, I just want to do." He adds, "I know it's Shaq first, Wade second, and I hopefully can be that third option."