Nearly immediately after his Cavaliers were eliminated from the playoffs, Shaquille O’Neal straightforwardly dispelled any rumors that he might retire this year, saying, “I still have 3.7 years left.”
As he prepares to play in his 20th NBA season, is it still worth it for Shaq to put forth that effort for half the year? After all, over the last few seasons, his production has seen a fairly steady decline from his glory days in Los Angeles to his injury-hampered campaign with Cleveland in 2009-2010.
That said, he’s still a capable defender: the Cavaliers were going to look to him as their primary defender for Dwight Howard in the conference finals before their unfortunate exit. Furthermore, despite worsening numbers, he is rather impressive from an efficiency standpoint. His PER was eight hundredths of a point shy of 18 (three above average), and his field-goal percentage (56.5 percent) and per-40-minute lines (20.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists) were not half bad.
Notwithstanding the fairly productive minutes, he is a liability to the teams he plays for. First of all, he demanded the ball way too much for someone with questionable importance to his team’s offensive scheme. His usage rate of 22.8 was over a point higher than that of Brook Lopez, the focal point of a bad Nets offense.
Moreover, he simply doesn’t play enough minutes or games to be a factor, especially as a starter. The Diesel averaged only 23.4 minutes a game with the Cavaliers this year, a six-and-a-half point decrease from the previous year in Phoenix. Furthermore, excluding the anomaly that was 2008-2009, Shaq hasn’t played 60 games in a year since his first season in Miami. By basically promising his team that he is going to miss over 20 games, he puts the franchise in a bad situation when they need to struggle to find effective minutes at the center position.
Aside from his play on the court, though, Shaq will expect to cash in on a lucrative contract based on his past accolades and not what he can offer to his team at present. While he will surely not get a deal resembling anything like his five-year, $100 million contract he signed with Miami, he will be the beneficiary of a higher rate than younger centers at his level of production.
Lingering still is the question of whether he will start for his next team or come off the bench. His current level of health and fitness are better suited for the latter option, as he won’t be expected to put up big minutes on the floor. But how many teams are going to be willing to pay Shaq’s price for a backup center? In addition, this is a guy who has started all his life. In 1170 career regular-season games, the Big Cactus has only come off the bench in 10 of them. Will he be able to cope with a diminished role and importance to his roster, or will he break down like Allen Iverson did when he was faced with that dilemma? If there’s one thing we know about Shaq, it is that his ego is as large as his 7-foot-1, 325-pound frame. I doubt he’ll be able to handle the second-string role.
So Shaq can play for three or more years if he wants to, but he should probably cut his losses. He has already accomplished way more than anyone could hope to in the NBA, so it is best for him to call it quits now before he further tarnishes his sterling résumé.