LeBron James is throwing alley-oop passes to Shaquille O'Neal, who is saying this might be his best team yet. Teammates are calling it destiny. Mike Brown is enjoying the show, and Danny Ferry is doing what every true Cleveland fan is doing.
Let's get one thing out of the way in our analysis of ShaBron -- or LeShaq -- or whatever this tandem for the ages is going to be called. Just because this is Cleveland, home of heartbreak, doesn't mean the union of Shaq & LeBron has to end in catastrophe. Karma doesn't win and lose basketball games. The Drive and The Fumble, last I checked, were decades ago and in a different sport. The Cavs' backup big men are J.J. Hickson and Darnell Jackson, not Jose Mesa.
Nonetheless, this is what we call the honeymoon period. Preseason games don't count, and the final judgment on the Shaq-LeBron marriage won't be delivered until June. Does Shaq make the Cavs better than Orlando, which added Vince Carter, or Boston, which got Kevin Garnett back and added Rasheed Wallace? Do those rooting for the best story -- including TV network executives -- get the ultimate NBA Finals matchup pitting LeBron and Shaq against Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest? If so, better put those postgame news conferences on 60-second delay.
The entertainment value would be off the charts. The question is: Does Shaq have enough left to make it happen?
First, with the understanding that Shaq is a man of many words, let's take aim at his statement Thursday that this Cleveland team is better "on paper" than the three Lakers teams and the Miami team that accounted for his four championships. This gives us insight into an important aspect of Shaq's psyche: how delusional he is after 17 years in the NBA.
I think we can all agree that the Cavs are more talented than the 2005-06 Miami Heat, though Cleveland's formula for winning will be similar: a dominant inside presence (Shaq being Shaq) paired with an unguardable perimeter force (LeBron being Dwyane Wade). Even when he was only 33, Shaq still needed Wade to carry him to the finish line against Dallas in the Finals. At 37, he will need LeBron to do the same. LeBron is equally capable of this, if not more so.
|How much does the 37-year-old Shaquille O'Neal have left in those legs? (Getty Images)|
But the more appropriate discussion focuses on whether Shaq separates the Cavs from Boston and Orlando in the East. I'm not sure he does. Though there are questions about Garnett's right knee and Wallace's sanity, the Celtics have it all: a point guard who can penetrate at will (Rajon Rondo), an immortal 3-point shooter (Ray Allen), and more depth than they had when they beat the Lakers in 2008.
Orlando? NBA general managers have reservations about how engaged Vince Carter will be; in their annual preseason survey, they picked Orlando a distant second to San Antonio among the teams that made the best offseason moves. But you can't ignore how much Carter could contribute to erasing the Magic's biggest weakness. With another elite scorer to pair with Dwight Howard, no longer is Orlando a team that will live and die by the 3-point shot in the postseason.
What will Shaq have to say about all of this? A lot, both with his mouth and with his play. Despite his obvious decline since he last raised a gold-plated trophy in '06, O'Neal was incredibly efficient given how he was used last season. According to Synergy Sports Technology, O'Neal converted an incredible 78 percent of his field-goal attempts as a cutter last season in Phoenix (111 for 142). Though much of that is attributable to Steve Nash, expect more of the same in Cleveland with LeBron making the decisions and the entry passes.
Shaq converted 52 percent (263 for 514) on post-ups in '08-'09, which, for comparison's sake, was better than Tim Duncan's 46 percent (212 for 463). Any way you look at it, Shaq is better than any post player LeBron's had in his career. If nothing else, he'll command attention by reputation alone.
From Day 1, the Cavs will challenge defenses to overload LeBron's driving lanes. In the past, his best play was throwing it to Zydrunas Ilgauskas for an 18-footer or finding Mo Williams for a 3-point shot. Now he can lob it over the defense to Shaq. Pity the basket stanchions.
And pity the Cavs fan. This is shaping up to be one of the most fascinating sports seasons ever in Northeast Ohio. It should be enjoyed and savored, like a Michigan recruiting scandal. But there's so much pressure, so much dread about LeBron leaving in 2010, that I just don't see how anyone can enjoy it.
My only advice is to follow Shaq's lead. Lord knows he'll find a way.