Desperately in need of a big man, perhaps the Nuggets should be looking at the biggest big man of them all.
Early last season, I suggested that the Nuggets consider trading Kenyon Martin and his onerous contract to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Shaquille O'Neal (assuming Cleveland would even listen to such a deal). At the time, the readers of this blog all but rioted against me and were resoundingly against such a deal, citing K-Mart's defensive prowess and Shaq's propensity to clog up and slow down games.
While it's true that K-Mart (when healthy) is an able defender and Shaq does indeed slow the game down, I always looked at the deal - as far fetched as it may have been at the time - from a dollars and cents (or is it sense?) perspective: dump K-Mart's contract while/if you can. Of course, K-Mart went nowhere, the Nuggets ultimately went nowhere and instead of having $16.5 million to play with this summer, the Nuggets are on the hook for another year of paying out one of the worst contracts in sports history.
That doesn't mean Shaq isn't worth another look, though. Getting the Diesel to Denver, however, may be an impossibility.
By recently signing Al Harrington, the Nuggets organization is signaling that they haven't yet given up on the current Nuggets roster. A roster that - lest we forget - got within a few bad inbounds plays of the NBA Finals just two seasons ago and managed to win 53 regular season games last season in spite of losing their head coach to cancer. And while the Harrington signing should help the Nuggets stay within range of another 50-win season, no basketball pundit (including this one) seriously thinks that they're championship-contending caliber or even close. They'll need a true center for that.
Before jumping into the why's and why not's for Shaquille O'Neal, I remain resolute that the best move for the Nuggets to make is to ship K-Mart to New Orleans for Emeka Okafor and James Posey. A lineup of Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Nene, Okafor, Harrington, Posey, Arron Afflalo, J.R. Smith, Ty Lawson and Chris Andersen is a championship-contending roster. But if that deal isn't available for whatever reason (and who knows with the Hornets these days...they're in free fall as an organization from the top down), adding Shaq to the mix in the Mile High City doesn't look so bad.
As mentioned when advocating for Shaq's addition last season, even at 38 years old O'Neal still has some game left. This was evident as he just wrapped a decent season for the Cavaliers - a team that won 61 games before LeBron James took a dive in the playoffs - putting up 12.0 ppg on 56.6% shooting to go along with 6.7 rpg and 1.2 bpg while playing a career-low 23 minutes per game. And as the old saying goes: "you can't coach size." He may be the NBA's oldest active player, but for 15 minutes a game I'd rather have a Shaq/Nene/Harrington trio facing off against Gasol/Bynum/Odom or Haywood/Nowitzki/Chandler or Yao/Scola/Miller or Oden/Aldridge/Camby than a Nene/Harrington/Andersen trio doing so.
Beyond on-the-court production, there are a number of intangible benefits to having O'Neal on the roster. First, Shaq would be great for the Nuggets locker room. Shaq may have his faults, but his teammates have always liked him except that #24 guy in Los Angeles. Second, Shaq has embraced every community he's ever been a part of and I just know Denver sports fans and non-sports fans alike will rally around his presence. Third, Shaq has publicly stated that he wants to play two more seasons, with the final - his twentieth - being a Kareem-esque "fairwell tour." Given that a Shaq fairwell tour is sure to be a blast at each destination, why wouldn't an organization want to be a part of this hoopla? Not only would O'Neal get asses in the seats in Denver, but the Nuggets would play to packed houses on the road. And finally, should NBA owners indeed lockout the players in 2011 and play a truncated season, the Nuggets would only be on the hook for half of Shaq's twentieth season. Even at 40 years old, I suspect Shaq can give a good effort for 40-something games.
Thinking about a Nuggets team with Shaq and actually acquiring Shaq are two different issues, however. To acquire the big man (who will come at a price of about $3-4 million per season, minimum) the Nuggets would have to do a sign-and-trade with Cleveland directly or involve a third team to get the deal done. To pull this off, the Nuggets would have to part with some two-player combination of Afflalo, Renaldo Balkman, Coby Karl, Brian Butch,or Anthony Carter plus a future first round pick. Another route would be to part with the mercurial J.R. Smith and his one-year, $6 million contract for O'Neal (after all, O'Neal wants mid-level money in the $6 million range). This may sound insane on the face of it, but if the Nuggets are going to lose J.R. to free agency in 2011 anyway, why not consider dealing him now for a big man?
Considering I've brought up Shaq's name twice in eight months, I admit I'm a sucker for the guy. While I wish Shaq conditioned better and worked harder on his game throughout his career - and believe he cost himself top-five all-time player status by not doing so - I can't help but love the guy. He's been a great ambassador for the sport, a class act with the fans and keeps things interesting and fun wherever he goes. What's not to love about a little kid trapped in a 7'1", 325-pound man's body?
I don't know if it's even within the realm of possibility to bring Shaquille O'Neal to Denver. But I'd be thrilled to see the 7'1", 325-pound O'Neal in a powder blue and gold jersey for a few minutes a game at the Pepsi Center next season.
At the very least, it's worth a few phone calls from the Nuggets inquiring about Shaq's availability.
Photo courtesy of AP: David Zalubowski