BOSTON — There are princes. There are kings. And there are also kingmakers. Tuesday at a news conference in Waltham, the Boston Celtics introduced their newest player, a bow-tie-wearing Shaquille O’Neal, who has accomplished the rare feat of being all three.
Last week, O’Neal agreed to a two-year, veterans’ minimum contract with the Celtics, his sixth NBA team. Many have argued this is an unnecessary final stage in what has already been a long, downward slide for O’Neal. Others will accuse “the Big Shamrock” of signing with Boston solely to help promote his television show, “Shaq Vs.” But joining the C’s is actually his first true attempt to fill a new role in his career: graceful King Emeritus.
O’Neal was basketball royalty right from the start. Before all the nicknames, rap albums and movie appearances, Orlando made O’Neal the top pick of the 1992 NBA Draft. The Magic were entering their fourth season. In the three before O’Neal’s arrival they’d won 70 games … total.
Living up to your billing as the top pick is no easy feat (just ask Greg Oden), but Crown Prince Shaq averaged more than 23 points, nearly 14 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game in his first season and in his second season led Orlando to its first playoff appearance. In 1995 O’Neal and the Magic reached the NBA Finals for the first time, losing to the Houston Rockets. In 1996, Orlando reached the conference semifinals, but then-King Michael Jordan and his Bulls would not be stopped.
Despite his success in Orlando, Prince Shaq figured the regal purple and gold of basketball’s West Coast royalty was a better wardrobe for his ascension to the throne. He arrived in LA and joined the Lakers in the same season as a fresh-out-of-high-school Kobe Bryant. Kobe wasn’t really Kobe yet, and their first three seasons together produced playoff runs, but no appearances in the NBA Finals.
Then, Shaq became King. Beginning in 1999-2000 the Lakers grabbed three titles in a row. In the first two postseason runs, he average more than 30 points and 15 rebounds and 3 assists per game.
That three-year stretch was the first example of Shaq’s unique ability to play the role of both king and kingmaker. The Big Aristotle wore his own crown while placing a replica on Bryant’s head. Kobe had joined basketball’s elite, but make no mistake, at that point in his career, he’d never have gotten there without O’Neal paving the way. Bryant would eventually lead LA on his own, but it took him seven years to get another title.
It’s tough having two kings share power, so O’Neal decided to colonize Miami. His dual role as king and kingmaker continued when he joined Dwyane Wade and the Heat. In his second season in Miami Shaq pulled Wade up onto the throne. To be fair, Wade’s playoff performances were far more dominant in 2006 than Bryant had been in LA to that point, and Shaq’s playoff numbers were down (18.4 points, 9.8 boards), but the kingmaker still did his job. Wade has one title with Shaq and zero without him.
O’Neal was traded to Phoenix in February 2008. Suns leader Steve Nash plays the game at one speed: frenetic. Even in his younger days, Shaq was better in an offense that relied more on a half-court setup. After the end of the following season, the Shaqtus left the desert for Cleveland to join a man who’s a King in name only.
No one expected O’Neal to lead the Cavaliers to their first title singlehandedly. The burden was clearly on LeBron James, but the goal of the acquisition was clear: see if Shaq the Kingmaker was the missing piece of King James’s championship-starved royal court.
Now, Shaq is joining the team that eliminated Cleveland from the 2010 playoffs. The current core of the Celtics already has some nobility in its blood. Boston’s Big Three has one title and this spring they were a fourth-quarter scoring run from having their second in three years.
O’Neal acknowledged Tuesday that Boston is likely to be his last team. When he joins Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo & Co. on the floor, O’Neal won’t be asked to put anyone on his shoulders. Nor will he have to educate his teammates about the keys to winning a title. The Celtics are ruled by committee. Now Shaq’s a member and all he’ll have to do is contribute.