- The Washington Times - Friday, November 22, 2002

Shaquille O'Neal is looking to be on the floor with the Lakers tonight, no Zen, incense or pet rocks about it.
His return comes amid a 3-9 record and an unexpected sense of urgency.
The NBA is upside down at the moment, the Sonics in first place in the Pacific Division, the Lakers in last place.
This is not the world according to O'Neal, who is at least a couple of clicks up from the second-best player in the NBA, whomever it is, maybe Kobe Bryant, maybe Tim Duncan, maybe Dirk Nowitzki.
The debate, if there was one, has been eliminated by the unsteady gait of the three-time champions. The Lakers have been just another NBA team in O'Neal's absence, and that is giving their bout of anemia the benefit of the doubt.
As obvious as O'Neal is, he has not been obvious enough. Duncan was the MVP of the NBA last season, Allen Iverson the MVP in 2001, and O'Neal the MVP in 2000, the only time he has earned his full due.
The NBA has come to be about one man and the condition of the man's big toe on his right foot. So goes the big toe, so go the Lakers. The rest of the NBA goes through the big toe, if the rest of the NBA is in the mood.
The Kings pretend to have a deep passion, so long as Vlade Divac is able to maintain his flopping ability in O'Neal's vicinity and someone other than Chris Webber is willing to take the big shots.
The Spurs are usually relevant until the spring, their signal to go into the fetal position.
The Mavericks have created a buzz around the NBA with their impressive start and sudden desire to be as active on defense as offense. The activity has been enhanced by the astonishing liveliness of the former dead man named Shawn Bradley and Don Nelson's increasing fascination with the zone defense. This is as nice as it goes in the regular season, and nicely distinct from the postseason.
O'Neal is unmoved by the details. He is the unmovable one, after all.
His unyieldingness is only part of it after it was most of it during his days in Orlando.
O'Neal has evolved considerably in his 11 seasons in the NBA, the last seven in Los Angeles. He has the skill, footwork and vision to complement his massiveness, plus the temperament to ignore the forearm growing out of his back and the tendency of officials to take pity on the opposition at times.
O'Neal also developed something of a shooting rhythm on the free throw line in the playoffs last spring, as .649 percent qualifies as a rhythm in his case. That place on the floor long has been his curse, absurdly so, the premise behind the hack-a-Shaq strategy.
O'Neal is the Wilt Chamberlain of his time, as far as their physically imposing natures go. Further comparison between the two is unfair because of their two-generation gap. O'Neal is not apt to average 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds in a season, as Chamberlain once did. He also is not apt to resort to an ugly-looking finger roll from 12 feet, as Chamberlain often did. Different time. Different game.
O'Neal has adapted to the future of the NBA with the techniques of the past. He is a genuine center, one of the few, an old-school type in a video-driven marketplace who resists the crowd-pleasing maneuvers on the perimeter favored by more and more 7-footers.
O'Neal is not likely to add the pull-up 17-footer to his package this season, even if it would cure Divac's persistent inner-ear infection and loss of balance around the purple and gold.
O'Neal's absence probably has been good for the Lakers, specifically Bryant, the high-wire artist who sometimes has an urge to fly solo, the percentages be darned. The alliance between the two, once shaky, then accepting, is bound to be sturdier. The two need each other, as always, the need greater for Bryant than O'Neal.
It is O'Neal's team. It is his league.
You can tell by the 3-9 record and the ever-wobbly Divac.
O'Neal is warming up, and Divac is practicing his pratfalls.
You know the strategy of Rick Adelman in Sacramento. If you can't beat O'Neal, you fall down in his presence and whine to the officials. You then whine after the game, you whine in the offseason, you whine in the preseason and you whine, whine, whine.
That is a testament to O'Neal.


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