- The Washington Times - Monday, June 15, 2009

Shaquille O’Neal would be the splashy addition that lifts LeBron James and the Cavaliers to an NBA championship.

O’Neal would be the piece that bolsters the Cavaliers around the basket and eases the defensive attention on James. He would be to the Cavaliers what Kevin Garnett was to the Celtics last season.

The inability of the Cavaliers and Suns to broker this deal before the trading deadline in February stalled both franchises.

Now the two are talking anew after the Cavaliers had no counter to Dwight Howard in the Eastern Conference finals, and the celebrated trio of O’Neal, Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire failed to lead the Suns into the playoffs.

O’Neal never was a good fit with the Suns, accustomed to improvising on the run. The attempt to merge the two styles - O’Neal’s dominance in halfcourt sets and Nash’s pick-and-probe forays - never came about in a productive fashion.

Now O’Neal is destined to be shipped out of Phoenix to a team with championship aspirations. A potential championship is the only dynamic that would persuade a team to swallow O’Neal’s $20 million salary.

The Cavaliers fit the profile and not just because they were one of the championship favorites going into the playoffs. They have the spare pieces to make the salary-cap numbers work, starting with the $14 million Ben Wallace is set to earn next season.

Wallace has expressed an interest in retirement, which would not dissuade Steve Kerr from cutting a deal. This potential deal is not about the Suns endeavoring to make an upgrade. This is about the Suns looking to cut costs.

The 37-year-old O’Neal has shown he still has considerable value after averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds in 75 games, the most he has played in nine seasons. O’Neal would balance the Cavaliers with his low-post presence, which is beyond the capacity of Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

The pairing of James and O’Neal would have the hint of being seamless. The Cavaliers already prefer the halfcourt sets that complement O’Neal. The only difference is that James finally would have a genuine alternative in the low post.

The tendency of Ilgauskas is to drift outside and take spot-up jumpers. Anderson Varejao is a willing back-to-the-basket threat but lacks the skill set and a signature move to be a consistent option.

Wallace appeared in only 56 games after both breaking a leg and spraining a knee. He became a shell of his former self, a four-time defensive player of the year lacking in energy and lift. His principal value is the expiring contract.

The pressure is on Danny Ferry to make a deal, what with James set to become a free agent in 2010. Part of the evaluation process before James will be whether he thinks he can win a championship in Cleveland.

The addition of O’Neal, ending in a championship or not, would at least underline the commitment of Ferry and management.

With the Cavaliers winning a franchise-record 66 games in the regular season, it became fashionable to overplay Ferry’s free agent signing of Mo Williams last summer. The force who is Howard exposed the conventional wisdom in the playoffs.

The potential rub, if there is one, would be O’Neal’s ability to hold his ego in check. James, in becoming the top marketing star of the NBA, is pushing the game forward in a way Kobe Bryant could not. He is the true successor to Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan.

O’Neal would have to accept the pecking order; he would have to accept that the city and team belong to James.

If he could adapt to an environment of Witnesses, he could dream of another championship run.

Imagine this compelling scenario next June - an NBA Finals of O’Neal and James going against Bryant and Phil Jackson.

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