Only the exceptional, contradictory, all-encompassing persona that is Shaquille O'Neal could make a move that isn't about money but contains a notable lesson in NBA economics.
What does it say when Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal made a combined $43 million last season and both can be had by the Celtics for a total of just over $7 million for 2010-11?
"Market correction," one team executive labeled it.
It's not the amount spent this summer that suggests the current system is broken as much as the salaries doled out last season to players who no longer were worth it, led by Tracy McGrady's $23.2 million. In the current free-agent marketplace we've seen how much players are valued for their current worth. But one of the biggest problems the NBA faces is that owners are forced to pay based on previous performances, often for previous teams (in the case of both O'Neals last season, for example). So what to do about it?
One idea I heard that keeps salaries in line with current value but doesn't abolish the players' union's sacred guaranteed contracts would be to adjust the final years of long-term contracts based on statistics. If a player's averages are higher than what they were at the time he signed the contract, his pay goes up in the latter years. If they are lower, then his pay goes down. It provides both incentive for players and some protection for the teams.
And if money isn't the primary motivation there will always be options for players. We've seen it with everyone from superstars such as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to role players such as Mike Miller and Matt Barnes. Now we're seeing it from Shaquille O'Neal, who suddenly finds himself closer to Miller and Barnes than James and Wade in both status and salary.
If you selectively filter the numerous statements Shaq has made over the years, then his joining the Boston Celtics actually makes sense. No, it doesn't jibe with his dubious claims that he'd be out of the NBA by the time he was in his early 30s, either sitting in a media analyst's chair or serving as the sheriff of some small county. But it does fit his oft-repeated statements that he needed to add to his ring collection. As he said numerous times over the years, including upon his arrival in Phoenix, "I need five and six."
"Imagine a man taking his son to the Hall of Fame or a stadium," O'Neal said at his introductory news conference when he joined the Suns two years ago. "'Who has the most rings in the NBA?' He's going to say Bill Russell has 11, and then the [breadth] of a pattern changes. He has 11, Michael Jordan has six, on and on. So I always want to be in the same [breadth] of a pattern as Jordan or Magic. Nobody is going to surpass Bill Russell I don't think. So, 'Bill Russell has 11, but there's this other guy named Shaq -- he has six. Then Magic has [five], then Jordan has six.'"
Teams that could make that conversation a reality were limited. His options were further restricted by his own personal history of clashing with another superstar and trashing the owner (Lakers), tearing down the management and medical staff (Miami), or jilting the city once before (Magic), taking those franchises out of play. Other up-and-comers, such as the Thunder, aren't interested in a mercenary player who won't be part of the long-term plan.
It's also an acknowledgement that his presence alone doesn't transform a team into a championship contender anymore. His addition to a team that came within minutes of winning a championship last season doesn't even alter the odds.
As Tony Sinisi of the oddsmaking group Las Vegas Sports Consultants said, the effect of O'Neal going to Boston "would be a flat-liner. It gives them a presence in the middle; he's an influence that wouldn't affect the future book odds in our world."
Shaq has more to gain from this endeavor than the Celtics do. The Celtics are the ones who reached the NBA Finals last season, beating O'Neal and the Cleveland Cavaliers along the way. He's the one who's joining 'em. The irony is this is strictly about playing basketball. Can't say this is about money or market, the accusations lobbed at O'Neal when he left Orlando to join the Lakers in Hollywood.
This makes the cycle of his career complete. There are those who thought he wasn't focused enough on basketball at a young age, just as there will be those who consider this cold, blatant pursuit of a championship unbecoming. I always thought that the onetime criticism of Shaq's desire to be a basketball player/movie star/rapper was overblown, something that didn't take into account the younger generation's ability to multitask, and an idea born out of an ignorance of hip-hop, which wasn't as pervasive throughout mainstream culture then as it is now. The backlash wouldn't have been so bad if O'Neal had spent his summers performing Shakespeare in Central Park or playing classical music. (For a comparison, note the approving tone used to describe David Robinson playing the saxophone and piano in this Sports Illustrated story.)
These days it's en vogue to jeer a bald-faced ring reach (ask LeBron) even though we've heard for the past 40 years that the only thing that matters is winning championships (ask Patrick Ewing). In this case there's absolutely nothing else to be gained here.
It's not about lifestyle -- after playing in Orlando, Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix the self-proclaimed "tropical black man" has gone through almost all of the warm-weather locales in the NBA.
It's not about image. He doesn't arrive to a hero's reception in Boston, and it will do nothing for him elsewhere, particularly in L.A. now that the final chapter of his career will play out in Celtic green, which has Lakers fans feeling like Ari in "Entourage" when he learned Lizzie had left his firm and teamed up with Amanda.
And it's not about the finances. By the time he pays his agent fees, files his tax returns (one of my favorite Shaq quotes: "Who the hell is FICA? When I meet him, I'm going to punch him in the face") and buys a home in Boston he could end up losing money on the whole deal.
The entire experience this summer has already stripped away pride for someone who used to consider himself above the physical laws of this planet. Shaq has been forced to adhere to the most stringent rules of the NBA's salary cap this summer, an indication that at 38 he's certainly bound by the diminishing effects of time.