Weight of the Lakers on Shaq's girth
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

The Lakers' conference semifinal loss to the Spurs is much more than just a bump in the Yellow Brick Road. It signifies nothing less than the absolute, irreparable, and undignified termination of their hopes to win another championship in the foreseeable future.

For sure, the team's talent level next season will be boosted by a gang of free agents. P.J. Brown is one likely possibility, and among the longshots are Gary Payton and maybe the ghost of Scottie Pippen. Karl Malone is doubtful, because the Mailman will certainly deliver himself to some mediocre team where his selfish quest to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring total will be welcomed as a box-office bonanza. Yet, however deeply Jerry Buss is willing to dig into his wallet for new talent, the Lakers' two biggest problems will remain unresolved.

The first of these is Kobe Bryant's continuing on-court immaturity. I've chronicled that trend all season long, and I'm not alone in seeing it. Despite Kobe's words to the contrary when the camera's red eye is blinking at him, numerous coaches and players throughout the league confirm that Kobe is, and always has been, looking out only for himself. The Lakers can only hope that he will have some emotionally-charged epiphany over the summer and discover that the basketball universe does not revolve around him.

Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan
Shaq takes up a lot of space in the paint -- maybe too much.
The second of the Lakers' problems literally is more monumental and even less-easily solved: Shaquille O'Neal's weight.

"When Shaq first came into the league back in 1992," says a veteran NBA coach, "he was built along the lines of a slightly bulkier David Robinson. Around seven-one and 285 pounds. Strong and powerful, but still quick and kind of sleek. These days, Shaq looks and moves like he weighs close to four-hundred pounds."

That estimate is seconded by several current players. But in the absence of a public weighing on a cattle scale, nobody really knows how much poundage The Big Load is really carrying around. Yet the fact that Shaq not only shuns any kind of scale, but totally freezes out any media maven bold enough to bring up the subject of his weight is a strong indication that Shaq is well aware of the problem.

"Shaq's got a Superman tattoo," says one Eastern Conference big man. "He's got a Superman logo on his car, and another one cut into his leather jackets. I think he's made a conscious decision to bulk up and make himself as strong as Superman. He wants players to bounce off of him so that the paint belongs only to him. But we have another name for Shaq: 'Fat Albert.'"

With his size and his skills, Shaq remains the monster of the midway. At the same time, his effectiveness has diminished in direct proportion to the increase of his body mass.

  • In his younger, lighter days, Shaq routinely would jump two or three times in pursuit of an elusive rebound. Lately, he's capable of only a couple multiple-jumps per game. Otherwise, it's one-and-done with the effort.

  • Shaq is so slow off the floor that younger/smaller/bouncier players regularly beat him to the top of his jump and snatch rebounds meant for him.

  • Whereas Shaq's rebounding range used to be three or four body-spaces in every direction, he now rebounds as though he were locked inside a telephone booth.

  • His shot-blocking range is also more limited because he's floor-bound and still gathering himself to jump while too many shots have already been launched in the lane.

  • Shaq's decreased lateral mobility severely hampers the Lakers' defensive rotations.

  • More of his shots are getting blocked than ever before.

  • His pivot spins and drop steps are now being performed in slo-mo.

    Shaquille O'Neal
    Shaq still gets his points, but as his weight increases, his other skills may be eroding.

  • Because he can't change direction, Shaq has tremendous difficulty trying to guard anybody who can face him up.

  • He's being tagged with more fouls because he usually arrives too late to the scene of the shot, and because he's becoming more susceptible to fakes.

  • Late in ballgames, he's often unable to dunk the ball in a crowd.

    The fear is that Shaq is courting a career-ending injury because of all that weight.

    "Sooner or later," says another coach, "he'll make a sudden one-footed change of direction, or else a really tight spin, and he'll pop his knee. Either that kind of sudden trauma will get him, or else his back will gradually go out. Hey, why do you think he's been having so much trouble with his feet?"

    What would be the ideal weight for Shaq? The 315 pounds currently listed in his personal data in the Official NBA Register. Trouble is, there's a limit to how much poundage he can safely shed during the offseason without endangering his overall health. But at age 31, Shaq has to start remedying the situation in a hurry.

    The truth may very well be that Shaq's best days are already history. Sure, his point totals will continue to be recorded by the dozen, his free-throw accuracy might increase, and his field-goal percentages will remain among the league's best. (His lifetime mark approaches 58 percent, even though he'd shoot closer to 75 percent if he hand any touch at all.) But unless the Big Gourmand stops stuffing his face, the other parts of his game will get smaller and smaller. As that happens, the distance between the Lakers and their former dominance will get bigger and bigger.

    So it is that Shaq's career, and the future of the Lakers, depends upon whether or not Shaq can master one simple triceps exercise: pushing himself away from the dinner table. The alternative is the very real possibility that sooner rather than later, the Lakers' wheelhorse will be put out to pasture.

    Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."



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