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Shaq goes to the Heat. Just another old guy retiring to South Florida?

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I’m glad Shaquille O’Neal isn’t a Laker anymore. Now we can reason together over the next few years, discussing what promises to be his fascinating decline phase, without all that emotional baggage that comes with talking about the Lakers.

The Big Downhill was traded to the Heat Wednesday, as expected, for Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Caron Butler and a draft pick. The Heat are proclaiming the trade a steal because they didn’t have to give up an All-Star. That’s like me proclaiming my recent purchase of a ’78 Vega a steal because I didn’t have to give up any of my Fabergé eggs.

I don’t mean to suggest that Shaq is a ’78 Vega. He’s totally a Monza. Much respect.

Actually, I just wanted to type the word “Monza.” What he is is an old Caddy, big and beautiful and iconic and starting to show its miles. He can absolutely still dominate a game, even a playoff series, but he’s 32, he’ll be 33 before the next playoffs start, and he’s not ever going to be the Shaquille O’Neal of the turn of the century again.

And when I say he can dominate a playoff series, I don’t mean the NBA Finals, which lack the copious days off of the earlier rounds, days off that Shaq badly needs. His recent poor playoff performances on fewer than two days’ rest are well documented.

Now you’ll hear a lot of talk, maybe some of it from the Big Motivated himself, that now that Shaq is out of the L.A. soap opera, now that he’s not busy squabbling with Kobe Bryant and getting blamed for everything that goes wrong in Staples blue and gold, he’ll whip himself into shape and, galvanized by his new surroundings, playing in his home state, supported by teammates who appreciate him, he’ll once again be the Big Diesel, able to put a team on his back and carry it for a whole season, and maybe even longer, perhaps long enough to read this sentence.

Well guess what. Even if the Big Gotta Have a Whopper does whip himself into fighting trim again — and I’m not betting any of my Fabergé eggs on that one — he’s going to be in for a surprise. He’ll look fabulous, all cut muscles and agile dominance. But when picture day is over and it’s time to get on the court for real, he’s going to find that things won’t have improved much.



Mike Tyson can sit Shaq down and tell him all about how it’s still possible to get a body in its 30s to look like it did in its 20s, but looks can be deceiving. O’Neal’s going to become familiar with that sensation of reaching for something that’s always been there and finding it gone.

NBA big men decline in their 30s, and once that decline starts, it pretty much doesn’t stop. I’ll save you typing that e-mail by admitting that there are the odd exceptions.

Robert Parish, for example. And when I say “for example” what I mean is “I think he’s the only one.” He had a semi-down year at 34, then had three more fine seasons before resuming his very gradual downhill journey. But Robert Parish was kind of a freak, and anyway he was much younger than Shaq at the same age. What I mean is that Shaq, at 32, has played 36,873 minutes in 967 games, including playoffs. That’s a lot of minutes, each and every one of them spent with two or three guys hanging off of him. At the same age, Parish had played almost 13,000 fewer minutes. We’re talking about five years’ worth of pounding here.

Kareem Abdul-Jabaar played forever, and at 32 he’d played only about 1,600 minutes — but more than 100 games — fewer than O’Neal. But Kareem was a freak too, and his decline, though extremely gradual, was unmistakable, unidirectional and well underway by his 33rd birthday.

Shaquille O’Neal can still make a big difference. Even an aging, slowing Shaq is still a very good center in a league that’s short on very good centers, as all leagues are, always. The Miami Heat, who made it to the second round of this year’s playoffs, have a decent chance of improving on that now that they have the dominant big man in the East, motivated or not, as long as he’s healthy.

But they’re probably not any closer to winning a championship, and what they’ve done is trade a couple of useful, young players — Odom and Butler — and a draft pick for two years worth of the Big Gimme 90 Million More Dollars, who may or may not be motivated, in shape or healthy, but who will certainly be continuing down the road to 15 points and seven rebounds a game.

I’m a big fan of Dwyane Wade, but if Kobe Bryant and a 31-year-old Shaq couldn’t win the title, I don’t see Dwyane Wade and a 33- or 34-year-old Shaq doing it.

But it should be fun to watch and even more fun to talk about. If nothing else, a happy Shaq is a pretty entertaining Shaq, and he’ll probably be reasonably happy for a little while even if the Heat aren’t foolish enough to give him the huge extension he wants.

As for the Lakers, I don’t know if they got the best deal possible or not, but Odom and Butler — who I think will rebound from a sophomore slump — are decent enough players, and draft picks can come in handy. Grant is old, small, gimpy and overpaid, but since salaries in trades have to match, he’s the cost of doing business.

The best thing about this trade for the Lakers, assuming they re-sign Bryant and he doesn’t go to prison, is that it sets up the next few years as reality school for him. By this time in 2006, let’s say, Bryant will have learned that he can’t, after all, single-handedly lead his team to a championship, that the Big Other Guy wasn’t keeping him from his destiny of hoisting the trophy annually.

Bryant will be going on 28 then, right in his physical prime, and the Lakers will still be the Lakers, the most glamorous destination for free-agent superstars.

Previous column: Baseball All-Star-Game

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