Once upon a time, Shaquille O'Neal was one of the most productive players in the NBA. But much time has passed away. And now an aging Shaq - despite still being a larger-than-life person - appears to be a shadow of himself on the court.
Nevertheless, the Boston Celtics have signed the Big Aristotle (or the Diesel, or the Big Witness, or the Big Shamrock... okay, Shaq has a few nicknames). And the rhetoric out of Boston suggests the Celtics view Shaq as an important piece of a championship team.
"It is not every day that you can add a player of Shaquille's caliber to your team," Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said in the statement. "His past experience speaks for itself and we believe that he is a great fit for our roster."
"I am very excited," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Adding a player like Shaq is a major plus and it fills a void for our team. He's a real nice piece of the puzzle and he will complement us in where we want to go this coming season."
Although Ainge and Rivers sing the praises of Shaq, his pay tells a different story. Last season Shaq was paid $20 million by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Celtics have signed Shaq for two years, and their total bill across these seasons is only $3 million. So Shaq has taken quite a pay cut and one suspects -- given this salary offer -- the Celtics do not quite see him as an important piece of a title team.
And the productivity numbers seem to agree with the statement Boston's salary offer is making.
About 10 years ago Shaq led the LA Lakers to their first title since the Magic Johnson era ended. Shaq's Wins Produced (or how many wins a player's statistics indicate he has produced) was 27.1. And for this effort, Shaq was paid about $17 million. As time passed, Shaq's production of wins declined. In 2004-05, though, Shaq still produced 15.2 wins. And the next season - as part of the Miami Heat team that took the title - Shaq was able to contribute 8.3 wins. Since that title team, though, Shaq has generally offered less and less. And last year - at 37 years of age - Shaq only contributed 2.2 wins to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Such numbers clearly indicate that the Celtics are not acquiring the Shaq everyone remembers. In fact, some have suggested that the Celtics might get less from the Big Shamrock than the Minnesota Timberwolves will get from Darko Milicic.
This decline in production led Howard Beck of the New York Times to ask just a few days ago: Is it time for the Big Farewell?
A similar question seems to be asked each time a star reaches the end of the road. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar produced 22.9 wins when he was 31 years old. But at 41, he produced -2.0 wins (yes that is a negative number) in 1,695 minutes. Moses Malone produced 17.1 wins at 33 years of age, but across his last three seasons only produced 2.7 wins. And Hakeem Olajuwon produced more than 250 wins across seventeen seasons as a Houston Rocket. Seventeen years, though, was not enough for The Dream. In his last season he produced just 3.7 wins for the Toronto Raptors.
Similar stories can be told about Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Dominique Wilkins, and Dr. J. The last season for each player paled in comparison to what we saw from these stars in their prime. And this leads one to wonder... wouldn't we all be better off if star players like Shaq just bowed out gracefully?
If the population of "we" only includes basketball fans, then perhaps "we" would be better off remembering star players as they were in their prime. But if we expand our definition of "we" to include the star player, then I think we get a different answer.
Although Shaq's pay has declined considerably, he is still getting paid by the Boston Celtics to play NBA basketball. Perhaps in evaluating this issue we should ask the following question: How much would an average NBA fan pay the Boston Celtics to play in 2010-11?
The Celtics can have 15 players on their roster. How much would the team collect if this last spot on the team was auctioned off to the highest bidder? The winning bid would have the right to sit on the bench during games. And when the outcome of the game was decided, the coach would occasionally let the winning fan step on the court for a few moments.
Although NBA teams have yet to hold such an auction, one suspects that people would pay quite a bit for the 15th spot on a team's roster. After all, fans pay quite a bit just to sit courtside at game. For a chance to sit on the bench and actually play occasionally, one suspects the price tag would exceed the most expensive seats in the arena.
Shaq, though, is not being asked to pay the Celtics. The Celtics are willing to pay him more than a million dollars to sit on the bench and play a bit each game. Sure, he probably won't offer much. But from Shaq's perspective - and the perspective of most NBA fans in Shaq's position - this is still a great deal.
And this should be remembered as each star reaches the end of the road. Yes, age ultimately destroys any player's ability. But as long as an NBA team is willing to pay the player to sit on the bench and play some, the player should take the money. And fans who object, think about this question again: How much would you pay for the opportunity to just sit on the bench?