Shaquille O’Neal says it happened. An anonymous member of the Portland Trail Blazers refuted it. But back in 2009, before the Big Shaqtus moved to Cleveland to get The King a ring (unsuccessfully), Portland reportedly called Phoenix Suns general manager Steve Kerr and suggested a trade that would have sent the future Hall of Famer to Rip City.
“During the middle of the season, Steve said Portland was interested,” Shaq told Sports Illustrated in 2009. “He said, was I interested in going to Portland? I told him no, so he stopped that.”
The question at this point really isn’t whether or not it happened. As Sports Illustrated went on to say in its June 27, 2009 report, the Trail Blazers denied having any interest in a deal. So over a decade later, it’s the case of Shaq’s deep, unmistakable voice versus “sources” within a notoriously quiet front office.
At this point, the bigger question is “what if?” Just what would the Blazers have looked like if Kerr, who may have been doing his old franchise a favor even hearing them out, had convinced Shaq that this was the right move for him?
For starters, you have to ask who would have been involved in the offer. Let’s take a look at the components of the Cleveland deal to remind ourselves of Shaq’s trade value at the time.
(Image courtesy of ESPN.com)
Ben Wallace had just completed his 14th season. He’d posted 5.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and a block in 56 games, and the other major piece of the deal, Sasha Pavlovic, averaged 4.6 points in 16 minutes per night.
Now, that seems like strikingly low value even when including half a million dollars cash and a second-round draft pick. Shaq may have been 37 years old, but he had also come off a 75-game season in which he posted 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds to go with 1.4 blocks in an even 30 minutes a game.
This isn’t, of course, to say that the Cavs should have been willing to sacrifice its core—it’s to say Portland might have had a real shot at ripping O’Neal away.
Now, let’s consider Shaq’s value against the Trail Blazers roster that season.
(Image courtesy of Basketball Reference.)
For the purpose of this exercise, we’re not going to look at salaries, just player value. But there’s one name you can’t see on that list who started every trade conversation involving Portland that season: Raef Lafrentz. So it’s safe to assume he’d be a piece of this puzzle as well.
After Lafrentz (and his now-infamous expiring contract), Joel Przybilla is the easy first player to include knowing Wallace was Phoenix’s main return. Looking at a package that gets Phoenix a reliable, defense-oriented center, the Blazers could have also included pieces like Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake or Sergio Rodriguez to compete with the Cavs’ offer.
If Portland was feeling spicy, it could have built a deal around Arizona Wildcat Jerryd Bayless, who was just a year into his career but only a summer away from being traded anyway.
Portland, however, denied having interest in Shaq back in 2009 based on the makeup of its roster and the team’s overall objective.
“Why would we [offer a trade]when we’ve got Greg (Oden) developing and we’ve already got (Joel) Przybilla?” That quote comes from a source in the story who went on to say, “If we’re in go-for-it mode, maybe we would be more interested.”
Revising history and sending Shaq to the Blazers, who had finished 54-28 (the team’s first 50-win season since 2002-03), would have made Portland an immediate contender. He was approaching the end of his playing days, but he was still the kind of player who could get the right franchise over the hump. That’s why the Cavaliers paired him next to LeBron James in the first place, and it’s why any interest Paul Allen and his front office may have had was justified.
With Shaq on board, even with his mileage, the Blazers would have had more short-term catastrophe insurance. Oden’s camp and the Rip City fan base were still holding onto hope for a bright future, but with so much up in the air, having a center who could both defend and make plays at the rim feels, in hindsight, crucial to finding real team success. He would have been asked to handle the lowest offensive load of his career, but even a piece who can help a battered young No. 1 draft pick come along slowly would have been invaluable.
Shaq could have also been the piece to begin maximizing a young LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy. Even in the final stages of his career, and even with an immediate decline on the horizon, he would have fit better next to the inside-out, rising-star combo than he ever did next to King James. He also would have been the biggest superstar to join the Blazers since Scottie Pippen, and it’s reasonable to think he could have brought a decent free agent or two to the Pacific Northwest by sheer star power alone.
Not to get too far side-tracked…but to hear an anonymous Blazers representative cite not being in “go-for-it-all mode” either after or during a 54-win campaign in which they placed fourth in the Western Conference is perplexing. It’d be one thing if they felt Shaq was so far past his prime he didn’t offer value. But it’s another to say you’re not going all in when you just had your best season 1999-00—a season (and era) O’Neal single-handedly ended himself.
(I may start believing Shaq’s voice more and more on this one.)
All in all, “what if?” will be the question to ask until time forgets the near-trade even took place. Or didn’t take place. Who’s to say, therefore who’s to argue?
And truthfully, there are bigger what-if scenarios in Trail Blazers history. Shaq’s inclusion in Portland would have been something special, but Roy and Oden themselves account for far bigger question marks, and that’s just the start.
With so many legends having stopped through Portland at some point in their careers, Shaq would have been the biggest. In size? Close to it. In stature, status, celebrity and life? One-hundred percent.
Even if just for a cup of Stumptown, it would have been a trip to see The Big Hipster make his way through town. He never got The King his ring, but there’s an argument out there that he could have turned Rip City into ‘Ship City by the time he called it a career.