by Lang Whitaker

I can’t read the future, but I can read the present, and the Shaquille O’Neal who will start at center for the Phoenix Suns this year is one of the 40 best players in the NBA today. Easily.

Oh, I know. Believe me, I know. You were wondering, Where will they place Shaq in the Top 50? And you were ready for Shaq to appear so you could bash the selection, and wonder aloud which SLAM writer would be fool enough to take on the task of defending Shaquille O’Neal as the 38th best player in the NBA today.

Well, that would be me. I’m your huckleberry.

When I was going through photos on the Getty Images website yesterday, trying to find a picture to illustrate this Shaq post, I was surprised by how many of the photos from the 2008 Playoffs featured Shaq huddled with his Suns teammates. In fact, it seemed like almost half the pictures of Shaq from the first round of the Playoffs against San Antonio were Shaq and Amare, Shaq and Nash, Shaq and Raja Bell, as his teammates looked to be explaining what the Suns were doing. On the court. During the Playoffs.

So maybe last season wasn’t Shaq’s finest. After being traded from Miami to Phoenix last year, Shaq played only 28 games with the Suns, and while he averaged just 12.9 ppg — the lowest average of his career — he also averaged 10.6 rpg, the most he’d posted since 2005. Still, those points per seem pretty damning, until you realize that he also averaged the fewest field goal attempts of his career and shot the highest field goal percentage of his career (over 61 percent).

To me, Shaq’s early Phoenix returns were mostly a function of him not really knowing what he was doing. I don’t think Mike D’Antoni ever really wanted him on the Suns, and I don’t think anyone ever really figured out how to assimilate a bulldozer into an offense filled with roadrunners. Phoenix fixed that problem when D’Antoni decided to take the money and run to New York. And now, with Terry Porter (who was something of a bulldozer of a point guard himself) on the sideline, I’m expecting to see Phoenix use a more conventional NBA halfcourt offense more often, which would seem to enhance Shaq’s relevance this season.

For a long while there, it was pretty obvious that Shaq was the most dominant player in the NBA, though not so much these days. He can’t jump like he used to, can’t run like he used to, gets injured more often than he used to. These days, unlike the old Shaq-knife that would cut you with precision, Shaq’s more like a machete in the hands of a blind man.

That doesn’t mean he’s dunzo, however—add him to any NBA roster and he immediately improves that team’s frontcourt. (Even in, ahem, Los Angeles.) When evaluating NBA players, you eventually reach a point where you must weigh their production versus their salary and decide just how valuable that player is to your team’s success. Last year the hoops world seemed to reach a consensus that Shaq had passed some invisible measuring stick and gone from being a monument to greatness to championship ballast to a pair of cement franchise shoes. Perhaps he’s not worth $20 million a year, but heck, we never held that against Allan Houston, did we? (Oh, we did?)

None of the “name” guys Shaq won rings playing alongside have won rings since he left. (WHOA! Here comes an avalanche of hate!) But why? Isn’t this factually accurate? I’m not saying Shaq’s the sole reason they won a title and that Kobe or Wade will never win a ring again, but I am saying that having an in-shape, focused Shaq on your team is one hell of a way — maybe the best way in the history of basketball — to draw double teams and generally disrupt other team’s defensive concepts. And get yourself a ring.

What I don’t know is if that Shaq exists anymore. Maybe the Suns will focus more on defense and their halfcourt offense during the regular season so they don’t flame out in the Playoffs yet again. And maybe the incredible medical staff in Phoenix will get Shaq into shape and keep him healthy all year.

As I said, perhaps I can’t read the future, but I can read the present. Cash aside, I’d take Shaq on my team in a heartbeat. I don’t know any team that wouldn’t. And to me, that proves that Shaq’s still one of the best in the game today.

Can you dig it?

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