Shaq’s wheelin-n-dealin at an All-Star level again.
Old heads in the neighborhood have a phrase for when a big-man goes to immediate work in the post—they call it wheelin-n-dealin. Entry pass. Some banging. Wheelin left, then right, then left. Drop step. Maybe a spin. Turnaround. Or may pump fake. Baby hook. Whatever it is, it happens quick and forceful with the cavalier quality of a bully taking or getting what he wants. That’s wheelin-n-dealin. All the great big men—from Kevin McHale to Barkley to Kareem to Hakeem—wheeled-n-dealed, with mean grace, on the helpless mofos shoving forearms into the smalls of their backs. The plays usually ended with the wheel-n-dealers’ armpits covering their defenders’ faces. Shaq, in his prime, was a wheelin-n-dealin machine; the greatest you’ve seen, if you’re under 40.
But the past few years he’s been all about lumberin-n-fallin. He’d get the ball in post, slowly wheel into the lane, take about 24 seconds to gather himself, throw up a brick, catch some contact and take about another 24 seconds falling down. By the time he pulled his 350-pound frame off the hardwood, the opposition had already scored and Phoenix was back on their end. (That’s some kind of nouveau basket-hanging.) It hurt to watch the greatest of great dynamic forces—the most wheelingest of the dealers—glacier up-n-down the court and get forced into flatline, 12-foot jump-hooks and get pinned by the rim (or some big stiff’s palm) and suffer a variety of other humblings. This was the guy that, when he was murdering veteran opposition in his early-20s, said he was going to retire at 30 because he didn’t want to be one of those old big men, spitting on their own legacies as they scrubbed it up well past their primes. (Of course, then Shaq experienced how tens of millions can motivate a dude to wear out his welcome.)
I subscribed, maybe even promoted, the conventional wisdom held that Shaq’s game was going to continue to decline this season. This meant that the guy we saw struggling in Heat and Suns uniforms was going to get progressively less effective, productive and impactful. More lumbering, more timbering. I was dead wrong. All of a sudden, the season began and Shaq was producing—29 and 11 on the Bucks, 18 and 13 against Yao, 29 and 13 on the Kings. In December he lit up the Bucks again, this time for 35. Shaq dropped 35! I didn’t even know he still had it in him. The production was a clear sign that something was developing here. The visual and aesthetic component, however, was the true revelation. I caught the Suns’ Xmas Day game against the Spurs. Diesel dropped 23, grabbed 12 and blocked 4. More importantly though, Shaq was wheelin-n-dealin on suckas. He was spinning, banging, shoulder-shaking and knocking dudes out of his way. It was startling. I mean, how was this humanly possible? How could the 2007-08 Shaq return to this form? After all, Shaq has about 1100 games on those legs and a body that has endured, by far, the most consistent and voluminous assault of hacking in league history. Shaq’s peers in the Center Pantheon—Wilt, Kareem, Russ, Dream, Ewing and Robinson—didn’t suffer through the unspoken rule of “he’s so big, go ahead and club him if you want” to the degree that Shaq did. And still, besides Kareem, all of them were toast by the time their 1100th game started rolling around. Knees, back, hips, you name it—Shaq was a broken dude. Yet, here was Big Shaq doing the Big Shaq at 36 (he’ll be 37 in March), less than a year after I once saw him go for a block, land semi-awkward, fall for five seconds and then spend about another five second on-all-fours, before getting up, one leg at a time like he was an old, arthritic diabetic on dialysis.
When Steve Kerr traded for Shaq last season, I was a fan. I wrote a column, entitled “Death to Small Ball,” where I extolled the Suns’ virtuous return to basketball that didn’t feature a squad of positional runts. But when I wrote it, I envisioned Shaq merely being a “presence” down low, not a “force.” He would allow Amar’e to return to his natural position and as I wrote, matter-of-factly, “Shaq and 12-14 points, 7-10 boards and 23-28 minutes brings legitimacy to this once semi-bastardized squad.” Instead, Shaq is on the cusp of his 15th All-Star invitation. Quite honestly, if Yao hailed from Hawaii and not China, Shaq would’ve played himself into making a great case to start in the All-Star game. At 36—and only months after appearing to be only a slightly better, more skilled Eric Dampier—he is arguably the second-best center in the League.
Even though Kerr admitted to me recently that he didn’t think Shaq would be this good, he asserted that he did expect for Shaq to get better once he arrived in the desert. Check this YouTube clip for Kerr’s collective big gun. It’s a piece on the Suns’ training staff, a staff getting so good with rehabilitation and preventive measures that their reputation is entering folklore-status. This is a staff, led by Aaron Nelson, that nursed Antonio McDyess’ knee back to health, kept Nash chugging long past his expected elite-status expiration date and helped Amar’e come back from microfracture surgery with virtually the same explosion he had before his knee injury. They even helped keep Grant Hill’s brittle bones on the court. Hill likened their methods to Mr. Miyagi spitting on his hand to heal. Shaq said, in the Tube clip, “all they do is touch me,” adding that he’s never seen their techniques before. Talk to anyone in the Suns organization, including Shaq, and the training staff is given large credit for his revitalization. The Arizona Republic recently ran a story entitled, “Shaq bringing out vintage moves,” where Shaq was quoted as saying, “I’ve got a lot of young, energetic, new-millennium trainers here, and they’re really into their craft.” New millennium.
Kerr said he only made the trade because he had confidence in Nelson and his new millennium crew to help Shaq regain some of his old form. Had Kerr been with another franchise, it’s safe to say he might not have made the move. But he had in-depth conversations with the training staff and “it was unanimous that, with time, we could get him to a much better place physically.”
About eight years ago—coincidentally, right around the time ‘Dyess blew out his knee as a Denver Nugget—Dr. Michael Clark and some of his colleagues at the National Academy of Sports Medicine developed the Corrective Exercise Strategy (CES). As a medical doofus, I wouldn’t do CES justice with a layman’s explanation, but it basically involves taking the injured body part (say, a knee) and then looking at all the surrounding and connecting muscles and joints, diagnosing whether they’re weak or tight and integrating them back into basketball specific movements. Clark explains that CES just doesn’t look at what’s injured, it asks “why is it injured?” A weak ankle, he says, could be the reason for a pulled hamstring. NASM is the official provider of sports medicine education for the NBATA (National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association), but each team obviously has the autonomy to implement and utilize CES as they see fit. Meanwhile, with NASM based in Arizona and Clark serving as a physical therapist on Nelson’s staff (he attends all home games), the Suns implement and follow the CES system to a T.
Shaq’s renaissance is like exhibit A for CES. During his geriatric stint, it took Shaq a lot of time to “gather” to jump which gave defenders an advantage. He had no spring, no explosion. A lot of that comes from a strong gluteus medius muscle. Thanks to the Suns’ staff, Shaq says those muscles are “firing” now, which has enabled him to move with force and purpose again. Between Shaq’s revitalized mobility and his out-of-nowhere free-throw accuracy (62 percent for the year, 74 percent in January), homeboy is averaging about 21 and 10 in his 13 games since December. I’m sorry, but that boggles my mind. That dude TMac needs to demand a trade to Phoenix…today.
Shaq is back. He’s so back that he’s back to demanding more touches through the press. That’s right, the “feed the big dog” rhetoric is back in effect. He’s wheelin-n-dealin on dudes again, and I had no idea how much I missed him.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.