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What does the future hold for Shaq in black?

The black-shirted Miami Heat are certainly hoping O'Neal's numbers return to what they were during his first tour of duty in Florida. And they've bet the farm on it -- sending Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a first-round draft choice to the Los Angeles Lakers to reel him in.

At 32, O'Neal is an 11-time NBA All-Star with career averages of 27.1 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. The 7-foot-1, 340-pounder is the most immovable object in the NBA, also the league's most unstoppable force.

But only when he plays.

Shaq has participated in 809 of a possible 952 games (84.9 percent) during his 12-season NBA career. He missed only two games during his first three seasons with Orlando (1992-93 through 1994-95), when he enjoyed two of his top three seasons in total points, rebounds and blocked shots.

But since 1995-96, O'Neal has played in more than 67 games just twice after signing with the Lakers as a free agent.

So no matter where Shaq was going to call home for the 2004-05 season, it is unlikely the Big Daddy will ever put up statistics like he did during his first three NBA seasons. Regardless of his situation, at this point in his career he'll always remain a step behind the more reliable NBA superstars like Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, even young guns such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Tracy McGrady, at least from a fantasy standpoint.

Most of the previous dominant centers in league history have been far more durable during their first dozen seasons than O'Neal. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played in 95 percent of his possible games; despite missing all but 12 games of the 1969-70 campaign, Wilt Chamberlain participated in 89.5 percent; Moses Malone in 93.5 percent; Bill Russell in 95.4 percent.

As a fantasy player, Shaq can be the Diesel that powers a championship dream. But he can also drive you crazy.

He averaged a career-low 21.5 points last season with the Lakers, shooting a dreadful 49 percent from the foul line. He's been nagged by foot and knee injuries during the past three seasons, during which he's missed a total of 45 games.

In Miami, Shaq will work under Heat President Pat Riley, who did a masterful job of pacing an aging Abdul-Jabbar during the final days of his career, and head coach Stan Van Gundy.

Abdul-Jabbar, who generally did a better job of keeping himself in shape than O'Neal does, averaged 28.6 points per game before the age of 32 and 20.6 the rest of his career, when he won five of his six championships.

Under Riley, from 1981-82 through the end of his career in 1988-89, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 19.4 points per game. But Abdul-Jabbar was 34 when Riley came to the Lakers, so O'Neal has two years of youth on his side.

The last time O'Neal changed addresses, his statistics barely flinched.

He averaged 26.6 points, 11 rebounds and 2.13 blocked shots in 54 games with the Magic in 1995-96, then put up 26.2 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.88 blocks in 51 games as a Laker the following season.

Abdul-Jabbar was 27 when he was dealt from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Lakers and his stats also remained stable. He had 30 points, 14 rebounds and 3.26 blocks per game with the Bucks in 1974-75 and 27.7 points, 16.9 rebounds and 4.12 blocks the next year in L.A.

Chamberlain, traded twice during his career, also maintained the status quo after both moves. He averaged 36.9 points and 22.3 rebounds in his last full season with the San Francisco Warriors (1963-64) and 33.5 points and 24.6 rebounds in his first full year with the Philadelphia 76ers. As a 32-year-old, he was sent from Philadelphia to the Lakers. He averaged 24.3 points and 23.8 rebounds as a 76er in 1967-68 and 20.5 points and 21.1 rebounds the next season in L.A.

Being dealt as a 31-year-old star center certainly didn't help the statistics of former St. Bonaventure All-American Bob Lanier. The Bennett High School graduate spent his first full season with the Bucks in 1979-80. He averaged 22.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.96 blocked shots in his first 9 1/2 seasons in Detroit and 13.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 0.87 blocks in his final 4 1/2 years with Milwaukee.

O'Neal's presence, however, will almost certainly help talented Heat point guard Dwyane Wade improve in both the real and fantasy worlds, just like former Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant benefited from O'Neal and before that, Magic Johnson did from Abdul-Jabbar's sizable shadow.

Bryant's scoring average increased during his first five seasons, from 7.6 as a rookie in 1996-97 to 28.5 in 2000-01, then peaked at 30.0 in 2002-03.

The same thing happened to Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, who spent his first three NBA seasons as a teammate of Shaq's in Orlando.

His scoring average went from 16.0 in 1993-94 to 20.9 in 1994-95 to a career-best 21.7 in 1995-96, Shaq's final season with the Magic.

With O'Neal gone to Los Angeles, Hardaway's average slipped to 20.5 in 1996-97, and it has dropped like a stone ever since, certainly not all because of reasons related to O'Neal separation anxiety.

Don't expect Bryant's scoring average to skyrocket next season just because O'Neal is elsewhere. Without Shaq around to draw the lion's share of the defensive attention, added coverage should make good shots harder to come by, just as Hardaway learned in 1996-97.


Baseball's week ahead:


Yankees 1B Tony Clark has three home runs and six RBIs in 18 at-bats against the Red Sox this season with a .778 slugging percentage. New York is at Boston Friday through Sunday.

Blue Jays IF Frank Menechino is 10 of 29 (.345) with five walks against the Devil Rays this year. Tampa Bay is at Toronto Friday-Sunday.

Giants OF Barry Bonds is 59 of 166 (.355) with 25 homers and 54 RBIs against the Padres since 2001. San Diego is at San Francisco Wednesday-Thursday.

Cubs OF Moises Alou is 13 of 31 (.419) with three homers, seven RBIs and a .903 slugging average against the Reds this year. Cincinnati is at Chicago Wednesday-Thursday.

Royals 1B Mark Sweeney is 14 of 41 (.341) with three homers and 11 RBIs against the Tigers and 7 of 21 (.333) with five RBIs against the Indians this season. Kansas City is at Detroit Wednesday-Thursday and at Cleveland Friday-Sunday.

Mets rookie SS Kazuo Matsui is 5 for 27 (.185) with 10 strikeouts against the Expos. Montreal is at New York Wednesday-Thursday.

Mariners 2B Bret Boone is 4 for 29 (.138) with six strikeouts against the Athletics this season. Oakland is at Seattle Wednesday-Thursday.

Red Sox RP Curtis Leskanic is 0-1 with a 14.73 earned run average in three appearances against the Yankees this season. New York is at Boston Friday-Sunday.

Expos 3B Tony Batista is 1 of 15 (.067) against the Marlins this year. Florida is at Montreal Friday-Sunday.

Reds SS Barry Larkin is 4 of 27 (.148) against Cubs pitching this season. Cincinnati is at Chicago Wednesday-Thursday.


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