Shaq casts a big shadow over NBA

Admit it. Shaquille O'Neal is bad for the NBA.

He may be today's most dominant player, having led his Los Angeles Lakers to two consecutive championships. He may have a big personality, making him a perfect fit for the Left Coast. He may even have a budding career as a rap star.

But face it: This guy is dragging the NBA to new depths of boredom. He's simply too good. No one can beat him. No one can guard him. He doesn't even know how to shoot a free throw - and it doesn't matter. He makes basketball fans wish there were more golf on TV.

At 7 ft., 2 in.,and nearly 350 pounds, no one can move him from his campsite under the basket.

"Who wants to watch anymore?" says Tom LaGarde, a former NBA center for the Dallas Mavericks. "Shaq just beats people up all day. I hope this year there will be some balance in the league."

There might be, but don't count on it.

At least league officials are trying.

As the NBA kicks off its season this week, there's an underlying desire to speed up the game and make it more exciting. That's not aimed specifically at Shaq, but he's a player whose style surely has become a concern to NBA brass.

The league has decided to allow zone defenses this year - for the first time since 1947. The rule change should encourage more passing and take away some of the one-on-one play that has come to dominate pro basketball. In the case of O'Neal, for instance, an opposing team can cover him with two players - one in front and one behind - even when he doesn't have the ball.

That should make it harder to get the ball to the big man when he's camped out under the basket. Which in turn could lead to fewer slam-dunks - and fewer shattered backboards. Who knows, Shaq could even be forced to take a jump shot. So far, however, opposing teams have not figured out how to use the new rule against O'Neal.

"My sense is that it will affect his game," says Lakers team spokesman John Black. "But right now, it's hard to tell because it's early, and teams haven't really figured out the new rules."

According to Ed Rush, the NBA's director of officials, "These rules will reward a quick, athletic player. It also puts a greater reward on the player who is fundamentally sound, with good passing and shooting skills." In other worlds, the new rules, which also include an eight-second time limit on bringing the ball up the court, are anti-O'Neal.

But that's not to say the Lakers can't still be effective. With more attention on Shaq, Kobe Bryant, perhaps the best perimeter player in the game, should get more shots. Opposing teams will have to pick their poison.

Also, the Lakers added two key players in the off season who will make life even tougher for opponents: Mitch Richmond and Lindsey Hunter. Both are pure shooters who can stretch a zone until it breaks. Phil Jackson this week called his current group "the most talented" Lakers team he's coached.

Even better news for the Lakers is the lack of competition. Whereas several teams lifted themselves up a notch with offseason acquisitions, none seems to have gained the firepower that would be necessary to unseat the champs.

Last year's runners-up, the Philadelphia 76ers, have been decimated with injuries and, right now, are just a shadow of themselves. Allen Iverson, as great as he may be, is not the answer. The best team in the East should be the Milwaukee Bucks, who added sure-handed big man Anthony Mason to go with their three bona fide scorers: Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson, and Sam Cassell.

The Orlando Magic will be tough, with a dynamic backcourt of Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady - but it's not clear if the two superstars can work together, or if newly acquired center Patrick Ewing can be productive at the end of his career. Similarly, the Toronto Raptors will have to rely on Hakeem Olajuwon, who is well past his prime, to support high-flying Vince Carter.

In the Western Conference, the Sacramento Kings should have the best shot to knock off the Lakers. They re-signed power forward Chris Webber and added a steady point guard in Mike Bibby. Peja Stojakovic, who during the offseason led Yugoslavia to a European Championship, is emerging as one of the best shooters in the NBA.

As long as the San Antonio Spurs have the super-sized front court of Tim Duncan and David Robinson, they can't be counted out. They picked up point guard Steve Smith in a trade with Portland, and he should help.

The only team that can beat the Lakers, however, is the Lakers. To "three-peat," they need to stay healthy. They're young enough that that shouldn't be a problem. They also need to keep the peace between their two young showboats, Shaq and Kobe, who last year feuded in the regular season, but who turned the playoffs into a lovefest.

So far, so good, this year. "I'm tired of people talking about everyone else like Kobe doesn't exist," O'Neal recently told The Los Angeles Times. "People talk about Michael Jordan, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, those guys. Forget that.

"My boy is a force to be reckoned with. I'm going to be his big bully, give him a chance to run around and do what he does."

At least with the ball in Bryant's hands, the Lakers won't be so boring while winning their third straight championship.

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