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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Cavaliers' future is full of Big Decisions

Cleveland nearly got Shaquille O'Neal at the trading deadline, a possibility the Cavaliers could revisit if they don't win the title. And then there's the matter of where LeBron James will be in 2010.

March 10, 2009|MARK HEISLER

First, it was Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway, then Shaq and Kobe Bryant, and Shaq and Dwyane Wade. . . .

Next: Shaq and LeBron?

OK, so it would be LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal. In whatever order, imagine the circus the Cleveland Cavaliers would be now if they had made the O'Neal deal they were so close to two weeks ago, in the Big Near Miss.

Phoenix looked ready to do it for the low, low, bargain price of Wally Szczerbiak and Sasha Pavlovic.

However, instead of Szczerbiak, whose $13.5-million-a-year deal is expiring, the Cavaliers insisted the Suns take Ben Wallace, who has one more season at $14 million left.

That's how close James came to running pick-and-rolls behind the Great Wall of O'Neal, to say nothing of the fun the NBA's most underrated clown would have had alongside the all-time Clown Prince.

Of course, who's to say it won't come up again this summer?

Cleveland and Boston are in a steel cage match in the East, with the Celtics holding a chokehold on the tiebreaker, barring a losing streak, or the rest of them going down with Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Glen Davis.

The Celtics lead the season series, 2-1, and have the better conference record by three games. On the other hand, the teams aren't tied. The Cavaliers lead the Celtics by one game, with one meeting left . . . in Cleveland.

The loser is looking at Orlando in the second round, a sobering prospect after the wobbly Magic pulled it together to win in Boston on Sunday, less than 48 hours after the Celtics' emotional win over the Cavaliers.

The NBA balance of power, to say nothing of the Cavaliers' future, hangs in the balance.

If the Cavaliers win a title this season or next, they'll be odds-on to keep James, which might mean getting Toronto's Chris Bosh too.

If they don't do something pretty sensational this season or next, it may be the New York Knicks who get the much-rumored James-Bosh package.

If Cleveland doesn't make the Finals this spring, I'd expect the Cavaliers to go for broke this summer, which could mean revisiting this Shaq deal.

Phoenix owner Bob Sarver, finding himself in financial straits -- a year after acquiring O'Neal with two-plus seasons and $50 million left on his deal -- has been all over the lot.

Before the All-Star game, Sarver personally called owners to offer Amare Stoudemire before rethinking it, possibly because he realized it could be seen as grounds for commitment.

So the Suns fired Coach Terry Porter, which offered less in cost savings but gave them a last chance at a playoff run. . . . only to see Stoudemire go out for the season.

The Suns are now four games behind No. 8 Dallas, with Sarver looking at a luxury tax bill of almost $20 million.

Worse, Sarver is now like a jet pilot whose fuel gauge shows zero, having hit his afterburner at the point of no return. He has a $77-million payroll for next season -- which would mean $15 million more in tax -- if he lets Grant Hill and Matt Barnes go.

Oh, and Shaq, who's still broadcasting his love for Phoenix, is saying privately he wants out, upset to the highest level of upsetivity, as he once said, at almost being traded, or the team's return to running, or both.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers just saw Kendrick Perkins, Davis and Leon Powe, whom they didn't exactly set their game plan for, knock their big men around like tenpins, combining for 40 points, making 17 of 29 shots.

Also, the Celtics know how to defend the Cavaliers' basic play, James' pick-and-roll off Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

If James is low-maintenance, he's stubborn about lining up anywhere except the top of the key with the ball in his hands, like a point guard.

Lakers fans may remember that scheme from 2004-05, when Rudy Tomjanovich ran it with Kobe Bryant, who had all five defenders eyeballing him every step of the way.

Even with James' 45-point breakout in Game 7 last spring, the Celtics held him to 27 a game and 36% from the field in the series.

In this season's three games, it's 27 and 44%.

If the Cavaliers don't get where they want, and size and the lack of an inside game remain issues, expect them to call the Suns, just to say hi.

Last time, it came up too fast, at too high a price (their payroll would have been almost $100 million), with too much risk (with their hands tied financially, it would be their last major move before James' 2010 opt-out), and too many other ramifications (what would they do with Ilgauskas?)

That was in winter. We'll see about summer.

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mark.heisler@latimes.com

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