SHAQUILLE O'NEAL just loves his young Heat teammate Dwyane Wade, who has leaped not only to superstardom in two seasons but also to PEOPLE's 50 Most Beautiful list. We know this because O'Neal tells us so at every opportunity, and, anyway, what's not to love about a charismatic and humble guard who can pour in 25 a night without cutting into your shots?
Though O'Neal rarely raves about Miami power forward Udonis Haslem, it can safely be assumed that he loves this quiet young rebounding whiz, too. Haslem does not demand the ball in the low post, is active on defense and generally stays out of Shaq's way unless they happen to be pursuing the same board.
Shaq also loves new Heat point guard Jason Williams, his off-season homey in Orlando and an unabashed Shaq fan. That relationship will flourish depending on how frequently White Chocolate feeds the Diesel in the low post.
Which brings us to O'Neal and 29-year-old forward Antoine Walker, who was acquired from the Boston Celtics over the summer in a trade to do ... what exactly? Plant himself in the lane, which is Shaq-rosanct territory? Launch a hail of three-point shots just when the Big Postman has finished carving out space with his ample posterior? Seize control of the offense after O'Neal has begun training his guards in the fundamentals of see-Shaq-first?
This it not to say that Walker isn't a fine player. In fact, in this age of specialization the Kentucky product is a 6'9", 245-pound throwback who scores (19.8 points per game over nine seasons), rebounds (8.7), passes (4.1 assists) and makes steals (1.39). Heat president Pat Riley is not exaggerating when he says, "Antoine Walker is one of the very best multifaceted, versatile players in this game." But that doesn't necessarily mean that Riley is correct on this score: "[Antoine] is in his prime, and I think he will [perform] brilliantly with Shaquille, Dwyane and the rest of the team." Indeed, all of Walker's stats, with the possible exception of the rebounds, present potential trouble for a team that came within one game of reaching the 2005 Finals.
Walker will want to maintain his scoring numbers, usually by launching ill-advised three-pointers: Over the last five years he has taken an average of 495 three-pointers per season, more than anyone else in the NBA. Alas, Shaq isn't crazy about chasing down the crazy caroms that result from errant treys.
Walker won't want to lose his rep as a big man who sees the floor like a point guard, sometimes by moving to point forward. Alas, Shaq would like the quarterbacking to be performed by J-Will and, when, necessary, D-Wade, thank you very much.
Walker loves to sneak into the passing lanes to get his steals. Alas, Shaq, for whom mobility is an ever-increasing issue, needs to play alongside by-the-book, stay-in-front-of-your-man defenders.
Shaq is also most comfortable when a teammate isn't competing with him for the spotlight. It's unlikely that Walker will challenge O'Neal for the role of Big Paterfamilias, but Walker's skills and style (the capricious threes, the flashy passes that sometimes catch both opponents and teammates off-guard, the head fakes and body torques that define his post-up game) stamp him as a player craving attention. And Toine does not have the personality of Wade, who willingly--even gratefully--cedes the spotlight to Shaq.
Walker has said most of the right things about sublimating his offensive game. "In past years I had to come in and score 20 to 25 points a night for my team to win," Walker says. "Now I don't have to worry about that. I can just come in and play ball. Whatever the night calls for us to do to win, I just want to do." He adds, "I know it's Shaq first, Wade second, and I hopefully can be that third option."
Well, not so fast. Though Haslem is not a shooter, touches must be found for Williams and small forward James Posey, who came over from the Grizzlies together in the five-team deal that also brought Walker to Miami. And need we mention that free-agent pickup Gary Payton, another vet with an oversized ego, is also in the mix?
Which brings us to the hard decisions facing coach Stan Van Gundy: Walker's role and playing time. "Being able to play multiple positions may steal me an extra five minutes," Walker says. "I just want to be on the floor whatever way possible." A defensive-oriented coach like Van Gundy isn't likely to start Walker over Haslem at power forward, nor is he likely to consider the not-so-quick Toine a small forward. That would leave him as Miami's sixth man--a prospect that Walker (career average: 38.8 minutes) has yet to say he would embrace. Shaq is unlikely to get involved in a public debate over playing time (unless it's his own), but should Walker chafe at coming off the bench, look for O'Neal to side squarely with management. "It's way to early to decide who's going to get minutes and who's going to start," says Van Gundy, "but hopefully [Walker] plays a huge role for us."
At least Wade seems to have caught Toine fever. "[Getting Walker] is going to be great for our team, kind of going back to Lamar Odom," said Wade, recalling the forward who was sent to Los Angeles in the 2004 trade for Shaq. "He can bring the ball up the court, he can post up, he can shoot the three. With Lamar, I got out and ran a lot more my rookie year. Last year I had to come back and get the ball a lot. I know when Toine gets the rebound, I can just go." Ah, yes, a return to those days of old, the 2003-04 season, when a Wade-Odom pairing seemed to be the future of the Heat. Shaq will be so glad to hear that.
O'Neal is on board for now, too, pooh-poohing any thoughts of bad chemistry ("We have a long season to get it together") and talking up a team that is unquestionably loaded with talent ("I can't wait to play the first game and then go home and watch [the tape of] the first game"). But he makes it clear that Walker's success will be predicated upon you-know-who. "The game always has to be played from the inside out," Shaq says. "I'm not a black hole by any means. Every shooter that plays with me always gets a new contract. As long as I can touch the ball, I can kick it out."
The question is, What happens when he wants the ball back and doesn't get it?
GREG NELSON (O'NEAL AND WALKER)
¬† CHEMISTRY TEST
Walker's many strengths don't necessarily mix easily with those of O'Neal.