By Steve Aschburner
June 25, 2009

If you were circling the political wagons in South Carolina, an aide to humiliated governor Mark Sanford hoping to achieve some small measure of damage control, would you bring in Eliot Spitzer and Rod Blagojevich for counsel?

Similarly, if you want to convince LeBron James that his dreams of winning multiple NBA championships and his opportunities to be not just BFF with Warren Buffet but neighbors on the Forbes 400 list can be realized by staying in Cleveland, do you want to plant Shaquille O'Neal at his side, sharing random thoughts about career arcs on locker-room stools, buses to the arena and late-night flights? Really?

The Cavaliers' latest, greatest maneuver to encourage James to stay put beyond the summer of 2010 has the surely unintended result of plopping down beside him the man who reigns as the biggest, most crushing free-agent departure in NBA history. O'Neal left the Orlando Magic in July 1996 for brighter lights, a bigger stage and a better chance to win, all of which he achieved by signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. Three rings and four trips to the Finals later, O'Neal moved again, swapping Southern California, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson for South Beach, Dwyane Wade and Pat Riley -- and he won once more. Meanwhile, his popularity, his profile and his fortune grew.

This is the guy, now, who is supposed to persuade James not to leave, by deeds if not words. Trouble is, O'Neal's words speak a lot louder these days than his deeds. The big man did have a solid season in Phoenix, as disappointing as the collective effort was there, averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds. If the Cavs' top competitive priority is getting past Eastern Conference champion Orlando, that means finding a way to counter Dwight Howard, a task at which Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace struggled mightily in the conference finals. Howard's athletic ability and quickness are unsurpassed down low, but at least O'Neal has bulk to make the Magic center's job more difficult. Getting position against Ilgauskas and Wallace versus doing so against O'Neal is the difference between running around the block versus circumnavigating the globe.

Then again, Cleveland GM Danny Ferry is fixing the problem of 36-year-old and 34-year-old centers by acquiring one who is 37. So instead of relying on two big men who have split 48,372 minutes between them, he's counting on one who, all by himself, will hit 40,000 about three games into next season. Unless they put Shaq on the Phil Jackson plan of only bothering with home games in the regular season, or showing up after the All-Star break.

Obviously, this is a one-year move, based on what O'Neal has left both in his tank and on his contract ($21 million). Freeing up money for more potential helpers is as important to the Cavs as putting a ring on their franchise player's finger next June. But see, that's where a player like New Orleans center Tyson Chandler -- Ferry's alleged second choice, with a contract that runs through 2010-11 and, by the way, 10 years younger than O'Neal -- would have been a better get. Admittedly, James is beyond buying into any long-term vision Cleveland might claim. He needs, he quietly demands, instant gratification. But if Chandler can rebound from injuries, he could help now and help later, focusing James not simply on his first ring but on his second and his third.

This move screams "One and done!" in ways that might only compound the Cavaliers' challenge and their fans' worries about James' next contract and ZIP code. And while it's screaming, The Big Example will be around for nine months, mumbling, whispering, maybe even rapping about life after the team that drafted you.

A few other thoughts on this move, which again tilts the NBA landscape from West to East as Shaq shifts his weight for the fourth time in his career:

• Maybe, beyond coping with Howard, this is a way for Cleveland to thwart Orlando at its head. As in, having Shaq around to needle and torment Stan Van Gundy three or four times next season.

• If the Cavaliers preferred O'Neal's one-year deal to the two years remaining on Chandler's, let's hope it wasn't a pragmatic view of "Why be paying Chandler big bucks in 2010-11 if LeBron already is gone?" Fretting about payroll and luxury taxes should be nowhere on Cleveland's radar, when you think about the costs incurred in plummeting franchise value and ticket sales if James actually leaves. As dreary as things have been for the Cavs in the past, a slide back to the bottom would be worse because everyone would be toting failed expectations. How you gonna keep 'em down on The Flats, after they've seen Paree?

• With that in mind, if Cleveland does go after Rasheed Wallace as a big man with perimeter skills, will it want to be paying him in 2010-11 if both James and O'Neal are gone?

• Poor, poor Phoenix. That beautiful brand of basketball that brought lots of fans back to the sport is long gone, replaced by the proverbial ashes from which the Suns will try to rise. This was a money deal for them, driven by green but serving as a white flag on whatever it was owner Robert Sarver was thinking when he hired Steve Kerr and gave him his GM orders. Phoenix won one playoff game with O'Neal and didn't even make the postseason this spring, while the Steve Nash era and the Shaq era meshed about as well as Apple and Windows. But Nash already is on the list of great free-agent departures once, when he left Dallas for Phoenix, and the Suns would prefer he not put his name there a second time.

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