He described head coach Terry Porter as “a nice guy,” and jokingly recalled that when he faced off with assistant coach Bill Cartwright more than a decade ago, “I used to kill him, too.”
But when Shaquille O’Neal was quizzed on how the new coaching staff and changes in style will affect the Phoenix Suns and his pursuit of another championship in his career’s twilight years – well, your guess is as good as his for right now.
“Training camp starts (today),” O’Neal said. “(Porter is) the newly appointed president of the team, and as vice president/general manager of the team, whatever orders come down from the Pentagon … I haven’t seen the new orders yet, but I’ll have my eyes and ears open and we’ll see what’s going on.”
From their end, the Suns were happy to see the 36-year-old O’Neal come back for his first full season with them in good shape and, by his own estimate, at the same weight (between 330 and 335) he was at when he led the Lakers to the first of three straight championships. And while he was disappointed that his first run with the Suns ended in April, the extra time for recuperation might help him avoid adding heavily to the 221 games he’s lost to injury over his 16-year career – 86 of those in the last three years.
The Suns trainers made a few trips to his home in Florida during the summer, and he returned the favor with a handful of stops in Phoenix for workouts and treatment on his problematic left hip. He also worked out 4-5 days a week with Ultimate Fighting Championship legend turned gym owner Royce Gracie, making for a trim figure as he posed for pictures in his home white uniform Monday.
Suns management expected a little more after he vowed a strict offseason regimen in the Valley, but felt he not only passed the eye test, but also looked good in recent workouts and medical testing.
“I look great and I feel great and I feel ready to go because of all the rest I got with the longer summer,” he said. “All I’ve really ever had in my career are knick-knack injuries, which are something you can’t prevent – like the weather. I don’t miss games on purpose; things happen.
“In Miami, I had (trainers) who weren’t familiar with my injuries, but the staff here can fix all the knick-knack stuff. I’ll be tired and sore after two days or camp, but that’s normal and I’ll get past it.”
General manager Steve Kerr looks at the double-double Shaq produced in 28 minutes a night (12.9 points, 10.6 rebounds, 61 percent shooting from the floor) over 28 games with the Suns, and couldn’t be more pleased with the output. Fouls and free-throw shooting were issues in the playoffs, as was trying to immerse the big man into the team on the run.
“A full camp and preseason and the opportunity to be on the same page from the outset will mean a lot,” Kerr said. “And we also plan to do more things that will play to his strengths.”
On offense, Porter sees more set plays and longer possessions, resulting in more touches. On defense, it means pushing the ball toward the sidelines instead of funneling it to the middle and leaving O’Neal or other post players to be the last line of defense.
But instead of trying to integrate Shaq on the run, something that proved too daunting last year, the Suns will be adjusting together.
“It would have been a Cinderella story for us to come together in 30 games and get it done. But when it comes to championships, it really doesn’t work like that,” Shaq said. “What Boston (winning the title) showed last year is that if you put a talented group together and go through the whole year uninterrupted, anything is possible. We’re starting from scratch. Hopefully I’ll stay injury free and we can take it from there.”