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Cavaliers work on attitudes

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / October 26, 2009

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Shaquille O’Neal would like for you to believe he has grown beyond past controversies. In Los Angeles, when he played during his prime with emerging superstar Kobe Bryant, their disdain for each other became one of the city’s biggest melodramas. Although the duo won three titles, they perhaps could have collected two more if not for the bickering.

In Miami, big Shaq was mellower; he ceded team leadership and the face-of-the-franchise tag to supremely talented Dwyane Wade, and the Heat won an NBA title. A slimmed-down, motivated O’Neal proved to naysayers that he not only remained a productive center, but he also could play team basketball when he was not the No. 1 option.

Those Crockett and Tubbs times in Miami soon soured, though, when O’Neal began experiencing hip problems and the organization questioned his effectiveness. He began fouling out of games at an alarming rate and complained about lack of respect and not being used properly on offense.

After a quick stop in Phoenix, where he had a sparkling season in 2008-09, he is in Cleveland, hoping his physicality, presence, and still-respectable skills can lead the Cavaliers to a title.

Cavaliers star LeBron James didn’t impress many NBA critics with his “sore loser’’ behavior last season following the team’s Eastern Conference finals loss to Orlando, so each superstar has motivation. O’Neal wants to prove he is capable of helping a team to victory after playing in just nine postseason games since the title in 2006 with the Heat. James wants to bring his hometown to the pinnacle and shake the tag of being the league’s best player without a championship.

So each has a reason to embrace and foster the partnership. O’Neal insists he understands that he is no longer a consistently dominant player, but stresses that he has enough to aid James’s title run.

“He’s a great player, a very, very unselfish player,’’ O’Neal said of James after a recent practice. “He likes to pass the ball. I like to pass the ball. We’re not going to have any problems. I am not really here to grab individual accolades. I have been inserted into a damn good team. I am at the point in my career where I don’t have the knack to do it myself. Hopefully I am the piece with all the other pieces to get this team over the hump.’’

Of course, O’Neal is not the Cavaliers’ only addition. General manager Danny Ferry brought in Toronto swingman and defender Anthony Parker and high-flying Jamario Moon from Miami. Former Celtic Leon Powe also signed on and is expected to be healthy by February.

The Cavaliers were embarrassed during the playoff loss to the Magic because they couldn’t stop Dwight Howard, and because James’s complements, including highly regarded Mo Williams, offered little support. So Ferry ramped up the supporting cast for what could be the most pivotal season in Cleveland’s checkered history.

James can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, and his decision may depend on how the Cavaliers fare this season. But actually, Ferry acquired O’Neal at a bargain rate. He dealt the expiring contracts of Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic to salary-shedding Phoenix for Shaq. Neither player was a factor in the postseason and O’Neal’s contract expires at season’s end, so Ferry made no long-term commitment.

“Everybody in this league has always looked at Shaq like the Godfather of the league,’’ James told Cleveland reporters last week. “When you come into this league, you need to get to know him, like the guy needs to sign some papers before you play a game. I have always been comfortable with being around him. It’s not hard to get along with Shaq.’’

The Cavaliers are hoping Shaq can create double teams, open space, and allow the hulking James to dart in the lane for easy scores. If O’Neal is single-covered, he is bigger and stronger than most NBA centers and will bull his way for dunks.

He provides more resistance to Orlando’s Howard than Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

“When LeBron puts the ball in our hands, we got to take a high-percentage shot or kick it to someone to take a high-percentage shot. It’s our job to make him look good,’’ O’Neal said. “It’s going to be fun. He’s already emerged as one of the top three players in the game. We’re here to take care of business.’’

Cleveland coach Mike Brown has had to devote more time to the situation of Delonte West, the former Celtic who was stopped for gun possession in Maryland and then missed two practices unexcused to begin camp. West is slated to start at shooting guard, and his play could be key to Cleveland’s success.

“We’ve got to have a bunker mentality. The reality of it is, there are going to be a lot more distractions,’’ Brown told Cleveland reporters. “We have to try as best we can to maintain that bunker mentality by not allowing outside influences to take us off course.’’

The LeBron-Shaq tour begins tomorrow night against the Celtics and both say they are focused more on the championship goal and less on the attention their partnership garners. O’Neal has been through this before, and the first two collaborations ended sourly. At 37, O’Neal said he better understands his place in the game.

Magic Johnson aided Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s final years. Tim Duncan took pressure off an aging David Robinson. Relinquishing the crown is not easy for the king, but history shows it’s necessary for team success. James said he has shared a strong relationship with O’Neal through the years, and he has no reason to think that won’t continue during this critical season.

“I think people look too far into individuals than the team aspect of things. They think two stars can’t coexist,’’ James said. “That’s not just about me and Shaq, it’s about the whole team.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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