Not now, but don’t count out Shaq return

Two days to the trading deadline.

One more big body needed for the Lakers to clinch this thing.

A big body who can bang for a weary Pau Gasol. A big body who can score for a tiring Lamar Odom.

A big body who understands the triangle, the city, the playoffs, the pressure.



I’m not going to write it. You will rip me if I write it. You will fill up an entire Saturday sports section with hate letters if I write it.

Oh, what the heck.

Why not Shaq?


Why not bring back a guy who is no longer disliked by Phil Jackson, no longer a threat to Kobe Bryant, and no longer an embarrassment to himself?

The Phoenix Suns are open to trading everyone with a pulse. The Lakers are looking to close the deal on a championship. As recently as a month ago, everyone was dying to get rid of Lamar Odom and . . .

OK, OK, I get it. This is not a deal you make now.

I wouldn’t trade Odom now that he’s finally looked in a mirror. I wouldn’t bring the Big Combustion into the steadiest room in the league.


No Shaq now.

But don’t say no Shaq never.

There’s a funny thing about the possibility of the Lakers one day allowing one of the most polarizing, powerful presences in franchise history to end his career here.

Not everyone on the Lakers is dismissing it.


I talked to several members of the organization Tuesday about the chances that Shaquille O’Neal could return here next season, and you’d be surprised what I heard.

Nobody could speak on the record for fear of tampering charges, but everyone had an opinion, and nobody would say absolutely not.

“It’s not beyond the realm of possibility,” said one.

“The guy is still a presence,” said another.


“It’s an interesting thing to think about,” said a third.

Fact: O’Neal has one year left on a contract that would pay him $21 million next season.

Fact: The Lakers are already over the luxury-tax threshold, so that means they would actually be paying $42 million for him.

Fact: Unless they really need him, it doesn’t make sense financially.


Said one Laker: “You’re going to pay $42 million for a backup center?”

But what if they do need him?

First, what if their lack of inside strength somehow hurts them again this year and they don’t win the championship? I’ve already picked them to win. I did it while watching them win in Boston and Cleveland recently.

But what if they don’t?


And what if Andrew Bynum’s injury is not completely healed?

What if owner Jerry Buss becomes impatient and Bryant becomes frustrated and they both agree to put their Shaq problems aside?

Well, he’s out there, as strong and entertaining as ever, ranked second on the league in field-goal percentage, still scoring 17 points and grabbing nine rebounds a game.

His All-Star game flattery of Bryant was clearly an indication that, if he returns, he would understand that it’s Kobe’s team now.


His hug of Jackson in Phoenix earlier this year was also an indication that he recognizes who’s the boss.

And face it. Watching Shaq and Kobe play together in Phoenix on Sunday, didn’t you find yourself missing them?

Didn’t you wonder why the breakup had to happen?

Didn’t you think, just for a moment, that it would be so cool for them to play together one more time?


Buss was truly hurt by O’Neal’s childish insults in the final days here, but Buss is the biggest owner in sports in more ways than his wallet. He would get over it if he thought it would give him a chance to win.

Bryant was clearly cool to O’Neal’s All-Star game advances -- you had to love his line about not watching “Steel Magnolias” together -- but he will also do anything to win.

Next season, if the Lakers need him, Shaq would certainly qualify as anything.

“I can envision it happening,” said one Laker of O’Neal’s return. “But not yet.”


In the meantime, well, this scarier team just keeps getting scarier.

On Tuesday, in their first game after the All-Star break, they led the decent young Atlanta Hawks by nine points at halftime, even though Bryant had more turnovers (three) than baskets (two).

They led because Odom hasn’t stopped going to the basket since Boston, and Gasol shows up seemingly stronger every night, and a bench with a sound Trevor Ariza and experienced Jordan Farmar changes everything.

That nine-point lead became a 23-point lead in about eight blinks in the third quarter, with everybody playing defense, with Luke Walton scoring six points in that run, with the Hawks having no idea what hit them in an eventual 96-83 Lakers win.


“I like our team,” said Mitch Kupchak, Lakers general manager. “Our performance speaks for itself.”

It speaks loudly when the play of the game Tuesday was made by a guy playing his first of probably very few Lakers games, Shannon Brown, who blocked and grabbed a fast-break dunk attempt by the Hawks’ Mario West in the fourth quarter.

It speaks even louder that one of the best centers in history is available in the next two days, and the center-less Lakers don’t need him.

Not yet.