Shaq in ‘better shape’ now

Brian Windhorst of Cleveland.com reports that Shaquille O’Neal appears to be in better shape now than when he first injured his hand.

He wasn’t on a scale, but to the naked eye he appears to have lost weight since he went down with the injury just about a month ago.

When he left to go to Florida after the surgery he was telling teammates that he’d not just be back before the end of the regular season, but that he’d be in better shape when he comes back than went he left.

Nothing can prepare anyone for playing in real games and it will probably take a while for him to get some rhythm when he does return. But if there were any concerns about O’Neal letting himself go because he’s not playing, take it from me — it appears to have been quite the opposite.

When we learned that O’Neal was going to miss significant time due to thumb surgery, his overall conditioning was a huge concern, no pun intended. While cardio-vascular conditioning is different from overall weight, it’s a lot easier to get back into playing shape if you’re not carrying around 10-20 lbs of extra weight. And it appears that Shaq has been serious about his conditioning while he’s been injured.

If true, this is a big boost for the Cavs’ title hopes (and chances of retaining LeBron this summer).


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Clippers fire Dunleavy…for LeBron?

A few weeks ago, Mike Dunleavy gave up his coaching duties and now the Clippers have announced that he’s no longer the general manager, either.

Here is an excerpt from the press release posted on the team’s website…

The organization has determined that the goal of building a winning team is best served by making this decision at this time. The team has simply not made sufficient progress during Dunleavy’s seven-year tenure. The Clippers want to win now. This transition, in conjunction with a full commitment to dedicate unlimited resources, is designed to accomplish that objective.

Ouch.

FanHouse suggests that the move may be aimed at giving LeBron the ability to name his next head coach and general manager.

The Clippers, according to another source within the organization, are hoping to persuade James to come if he also can pick his coach, and possibly his general manager.

Aside from the franchise’s reputation for one blunder after another, the Clippers will have some attractive assets to offer a free agent like James. Kaman is one of the league’s best centers. Power forward Blake Griffin, who missed this season with a knee injury, is considered a sure-bet star on the rise. Davis is a former All-Star, and young guard Eric Gordon has great potential.

While a lineup consisting of Davis, Gordon, LeBron, Griffin and Kaman would certainly be imposing, let’s remember that this is the Clippers. Would LeBron really be willing to risk his career on a franchise that, aside from a good season here and there, has been a complete mess for its entire history?

If the Cavs fail to win a title this season, and the Knicks, Bulls and Heat don’t bowl him over, the prospect of playing for Phil Jackson and being able to name a trustworthy general manager might be enough to convince him to play for the Clippers.

But I doubt it.


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Where will LeBron land?

That’s the biggest question hovering over the NBA this season, at least from a free agency standpoint. ESPN tackled this issue by surveying a group of “52 NBA noggins” to see what the general consensus is.

The good news for Cleveland fans is that 73% responded that he’s likely to stay put, in no small part to how the economy has affected the NBA salary cap. The bottom line is that, with reduced cap space, other teams are going to have a tough time signing two superstars, so they become less desirable destinations for LeBron.

New York still lurks as the biggest threat to pry LeBron away from Cleveland, and here’s why…

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Who will have cap space in 2010?

ESPN’s Chad Ford lists nine teams that will have significant cap space next summer. [Insider subscription required.]

1. Nets ($25-$27 million)
2. Knicks ($24 million, assuming they don’t sign anyone for longer than a year)
3. Heat ($20-$22 million)
4. Timberwolves ($16-$18 million)
5. Bulls ($13-$15 million minus whatever they give Tyrus Thomas)
6. Thunder ($14-$15 million)
7. Rockets ($12-$14 million minus whatever they give to Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes)
8. Clippers ($10-$11 million)
9. Kings ($9-$10 million)

This assumes a cap of $53.6 million, which is an optimistic view. The cap could drop below $50 million.

It takes about $14 million of space to sign a max-contract player, so even under these optimistic circumstances, there really are only five teams — the Nets, Knicks, Heat, T-Wolves and Thunder — that will have that kind of space. (The Bulls are likely to keep Thomas and the Rockets are likely to retain Landry and Hayes, though they could make another move here or there to put them in position to add a superstar.)

Of these five teams, the Heat look to be in the best overall shape. Their projected payroll already includes Dwyane Wade, so they have enough to woo another superstar (LeBron, Bosh, Amare, Boozer?) to Miami. They also have a few good young players (Michael Beasley, Daequan Cook and Mario Chalmers) under contract, and the city boasts a great climate and nightlife. But the real draw is playing with Wade, who has already proven that he can win a championship if he has a little help.

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LeBron James will not sign an extension this summer

It was kind of a pipe dream anyway, but LeBron isn’t going to sign the extension that the Cavs have offered, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“I signed a contract in 2006 with an option,” he said. “It would make no sense for me to sign that contract if I didn’t keep my options open. I’ll let you fill in the blanks.”

James is playing this one the right way. If he re-ups now, then he loses the leverage necessary to keep GM Danny Ferry’s feet to the fire in terms of bringing in some long-term help. Shaquille O’Neal is fine for a year or two, but he’s most definitely a short-term fix.

The bad news is that with the long-term commitment the team made to Anderson Varejao, the Cavs aren’t projected to have any cap space next summer if they’re lucky enough to re-sign LeBron. It looks like Ferry sees the writing on the wall — with the salary cap likely dropping to $50-$51 million next season, he wasn’t going to have enough money to sign LeBron and another superstar, so he re-signed Varejao to make this year’s Cavs team as good as possible in the hopes that a Finals appearance or a championship would be enough to keep LeBron in Cleveland.

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