Dawn of the Shaq Era in the Valley of the SunWednesday was quite a day in Phoenix. The Suns lost a double overtime thriller to the New Orleans Hornets but that game--perhaps the game of the year so far in the NBA--was just an afterthought to the news that the Suns traded Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to the Miami Heat for Shaquille O'Neal. If you understand basketball then you realize that the two stories are actually connected, so let's look how some of the things that occurred in the game shed light on why the trade happened and what we can expect to see from the revamped Suns.
First, though, it is worth pondering what this deal means for Miami. No one seems to be saying much about that, probably because the Heat are the worst team in the league--or at least they were before they acquired Marion. A Dwyane Wade-Shawn Marion duo should result in an immediate improvement in the Heat's fortunes; this pairing certainly provides Wade an opportunity to prove that he is as good as his press clippings and enables Marion to show that he is indeed an underrated player. After seeing what Wade and Marion can do together, the Heat will have the option of either keeping Marion for the long term or letting him go and using that extra salary cap room to acquire a top free agent. The Heat have completely flipped the script; they brought in O'Neal as a short term fix to win immediately, they got one title out of the deal and now they have gotten rid of him and his bloated salary to bring in a young All-Star level player as a possible running mate for Wade. Now the Heat have gone from a short term window--that closed with a bang during last year's playoff loss to Chicago--to a long term one.
Before breaking down the Phoenix-New Orleans contest, I have to bring up a couple things that Suns commentator Eddie Johnson said during the game; one made no sense but the other was a solid observation. Johnson attempted to refute the idea that O'Neal will slow down the Suns' fast break by declaring, "I never saw Kareem running a lane." Johnson played against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for several seasons, so he knows better than that. Abdul-Jabbar was in fact a highly mobile center for most of his career and he often ran the floor and received passes that he converted into fast break dunks; he won the 1985 Finals MVP at the age of 38. It is true that in Jabbar's last couple seasons he slowed down a lot but he was already past 40 by that time, several years older than O'Neal is now. Johnson redeemed himself a bit later in the telecast when Chris Paul stole a Steve Nash pass and went coast to coast for a layup near the end of the first half. Johnson said, "If you have TiVo, you need to rewind that and see how quick he picked that pass off. Not many guys can pick a bounce pass off like that laterally." That comment fits in with what Lakers Coach Phil Jackson told me about Paul's "nose for the ball."
New Orleans improved to 3-0 versus Phoenix this season with this 132-130 victory. Paul won the point guard matchup over Nash; Paul finished with 42 points, nine assists, five rebounds, eight steals and one turnover, while Nash had 32 points, 12 assists, four rebounds, one steal and 10 turnovers. The near symmetry between Paul's steals and Nash's turnovers is not a coincidence, because Paul picked Nash's pocket on several occasions, including a key play with :54 remaining in the second overtime and the Hornets clinging to a 128-127 lead. Neither player guarded the other head to head exclusively but Nash had trouble defending both Paul and Jannero Pargo, who scored 22 points. Nash certainly tries hard on defense and he is a good team defender--meaning that he knows the rotations and is in the correct position most of the time--but his suspect individual defense puts his frontcourt players in jeopardy of getting into foul trouble, something that has increasingly become a problem for O'Neal as he gets older and slower. Amare Stoudemire (26 points, 20 rebounds) is younger and much more mobile than O'Neal but he had five fouls in this game and he also had five fouls in each of the previous two games. Stoudemire is averaging just under four fouls per game this season.
The Suns are getting outrebounded by 5.9 rpg this season and they were without the services of both the traded Marion and the just arrived O'Neal but they caught a break versus New Orleans because Tyson Chandler was not able to play. Chandler's absence and Stoudemire's season-high rebounding total actually enabled the Suns to outrebound the Hornets 47-45 but the Hornets parlayed their 15 offensive rebounds plus Paul's steals into 18 extra field goal attempts. Phoenix shot .552 from the field and still lost because New Orleans had the ball so many more times.
This game was actually a quintessential game for the pre-Shaq Suns: they shot the ball well, scored a lot of points and lost to a good team that made more plays down the stretch. It was just like watching Phoenix in the playoffs the past few years and that should not surprise anyone--the Suns are 5-10 this year against Western Conference teams that have winning records. Since the Suns have the best record in the West, you can do the math and figure out that they are very good at pulverizing weak teams on a consistent basis; that is how they roll up such great regular season records year after year. Most NBA teams are not equipped to deal with the Suns' talent and with the fast pace that they play at--but the league's top teams beat Phoenix more often than not in the regular season and then they eliminate the Suns in the playoffs. Every year, the Suns have a different excuse for why they did not win a championship, ignoring the reality that every team that wins a title overcame various forms of adversity. Suns' President Steve Kerr conceded that the Suns as constituted before the O'Neal trade might be able to win a title if everything broke just right and they got favorable playoff matchups but he believes that adding O'Neal turns them into a more dangerous playoff team.
For several seasons, Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni has tried to convince the world that the Suns could win an NBA championship without a dominant post player and without having the best player in the game (Steve Nash may have convinced the writers that he was the best player in the NBA but that was never the case and he was never the best player on the court when the Suns got eliminated twice by Tim Duncan's Spurs and once by Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks). Historically, championship teams have been anchored by a great post player; the Jordan-Pippen Bulls were a notable exception and there have been a few other teams that won a title as an ensemble cast that neither had a dominant post player nor the best player in the league--but the Bulls and those other teams (2004 Pistons, 1989-90 Pistons) were tremendous defensive teams, something that has never been true of the Suns. Without Kurt Thomas this season, the Suns have struggled against any team that has powerful inside players and it was unlikely that the Suns could avoid a fatal matchup with one of those teams in the playoffs.
Adding O'Neal to the mix instantly makes the Suns a bigger, more physical team. He will improve the team's defensive rebounding and provide a solid option in the halfcourt offense when the Suns' running game gets slowed down. The other advantage of adding him to the roster is something that TNT's Kenny Smith talks about sometimes: it enables all of the players to return to their natural positions, most notably returning Stoudemire to his preferred spot at power forward. Of course, there are several notable downsides to this trade. The Suns exchanged their most active and versatile defender for a player who has always been disinclined to defend the pick and roll play and may actually no longer be able to do so physically. O'Neal's presence in the paint is worth something but his individual defense is not nearly as good as Marion's and if O'Neal continues to get in foul trouble then he will spend long stretches anchored to the bench instead of patrolling the paint. Though the positive spin is that the Suns are now able to put all of their players in their natural positions, one could also argue that the Suns are replicating the failed recipe used by the turn of the century Portland Trail Blazers: stockpiling "name brand" talent (O'Neal, Grant Hill) without regard for how well the players will actually be able to work together. O'Neal and Hill do not bring the off court baggage that some of those Blazers did but it is reasonable to wonder if what they do best truly meshes with the way that D'Antoni likes his teams to play and the style in which Nash has thrived for three seasons. Hill has had a solid season so far but injuries caused him to miss most of January and it is far from certain that his body can withstand a full season of run and gun basketball.
Fans like to think of O'Neal as a congenial, happy-go-lucky guy and most members of the media--pleased that O'Neal provides them a lot of good quotes--eagerly perpetuate this image. The reality is that there is no way to know if someone is a good guy or a bad guy just by interviewing him. I've interviewed O'Neal a few times in All-Star and post game settings and would not presume to know if he is a good guy or a bad guy. What we do know is that each time he has left a team at least part of the problem was that he feuded with his coach about getting more touches, playing better defense, getting in better shape or some combination of those three factors. As Michael Wallace of the Miami Herald notes, this time is no different: "O'Neal also had clashed with (Miami Coach Pat) Riley behind the scenes. O'Neal had to be restrained by reserve center Alonzo Mourning during a heated exchange with Riley during a December practice." This is the same O'Neal who cussed out Triangle Offense innovator Tex Winter during his time with the Lakers and who famously said that if the big dog is not fed (the ball) then he won't guard the house (play defense in the paint).
In contrast to O'Neal's attitude toward conditioning--which can charitably described as indifferent, at best--the top players in the league are workout fanatics. Don't just take my word for it. Check out what Portland strength and conditioning coach Bobby Medina says in reply to the question "Who would you consider, outside of the Blazers roster, to be the best conditioned players in the league?"
I know hands down Kobe Bryant. I've had the opportunity to work with him. He's a relentless worker. I've never seen a guy like him that will work as hard and as long as him. I would put LeBron in that category too. He's a tireless worker. Tim Duncan, historically, stays in great shape. He starts his workouts in early August. Most of the Spurs stay in town and they work out with him. He kind of controls the workouts in the summer time. Those are three guys that would be on the top of my list.
In other words, the three top conditioned players in the NBA are a guy who has led his team to four titles--including two of the last three--and the two guys who are the two best players in the league right now. Yes, O'Neal has also won four titles but he won the first three of them playing alongside the best conditioned player in the NBA; anyone who trumpets the fact that O'Neal won his fourth title without Bryant must also acknowledge that this year O'Neal has been a key player on the worst team in the league, a role that Bryant has never even come close to playing. If O'Neal deserves credit for the 2006 championship--and he certainly does--then he also deserves blame for the Heat's stunning and unprecedented fall. Also, if he steps right in for the Suns and starts playing like a rejuvenated player because he is on a contender again then what does that say about his effort for the Heat this season?
Wouldn't it be something if the final chapter in the Shaq-Kobe rivalry plays out in a head to head playoff matchup?
posted by David Friedman @ 7:21 AM