Wherever Shaq Goes, Controversy FollowsIsn't it interesting that every single one of Shaquille O'Neal's teams has had chemistry issues relating specifically to the Big Diesel? First it was Shaq and Penny in Orlando. Then it was--stop me if you've heard about this one--Shaq and Kobe in L.A. O'Neal did fulfill his promise to bring a championship parade to Miami--with more than a little help from Dwyane Wade--but when the Heat's ship began sinking O'Neal suddenly had health issues that magically disappeared soon after the Phoenix Suns traded for him, giving him a get out of jail card from the worst team in the league last season.
O'Neal has not even been in Phoenix for a full year and "Seven Seconds or Less" has already turned into "Days of Our Lives." I thought that O'Neal was petulant in Orlando, immature in L.A. and that he basically quit on the Heat but I must say that--based on what is publicly known--I don't think that the Phoenix drama is his fault, even though it revolves around what his presence on the team means in terms of tempo and shot distribution.
Steve Nash has openly questioned whether new Coach Terry Porter's slow down game plan will work; as an aside, with the Suns currently 11-9 and Mike D'Antoni's undermanned New York Knicks contending for a playoff spot in the East at 8-10, we may now know the answer to the question about whether Phoenix' success in previous years was due more to Steve Nash or to D'Antoni's system, a system which this season has vaulted journeyman point guard Chris Duhon to a place among the league leaders in assists.
Meanwhile, Amare Stoudemire is griping that he should be "that guy," the focal point of the Suns the way that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are the focal points of their franchises.
You know that the world has been turned upside down when O'Neal is the mature voice of reason; he correctly said that the players don't need Coach Porter's permission to run--just get the rebound and go. O'Neal has been smart enough in Phoenix to understand that he would look like an idiot if he started demanding the ball the way that he did when Bryant was emerging as a star in L.A.; it seemed like the whole world was on the charismatic O'Neal's side at that time but everyone can see that O'Neal is in no condition to be a franchise player now. O'Neal is willing to rebound, defend and accept whatever low post scoring opportunities come his way, so the Suns should be glad that his arrival put an end to the rebounding problems that plagued them for years. As a TNT graphic showed during Dallas' 112-97 win over Phoenix on Thursday night, with O'Neal on board the Suns closed out last season on a 15-5 run; during those games they had a +3.9 rebounding differential and they averaged 112.0 ppg, which clearly proves that they can benefit from O'Neal's paint presence without having to slow down their fast breaking attack. They beat their perennial nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs, in two regular season games after acquiring O'Neal and seemed to have the Spurs handled in game one of their playoff series but when the Spurs came back to win that contest it apparently sucked all of the life out of the Suns--possibly even carrying over into their desultory start to this season.
Stoudemire scored a team-high 28 points versus Dallas and he attempted 21 field goals, 10 more than anyone else on the team. However, he only had five rebounds, he committed a team-high four turnovers and his Dallas counterpart, Dirk Nowitzki, was far and away the best player on the floor, scoring a season-high 39 points on 17-25 shooting while grabbing nine rebounds.
Stoudemire should be happy to play power forward alongside O'Neal, because both offensively and defensively O'Neal is really taking a burden off of him by matching up with the opposing team's biggest player. Remember how O'Neal pledged last season to help turn Stoudemire into the best power forward in the NBA? The problem is that Stoudemire is so focused on having a big payday in 2010 when he becomes a free agent that it seems like all he cares about is his scoring average. What about rebounding the ball, blocking shots and playing sound overall defense?
The ex-players on TNT and NBA TV are not at all sympathetic to Stoudemire's complaints. Chris Webber said that if he could have played with O'Neal and Nash then he would have won a ring; that led to a funny retort from Kenny Smith about whether Webber wanted to say something to former teammates Vlade Divac and Mike Bibby, who of course played the same positions alongside Webber in Sacramento that O'Neal and Nash respectively play in Phoenix. Webber also made the excellent point that unless you are averaging at least 10 rpg as a big guy you cannot say that you are the man. Charles Barkley echoed that last sentiment and added that a true franchise player never has to declare that he is the man; he simply dominates games and everyone else falls into line. Smith pointed out that Stoudemire is already leading the team in minutes and scoring and that the only reason his numbers are down from last year is that Phoenix is playing at a slower pace, hence there are fewer possessions.
Does Kobe Bryant have to tell anyone that he is "that guy" for the Lakers? How about LeBron James in Cleveland? Can you imagine Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan or Julius Erving making such a statement during their primes? Often, it seems that people who talk about being "that guy" are in fact, not really "that guy" after all--such as Stephon Marbury, the self proclaimed best point guard on the planet. Amare Stoudemire is a very good player but he is already the focal point of his team's offense anyway so, as Smith noted, it is not clear what he is complaining about in the first place. Stoudemire is playing alongside two former MVPs and has a talented supporting cast with Grant Hill, Leandro Barbosa, Raja Bell and Boris Diaw, so if he wants to be "that guy" there is a simple solution: lead the Suns to the top of the standings. There is no question that the Suns have enough talent to be an upper echelon team; the question is whether or not they are willing to do the necessary work at the defensive end of the court to reach that status. It is much easier to complain and make excuses than it is to stay focused and work hard. If you are "that guy" then you set the tone for your teammates in terms of playing hard on defense, work ethic and overall intensity.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:57 AM