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Friday, February 08, 2008

The Real Deal About Shaq and the Suns

In order to objectively evaluate the deal in which the Phoenix Suns sent Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to the Miami Heat in exchange for Shaquille O'Neal, it is first essential to understand one thing: the Suns were not going to win an NBA title the way that their roster was constructed prior to this trade. Over the past few years, a lot of myths have developed around this team; one of the most popular ones is that were it not for the one game suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw during last year's playoffs the Suns would have rolled to the championship. To use legal terminology, that assumes several facts that are not in evidence, namely that the Suns would not only have won game five versus the Spurs if those players had played but that the Suns would have won the series and then beaten Utah in the Western Conference Finals and then defeated Cleveland in the NBA Finals. San Antonio has been known to win big playoff games in adverse situations, so even if the Suns had won game five with Stoudemire and Diaw--which I am not at all convinced would have happened--the Spurs still would have had an opportunity to win the series by taking care of business at home and then winning game seven on the road. Utah and Cleveland both have the kind of big, bruising frontcourts that cause the Suns problems in the playoffs. Suns' supporters also have reasons (excuses) to explain each of the team's previous failures to win a championship during the Steve Nash era but the bottom line is that this team has been weak in the paint both in terms of rebounding and defense and those deficiencies have prevented them from even winning the West, let alone winning a championship. The Suns' gaudy record this season, like their gaudy records in previous seasons, is a mirage in terms of forecasting postseason success; the Suns are 5-10 versus the other West teams that have winning records and those are the teams that they have to beat to win a title. It does not matter one bit if the Suns' running style helps them win more regular season games against bad teams than the other contenders do; a team that is soft in the paint is not going to win an NBA title.

Any Suns fan who is opposed to the Marion/Banks-O'Neal trade needs to read and reread the above paragraph until he understands it and accepts it as fact. Suns President Steve Kerr obviously already figured this out, telling TNT's studio crew on Thursday, "I saw a lot of weaknesses in our game, especially on the low block...I just felt very vulnerable as a team...We have a very good record but I wasn't sure that we were good enough as we were constituted to go ahead and really succeed in the playoffs." By "succeed," Kerr means to win a championship and he is certainly correct: the Suns were not going to win a title without adding some size to their roster. That does not mean that acquiring O'Neal guarantees a championship for the Suns; O'Neal will have to prove that he can stay healthy and be productive enough to make the difference in the playoffs versus the best teams in the West. Maybe he can do that and maybe he can't--but the Suns are more likely to win a championship now than they were prior to doing this deal and that is all that their fans can reasonably expect from the front office; the rest is up to the players and the coaching staff.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:48 AM



At Saturday, February 09, 2008 11:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am a big fan of the Diesel when motivated but I think the media glosses over the fact that he is a terrible "team guy"

He's a great interview but do you have any faith that Shaq will give his all-out effort if the Suns go down 3-0 in a series?

Also, hack-a-Shaq seems to work pretty effectively to negate Shaq's crunch-time game. What do you think the Suns plan for this situation will be?

BTW, did the Dayton Daily News turn down one of your stories? (Ha!)

Keep up the good work.


At Sunday, February 10, 2008 1:04:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that Shaq is somewhat of a front runner in terms of being a team guy: he talks a good game but, as Bill Walton noted on NBA Shootaround, if things fall apart then Shaq is quick to blame everyone else.

Still, I think that this is a deal that Phx had to make. No one could have imagined before this season that the Heat would be this terrible and that Shaq would be shopped. Miami's misery opened up a great opportunity for Phx, a team that was stuck in a rut of being a great regular season team that was not constructed to win a title; now the Suns at least have the right composition to win. Of course, how much Shaq has left in the tank is a big question but I am confident that the Suns would not have won a championship this year without making this deal--and their management obviously saw the light about this as well.

I disagree that Hack a Shaq is an effective strategy. NBA teams typically score about a point per possession. As long as Shaq makes 1 out of 2, his team is not really losing anything in the long run. Then, you have to factor in that this messes up the hacking team's offensive rhythm and allows Shaq's team to set up its halfcourt defense, because you cannot fastbreak off of made or missed free throws. Also, Shaq often responds to this treatment by making more than 50% of his free throws. Of course, if Shaq has the ball and is about to dunk, particularly late in the game, then you hammer him and make him shoot two free throws. I just hate to see teams eschew playing defense in favor of bear hugging a guy before his team even runs an offensive set. Have you ever seen a good defensive team do this? Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like it is always the defensively challenged teams that go this route and I honestly cannot recall an instance of this strategy working. I've actually charted this on a few occasions and my recollection is that the hacking team at best stays even while doing this and usually has a negative point differential while hacking.

The Suns will handle close late game situations just like the Lakers did when they had Shaq and Kobe: then the ball was in Kobe's hands to either shoot or else feed Shaq for a dunk, whereas now the ball will be in Nash's hands. Shaq will only see the ball if he is catching a lob for an uncontested dunk. If he can give the Suns 14 and 8 plus clog up the paint on defense then he will indeed help this team. I still think that the Spurs will beat them if Duncan, Manu and Parker are healthy but the Suns had to make this move.

I've never submitted anything to the DDN, in no small part because of the exact issues that I mentioned in my post.


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