With the move of Shaquille O’Neal to Phoenix for Shawn Marion apparently only a doctor’s word away from fruition, a strange season in the tightly-packed Western Conference just got a whole lot goofier.
As teams jockey for position in a circuit ripe for the picking, GMs may be losing their heads. The Lakers’ Mitch Kupchak, savvy veteran of the front office wars that he is, took a logical risk in taking on Pau Gasol from Memphis. This was the first year of contention for this group of Lakers anyway and they had the Andrew Bynum injury with which to deal.
Kupchak didn’t have to break up his core to make his deal; bringing in Gasol merely rearranges his components. The chemistry might not work as well as L.A. hopes it will, but there is no denying that from a talent standpoint, the trade was a boost for the Lakers.
With the trade of Shaquille O’Neal to Phoenix for Shawn Marion, the Suns have become a brand-spanking-new team, a much older team, and a team facing a steep dropoff at some point within the next couple of years--a Miami-style tumble.
With the Suns and Lakers both having stepped up to the plate, the Mavericks now are at the dish. Dallas’ dilemma is more similar to that of Phoenix than L.A. With the Mavs already nearly $40 million over the cap, they will have to part with productive young talent to make any significant acquisition. Jason Kidd rumors have suggested that he would cost Dallas Devin Harris. Shaq-to-Dallas speculation said that Josh Howard would have been headed to Miami. The Kidd deal probably makes more sense, at least if you believe that that there is a significant difference in productivity between Harris and Kidd at this point in their careers--and that any difference favors Kidd. As much as it pains Mark Cuban to be an idle bystander, the Mavericks might be better off sitting out the current trade bazaar.
As for the Suns, their focus in making this deal was obviously short term. Steve Nash just turned 34, Raja Bell is 31 and Grant Hill is 35, and that’s three-fifths of the Suns’ starting lineup. I'm not sure, even taking into account the necessity of adopting a win-now stance, the Suns' team age justifies Steve Kerr’s thinking.
It’s true that Marion, for whatever reason, was not happy in Phoenix. Getting to run the floor, fire up threes and catch alley-oop passes from Nash must really suck. Marion apparently thinks basketball nirvana is shooting at will for a bad team.
(It’s not. I once thought that it was. Then I was on a really horrific intramural team for my fraternity at Mizzou. I don’t think anyone else had hardly ever picked up a basketball. We’d lose like 90-35, with me getting 30 of our points by shooting 12-for-50. It wasn’t as much fun as I thought it’d be.)
While Marion has been a little off his game from last season, he still rates as one of the 15 best players in the NBA. Whatever attitude problems he may have been having, it was not impacting the Suns’ ability to win games. Marion can opt out of his contract after the season, leaving more than $17 million on the table in the process. But that’s after the season.
In the meantime, the Suns could have kept a core group intact that was probably an Amare Stoudemire suspension away from winning the NBA title last season. Yes, there are some differences from last season’s roster. The loss of Kurt Thomas for cap reasons left Phoenix short of quality interior defenders. The Suns get absolutely killed by opposing centers, who have a collective 21 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) against Phoenix, according to 82games.com. That is a relatively small quibble, a little roster tweak that Kerr could have addressed in a much more low-key manner than by trading for one of the NBA’s preeminent characters.
In Kerr’s defense, the danger is that Marion ultimately walks after the season. Since Phoenix would still be slightly over the cap even with Marion’s contract off the books, the Suns would have to fill his spot with a mid-level exception and then would be stuck with a combination of that middling free agent and Boris Diaw at the four spot. Perhaps that was a risk Kerr wasn’t willing to take. Instead, he’s gambling that O’Neal, with two more years on his contract after this one, at $20 million per annum, will buy Phoenix an extra year at the top of the NBA ladder before a complete overhaul takes place in 2010.
Nevertheless, you have to think that the key motivation for Kerr is to maximize the Suns’ opportunity to win the title this season. So before making this trade, he had to ask: “Does this make us better now?”
Needless to say, the swap of Marion for O’Neal completely changes the dynamic of the Suns.
First, the notion should be dispelled that Shaq--if healthy--can no longer play. O’Neal is a shell of his former self. That shell is still an above-average NBA big man, and brings a defensive skill set that Phoenix lacked almost entirely. O’Neal is averaging 19.9 points and 10.9 rebounds per 40 minutes, and despite playing for a Miami team devoid of offensive options, he shot 58.1 percent from the field for the Heat. For players with at least 500 minutes played, O’Neal still has one of the top 15 foul-drawing rates in the game. He still blocks more than two shots per 40 minutes and, digging into my defensive numbers, opposing centers have operated at an efficiency rate of 96.8 percent of their typical output in their matchups with O’Neal: He’s still an above-average defender.
So Shaq can still play, but can he play in Phoenix’s system?
What the Suns have to hope for is that gains in their halfcourt offense can neutralize the losses in their transition game. Make no mistake about it: there will be a dropoff in Phoenix’s fast break attack. Marion is one of the fastest players in the league from baseline to baseline and the advantage he had in footspeed over opposing power forwards is not likely to be compensated for.
That’s not to say that the Suns’ fastbreak is dead. Stoudamire, who will shift to his natural position at the four, is no slouch at running the floor. He may not be able to consistently outrun teams with small-ball offenses, like Golden State, but for the most part, he’ll still be a plus for Phoenix in this aspect. O’Neal should give a modest boost to the Suns’ performance on the boards, as well, though Marion is a terrific rebounder in his own right. Still, if Phoenix is able to do a better job of controlling the defensive boards, that only enhances its ability to get into a fast break mode.
There is actually a long tradition of plodding centers functioning well on fast-break teams. The ’72 Lakers were the highest-scoring team in the league with 35-year-old Wilt Chamberlain averaging 42 minutes per game. Chamberlain shot less than 10 times per contest, content to lead the league in rebounding and start the L.A. break. The “Showtime” Lakers of the ‘80s featured an aging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. So I’m not concerned about whether the Suns’ uptempo attack can still function with O’Neal in the middle.
I am concerned, however, about what happens to Phoenix’s dangerous halfcourt offense. Right now, the Suns generally spread the floor, with Nash controlling the ball up top and the two, three and four players planting themselves on the perimeter. Stoudamire sets the offense in motion with a high screen. Nash will either dish the ball to Stoudamire as he rolls to the basket or, if someone helps from the outside, he’ll dish to the open man for a three or a drive to the hoop or, if the defense sags off of Nash and tries to deny an entry pass to Stoudamire, Nash will simply pop a three-point shot with deadly accuracy. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the basic foundation.
Now, O’Neal will clog things up. He is far too slow afoot at this juncture of his career to run the high pick-and-roll, and when Nash runs the play with Stoudamire, O’Neal will have to clear out of the way. Of course, he’s not a candidate to shoot a jump shot, so when that happens, O’Neal will be effectively removed from the offense. Suddenly the mismatches for Phoenix’s outside shooters become harder to come by.
So Mike D’Antoni is going to have to reconfigure things a little bit, likely to his chagrin. O’Neal, a plodding brute of a center, doesn’t really fit into the European-style attack that D’Antoni favors. If he wants to maximize O’Neal on the defensive end, then perhaps he’ll have to use Leandro Barbosa even more time than he does now to give Phoenix another guy that can break down the defense. That weakens the Suns’ perimeter defense, which will already be hurting because of the switch from Marion to Stoudemire guarding opposing power forwards. Think Dirk Nowitzki is happy today?
Like I said, this trade changes the whole dynamic in Phoenix. Steve Kerr might have felt backed against a wall, with Marion’s desire to bail and the much-ballyhooed move of Gasol to L.A. However, if the only consideration for Kerr was winning this year, he probably would have been better off standing pat. None of this even addresses the concerns about O’Neal’s health, and that’s probably the biggest issue of all. If O’Neal is unable to stay on the court, then this trade turns out to be an absolute disaster for Phoenix.
The bottom line is that the Suns were probably the odds-on favorite to win the championship before this trade was made. They were far from an overwhelming favorite, but the favorite nonetheless. Now, who knows?
In the end, the trade changes the modus operandi of the Suns, both from the standpoint of their efficiencies on both ends of the court and their overall style of play. What they already had worked--they were on the cusp of beating the Spurs last season, and there is no reason they couldn’t go even further this season. Yes, they needed another interior defender to fill the Kurt Thomas role, but this is the answer? The Suns’ starting lineup now includes three players aged 34 or older. Their window for success just got a lot smaller.
As for the Heat…
This was a real coup for Pat Riley, who can suddenly reshape the woebegone Heat much faster than anyone could have hoped for. I, for one, thought that O’Neal’s albatross of a contract would be immovable this season and probably next season, as well. But now, with that money off the books, he has a half-season to audition Marion, and perhaps more if the mercurial forward likes what he sees in south Florida and exercises his option to play for Miami next year.
Meanwhile, Riley has a top-five lottery pick coming up and will be shedding Jason Williams, Ricky Davis and Alonzo Mourning from his payroll. He should be in a position to pursue some of the ample bounty in the next free-agent crop, and if Marion opts out, he may be able to fit in two impact talents. With a little craftiness and a lot of luck, next year’s Heat lineup could include a healthier Dwyane Wade, Marion, Michael Beasley and somebody like Jermaine O’Neal.
The long dark age that appeared to be descending over Miami may not come at all. How quickly things can change in a day.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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