How Shaq Improves Suns
by Trevor Whenham - 02/14/2008
Stop me if you have heard this recently - we need to examine the impact of trade in the NBA that brings a superstar from a terrible Eastern Conference team to an elite team in the West. Last week this article was about Pau Gasol and the Lakers. This week I will look at Shaquille O'Neal and the Phoenix Suns. Who will it be next week?
Steve Kerr is in his first season as general manager of the Suns. He obviously doesn't want to ease into the position. This trade has a huge potential reward, but the risk for him to look ridiculous and have a short and painful GM career is at least as great. When Shaq was at his best he was perhaps the most dominant, game-changing player of his generation. He's clearly no longer at his best, though. The degree to which he can contribute will determine whether the Suns finally get the title they have hungered for and been close to for years, or if They run out of time with Steve Nash and Grant Hill.
This trade is so exceptionally hard to evaluate and handicap because it involves two players who couldn't be any more different. Shawn Marion is freakishly athletic and incredibly fast. He can score, he can rebound, and he plays stout defense. Shaq is big and slow, but he is almost impossible to move once he decides he wants to be somewhere. He isn't as healthy or agile as he once was, and he hasn't been scoring or rebounding at the rate that he once did, but he is still a feared player who frequently draws a double team. About the only thing the two players have in common is that neither of them was happy where they were, and they weren't making the players around them happy, either.
The response to the trade from the Phoenix perspective has largely been shock and disbelief. It was an unexpected move, and it isn't one that fills what would have seemed to be an obvious need besides getting rid of Marion. The more I think about it, though, the more optimistic I get about this trade. As a Canadian I am obligated to be a Steve Nash fan. This move gives him the best look at a title that he has ever had. It will create serious headaches for handicappers down the stretch, though. Here are four reasons I think Shaq makes this team more attractive to bet on and makes them more competitive now and into the playoffs:
The foul line - Phoenix is the fourth best team in the league for free throw percentage. The problem is that 24 other teams get to the line more often than they do. Shaq is very good at drawing fouls, and the offense can be designed to make sure he does just that. Scoring free points is a key to winning tight games in the playoffs, and with Shaq the Suns have instantly found a way to get to the bonus much more quickly. Shaq himself is still incomprehensibly bad on the line, but once the team is in the bonus they can work on getting other players to the line. This is a potent addition for a team that already scores as well as anyone.
Double teams - Shaq might be a step or three off of his peak, but he is still one of the more feared players in the league, and he often warrants a double team. Phoenix shoots so well, and has so many shooting options that a double team means that a dangerous shooter is going to be open. The Suns are the best field goal team in the league, and second in three pointers. That gives opposing teams a serious headache - do you double Shaq and leave someone under-covered, or do you let Shaq wreak havoc in a one-on-one matchup under the basket? Neither option is very attractive. The impact of this is at least as bad for teams psychologically as it is in reality - playing Phoenix will instantly become much more intimidating and frustrating the second he steps on the court the first time.
He's not taking anyone's place - At first I was concerned that Shaq was so unlike anything that this team had that he would struggle to fit in. I still think that the team might struggle in the short term to figure out how to fit a gigantic slug into a high-flying offense. What will make that much easier, though, is that Shaq won't be competing with anyone significant on the roster for a role. There is no one like him on the team, so there will be no toes stepped on, hurt feelings, or adjustment pains as guys have to learn how to share. The other payers will have to learn to play with him, but they won't have to give up the things they value to do that. That will make it much easier and more effective.
Experience - Shaq might be on the decline, but he is still one of the great players of all time. He has four rings, and he is hungry for more. He has been in a bad situation in Miami for a year now, and the change of scenery to a winner should be a boost for him. It certainly was when he joined Miami. Shaq wants to win and he knows how to win. Nash and Hill and the rest of the team is dying to win, and they are thrilled to have the big guy there. The younger payers in Phoenix can learn from being around Shaq, and Nash and Hill will do everything in their power to maximize what he brings to the team. What Shaq brings to the locker room is potentially more significant that what he brings to the court, so I'm not even terribly concerned if he isn't perfectly healthy.