Wednesday , Feb , 06 , 2008 C.Y. Ellis

Death of the Diesel

Death of the DieselShaq is dead.

Call the hearse, carve the coffin, the relevancy of one of the game’s greatest legends has just jumped the 309. Gone. Walking dead, a Flying Dutchman 32 games dead.

I got the news this morning. Flipping between MSNBC’s coverage of Super Tuesday and Mike and Mike in the Morning on ESPN2, I see the ticker scroll the obituary: BREAKING: Miami Heat to trade Shaquille O’Neal to Phoenix Suns for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks.

R.I.P, big fella.

You can skew the news anyway you like, something that die hard fans of The Diesel and the Suns are working on now, I’m sure. There is only way to break down this deal: It’s bad for Shaq and the Suns. Granted, the Suns don’t have the unfortunate reality of being on the downside of their career, but this morning they just gave up an unreasonable level of assets to acquire an aging big man; that is the epitome of diminishing returns.

The most obvious angle on this deal is the health and eventual performance, or lack thereof, of Shaquille O’Neal. First, Shaq is not healthy, and you’ll find next to no one who would disagree with that. Here’s the news flash for you pundits out there who tout this as some sort of argument for why he’ll be better down the road: Shaq is never healthy. O’Neal, for as dominant a force as he was back in the day, has been almost continually overweight and out of shape for the past four seasons. This idea of ‘when Shaq is healthy’ has almost become tantamount to ‘when pigs fly’.

Secondly, even outside of injury, Shaq is not what he once was. The natural decline of athleticism and explosiveness is obvious, and unfortunately the erosion of skills is also apparent and often times hard to watch. Anyone expecting the Suns to receive the once typical 20 and 10 performance from Shaquille O’Neal is in for a big disappointment.

Not only does he have the obstacle of being on the downside of his career, but additionally Shaq is going to have to adjust to the fact that this Phoenix offense is simply not made for him. For those of you concerned the presence of a halfcourt player like Shaq will slow the Suns running game, rest assured that Phoenix isn’t slowing down for anyone. Phoenix will continue to run, even with O’Neal on the floor, only they’ll do it with him lagging two-thirds of the way down the court. Phoenix’s offensive output will remain much the same; Shaq’s individual numbers, however, will suffer considerably.

Even in the halfcourt offense, Shaq will be an oversized and immobile clog in the middle that was once spread out and clear for penetration. He will draw some attention, and do some good to free up shooters, but in a Phoenix offense that is primarily driven by pick and rolls, penetration and kicks, and ball movement, Shaq will ultimately amount to a really big dude standing on the block waiting to get a dunk.

The unfortunate truth is that Shaquille O’Neal is too old, too injured, and too one dimensional to be effective with Phoenix. It’s depressing to realize this, considering all Shaq has meant to the game of basketball, but sentimentality isn’t enough to smooth over reality. If the trade to Miami was indicative of just how valuable Shaq could be, then now, three years later, this deal shows just how much his stock has fallen.

If it hasn’t already become apparent to you, the Suns are not going to profit from this deal either. I’ve been an avid fan of Shawn Marion for some time now, and I’ve never held back from praising this guy. Even if he did want out of Phoenix, I still can’t agree with letting him go, not like this. Shawn Marion is the most automatically productive player I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t matter how many minutes he plays, how many plays get run for him, how many shots he takes – this guy does good things for his basketball team when he’s on the floor, period. There is literally no basketball-related skill Shawn Marion doesn’t possess. At this point it’s possible to assume there is no skill of any kind Shawn Marion doesn’t possess; this dude could fly a space shuttle for all I know.

In terms of production and focus within the offense, Shaq is the antithesis to Marion. With Marion, you don’t have to do anything for him, and he’ll run the break, clean up the offense glass, and can score from anywhere on the floor in a variety of ways. Moreover he plays defense, all the time, whether he’s getting offense or not. Expecting Shaq to have the same attitude is like expecting someone to bungee jump with no cord.

If Shaq doesn’t get his touches down on the block, several times a game, his performance on the defensive end drops considerably. Not to mention the eventual outburst of, “Give me the fucking ball!”

What Phoenix has done is give up an all-star caliber piece that fit seamlessly into their puzzle for an aging big man with an inflated salary, all in an attempt to convince themselves and some naysayers that they now have a true dominant center. Unfortunately for Phoenix, unfortunately for all of us, Shaq is no longer dominant. Phoenix would have been better off keeping Kurt Thomas this offseason and taking another shot at San Antonio with the roster that was capable of beating them last season.

The only party that really comes out of this profiting – albeit marginal profit, but profit nonetheless – is the Miami Heat. It’s obvious the Heat were going nowhere, and the only real pieces they had to deal with were Dwyane Wade and O’Neal. There’s no way you trade Wade if you’re Miami, so that leaves you with moving Shaq.

In this case the Heat get a steal in terms of the talent they acquire with Shawn Marion, for reasons I’ve already explained. Whether or not The Matrix is part of the long-term plan in Miami is yet to be seen, but even if his stay is short-lived, Miami would at the very least clear off cap room and have the ability to start rebuilding.

As for Shaquille O’Neal, he is gone. He may stick around, go through the motions, perhaps even resurrect himself temporarily in the postseason, but what we once knew him to be will never return. I used to think Shaq was invincible, immortal. But it’s obvious that was never true.

There was a feeling when Shaq got traded to Miami that it changed everything because of what he was. But now, traded once again, this time to Phoenix, there’s a different feeling – it changes everything because of what he’s not.

Shaq is dead.