Thursday , Feb , 28 , 2008 C.Y. Ellis

Shaq’s Presence Anchoring Phoenix Suns

Shaq's Presence Anchoring Phoenix Suns

I’m afraid to say I saw this coming.

I don’t think I’m the voice of the NBA, nor do I even think I’m one of the experts. But I am a person that has seen Shaquille O’Neal play every game for the last three years. And I knew the Phoenix Suns were about to face some big-time problems they didn’t even realize when they shipped Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to the Miami Heat to acquire the player now known as “The Big Cactus” on  Feb. 6.

Right after the trade, all of us in the media got on our bullhorns and paraded the fact that this deal was terrible for Phoenix – that it would deplete their franchise and ruin their championship hopes. But then, when Shaq took the podium for his introductory press conference, we (including myself) started to come around.

We started to have glimpses of the “Showtime” Lakers.

We started believing Shaq could actually turn on a switch that would turn back time.

We even started thinking the Suns’ medical staff had some secret remedies to make Shaq “feel 20 again.”

Worst of all, we allowed ourselves to be sold by the NBA’s greatest pitch man – Shaquille O’Neal.

But after five games where the Suns have gone 2-3 and Shaq has averaged an OK 10.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, the problems that come with acquiring an aging big man have been resonating.

First off, let me just say that I love Shaq. I’ve never met him, but O’Neal’s charisma has a way of growing on you, and having followed the Heat my whole life, he definitely grew on me during his short time in South Beach.

But as games go by, it becomes glaringly obvious that this trade has more problems than it has solutions.

Here’s why:
Defensive liability

I found it so funny when the Suns’ brass said Shaq was coming to Phoenix to be “a defensive presence.”

So far, the Suns are giving up an average of 111.2 points per game with their new defensive presence, and that problem won’t go away any time soon.

I know Shaq still needs to learn a whole new system, and the Suns have to find all new ways to play defense with O’Neal. But their problems on the defensive end are not things that can be fixed with film sessions or practices.

It’s a problem with age.

Shaq is simply too slow, too heavy and too old to be any sort of a force defensively. And his size alone is not going to discourage shots at the rim because teams just keep running pick-and-rolls to get him moving, and whoever O’Neal picks up is going to have a high-percentage shot.

A taste of their own medicine

The Suns were always the team that outran others, as they got to the other end of the floor with numbers and took high-percentage shots. Now, Phoenix is beginning to see what it feels like to be vulnerable against running teams.

People talked about how Shaq can get the rebound and make the outlet pass while the Suns ran. But what about the other end of the floor?

Now, whenever the Suns miss a long-range jumper, they’re the ones that don’t have enough players to defend when other teams start to run.

What to do against smaller teams

The Suns faced a big question in their 30-point loss to the Detroit Pistons on Sunday, which was what to do against teams that don’t have a true center.

Shaq is a problem because the Suns get hurt badly on the defensive end, and he can no longer make other teams pay when they don’t double him or play a smaller guy. That was evident when he was settling for jump hooks against the Pistons’ Jason Maxiell. That means there’s no incentive for other teams to try to match up to Phoenix.

So what do you do?
Bring him off the bench?

Really, $20 million a year for a guy coming off the bench?

What to do offensively

This is a problem that should get better as time goes by.

Amare Stoudemire’s numbers have definitely gone up since Shaq’s arrival, but Steve Nash has had the hardest time adjusting because he’s never played with a low-post player.

Nash loved coming off pick and rolls and having the pick man step back and hit open mid-range jumpers. Now, every time Shaq sets a pick, Nash is kicking it back to him and O’Neal looks lost.

Shaq is only comfortable getting the ball in one spot: the low post.

But it takes a big commitment to get Shaq the ball because you have to wait until he gets there, kick it around to find an angle and back off to give him space. That’s why Shaq can’t be the No. 3 or No. 4 option in an offense – because if there’s no commitment to get him the ball, his role on offense is almost non-existent.

The obvious problems

Steve Kerr knew he’d be taking a huge risk by acquiring Shaq because the Suns would be paying him $40 million over the next two years and take a huge cap hit. But it all seemed worth it because of what Shaq could bring.

But what if it doesn’t work out?

I saw what happened to the Heat’s franchise when Shaq’s career suddenly began to spiral. Pat Riley knew it, too, and after he won a championship, he realized just how hard it was to build a championship-contending team when you have an aging big man making so much money.

I don’t blame Kerr for making the deal. Marion was unhappy, and he was likely to opt out of his contract, so Kerr wanted to get something out of him.

And if you looked at the Suns over the last few years, what’s the one thing you felt they were missing? A big man.

But they were a couple of years too late with Shaq.