Monday, February 11, 2008

We can only wait and see with Shaq


Plenty of people have opinions on last week's trade of Shaquille O'Neal from Miami to Phoenix for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks.

My friend Cosey — as well as thousands of other hoops fans — think O'Neal is washed up and won't be of much use to the Suns. In other words, he won't win that elusive championship for Steve Nash n' Co. columnist Scoop Jackson — and thousands of others, but not as many thousands — think O'Neal is the key ingredient the Suns have been lacking the past few years. They point to his defensive presence. They say Marion and big man Amare Stoudemire quarreled too much. They agree with the trade.

The truth?

We don't know and we won't know for quite a while.

O'Neal hasn't played since mid-January with a hip injury. He's back to working out, but will he be able to stay healthy? There remain two months of regular-season play plus that nearly-two-month playoff circus. That's almost four months. Can O'Neal endure that?

How will he fit in the Suns' run-n'-gun system? Some analysts have said that the older you get, the easier it is to run north-south as opposed to making quick, lateral movements. But don't tell me O'Neal's gonna run the fast-break quick enough to receive a dime from Nash ahead of the defense.

That's one thing I don't see happening.

But here's something Phoenix can look forward to with O'Neal. If, indeed, he is healthy come playoff time, he'll be valuable in half-court sets — and the action tends to slow down late in the season. Say what you want to about O'Neal, but he still draws double-teams and remains a deft passer out of the post. When possessions are breaking down, O'Neal will be a viable option (again, if he's healthy).

The defensive end is where O'Neal could be most valuable. Stoudemire has not developed into the defensive force Phoenix fans hoped he would. He shows flashes of solid play here and there, but he can't consistently thwart players such as Tim Duncan and Carlos Boozer.

When Stoudemire and O'Neal are both in the game, Stoudemire will be able to play power forward and leave the toughest defensive assignment to O'Neal. Call O'Neal immobile if you'd like, but ask any NBA player who he's most intimidated by — and I bet Shaq's still near the top of the list.

But forget X's and O's. The biggest question mark of thousands is whether O'Neal will be on the court enough to make a solid impact. I'd say he needs to play a good 20 minutes a night for the Suns to survive the Western Conference and make the NBA Finals.

On Monday, after his first practice, he admitted that he was a bit winded running up and down the court with the Suns. But in O'Neal's defense, he had been completely sidelined for three weeks.

A good thing for the Suns is the timing of the deal. O'Neal is rested. The team has the West's best record and doesn't need to rush him back into action. If O'Neal plays, say, the Suns' final 25 games (they're 36-15), he should be in good form — but not too fatigued — heading into the playoffs.

That's what has made O'Neal effective in the past. He'd miss the first half of the season with some injury — or lazy syndrome — and then roar into April with a full head of steam. While I don't foresee any roaring from O'Neal, if he has half a head of steam, the Suns will be in good shape.

Of course, even if O'Neal plays well, that doesn't guarantee anything in the mighty West. San Antonio remains the team to beat in the playoffs. The Lakers will be scary if Andrew Bynum comes back strong. And don't forget about Dallas, Utah and even New Orleans (oh, and always-dangerous Golden State).

It is clear that this year more than ever, winning the NBA's superior conference will be as exhausting as a trip up Mt. Everest (before the days of billionaires paying guides to drag them up the mountain). Games will be slug-fests. Series sweeps will be minimal.

By May, O'Neal might wish he were back in the "Leastern Conference."

Or he might be having the time of his career helping the Suns finally reach their goal.

You can guess all you want. All we know right now is ... well ... nothing.

Show us what you can do, big fella!


Spencer said...

I tend to lean more towards the "washed up" category. I just have seen too many big men fall apart very quickly. However, you are right about the opposite team having to account for Shaq if he is on the floor. He can still be a factor just because of who he is....

Sportsattitude said...

Your friend Cosey is dead-on in my opinion. Steve Kerr's return to a career as a broadcaster has been accelerated by this disaster panic move. I don't know who decided this year's version of the Suns couldn't win it all. Last year's would likely have if David Stern hadn't decided to enforce the "off the bench" rule in the Spurs series. He's broken down, used up and still can't shoot a free throw. The Oakland A's quarreled their way to three world championships. Heck, Kobe and Shaq didn't love each other and they got it done. Bad, bad trade.

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