What's been good for Shaq is bad for the Suns
Shaquille O'Neal recast himself as an All-Star just in time to act as the big and lovable host with the most for Sunday's game in Phoenix.
Somehow, some way, Shaq is back. As he approaches his 37th birthday, the would-be action hero is flexing his real-life muscles for the sake of old times.
This wasn't supposed to happen. With his massive frame battered by the forces of gravity and time, O'Neal arrived in the desert looking like a center in dire need of a retirement home.
Phoenix was the perfect fit. Warm weather, slow lifestyle and a rich history of taking a laissez-faire approach to the toughest part of the NBA game: defense.
Shaq had grown round and unreliable in Miami. He missed a lot of games but answered the bell for every meal. Veteran NBA watchers, a lot of them, figured O'Neal's basketball career had gone to Phoenix to die.
Instead Shaq postponed the obituary this season by averaging 17.5 points and nine rebounds per game, and by making a career-best 62 percent of his foul shots. This qualifies as the league's most improbable rebirth.
Good for O'Neal. Bad for O'Neal's team.
Shaq's reemergence as a pivotal force has signaled the official end of the Phoenix Suns as we knew them, and as we loved them. Tuesday night in Cleveland, the Suns will be one loss to LeBron James away from possibly entering the All-Star break as the ninth seed in an eight-team conference tournament.
Steve Nash isn't himself, and might never be again. Amare Stoudemire wants out, and Suns management is looking to oblige him. Terry Porter is making a lot of rookie mistakes, and might not get a chance to correct them in Year 2.
The Shawn Marion-for-O'Neal trade stripped the Suns of their precious identity, all but drove Mike D'Antoni to New York, and left the rest of the league to show up in Phoenix this weekend wondering how the home team fell apart in seven seconds or less.
Owner Robert Sarver and GM Steve Kerr have a lot of explaining to do. The Suns were a marquee NBA draw, a fast and furious contender built around the premise that basketball should be fun.
Now they're no more exciting than a fullback dive on third-and-one.
Once a pass-happy blur of athleticism and opportunism, today's Suns appear better suited for a Big Ten cloud of dust. The team that freewheeled it to an average of 58 victories over the four years of the D'Antoni-Nash era is 28-22, 6-9 in its last 15 games, and booked for a major renovation before the Feb. 19 trade deadline.
Stoudemire has been voted the Sun most likely to secede, a sobering thought for any Suns fan stressing over the long-term plan. Even after recovering from microfracture surgery on his knee, Stoudemire represents the team's youthful bounce. When he's gone, this is how the Suns' core will look:
Shaq, who will turn 37 next month. Nash, who turned 35 on Saturday. And Grant Hill, who checks in at 36.
It's no small wonder Nash has followed LeBron's LeLead by publicly declaring his interest in joining D'Antoni's Knicks in 2010. Nash has been sure to name Phoenix as his first free-agent priority, but he's hardly been shy about expressing his love for New York, his offseason home.
"I love playing here," he has said of Phoenix. "I want to see it work out here. I apologize to the fans that it's been a tough year. It's killing me, and I'm sure it's really hurting the fans. I want to see a positive outcome and a resolution to the trouble."
That resolution isn't anywhere in sight. One night Phoenix gets the old Nash (15 points and 21 assists against Detroit), and the following night Phoenix gets an old Nash (1-for-8 from the floor against Philly).
He can't be the same player at the Porter/Shaq pace. When he's asked to slow it down, Nash's strengths are diminished and his weaknesses magnified. He's scoring 13.8 points per game, his lowest average in nine years, and he's delivering 9.8 assists per game, his lowest average as a Sun. His shooting percentages from two-point range (.468) and three-point range (.418) are his worst since being traded from Dallas.
Nash has never been mistaken for Bruce Bowen on the defensive end, but now he couldn't even cover Bob Cousy. At age 80.
"Who's been down on Steve Nash?" Allen Iverson asked the other night. "He's definitely an All-Star and he's still playing like an MVP."
Even Nash would dispute that. He didn't make the All-Star cut on his homecourt, he has no chance of winning a third MVP, and sometimes his body language suggests he wouldn't mind following Stoudemire out the door.
Shaq hasn't helped him. As much as O'Neal's role on offense has contributed to Stoudemire's unease, O'Neal's presence inside has clogged up the very lanes his point guard needs to slice and dice.
To complicate matters, Nash has logged thousands upon thousands of miles on an overworked body that's beginning to betray him.
"The shoulder, the back, the hamstring — everything was bothering me," Nash said after scoring his two points in the Philly loss.
Meanwhile, O'Neal looks daisy-fresh. Porter has even taken to playing him in both games of a back-to-back.
Only the goal here wasn't to prop up Shaq for the sake of Shaq. The Suns are accustomed to needing space and speed and the freedom to react before they think, and Shaq is the oil tanker getting in their way.
Sure, Marion was a pain in the rump who hasn't exactly lifted the Heat to the places O'Neal once took them. But Marion was a tough, athletic defender and a mobile wing in a Phoenix attack made for his high-flying ways.
Maybe Sarver and Kerr forgot the Suns would've won a title the D'Antoni way if they didn't get a raw deal from the league in the 2007 series with the Spurs. Maybe they just grew tired of stressing defense to a man who refused to coach it (D'Antoni just surrendered 144 points to Golden State — in regulation).
Either way, the Suns were better off in those dizzying run-for-fun days that preceded Shaq's arrival. All they have to show for the trade is a first-round loss to the Spurs, and a precarious tie for the eighth Western Conference seed.
O'Neal is playing good basketball again. It would be better news if his team could say the same.
What's been good for Shaq is bad for the Suns
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Posted February 11, 2009 - 11:25 AM
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