I imagine many of you are still feeling the same confusion I experienced. But consider this: Steve Kerr, David Griffin, Mike D’ Antoni and Robert Sarver are not crazy, impulsive types who would make a panic move in direct response to the Lakers’ trade for Pau Gasol last week, as is being portrayed throughout the media right now. While I can’t claim to know any of these men personally, I’ve met all of them, and my impression is these guys know basketball, and I think they know their team. Historically, the Suns are not prone to bonehead trades. Sure, there have been a few (DJ for Rick Robey??), but none in a long time. Griffin and D’Antoni have good track records in this regard, and while Kerr is the new kid on the block, my sense of him has always been that he’s got a sharp basketball mind. They wouldn’t make this deal unless they’d really thought about it, and really thought it would help the team.
Is this trade an admission that the Suns’ style of play doesn’t work? No. My hoops-savvy pal Kenji reminded me that the 1972 Lakers, which won the NBA title and set the record for consecutive wins, was very much a running team, and they did it with a center, Wilt, who was not fast. Further, the Showtime Lakers didn’t have a running center either – but rather Kareem. So I think the Suns will still run and score a lot of points.
The Suns’ biggest weaknesses in the Nash era have been defense and rebounding. Specifically, interior defense and offensive rebounding. Night after night, they have trouble handling opposing centers, doesn’t matter who. Andrew Bynum, who is admittedly emerging as a good center, eats the Suns for lunch. Al Jefferson posted consecutive career highs in points and boards against the Suns in two games this season. Even Nick Collison destroys the Suns inside. The Suns actually play pretty good perimeter defense. It’s on the inside where they get killed, by easy dunks out of the half-court set, or by put-backs.
So, the reasonable question is, why didn’t the Suns keep Kurt Thomas, who could address those issues at a fraction of the price? Well, because Kurt’s good, but he doesn’t force a team to plan their offense against him. He’s not a shot blocker, and he lacks, for lack of a better term, presence. Shaq may not be the mega-star he used to be, but when he’s healthy enough to play, there’s three things he can still do better than most centers in the league: defend, rebound and pass. The West is, obviously, loaded with centers, from Yao to Chandler to Duncan (come on, he’s a center) to Bynum to Kaman. The Suns simply haven’t had an answer for those kinds of guys this year, and it’s made it harder than in the past for the Suns to control tempo, and when they haven’t been able to control tempo, they’ve been cooked. Shaq gives them a viable presence in the low post on both defense and offense, something the Suns haven’t had since Danny Schayes (kidding).
Steve Nash is 34. Grant Hill is 36. Amare is 25, but has had three knee surgeries. The Suns aren’t thinking about long-term success here — It’s all or nothing time. Shawn Marion is a fabulous player, and I won’t bash him on his way out of town, but while he offers a lot of superlative skills in a lot of different areas, of the Suns’ old core (Nash, Marion, Stoudemire), his skills were the easiest to replace at reasonably close to the same level. The Suns will miss him most on defense, but Shaq should take up some of the slack there, Diaw is underrated on defense, and Hill has shown commitment to that end of the court. The Suns still have plenty of guys to finish on the break (and now Amare can be one of them, as he won’t be called on to rebound as much), and plenty of three-point shooters.
The key phrase in all of this, of course, is “if Shaq can stay healthy.” Recent history, in all honesty, doesn’t suggest he can. He’s played fourteen seasons, and has played four games since the end of December. Even when he has been “healthy” this year, his numbers have been down across the board, suggesting he may have more little things nagging at him than just a bad hip. But reports are that he’s at as low a weight as he’s been in a while, and aside from the hip, in good condition. He’s not going to play a lot for the Suns right away, and he may not help them win games right away. I predict a lot of impatience and second-guessing around the Suns for the next few weeks.
I think the Suns might be willing to sacrifice the top seed in the Western Conference. Look what it did for Dallas last year, and this season, the West is so tight that the top 8 teams will be practically interchangeable. I think the Suns can easily win enough games, with or without Shaq, to secure a playoff spot on sheer talent alone. I think the team will severely limit Shaq’s minutes in the regular season, resting him often, maybe for several games at a time, in order to let him acclimate and recover as best he can for the playoffs. I think the hope is he’ll play just enough to develop chemistry with his teammates, and them with him, to get to know his role in and become comfortable with the team’s schemes. During the regular season, he’ll play most against the teams with centers the Suns could likely meet in the playoffs, but even then, they’ll limit him to 20-25 minutes. In the playoffs, they’ll hope he’ll be reasonably fresh and can be a factor.
In the meantime, the Suns will slide Amare back to power forward, where he should dominate and run. A lot. Diaw will likely start at the small forward spot, and he’s played much better lately as a starter. He seems to thrive on starter’s minutes – as proved in last night’s game against New Orleans. Grant Hill will come off the bench, which he’s shown he’s more than willing to do. There’s a scenario in which this could all work out. It’s a gamble, but it could work. High risk carries high reward.
Down the line, the Suns will rebuild around Amare, Barbosa and, presumably, Diaw, which is still a better-than-decent core. But this deal was made strictly for this May and June. Not for the years after, and not, I don’t think, for February, March and April. People will be quick to call it a success or failure right away or in a few weeks, but the real results won’t be seen until May and June.
Can you dig it?