THE SPORTS GUY
Everybody is down on the Shaq deal. Guess what?
Everybody is wrong.
You probably have been waiting to read one writer dumb enough to defend the Shaq trade. Well, look no further. Here I am.
Remember, I'm the guy who wrote a column called "Welcome to the No Balls Association" last year, after the deadline passed without a major trade. I found it appalling that so many GMs had a chance to compete for a title—whether it was a puncher's chance or a legitimate one—except nobody had the imagination or testicular fortitude to go all in. Instead, the entire league checked on the flop.
So it would be hypocritical of me to crush Steve Kerr and the Suns. Yeah, they could have gotten more for Shawn Marion. Yeah, you never want to make a trade in which the other team responds, "We'll do it!" in 0.00045 seconds. (Kerr could have at least pushed the Heat for the right to swap first-rounders once between 2009 and 2013.) Yeah, this was like Phoenix's getting Jack Nicholson in the Departed stage of his career instead of The Shining or even As Good as It Gets. Yeah, there's a good possibility that this will fail miserably and Kerr will be back on TNT before we know it.
But that's the cool thing: If the trade doesn't work, Kerr gets canned. If it does work, he's a genius. There is no middle ground. We rarely see an NBA executive put himself in such a position because the basketball universe is so much more public now, thanks to a phalanx of websites, blogs and message boards on which everyone thinks they're smarter than every GM. Screw up once, and you're raked through the coals for eternity. Why would anyone ever roll the dice and risk his job?
Well, Kerr didn't care what anyone might think. He spent three months watching his Suns play joyless, businesslike basketball and be abused by every quality low-post scorer. Everyone else on the team seemed beaten down by having to cater to Marion and Amaré, and Steve Nash looked like a dispirited alpha dog on a Survivor tribe that keeps falling short in every challenge. On paper, assuming he isn't washed-up, Shaq was a logical play for a team that desperately needed a big guy and better chemistry. Who breathes life into a moribund team like Shaq if he's in a good mood? It's like adding Jeffrey Ross to a celebrity roast dais: You can't quantify his impact.
There was also an addition-by-subtraction element everyone ignored—namely, what was so indispensable about Marion? A year ago, this magazine wrote a story about Marion in which he admitted he couldn't decide if it would be more fun to be part of a great team or to be the best player on a decent one. It's not that he's a bad guy, just a little delusional, the David Caruso of the game: someone who doesn't realize how good he has it until it is taken away.
IT'S NOT THAT MARION IS A BAD GUY, JUST A LITTLE DELUSIONAL.
And yeah, I know he's talented, and the stat geeks love him, even though he peaked as an impact player two seasons ago and has a nasty habit of disappearing in big games. But here's the smoking-gun question: When Marion was sent from the best team in the West to the worst team in the East, was he bummed? Was he furious about losing out on a potential ring? Was he depressed about being banished to hoops hell? No, no and no. By all accounts, he was excited to be making a fresh start.
And the Suns are supposed to miss him? Huh? Now factor in these four points:
1. Shaq played on one-dimensional teams with subpar supporting casts for the past seven seasons; during much of that time (2005 and 2006 excepted), he uneasily coexisted with spectacular scorers who did their best work while everyone else stood around and watched. I know Shaq has looked terrible this year, but you know what? Vintage Kareem would have looked just as bad watching D-Wade go one-on-three on a cancer-ridden team. The Suns didn't trade for Shaq as much as they rescued him. If anything can rejuvenate him, that will.
2. Shaq hasn't played with a high-quality point guard … (wait for it) … (I'm serious) … ever! Not once! Everyone knows that Magic extended Kareem's career. You mean to say Nash couldn't make life similarly easy for Shaq? He couldn't draw Shaq's guy away from him, then find the big man for layups and dunks? Shaq wouldn't run the floor if he knew he was getting the ball? Why is Kenny Smith the only one pointing out that it's easier for an aging big guy to run the floor than to battle in a bruising half-court game?
3. The difference between Nicholson in The Departed and Shaq in Phoenix is simple: Jack's performance failed because Jack thought it was good. He believed all the mugging and over-the-top theatrics were a good idea, and nobody told him differently because he's Jack. Had he approached the job like Shaq is approaching his Phoenix stint—humbled and inspired, with something to prove—he might have submitted a classic performance. The Suns medical staff has had enormous success perking up the careers of Nash and Grant Hill, two other talents who had been struggling to play with banged-up bodies. They just might be able to cajole a comeback from a motivated Diesel. It's not unrealistic, right?
4. The financial issues of this trade have been overblown. Shaq makes less money than Marion and Marcus Banks will in 2008 and 2009. As for the $20 million owed him in 2010, there is always a market for expiring contracts, as the Lakers recently proved by dealing Kwame Brown's corpse for Pau Gasol.
Really, I see no downside for Phoenix other than the 50% chance that Shaq is more washed-up than Katie Couric. But as we learned in No Country for Old Men, life is a series of coin flips. Sometimes you get heads; other times, tails. But you need to flip the coin to find out. After the NBA suits seemed to agree to keep things as safe and predictable as possible, Steve Kerr said, "Screw it, I'm calling heads" and went Anton Chigurh on us.
Kerr got crushed for the trade because nobody would have blamed him for standing pat. Yup, that's the league we love, a league in which you're better off doing nothing than something. I hated this and said as much in that dot-com column. It means that even if I didn't agree with the trade, I'd have to support it, ignoring my memories of Shaq plodding up and down the floor in Miami like a mummy and placing my faith in Phoenix's crack medical staff, a group of people I've never even met.
But I'm not crazy. The Suns didn't have a chance of winning a title two weeks ago. Now? They're an intriguing choice. And they definitely have a higher ceiling. They have upside. Isn't the definition of a good deal one that betters the state you're in? If the basketball gods exist, Shaq will find the fountain of youth in the desert instead of a fountain of gravy. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I really am.
Regardless, it's probably a good idea for Kerr to switch from briefs to boxers. Those giant cojones could use the extra room.
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