Shaq's making his Suns debut against Kobe's Lakers Wednesday night (ESPN, ESPN360.com, 9 ET). We asked our panel of NBA analysts to size up Shaq, Kobe and the West playoff race.
1. What do you expect from Shaq the rest of this season?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Phoenix continues to depend on Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Leandro Barbosa, Raja Bell, Grant Hill and Boris Diaw. An out-of-shape dude from another system only hurts. And the Suns will miss Shawn Marion. But by the time he's in shape, my best guess is he'll win Phoenix a playoff game or two.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: While L.A. fans are hoping Andrew Bynum can be the next Shaq, Phoenix would be happy if Shaq could post numbers like Bynum. I think 14 points and 10 rebounds a game would be a good output from Shaq these days, and he is capable of posting those numbers.
Chris Broussard, ESPN Mag: I expect Shaq to play well in Phoenix. Fact is, he was effective in Miami when the Heat got him the ball. He still shot 58 percent, but he averaged only 10 shots per game.
With a horde of 3-point shooters around him spreading the floor, a great PG in Steve Nash getting him easy buckets, and players in Nash and Amare Stoudemire who draw multiple defenders on occasion, Shaq should see plenty of single coverage, which he can still exploit. If doubled, he'll be an effective passer out of the double teams. But I still wonder if Shaq will stay healthy the rest of the season.
Ric Bucher, ESPN Mag: About a dozen performances that make you believe he can still be a force, a dozen performances that make you think he should retire, and another dozen that make you say, "The Suns won and he had good numbers, but he really didn't have much to do with the outcome."
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: I'm very skeptical that he has much gas left in the tank. But I've talked with the Suns, and they swear that after just a few weeks of treatment, we'll be seeing a different Shaq. So ... maybe it will be somewhere in between, maybe something like the '06 version of Shaquille O'Neal. Good enough to help a talented team win a championship, but not dominant.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: More talk than action, basically. If he can stay in the lineup, play 25-30 minutes a game and shoot 60 percent, I think that's about the ceiling. I'm interested to see whether he'll accept getting fewer touches and whether he can avoid throwing his teammates under the bus when he doesn't get the rock.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: Very little. I didn't think Shaq had much left in the tank when he was with Miami, and I think Phoenix made a terrible deal. Who is going to defend the opponent's best player now? Shawn Marion used to do that.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: More than most, I'd guess. For starters, Phoenix isn't demanding nearly as much from Shaq as Pau and Kidd face, which to me sets him up to exceed expectations. Plus, Shaq has always needed side sources of motivation, and he's received tons of that from all the skepticism since the Suns' interest in getting him went public.
Plus, he's playing with Steve Nash, so let me pull a Mike D'Antoni and simply say that Nash will help Shaq figure it out. (I also wonder if Miami's best game this season wasn't some sort of omen: Shaq kept up with the pace just fine to post 18 points, 11 boards and five assists in the Heat's 117-113 triumph Dec. 10 on the Suns' floor.)
2. Should Kobe have finger surgery now?
Abbott: If making the playoffs is their goal, no. But I assume they're shooting for a title, and for that they'll need Kobe Bryant at 100 percent in the Western Conference finals. Especially since they now have other leadership -- let's hear it for Derek Fisher -- I would have sliced Bryant open last week.
Adande: Kobe should have the surgery now because it would set him and the Lakers up better for next year. The Lakers have the luxury of time, something Phoenix and San Antonio don't. We saw Dwyane Wade rush back last season and how he hasn't been right this year. The Lakers shouldn't want this to linger into 2009.
Broussard: Kobe is doing the right thing. He's an intense competitor and he senses that the Lakers can win a title now. If he can endure the pain -- and obviously, he can play great ball with the injury -- then he should play through it. The West is so tough that it would be a mammoth task for the Lakers to make the playoffs with Kobe missing six weeks. Plus, there's no guarantee with that injury that he'd be back in six.
Bucher: No, for selfish reasons. Now we get to see a Willis Reed moment expanded to 40-plus games. Anatomists, meanwhile, get to find out how essential or superfluous a right pinkie is for playing championship-caliber basketball.
Ford: No. The West is so competitive. If he leaves and Andrew Bynum doesn't come back soon, it's conceivable that the Lakers wouldn't make the playoffs. If they are going to get to the Finals this year, I think they need home-court advantage.
Hollinger: I'm already on the record on this, but I think if he plays, his finger is going to keep getting hit, and that will limit his productivity when the Lakers need him most in the spring. L.A. needs to play only .500 to make the playoffs -- they can do that without him.
Sheridan: Tough to say without knowing how much it's affecting his shot. He seemed to shoot OK in the past couple games going into the break. If he missed six weeks, the Lakers would probably fall out of the West playoff race. But at least there'd be a benefit to Team USA.
Stein: Without doubt. The Lakers just got Pau and Bynum is so young, so they obviously aren't looking at a one-year window. From everything I know about the injury, if Kobe takes a bad hit, he'll have no choice but to undergo surgery regardless. So do it now and come back for the playoffs. It sounds like I'm in the minority on this, but I think Pau, Lamar and arguably the league's best bench can keep L.A. in the top eight while Kobe's out.
All of which takes me back to my original thought: Kobe isn't looking at a one-year window and the Lakers probably have too many obstacles to overcome anyway to come out of the deeper-than-ever West this season. I realize Kobe is famously impatient, but there's no need to risk more serious injury now.
3. Shaq and Kobe aside, which team is best equipped to handle the postseason: Suns or Lakers?
Abbott: The Lakers have a dream setup: 7-foot bigs, an excellent bench, Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant. The Suns have a thin bench, bigs with health concerns and a history of not making the Finals. But the Suns have won this matchup in recent years and field 100 percent battle-tested players. So I'll blow against the wind and say Phoenix until proven otherwise.
Adande: Assuming both teams stay healthy, the Lakers are better prepared. They already had the edge over the Suns by winning two of the first three meetings this season. And while both teams made additions, the Lakers got theirs without losing a valuable asset. Shaq cost the Suns Shawn Marion. Gasol was like finding a big-ticket item in the discount bin -- it required Kwame Brown, a rookie point guard and a pick.
Broussard: I like both teams, but if forced to pick one, I'll go with L.A. The Lakers have it all -- size, outside shooting, a terrific one-on-one player who can create something out of nothing, a playoff-proven leader who's won at the highest level, and a coach who's specialty is developing harmony and chemistry. If the Lakers play to their potential, they win the West. The only questions are: Will Bynum return 100 percent? And will Kobe's injury become a problem at some point? As for the Suns, they can't win it all without Shaq's being healthy, and while I think he can be effective, his health is a bigger question than the issues facing the Lakers.
Bucher: Lakers. Because they are now equipped to play fast or slow -- vital in the Western Conference with so many quality teams playing disparate styles -- and they have tremendous scoring depth. Now, if Lamar Odom isn't on or if Andrew Bynum is in foul trouble, they have other options. Shaq's postseason experience is being wildly overvalued. Playoff pressure wasn't what left the Suns short last season -- Steve Nash's gashed nose and the suspensions of Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire were. Phoenix was a top-10 defensive team; the Suns have taken a huge step backward with this trade.
Ford: If everyone's healthy on both teams? The Lakers. They don't have to change their style to accommodate Pau Gasol. He has fit in immediately with what they're doing. And ... I think they have more balance, more depth and the best player in the West -- Kobe Bryant. Add all of that up, and I don't see how Phoenix, or anyone else in the West, beats them in a seven-game series.
Hollinger: If healthy, the Lakers are a no-brainer. They have two star big men in Bynum and Gasol -- as opposed to one current star and one former one for Phoenix. The Lakers also have a vastly superior second unit and guys like Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher surrounding the core, and the best coach in history calling the shots. Even without Bynum, I might like them better.
Sheridan: At full strength, definitely the Lakers. With Pau Gasol and an improved Andrew Bynum on the frontline, and Derek Fisher hitting 3s, their personnel fits their system better than Phoenix's -- especially with Marion gone.
Stein: The Suns have more experience. The Suns' core, furthermore, has more experience as a group, which should help Shaq with his ambitious transition. Our ESPN colleague Jalen Rose was the first I heard to bring this up, and I totally agree with him: Shaq's championship pedigree is an underrated asset for his new team.
Championship experience is something the Suns were missing, as Jalen saw firsthand in Phoenix last season. I love the Lakers in the playoffs down the road with Pau and Bynum and a great bench and the ultimate closer in Kobe. But I still say it's too soon for them, especially when we don't know how healed Bynum will be at playoff time.
4. Biggest acquisition so far: Pau Gasol, Shaquille O'Neal or Jason Kidd?
Abbott: Kidd, because of his position. The Lakers and Suns will both win many games when Gasol and O'Neal do not play well. If either is injured and out for a key playoff game, I doubt the betting line moves too far. But Kidd has the ball all night and simply must perform. Otherwise, it's J.J. Barea time.
Adande: I'm going with the known entity: Pau Gasol. The Lakers are 6-1 since he arrived and have scored at least 104 points in each of the victories. He fit right in, Kobe is geeked to have him, and he's already the difference between the Lakers' fighting for a division title or dropping to the bottom of the playoff pool.
Broussard: Pau Gasol, easily. Pau turned the Lakers into an immediate title contender. What Shaq brings to the Suns is all theoretical because we don't know if he'll stay healthy. J-Kidd makes the Mavericks better, but I don't think it moves them ahead of L.A., Phoenix or San Antonio. Losing DeSagana Diop is huge because the Mavs' post defense is going to suffer against the three aforementioned squads.
Bucher: Gasol. He fits perfectly with the Lakers' system and he assumes a role he was born for: a big man facing up on a team for which he's the second or third option. Add the juice that getting Gasol has put in Kobe's tank, and it's not even close.
Ford: Gasol ... because the Lakers didn't give up anything to get him. The Suns and Mavs made major subtractions to get superstars who are past their prime. The Lakers got a 27-year-old power forward who would've been much more well-regarded if he hadn't been banished to Memphis his whole career.
Hollinger: Gasol. It cost the Lakers nothing of great importance to their present, forced the Suns and Mavs into head-scratching panic trades, and gives L.A. a star trio of Kobe-Gasol-Bynum that should contend for the next half-decade. Who knew Chris Wallace controlled the destiny of the West's contenders?
Sheridan: Gasol in a cakewalk. Unlike the Suns and Mavs, the Lakers did not have to surrender a major piece, and they got a much better offensive player than Kidd or O'Neal. Plus, just wait and see how much the Mavs and Suns miss Harris and Marion defensively.
Stein: I'd actually say Pau, for now. Simply because I'm still struggling to believe that the Lakers got him without touching any of the top 10 -- TEN! -- players in their rotation. Or close to that. If Phoenix or Dallas wins it all, of course, this answer misfired badly.
5. Which team is most in danger of taking a step back: Lakers, Suns or Mavs?
Abbott: The Suns. By most statistical measures, Shawn Marion was darn near the best of the recently traded players. The worst was Shaquille O'Neal. And Marion was the only Suns defender who could give crafty, high-scoring guards any real trouble. Could still prove to be shrewd -- you can't teach "Shaquille" -- but this was the king of gambles.
Adande: The Suns took the biggest risk because they traded an integral part of their style for someone who represents a polar opposite. One of the reasons the Lakers got rid of Shaq was because Jerry Buss wanted to run more. And that was four years ago.
Broussard: Honestly, I don't think any of the teams will take a step back. Phoenix can still win regular-season games without Shaq. Now, if he's out of the playoffs due to injury, they could be ousted in the first round. I think Kidd fits in seamlessly in Dallas. The Lakers are obviously rolling.
Bucher: Suns. Steve Nash will undoubtedly find a way to fit Shaq into the offense, but look for them to get pick-and-rolled to death. Shaq, even when healthy, was a P-and-R liability and Nash, while he always gives maximum effort, is no great shakes, either. Now you have Amare rotating over as the third defender, which he is habitually late doing.
Hollinger: Definitely Phoenix. If you look at their age issues, the fact they traded a durable All-Star for a guy who will play 25 minutes every other night, and their brutal schedule the rest of the way, I highly doubt they can keep pace with the Western leaders. There's a chance, albeit a slim one, that they miss the playoffs entirely.
Ford: Suns. Two reasons. One, they gave up the most in their deal. To me, Shawn Marion was critical to what they did because of his defense and rebounding. Second, they have a brutal schedule coming up and will have to play it while adjusting to the Big Fella. I think it's going to be a rough road in February and March for Phoenix.
Sheridan: The Mavs. They just got a heck of a lot older, and they depleted their front line by giving up DeSagana Diop, who was more useful than people might imagine.
Stein: I suppose Phoenix. But that's only because the Suns have the farthest to fall. I'm convinced that the Mavs, as previously constituted, were going no further and risked a lot less than you think by going all in for Kidd. The cost of getting Gasol, by contrast, was so miniscule in the Lakers' case that you can't even call it a risk.
I keep saying that the Suns and the Mavs had to do what they did and make a drastic change, but if I'm forced to choose one here I'll go with Phoenix. You can make the case that the Suns are facing the greatest danger solely on the basis that Shawn Marion was by far the best player traded away from those three teams.
6. Which West team most needs to make a move?
Abbott: No good trading just to trade. But as is written every year, at some point Father Time will eat the San Antonio Spurs for breakfast. Except Tony Parker, none of their key players was born after 1978, and now it's 2008. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Tim Duncan won't last forever. Pressure's on.
Adande: Denver is the team you hear the most often, as it should be. The Nuggets can't add a piece that will make them championship contenders, but they can get someone who could help them win their division, secure an upper seed and get to the second round of the playoffs. Ron Artest, anyone?
Broussard: Well, Denver needs to get Ron Artest and/or a point guard to have a chance to win a series. As talented as the Nuggets are, they have no shot at winning a round as currently constructed, in my opinion. I don't think Artest makes them the Western Conference champ, but he certainly makes them much better because their atrocious perimeter defense is killing them. While I like Linas Kleiza, I'd ship him out to get Ron-Ron.
Bucher: San Antonio. The idea that the Spurs will suddenly turn it on in the postseason "because they always do" ignores that several ancillary but essential elements relied on the last few years -- Robert Horry and Bruce Bowen -- are showing their age.
Ford: Golden State. I think the Warriors' window with Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson is closing. They need to respond. There aren't a lot of options out there, but they need to roll the dice on a veteran big -- someone like Jermaine O'Neal.
Hollinger: Denver. I've felt the Nuggets were a player away for a long time, and that's still true; plus, their window with the Iverson-Camby generation won't be open that long.
Other teams have stepped up, but Denver is still hanging back in the No. 8 spot.
Sheridan: The Hornets need to add another front-line player, but they'll probably fill that void by re-signing Chris Andersen if he is reinstated from his drug suspension.
Stein: I can't let go of the fact that only two teams from the threesome of Denver, Houston and Golden State are going to the playoffs. But I would zero in on the Rockets. Or the Spurs. Both those Texas teams used to be in the Eastern Conference as recently as 1980 and they should both be begging the league for permission to move back. Immediately.
7. How do you see the West shaking out?
Abbott: There are six favorites. Which means there's a ton of good basketball ahead and we had better learn to savor uncertainty.
Remember how some people said last year that Phoenix-San Antonio was the "real" NBA championship? If everyone stays healthy, we will have at least three series like that in the West this year.
But I will say this: Adding a big piece midseason is flashy and exciting, but it has not generally led to championships. There's a lot to be said for taking a season or three to mesh with teammates.
Watching the NBA over the last few months, I have gained a ton of respect for the Utah Jazz. They don't give up anything without a fight, they have a burly alpha dog controlling the ball, and Carlos Boozer is a first-class shot-maker. Andrei Kirilenko has to be on the floor for defense, and now even he is finding the range with an improved shot. I love the full-time tenacity of Paul Millsap and Ronnie Brewer.
Also, this is a team that sniffed the mountaintop last year.
So, Utah is right there with the Lakers in my mind, nosing out the Spurs, Mavericks, Suns (whom I picked to win it all before the season) and Hornets.
Adande: With so much uncertainty swirling around the Western Conference, I'm going to go with the known. We've seen what can happen when the Spurs have all of their pieces together: they float the Larry O'Brien trophy down the San Antonio River.
The Lakers don't know if Kobe's pinkie finger will stay in place. They don't know exactly when Andrew Bynum will return, how much he can give them, how Lamar Odom will react to being a fourth option. The Suns don't know if Shaq can stay healthy, or if he can come close to his old, dominant form.
Yes, the Spurs have questions, including how effective Tony Parker will be when he comes back. But they also didn't feel a need to make a major addition to their team. They didn't have to. They already had Tim Duncan.
Broussard: I'll pick the Lakers, while readily admitting that the Suns and Spurs could win it as well. Dallas has a shot, but I'd be surprised if the Mavs reached the Finals. I love New Orleans, but the Hornets are too inexperienced to reach the Finals. Houston is playing well, but until T-Mac and Yao prove themselves postseason winners, they can't be considered strong contenders.
Utah has the best shot, in my opinion, of knocking off one of those top four. The Jazz won't win the conference, but they could send a contender home early. Denver and Golden State will be fighting to the finish for the eighth spot. Those nine teams are amazing. This is probably the best conference the NBA has ever seen.
Bucher: All the talk about Dallas and Phoenix overlooks the Utah Jazz, who have the most dominant point guard in the Western Conference and all the pieces -- defense, perimeter and post scoring, depth, playoff experience -- to beat anybody.
Seeding (who faces whom in what round) will impact who reaches the WCF more than ever before, but the Lakers and the Jazz have the versatility to adjust more than anybody else. A Lakers-Jazz conference final, then, with Kobe refusing to be denied.
Ford: If Bynum comes back healthy, I'll take the Lakers. If Bynum's out or less than 100 percent, the Lakers, Spurs, Mavs, Suns and Jazz will be pretty evenly matched. If Shaq is much healthier than we've seen the last few years, it will be hard to bet against the Suns. Jason Kidd hasn't won anything so I'm not going crazy about that Dallas move. They'll be competitive, but I think they're the darkhorse.
My sleeper is Utah. I love the balance that the team has and the Jazz have an amazing coach. I don't want to leave out New Orleans. It's having a great season and Chris Paul should be a serious contender for MVP ... but it's not their year. In another year or two, however, watch out.
Hollinger: Big picture, the Suns took a huge step back with the Shaq trade, the Mavs took a minor wobble with the Kidd move, and the Lakers took a big step forward with Gasol ... until Kobe's injury happened.
At full strength L.A. is the team to beat, but if it isn't -- and that's in serious doubt at the moment -- then it opens the door for Utah, New Orleans, San Antonio or Dallas to come out of the West.
If forced at gunpoint to pick a horse I'd go with Utah, but the best answer is simply "I don't know."
And really, if Denver, Golden State or Houston makes another move, it's in this conversation too.
About the best prediction I can make is this: It will be the most unpredictable and hotly-contested Western Conference playoffs we've seen yet.
Sheridan: Nobody is going to want to play the Lakers in the first round if they're all relatively healthy, and the Nuggets are a tricky matchup for all three Texas teams -- especially the Spurs.
I expect the postseason to be an epic one in the West, but I still believe the Spurs' experience and savvy will make the difference when they have to close out a series or play a Game 7.
Stein: I usually am one of those guys who feels an obligation to stick stubbornly to preseason predictions -- or else why bother making 'em? -- but the landscape has changed too much since October. And maybe I've been inspired by the go-for-it teams, because I'm drawn most to the twosome of Phoenix and Dallas for a West champ in spite of everything they have to get done on the fly.
The Hornets have been a great story but have zero playoff experience as a group, which just can't be ignored in this conference. The Lakers have everybody worried because of all that talent and size they've accumulated, but (again) I keep struggling to see them overcoming the injury obstacles and the newness to win it all in their first playoff run together.
The Spurs obviously have a significant edge over the rest of the field in terms of continuity -- and clearly no one else has been-there, done-that, seen-it-all cred like these guys -- but the concerns about age that they already had are magnified because the lead trio of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker hasn't been able to find any sustained health this season.
You are hereby warned not to be surprised if the sleeper we're all guilty of ignoring -- Utah -- sneaks through after what might have quietly been the best trade acquisition of them all: Kyle Korver. But since you were kind enough to ask us before Shaq or Kidd had played even one minute for his new team, I'm going to go Phoenix. Adding Shaq figures to either be a spectacular success or an epic failure, but these are such good times with all the comp out West and all the excitement created by so many big deals. So let's opt for optimism.