So I caught Suns/Heat tonight, and made it a point to focus on Shaq. Here’s the box score.
On the face of things, he looks alright- 75% from the field, 9 boards, a block and a steal in 29 minutes. But if you watched the game…brutal. I haven’t seen enough of the Suns this year to know if I was seeing something out of the ordinary, but what I saw was the Suns turn over the ball on 3 of their first 4 possessions trying to force the ball into the post, and things not improving much from there.
For the majority of the evening Shaq was single-covered by Joel Anthony, a Canadian center out of UNLV in his second year, who appears notable mostly for his uncanny resemblance to a younger version of pro boxer Bernard Hopkins. Anthony would, time and again, front Shaq in the post and deny him the ball; and partially because Steve Nash wasn’t playing and thus unable to throw the proper entry passes, and partially because his athleticism is gone, Shaq just couldn’t find the position and timing to break this defense. The Suns were determined to try, but all through the game lobs would go over his head, short passes would bounce past his hands, and O’Neal would end up utterly neutralized as a threat. He ended up getting his points mostly on putbacks and bailout passes from cutters, but…he also ended up with no free throw attempts. No ATTEMPTS. He was so ineffectual that there was only one occasion when the Heat even felt compelled to foul him to prevent a shot. The Suns finished with 19 turnovers.
I hate to say it, since his career is almost an exact match for my serious period as an NBA fan, but the Big Diesel is just about done. When he’s reached the point when an anonymous second year center who gives up maybe 4 inches and 100 pounds can render him peripheral at best, it’s just about time to go. The Suns, regardless of their record, have all the look of a team which is one year shy of being blown up; they’ll make the playoffs, lose to the Jazz in the first round, and after that someone will realize that paying luxury tax money for an aging, badly designed also ran is crazy. Some of their guys will land soft with contenders, but O’Neal…I think this is it for him. He can more or less fake it this year, but right now he’s only just this side of Willie Mays-on-the-Mets territory regardless of what his PER says, if this game is any guide. I don’t disregard the statistical information lightly, but I look at the Suns’ record and see very few good wins- San Antonio without Ginobili, Portland twice, Detroit in a game where Shaq was ejected in the second. Meanwhile in the loss to New Orleans he produced 8 points, 8 boards, 2-5 from the line, 2 turnovers; against Houston, a much better 18 and 13, with still only 4 foul shots; against centerless Utah, 9 points on 3-11 shooting, 1 rebound. And so it goes, good games against Sacramento and Minnesota keeping him above water.
At this point if Shaq were willing to be a 4th option or 6th man for short money on a contender, he might be worth something; as it is on Phoenix, he’s trouble, as their offense seems to want to force the ball to him to prove a point about the trade which brought him to town. Turnovers are created by plays in which the team forces the ball to a position which, say, Andrew Bynum could reach today, and which would have been an easy Shaq dunk 5 years ago, but which today are uncatchable for a player whose lift is gone. No one fouls him because the league has caught up to the way his skills have diminished. Defensively he’s useless against a decent screen/roll, has lost some of his mobility on rebounding, and is effective at most as a space eater and weak-side helper. The overall sense I get of him is of a player who, when he does something, does it well and thus keeps a high individual rating on a stat like PER; but the effects on his team of his defensive immobility and the degree to which they force plays for him on offense which he can’t make likely has a substantial negative impact relative to an average center with an average useage rate. Sadly, there’s not enough +/- data worth the name to make this more than conjecture.
Shaq’s one of the greatest ever, and it may well be the case that I end up feeling like a fool for writing this (there’s still a LOT of season to go), which wouldn’t be the first time; but at the moment Phoenix has the stink of death on them, and big man’s part of the reason. When you consider the way he tends to wear down and miss games, this could end up fairly depressing by the end.