Tuesday March 18th, 2008

As you might expect, there have been some changes on the Phoenix Suns since the hulking figure of Shaquille O'Neal first darkened the doorway of US Airways Center in early February, the key acquisition in a trade with the Miami Heat that many NBA observers still find nothing short of mind-boggling.

The Suns' stat team now finds itself figuring out a whole new batch of math, especially RAS. (That's Record After Shaq, which stood at 7-6 through Sunday, though the last four of those wins have come consecutively.) Point guard Steve Nash, Phoenix's franchise player and go-to interview target, finds the area around his corner locker less crowded after games, particularly when the Big Soliloquizer hits his comedic stride. Forward-center Amaré Stoudemire, who as a youngster in the Orlando area idolized O'Neal, finds himself the frequent recipient of on-court and off-court advice from Shaq, which O'Neal classifies as "secret-society talk." Coach Mike D'Antoni finds that as he looks at film, he occasionally thinks about a fundamental stratagem not previously in his game plans: halting the offensive flow and dumping the ball inside to O'Neal.

But it is the arms and shoulders of athletic trainer Aaron Nelson that have had to deal with the most substantial change. Every day Nelson spends an hour or so kneading and manipulating O'Neal's massive body, trying to coax an extra tenth of an inch of flexibility out of Shaq's left hip, trying to incrementally increase the dorsiflexion in his right ankle. Whether prepractice or pregame, Nelson's routine is the same: He starts by working on 6' 8", 225-pound forward Grant Hill; moves on to the 6' 10", 245-pound Stoudemire; takes a deep breath and attacks the 7' 1", 321-pound shell of Shaq; then finishes with the 6' 3", 178-pound Nash. "Going from Grant to Amaré is a contrast," says Nelson, "but going from Shaq to Steve is like working with two different species."

This is the daily grind for the 36-year-old Shaq: enduring diabolic pain on a training table ("Once in a while he threatens to punch me," Nelson says. "I have to hope that never happens"), getting his flexibility measured by something called a goniometer, and trying to whip into shape a body so misaligned that he hadn't played for Miami for a month before the trade. He came to Phoenix both for the chance to earn a fifth ring and because he can fill a secondary role -- witness last Thursday's 123-115 victory over the visiting Golden State Warriors, in which he played just 14 minutes.

"Even though I've been the most dominant player for a while," Shaq said last week after a practice session, "there comes a time when you gotta be realistic. Nobody has ever dominated the league at 36, and I'm not gonna be the first. Everybody, when he gets older, has to sacrifice a part of his game and realize he's lost part of his physical ability. I'm O.K. with that."

Well, he was never O.K. with it before. Basketball obituaries about Shaq have been written for the last five years, and he has always scoffed at them, clinging to the notion that he sets the on-court agenda. No longer. "I'm 36, and Amaré's 25," says Shaq. "It would be dumb of me to take 30 shots and turn him into a role player. Let Amaré go off, and I'll be the role player."

So there it is: role player. His is a career writ large -- in size, in deed and in his own telling -- and Shaq's acceptance of his hoops mortality is nothing less than astonishing. He doesn't deserve a Nobel Prize for this or a bump in his $20 million salary or pardons for the times when he did not work hard enough to rehab an injury or recover from surgery (right toe in 2002, left knee in '06). But it's always fascinating to watch someone try to reinvent himself, particularly someone as fascinating as O'Neal. The trade ended a half year of hell in Miami, what with his physical discomfort and the well-publicized breakup of his marriage. Shaunie and five of their six children (they have four together and one each from previous relationships) visited him in Phoenix last week, and while Shaq wouldn't get into specifics, he seemed hopeful that his change of address might help mend his relationships as well as his body.

"Of course it was a very tough time for me personally in Miami," he says. "[The Heat] tried to use everything as an excuse. They couldn't figure out what the pain was, so it had to be something with me. 'Oh, he's too old.' 'He's getting divorced.' 'He doesn't want to play.' It was none of those things. [The Suns are] taking care of me here; I'm feeling better every day; and everybody's going to see they were wrong about me."

Still, despite the diminished expectations for his game (at week's end he was averaging 10.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.50 blocks in 27.5 minutes with Phoenix), he has set himself up for ridicule should the Suns, Western Conference finalists for the last two seasons, set prematurely this spring.

The Feb. 6 trade in which Phoenix sent four-time All-Star forward Shawn Marion and backup point guard Marcus Banks to Miami for O'Neal remains so baffling to so many that its genesis bears reexamination. To be clear: Fast-break guru D'Antoni was 100% behind the deal, even though he gave up a greyhound (Marion) for a mastodon. Things change, people change. Everybody was shocked when Bob Dylan plugged in an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and went into Maggie's Farm instead of Blowin' in the Wind, but it happened. Dylan got jeered for his efforts, just as D'Antoni, credited with bringing a more entertaining, up-tempo style of play back to the NBA, has heard catcalls at home since O'Neal's arrival.

"We thought there was a chance we would lose the championship [without making the trade], based on our inability to get rebounds, giving up second-chance points and not having a dominant big guy in there defensively," says D'Antoni. "That's what I wanted to address with Shaq, and if people don't believe me, there's nothing I can do."

However, the team went from allowing 104.0 points per game before Shaq to 110.1 with him. Through Sunday, Phoenix (43-22) had fallen from first place on the day of the trade to fifth in the atomic boiler room that is this year's Western Conference. Yes, the Suns can get back to No. 1 (they were just two games behind the Houston Rockets), but they could also fall back to ninth (they were four games ahead of the Denver Nuggets).

Yet the organization remains upbeat, largely because the main red flag raised about the trade -- that Shaq would slow down Phoenix's fast break -- was never anything but nonsense. No team runs a five-man break (well, once in a while the Warriors do), and O'Neal is an excellent defensive rebounder and outlet passer, the two keys to getting a break started. That's largely why the Suns' transition points have increased from 17.9 to 18.1 per game since he arrived. (The team's overall scoring has also gone up slightly, from 109.8 points before Shaq to 111.0 points after.) The devil has been in implementing the details: spacing the floor, working O'Neal into a pick-and-roll game that once used the spry Marion, deciding when Shaq is going to take position on the block and close up the middle, thereby preventing Stoudemire from flying down the lane for a dunk.

As Nash sees it, he has even more options when O'Neal sets a high pick for him, even though Shaq's only viable move is to dive to the basket. "When Shaq rolls, somebody's gotta show on me or I'm going to shoot," explains Nash. "Now that guy is at a disadvantage to help with Shaq, so who's going to do that? Amaré's guy probably, so that opens Amaré for the jump shot. If that guy stays with Amaré, it's going to be really hard for Shaq's guy to help on me, then get back and get good position on Shaq, because Shaq is going to be eating up all that space. So I can throw it down to Amaré, and Amaré can throw it into Shaq. So instead of me just slipping it to Shaq on his way to the basket, he's going to get a better shot this way."

Got that? Actually, it has worked well mostly because of the talent and athleticism of Stoudemire, who has averaged 28.5 points in the 13 games since O'Neal arrived (up from 23.2 pre-Shaq). Stoudemire has been getting and hitting his jumper when his man follows O'Neal on the pick-and-roll, or slashing through the lane in Shaq's wake -- much as a running back follows a blocker -- when his man doesn't. Sometimes Shaq stays in the paint and sometimes he clears out, which hasn't proved to be too big an adjustment for a man who has lived in the lane.

"What do you mean, how do I clear out?" Shaq says. "I just do it, that's all."

One of the reasons the Suns made the trade was their belief that the extra defensive attention Shaq gets would open the floor for their sharpshooters. But can O'Neal still command a double team? So far he hasn't. There was a revelatory moment in the second half of the Suns' riveting 94-87 home win over the San Antonio Spurs on March 9. Shaq, single-covered as he was much of the game, turned and didn't even come close on a short, banked jumper that once was all but automatic. D'Antoni claims not to be too concerned. "We don't want teams loading up on him," he says. "We want some of the old Shaq, but we want to hit him on the move."

The still unanswered question, of course, is, How well will he be able to move?

Asked to pinpoint the root of his physical woes, Shaq sticks a sharp and very large knuckle into a reporter's hip.

"It was right there," he says. "Every day. I couldn't get going. It restricted my movement. Nobody [in Miami] could figure it out. Drugs, shots, nothing worked. But here they're fixing it. These guys taught me a new phrase: TFL."

"What's that mean?" he's asked.

"I still don't know," he says, calling over assistant trainer Mike (Cowboy) Elliott. "What's TFL stand for, Mike?"

"Tensor fasciae latae," says Eliot. It's an important muscle in the rotation of the hip, the one that was locking up on Shaq, and has to be freed each day by manual therapy.

"Yeah, the TFL," says Shaq. "It was kicking my ass."

TFL could also stand for Tons of Freakin' Laughs, something else Shaq has brought to the Suns, a team in need of a light touch. For all the questions about O'Neal's game, do not discount the power of chemistry in the formulation of this deal: Phoenix brass wanted what D'Antoni calls "a pop" in the locker room, some indefinable lift, and no one provides pop like Shaq. The coach needed another strong locker-room ally, and Shaq is famous for embracing new coaches. Nash needed someone to remove the daily burden of catering to the media. Stoudemire needed a veteran in his ear to talk about things like defense and, well, defense. Hill didn't really need Shaq for anything, but he was squarely behind the deal: During the 2003-04 season, when Hill was out of the Orlando Magic lineup with an injury, Shaq gave him the keys to the gym in his Isleworth mansion so that Hill could work out alone. "Shaq had a big TV mounted on a wall behind the basket, and I used to shoot free throws and watch the late West Coast games," says Hill. "I was hurt, but those are fond memories." Hill breaks into a laugh. "Shaq always told me that if I got a new deal, he should get 10 percent."

That may be all the credit he gets even if this trade, one of the most surprising in NBA history, produces the franchise's first championship. O'Neal will play less than 30 minutes a game. He is not being asked to go out and defend on high pick-and-rolls, as he was in Miami. He may average about 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 get-out-of-the-ways (so that Stoudemire can barrel down the lane). Not only will he not get the ball in crunch time, but at times he may not even be on the floor.

"All that's fine with me," says Shaq. "Don't tell me I can't change. Don't tell me I can't help this team. This is a new chapter in a new book. I'm just one of the guys writing it."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.