Thursday March 20th, 2008

Having made what many proclaimed the worst trade in NBA history, and what one pundit described to me as "the worst trade ever in any sport, worse than Lou-Brock-for-Ernie-Broglio" (in 1964, the Cardinals got the base-stealing leadoff legend, while the Cubs got a sore-armed, over-the-hill pitcher who won only seven more games before retiring in 1966), what do we say now about the deal that brought Shaquille O'Neal to the Suns?

I'll say what I've said from the beginning: The Suns, who have won six in a row after Wednesday's victory at Seattle, have at least as much chance to win the NBA title as they did before the deal. No more, no less. The party line in Phoenix is that their chances are better -- and I believe they believe that -- while the general belief elsewhere is that they changed their style too much to prevail. I fall somewhere in between, and if you want to consider that a cop-out, go ahead.

For one thing, I want to hear one expert tell me that he or she has the Western Conference figured out. While all of us (myself included) have gone gaga over the depth of the West, what gets overlooked is the fact that every contender has at least one glaring weakness. Over the past few days alone, I've heard pundits discount the Lakers (shaky if Andrew Bynum can't be reintegrated into the lineup), Spurs (too old and they've lost four in a row through Wednesday) and Mavericks (Jason Kidd has failed to add any mojo). I'm not ready to toss any of the top seven into the dustbin. (It's hard for me to see No. 8, the Warriors, going all the way.)

After spending a few days in Phoenix recently, watching the Suns win a white-knuckler against the Spurs, trounce the hapless Grizzlies and turn back their doppelgänger, the Warriors, here are a few observations:

Mike D'Antoni has been one of the most popular coaches in the league since he took over the Suns in 2003. But the stylistic change brought about by the acquisition of Shaq, combined with fans' playoff frustrations of the past three years (losses in the conference finals or semifinals), has ended D'Antoni's extended honeymoon in Phoenix. That's the way it always happens. Some fans are on him, and the pressure to win now is very real. It's just not as much fun as it was when he caught the league by surprise with an up-tempo game.

But it's not like he has suddenly morphed into Jeff Van Gundy. (JVG, by the way, can be delightful company when he's not coaching a basketball team.) D'Antoni always jokes that he'll hang it up when Steve Nash does -- well, it might not be a joke -- but his departure, either by resignation or firing, is in no way imminent or contingent on the Suns' winning this season.

• The most persistent of critiques aimed at D'Antoni is that he plays his stars, particularly Nash, too many minutes. This drives him to distraction both because Nash is nowhere near the top of the league in minutes played and because a congenital back condition causes Nash to stiffen up more than most players when he is out of the game.

"Do people really think Steve's minutes aren't on my mind?" D'Antoni said. "Every game I talk to [athletic trainer] Aaron [Nelson] to see how Steve feels, whether keeping him over there for two more minutes will make him worse. And I have to ask, too: Can we survive as a team with him off the floor for two more minutes? But I go back to John Stockton. In Stockton's 13th year in the league, he played 35 minutes a game. This is Steve's 11th year, and he's playing 34."

The issue has been raised more than ever this season because Nash, at times, has seemed sluggish. He's still having a terrific year (17.5 points, 11.3 assists) but probably won't get too many votes for MVP, an award he won in 2005 and '06. Nash agreed that he hasn't been quite as sharp as in the past, but said there is nothing profoundly different from other years.

"My routine is almost always the same. It's what I'm comfortable with," said Nash, who typically sits out the final two minutes of the first and third quarters and the first four of the second and fourth. "There's going to be a point in the season when you're tired anyway. Everyone gets like that. But you overcome that and bounce back and feel better again. I'm at that point now where I'm just starting to bounce back. I had a tired three weeks but now I'm back.

"I know Baron gets tired because we talk about it," he said, referring to Warriors point guard Baron Davis, who averages 39.2 minutes. "It's not like I'm the only one going through it or the only one who's going to break down. And I'm not going to break down."

• My observation is that, with Nash and Shaq in the game, the Suns' half-court offense looks pretty much like it did over the last few years when Shawn Marion was on the floor. Everyone willingly sets high picks for Nash, including Shaq, and he uses them and the offense flows. There is no compulsion to slow down the offense and look for a big post-up guy.

But when Nash is on the bench and Shaq is on the floor, the offense does look more, well, traditional, and ineffective. Backup point guard Leandro Barbosa, a "point" in nomenclature only as he is the very definition of a slashing shooting guard, is uncomfortable running a high pick-and-roll offense and the team feels more uncomfortable setting picks for him. When he's not getting his own shot, something he does quite well, the offense can stall and become the predictable look-inside-to-the-big-guy approach.

Having said that, just about any team's offense is worse when its first-string point guard is on the bench. Phoenix has a better option than most -- installing ball-handling forward Boris Diaw to run the show -- which is something the Suns will surely have to get more mileage out of in the postseason.

• A major factor for the Suns' title hopes will be Grant Hill's ability (or inability) to defend the opposition's top perimeter scorer for key minutes. Though their defense was criticized in past years for being porous -- and often it was -- the Suns always believed that they were a better-than-average defensive team in large part because of the 1-2 punch offered by Raja Bell and Marion.

Bell, a physical, in-your-face type, played the big minutes against opponents like Kobe Bryant and Manu Ginobili, but Marion would be around down the stretch to offer a contrast. The Matrix is an energetic and athletic defender, able to play off his man and still bother the shot. Hill is more along those lines, and, while he's willing and ultracompetitive, he is 35 and a veteran of multiple surgeries.

• The tutor-tyro relationship between O'Neal and Amaré Stoudemire is the one that gets the most attention. But Hill and Shaq are extremely close, too. Hill said it began back in college when Shaq, then at LSU, would call the Duke dorm room Hill shared with Antonio Lang, who was friends with Shaq from recruiting visits to LSU. "Shaq would get on the phone and do his DJ impersonations and just crack us up," Hill said.

Hill has also addressed a subject of far less amusement for Shaq: free-throw shooting. "I remembered that Shaq had good form when he shot in college," Hill said, "so I got some old footage up and showed him on the computer." So far, it hasn't worked. Shaq is shooting 44.6 percent with the Suns, worse than his career mark of 52.4 percent.

• O'Neal continues to say that he did not instigate the trade from the Heat. "I have a $30 million house down there," he said. "Why would I want to be traded?"

Other than to escape a miasmic hellhole of a team that won't win 20 games to join a contender, I can't think of a single reason.

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