The best-laid plans ... Shaq-to-the-Suns is latest NBA gamble to fizzle
The genius-moron dichotomy, offered from the start by Steve Kerr himself, will get plenty of play between now and October. The Phoenix general manager knew the sort of criticism he would face if the Suns, after his gutsy, in-season acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal, did no better (or possibly worse) in the playoffs post-Shaq than they had done in recent pre-Shaq years.
So Kerr preemptively bookended the best and the worst that figured to be said about his rookie GM season. (That's more genius than moron right there, actually.)
It spares us from worrying about Kerr's feelings now as we label his Feb. 6 trade with Miami as a failure. Or, in keeping with the Arizona capital's phonetics, a Phoenix phailure.
Now, does that mean Kerr was wrong to make the biggest, boldest move of the 2007-08 season? Nope. The Suns with Shawn Marion, and minus O'Neal, might have met a similar quick-exit fate from the postseason.
It's true that the Suns' record before the trade (34-14) was better than after (21-13). They might have finished higher than sixth in the conference standings, earning either home-court advantage in the opening round or a different first-round matchup. And yet, there was nothing in the Suns' style of play through the season's first three months that indicated any sort of stiffening, any extra dose of starch, in the way they defended. Likewise, there was nothing in the past umpteen NBA Finals to suggest that a team so vulnerable at that end of the court, and particularly in the middle, had any business harboring championship thoughts.
Getting O'Neal didn't work. But not getting him didn't look like it was going to work, either.
No, what Kerr gave the Suns, their fans and the rest of the NBA community was another failed experiment. In a league, frankly, that has a rich tradition of them. Every so often, such a maneuver pays off in instant gratification and a "Eureka!'' moment. Mostly, though, they do not.
Remember, it was Robert F. Kennedy who once said: "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.'' Don't think that statement doesn't have NBA implications, either. The man who quit his day job as postmaster general in 1968 to run RFK's presidential campaign was Larry O'Brien. They named the NBA championship trophy after him.
Here is a primer on 10 bold NBA experiments that didn't work, and five that did:
The failures ...
It wasn't the "who'' that stymied this move, it was the "when.'' As in February, with O'Neal's arrival forcing Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni, point guard Steve Nash and the rest of them to downshift barely two months before the playoffs. The other "when'' that hurts? When the Suns try again next fall, O'Neal (now 36) and Nash (34) will be that much closer to their next birthdays.
This was failure 1A of this season, a somewhat smaller move for a smaller player whose impact was smaller, too. Kidd, like O'Neal in Miami, seemingly got rewarded for not doing the heavy lifting he was paid to do in New Jersey. Then, he made almost no difference in Dallas as a contender, except hobbling the Mavericks' Devin Harris-less future.
It lasted for one lousy lockout season, a teaming of two former league MVPs and perhaps the greatest complementary player in NBA history. But bringing Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen into Hakeem Olajuwon's locker room in Houston proved to be more embarrassment than riches. A 31-19 season in 1999 fizzled in a first-round elimination against the Lakers. By October, Pippen had finagled a trade to Portland, but not before he and Barkley sniped like Joan Collins and Liz Taylor in a bad TV movie.
"For him to want to leave after one year, it disappointed me greatly,'' Barkley said, critical of Pippen. To which Michael Jordan's old sidekick retorted: "I probably should've listened to Michael a year ago when he said that Charles will never win a championship because he doesn't show any dedication.''
Bulls general manager Jerry Krause built two NBA three-peat champions around Jordan, a player he inherited from Rod Thorn. Then Krause fell victim to hubris, figuring he could build another great team without Jordan. With the backing of owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Krause blew up the Jordan-Pippen-Phil Jackson Bulls and went with coach Tim Floyd, Toni Kukoc and a young Elton Brand. Then he swapped Brand for Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler, setting the Bulls' clock back even further. These days, admittedly with six rings in his safe deposit box, Krause is back where the Bulls found him, scouting baseball players.
If the label on this one sounds like some psychedelic band from the '60s, it should: There was a throwback, addled feel to the Nuggets from 1981 through 1991. Over 11 seasons, built around offensive players such as David Thompson, Dan Issel, Alex English, Kiki Vandeweghe, Calvin Natt, Fat Lever and Michael Adams, they averaged at least 114.6 points and ranked fourth or higher in scoring. But in nine playoff appearances, the No D-enver club had a 24-37 record. By the time Westhead took over from Moe as coach, the style was failing spectacularly; the Nuggets averaged 119.9 in 1990-91 yet gave up 130.8. Of course, too much offense didn't stop Denver, all these years later, from building around Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson.
It was all the rage, for about a minute and a half: Get yourself not one but two All-Star-caliber centers. This experiment was Houston's doing, thanks to consecutive No. 1 picks that delivered Ralph Sampson in 1983 and Olajuwon in 1984. You might have expected the Rockets, after Sampson averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds as a rookie, to draft for a different position like, oh shooting guard (Jordan?). But they didn't. The two big men (Sampson was technically the power forward) made it to the Finals in their second season together but by the third, Sampson was showing the brittleness that shortened his career. In their fourth, he was traded to Golden State.
"We didn't break up the Twin Towers,'' said Ray Patterson, Houston's GM at the time. "What we did was trade Ralph.'' Whatever you say, Ray.
George McGinnis was a scoring machine, a powerful 6-8 forward with Elgin Baylor moves from Indiana. From age 22 through 29, he averaged as much as 29.8 points and never less than 20 across three ABA seasons and four in the NBA. He jumped to the 76ers in 1975, but when his ABA rival Julius Erving arrived via trade a year later, there weren't enough basketballs for the two forwards ... and Doug Collins, World B. Free and Darryl Dawkins. The highlight for that crew was taking a 2-0 lead in the 1977 Finals against Portland, before losing the next four. In 1978, the 76ers broke the gridlock by sending McGinnis to Denver for defensive-minded Bobby Jones, a perfect fit for a team that won the 1983 championship.
Three superstars are better than two and four are better than three, right? Look, no one expected Karl Malone and Gary Payton to be stars when they joined the Lakers for the 2003-04 season, but the future Hall of Famers were counted on as savvy vets who could caulk any gaps in L.A.'s goal of its fourth title in five seasons. Didn't work out that way: Payton chafed in Jackson's triangle offense, Malone got accused of flirting with Kobe Bryant's wife and the enmity between Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal overwhelmed what was supposed to be a ring season.
This is more an indictment of Don Nelson, whose reputation as the NBA's mad scientist of coaches necessarily requires a few failed experiments. When he wasn't tinkering with small lineups, putting the ball into the hands of a "point forward'' or warping his offense with "iso'' plays to exploit illegal-defense rules, Nelson was going for the gimmick big man. Maybe it was all those years playing alongside Bill Russell, but Nellie kept searching for a game-changer, with Manute Bol and later Shawn Bradley brought in to anchor what passed for his defenses. And ultimately, to fail.
Pick your venue, Thomas -- since his retirement from the Pistons -- has been one failed experiment after another. His stint with the Raptors, which had its highlights, ended badly. So did his ownership of the CBA. So did his stay in Indiana, followed by the recent unsavory seasons in New York. Now, under new president Donnie Walsh, Thomas is a consultant who is forbidden to consult with the players on the roster he assembled. It probably is worth noting here that Jordan's post-playing career hasn't been that much better than Thomas'.
And now, five-high profile moves that paid off:
Unlike the Suns with O'Neal, the Bucks acquired Oscar Robertson way back in April 1970, the day after they were eliminated from the East playoffs by New York. That gave them a whole summer, a full training camp and an entire regular season to blend a legendary veteran into an attack led by young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. At 32, Robertson posted the most modest stats of his career to that point -- 19.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 8.2 apg -- but gave Milwaukee just what it needed.
"Oscar could really be the floor leader and didn't have to score all the time,'' forward Bobby Dandridge said later. "It was a perfect marriage.''
The marriage lasted four years, with 66 victories and a championship in 1970-71 and another trip to the Finals.
He was from the hated Pistons, a nemesis who had cheap-shotted Pippen back in the Chicago-Detroit wars. Already, he was showing signs of the incorrigibility, even instability, that would lead to rainbow hair and wedding gowns. But Jordan and Pippen needed his help and vowed to keep the consummate rebounding overachiever in line. Enough, in fact, to set an NBA record of 72-10 in 1995-96, turn the Bulls into rock stars and win three more titles.
This was what Stephon Marbury-Steve Francis drew comparisons to but never could be: a double-headed, superstar-driven backcourt in New York. Earl Monroe had been a playground legend and the Baltimore Bullets' primary scorer before he was traded to the Knicks in November 1971. Eventually, he would average more than 20 points a game again, deeper into the '70s. But it was during his first few seasons with New York's Walt Frazier that Monroe -- the alleged antithesis of the Knicks' one-for-all approach -- had his greatest success and enhanced his reputation. His shot totals and points dropped but New York went 21-12 in the playoffs in Monroe's first two seasons there and won a second title in 1973.
Rasheed Wallace, at the time the Pistons acquired him, was Vesuvius in a headband, ready to blow without notice and the presumed ringleader of a Portland team that made more news off the court than on it. The Blazers had unloaded Wallace to Atlanta on Feb. 9, 2004, after a run of three fast playoff exits and cranky fan feedback. Ten days later, Pistons exec Joe Dumars brought him in for the discounted price of mostly spare parts and contracts. Wallace's talent, unlike his reputation, was intact and he helped Detroit win the title that spring. As always, his teammates loved him and, with the winning, the Pistons fans did too. Detroit has gone three rounds or deeper in every playoff since.
Tearing up a team that, rather surprisingly, had made the playoffs the year before with Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and rookie Dwyane Wade surely was a gamble. Especially since O'Neal -- the centerpiece of Pat Riley's trade with the Lakers -- had always demanded Batman status alongside first Penny Hardaway and then Kobe, but was starting to show some jowls under that cowl. But the big man got to Miami and deferred to Wade, a concession that put the former Marquette shooting guard at ease and allowed him to take over, most notably in the 2006 Finals.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005. His new book, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Minnesota Twins, can be ordered here.