By Jack McCallum
February 05, 2008

In a recent phone call to Steve Nash, Shaquille O'Neal assured the Phoenix Suns' All-Star point guard, "I won't let you down." Now that O'Neal has pased his physical, the last hurdle to his trade to Phoenix for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks, he will get the chance to prove that is true.

How did the trade come together? Sources say that the initial calls were made by Miami and that relations between Shaq and coach Pat Riley have become strained; that is not surprising with two competitive old hands trying to muddle through a campaign that has become downright embarrassing. (The Heat were 9-37 entering Wednesday's game at Detroit.) Both owners, Micky Arison of Miami and Robert Sarver of Phoenix, were heavily involved from the beginning. There have been reports that the deal was made over the heads of the Suns' basketball staff. Coach Mike D'Antoni would not comment, but well-placed sources indicate that he not only acceded to it but also pushed for it.

There was concern, on both sides, that Marion would balk at the deal, but that didn't happen. Before the season, Marion squelched a potential trade with the Boston Celtics by saying he would exercise his opt-out clause after this season. It's unclear whether he will still do that, but, in any case, he is attractive for Miami -- either a major piece in a massive rebuilding job, or more off-the-books money to spend in what will surely be an active offseason for the Heat, who have fallen hard after winning the championship two seasons ago.

One of the last players in the NBA who would seem to fit the run-and-gun style of the Suns would be O'Neal. Even in his best days, the Heat center, who turns 36 on March 6, was no sprinter, and these are far from his best days. He has played in only 32 of the Heat's 46 games this season, is currently inactive with recurring pain in his left hip and leg and has missed an average of 20 games over the past six seasons with a variety of injuries.

This deal, however, is about more than what happens on the court. The Suns were not, and have never been, a team in turmoil, but it has not been a happy locker room in Phoenix this season. Nash, in particular, has become gloomier as the weight of winning a title falls heavier and heavier upon his slender shoulders. (He turned 34 on Thursday.)

"I think this is going to bring a lot of life back to Steve," a Suns source said. "He was very revved up after talking to Shaq."

But how does Shaq fit the Suns' running offense? Not at all. But as the Suns see it, they seldom run a five-man fast break, and Shaq would be the in-bounder. In the half court, the high pick-and-rolls run by Nash and current center Amaré Stoudemire would be more effective with a Shaq duck-in always available as an option. Plus, though he is averaging a career-low 14.2 points when he does play, Shaq still commands a double team, which leaves things more open for perimeter shooters such as Nash, Raja Bell, Grant Hill, Leandro Barbosa and even Stoudemire. One of the Suns' most glaring weaknesses, second-chance points, is addressed with the Big Saguaro (as Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic has already nicknamed him) on board.

Defensively, as increasingly immobile as he might be, Shaq still will be able to defend against the bigger frontcourt players (read: San Antonio's Tim Duncan), a weakness of Stoudemire's.

Stylistically, though, there would be major changes in Phoenix. Losing Banks, who has never caught on with D'Antoni, is no big deal; Barbosa has been the backup point guard and perhaps the versatile Boris Diaw will now do more ball-handling when Nash needs a rest. But Marion defines the essence of the Suns, a fast-moving, athletic player who is also the most versatile defender on a team not known for defense.

It's a big move for the Suns, who not only sell themselves as a get-up-and-go offensive team but also stood a West-best 34-14 through Tuesday. It's risky to take on a center with declining athleticism, even one bound for the Hall of Fame.

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