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Good News, Bad News

March 24, 2008
March 24, 2008

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March 24, 2008

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Good News, Bad News

By embracing a supporting role and livening up the locker room, Shaquille O'Neal has fit right in with the Suns. But so far they don't seem to be a more formidable title contender

AS YOU MIGHTexpect, there have been some changes on the Phoenix Suns since the hulkingfigure of Shaquille O'Neal first darkened the doorway of US Airways Center inearly February, the key acquisition in a trade with the Miami Heat that manyNBA observers still find nothing short of mind-boggling. ¬∂ The Suns' stat teamnow 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 lastfour of those wins have come consecutively.) Point guard Steve Nash, Phoenix'sfranchise player and go-to interview target, finds the area around his cornerlocker less crowded after games, particularly when the Big Soliloquizer hitshis comedic stride. Forward-center Amaré Stoudemire, who as a youngster in theOrlando area idolized O'Neal, finds himself the frequent recipient of on-courtand off-court advice from Shaq, which O'Neal classifies as "secret-societytalk." Coach Mike D'Antoni finds that as he looks at film, he occasionallythinks about a fundamental stratagem not previously in his game plans: haltingthe offensive flow and dumping the ball inside to O'Neal.

This is an article from the March 24, 2008 issue

But it is thearms and shoulders of athletic trainer Aaron Nelson that have had to deal withthe most substantial change. Every day Nelson spends an hour or so kneading andmanipulating O'Neal's massive body, trying to coax an extra tenth of an inch offlexibility out of Shaq's left hip, trying to incrementally increase thedorsiflexion in his right ankle. Whether prepractice or pregame, Nelson'sroutine is the same: He starts by working on 6'8", 225-pound forward GrantHill; moves on to the 6'10", 245-pound Stoudemire; takes a deep breath andattacks 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 differentspecies."

This is the dailygrind 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 haveto hope that never happens"), getting his flexibility measured by somethingcalled a goniometer, and trying to whip into shape a body so misaligned that hehadn't played for Miami for a month before the trade. He came to Phoenix bothfor the chance to earn a fifth ring and because he can fill a secondaryrole—witness last Thursday's 123--115 victory over the visiting Golden StateWarriors, in which he played just 14 minutes.

"Even thoughI've been the most dominant player for a while," Shaq said last week aftera practice session, "there comes a time when you gotta be realistic. Nobodyhas 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 lostpart of his physical ability. I'm O.K. with that."

Well, he wasnever O.K. with it before. Basketball obituaries about Shaq have been writtenfor the last five years, and he has always scoffed at them, clinging to thenotion that he sets the on-court agenda. No longer. "I'm 36, and Amaré's25," says Shaq. "It would be dumb of me to take 30 shots and turn himinto 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 owntelling—and Shaq's acceptance of his hoops mortality is nothing less thanastonishing. He doesn't deserve a Nobel Prize for this or a bump in his $20million salary or pardons for the times when he did not work hard enough torehab 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 ofhell in Miami, what with his physical discomfort and the well-publicizedbreakup of his marriage. Shaunie and five of their six children (they have fourtogether and one each from previous relationships) visited him in Phoenix lastweek, and while Shaq wouldn't get into specifics, he seemed hopeful that hischange of address might help mend his relationships as well as his body.

"Of course itwas 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 painwas, so it had to be something with me. 'Oh, he's too old.' 'He's gettingdivorced.' 'He doesn't want to play.' It was none of those things. [The Sunsare] taking care of me here; I'm feeling better every day; and everybody'sgoing to see they were wrong about me."

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

THE FEB. 6 tradein which Phoenix sent four-time All-Star forward Shawn Marion and backup pointguard Marcus Banks to Miami for O'Neal remains so baffling to so many that itsgenesis 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 inan electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and went into Maggie'sFarm instead of Blowin' in the Wind, but it happened. Dylan got jeered for hisefforts, just as D'Antoni, credited with bringing a more entertaining, up-tempostyle of play back to the NBA, has heard catcalls at home since O'Neal'sarrival.

"We thoughtthere 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 nothaving a dominant big guy in there defensively," says D'Antoni. "That'swhat I wanted to address with Shaq, and if people don't believe me, there'snothing I can do."

However, the teamwent from allowing 104.0 points per game before Shaq to 110.1 with him. ThroughSunday, Phoenix (43--22) had fallen from first place on the day of the trade tofifth 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 HoustonRockets), but they could also fall back to ninth (they were four games ahead ofthe Denver Nuggets).

Yet theorganization remains upbeat, largely because the main red flag raised about thetrade—that Shaq would slow down Phoenix's fast break—was never anything butnonsense. No team runs a five-man break (well, once in a while the Warriorsdo), and O'Neal is an excellent defensive rebounder and outlet passer, the twokeys to getting a break started. That's largely why the Suns' transition pointshave increased from 17.9 to 18.1 per game since he arrived. (The team's overallscoring has also gone up slightly, from 109.8 points before Shaq to 111.0points after.) The devil has been in implementing the details: spacing thefloor, 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 themiddle, 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 thoughShaq'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. "Nowthat 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 stayswith Amaré, it's going to be really hard for Shaq's guy to help on me, then getback and get good position on Shaq, because Shaq is going to be eating up allthat 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 goingto get a better shot this way."

Got that?Actually, it has worked well mostly because of the talent and athleticism ofStoudemire, 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 jumperwhen his man follows O'Neal on the pick-and-roll, or slashing through the lanein 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'tproved to be too big an adjustment for a man who has lived in the lane.

"What do youmean, how do I clear out?" Shaq says. "I just do it, that'sall."

One of thereasons the Suns made the trade was their belief that the extra defensiveattention Shaq gets would open the floor for their sharpshooters. But canO'Neal still command a double team? So far he hasn't. There was a revelatorymoment in the second half of the Suns' riveting 94--87 home win over the SanAntonio 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 allbut automatic. D'Antoni claims not to be too concerned. "We don't wantteams loading up on him," he says. "We want some of the old Shaq, butwe want to hit him on the move."

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

ASKED TO pinpointthe root of his physical woes, Shaq sticks a sharp and very large knuckle intoa reporter's hip.

"It was rightthere," he says. "Every day. I couldn't get going. It restricted mymovement. 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 thatmean?" he's asked.

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

"Tensorfasciae latae," says Eliot. It's an important muscle in the rotation of thehip, the one that was locking up on Shaq, and has to be freed each day bymanual therapy.

"Yeah, theTFL," says Shaq. "It was kicking my ass."

TFL could alsostand 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, donot discount the power of chemistry in the formulation of this deal: Phoenixbrass wanted what D'Antoni calls "a pop" in the locker room, someindefinable lift, and no one provides pop like Shaq. The coach needed anotherstrong locker-room ally, and Shaq is famous for embracing new coaches. Nashneeded someone to remove the daily burden of catering to the media. Stoudemireneeded 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 behindthe deal: During the 2003--04 season, when Hill was out of the Orlando Magiclineup with an injury, Shaq gave him the keys to the gym in his Isleworthmansion so that Hill could work out alone. "Shaq had a big TV mounted on awall behind the basket, and I used to shoot free throws and watch the late WestCoast 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, heshould get 10 percent."

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

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

Despite the diminished expectations for his game,O'Neal has SET HIMSELF UP FOR RIDICULE should the Suns set prematurely.
"It would be dumb to take 30 shots and turn himinto a role player," says Shaq. "Let Amaré go off, and I'LL BE THE ROLEPLAYER."

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TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by John W. McDonoughON THE PLUS SIDE O'Neal hasn't slowed the Phoenix fast break, and he's taught the team not to take itself too seriously.TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by John W. McDonoughCENTERPIECE Nash (far left) has more options in the pick-and-roll with O'Neal, who can still find an open Hill (33) if needed.PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonoughTHE SHAQ EFFECT Stoudemire (1) has scored more since O'Neal's arrival, but the Suns' defense—and record—have suffered.