You've heard the latest trade reports: Shaquille O'Neal is going to Cleveland, in exchange for Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, the 46th pick in the draft, and some cash.
On Cleveland's part, I believe the hoped for response from the rest of the league is something along the lines of, "Hole crap," or, "We're all screwed." Personally, I'm going the other way with it. This was a terrible idea, for just about every reason imaginable.
[Note: This is absurdly long, but hey, look at the bright side – things have been slow around here lately, so this should more than make up for that.]
Let's do the conclusion first, and then we'll get into the details. This is a terrible trade, because it is not what Cleveland needs. Oh, the talking heads will tell you that what they need is a big, strong presence in the low post, to beef up their front line and provide some inside scoring. And if that were truly what Cleveland needs, then maybe this trade would be a good fit for them. But the truth is that the Cleveland Cavaliers were plenty good enough to win a championship as they were, and what they needed was a coach and an offensive system capable of getting more out of LeBron and his teammates on offense.
More on that later. For now, let's look at the flip side of the coin, where not only does Shaq not fill the Cavs' biggest needs, but he also presents a number of problems for the Cavs that I think will significantly outweigh any advantages he creates for them.
Let's Talk About Shaq
Ask yourself this: What is LeBron James' primary strength? The answer, of course, is his ability to get to and finish at the basket. He does this better than any other player. The rest of his game, offensively speaking? I have said for quite a while that if you can keep LeBron out of the paint and away from the basket, you can limit his effectiveness. Sure, every now and then he'll hit seven three-pointers and just shoot the lights out – but on most nights, you can count on him struggling if he can't get to the basket.
Now ask yourself this: What is the defining aspect of Shaq's presence on the court? The answer, in case that is a bit cryptic, is his ability to clog the lane. The man is huge. Unlike Dwight Howard, who is tall, strong and muscular while still being quite lean, Shaq is big and wide. When he is in the paint, there isn't much room for anyone else in there. For most of his career, this has proved to be an advantage for him. Offensively, he easily got great post position, sucking defenders in close and creating space for his teammates. Defensively, he left very little room near the basket for opposing players to operate. So long as he dominated, individually, it was a recipe for success.
But Shaq is 37 years old, and he'll be entering his 17th year in the league. Those are scary numbers for any big man, regardless of weight and conditioning. For Shaq, it's even worse. He's no Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – the weight he carries on his huge frame causes significantly more wear and tear over the long haul, and he has never had much of work ethic or cared much for being in decent shape.
In Phoenix, we saw what had always been Shaq's strength on the court become his team's weakness. Phoenix had relied much on Steve Nash's ventures into the paint, creating passing opportunities to cutting teammates, and on Amar'e Stoudemire's explosion into the paint, often feeding off of Steve Nash passes. At the same time, they were a running team, moreso than any team has been in years. They lived on the fast break, and when they couldn't score in transition, they scored early in the clock. With Shaq on the floor, all of these things disappeared. He clogged up the paint, leaving less room for Nash's quick penetration and no-look passes, and no room for Stoudemire to get to the basket. He slowed down the pace, lumbering up the floor, demanding the ball, and forcing Phoenix to run a more conventional inside-out offense. Suddenly, all of their offensive strengths had evaporated, replaced by weaknesses, by confusion and clutter.
In this scenario, LeBron James plays the roles of both Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire. Like Nash, he is his team's assist leader, and most of his assists come from dribble-drive penetration and subsequent passes to cutting bigs or wide open perimeter shooters. Like Stoudemire, he's not a post-up player – his is an outside-in game, and he's at his best when he is blowing by perimeter defenders and making full use of the abundant space near the basket. Like both Phoenix players, the things he excels at are going to become more difficult with Shaq clogging the lane.
Consider how the Lakers beat the Cavs during the regular season, and to an extent, how the Magic beat them during the playoffs. Usually, Zydrunas Ilgauskas (a perimeter player disguised in a center's body) draws his defender out of the paint, leaving plenty of room for LeBron to operate once he is past the perimeter defense. Phil Jackson didn't take the bait; he was content to let Ilgauskas take wide open 18-foot jumpshots, leaving his bigs down low to deter James. The strategy worked. LeBron had a hard time getting to the basket, he struggled offensively, and he was even limited in his ability to get his teammates going. Meanwhile, Big Z taking long two-pointers isn't going to carry a team offensively. The Magic, of course, did some of the same – many of the highlight plays you saw during the Eastern Conference Finals featured LeBron James charging towards the hoop, with Dwight Howard coming out to meet him. Again, when Orlando left their big man down low and charged him with stopping LeBron James, the defensive tactic was largely successful.
With this move, the Cavaliers have done their opponents a favor. Previously, teams had to make the choice not to have their big men chasing Ilgauskas on the perimeter; now, the Cavs have decided to let opposing centers stay home. Now, when LeBron James drives, opposing centers won't be watching from the perimeter. They'll be taking up space in front of the hoop. And as if that wasn't enough, Shaq will be down there taking up even more space. Once he gets by the perimeter defense, where exactly is LeBron supposed to go?
Let's Talk About Speed
The primary problem with this trade, as I've just finished discussing, is that Shaq setting up shop in the paint leaves no room for LeBron, which threatens to impinge upon LeBron's biggest strength. However, the Shaq problems don't stop there. Again, the parallels to what Shaq did to Phoenix are pretty obvious. While Cleveland isn't running anything close to a D'Antoni offense, they are a team that still loves to get out on the fast break, and they do so more often than you might think (if, like many Lakers fans, you only see them a few times a year). They are very effective in transition, and I'm sure that LeBron and his teammates would love to run even more than they do now.
Once again, however, having Shaq on the floor is detrimental to game speed. He is San Antonio embodied in a single person (except nowhere near as classy, nor as devoted to defense), and when he is on the court the game slows down drastically. This has the opposite effect on the Cavs' offense than what they want. Say goodbye to any semblance of speed; this team won't be doing much running.
Let's spin things around for a moment, and instead of making a backwards-looking comparison, let's draw a parallel with the potential future. For LeBron, the primary draw of playing in New York in 2010 would seem to be the huge media market. In Cleveland, he is a superstar; in New York, basketball mecca and the biggest market in the sport, he would immediately transform into that global icon that he so desperately longs to be. But there is a second factor, not as widely discussed but almost as significant, that is surely tempting for LeBron James: the Knicks' head coach, Mike D'Antoni. (Somewhat indirect this time, but again with the ties to Phoenix.)
LeBron James making highlights in a D'Antoni offense in the biggest media market in the NBA? The idea alone must be basketball nirvana for LeBron James. Throw in a championship, and what more could an aspiring global icon/billionaire athlete ask for?
So you can understand my confusion when I learn that, with the danger of losing LeBron to that dream looming ever nearer and seeming ever more real with every passing day, the Cavaliers decide to go the other direction. Shaq clogging the paint and slowing the pace in Cleveland is the antithesis of LeBron running in New York. How can this be a good thing, and why would Cleveland do it?
Let's Talk About LeBron
Okay, let's talk less "X's and O's," and get into some of the more intangible aspects of the game with Shaq and LeBron on the same team. Let's talk about touches.
LeBron James dominates the ball like no other player in this league. Nobody touches the ball, or controls what happens with it, more than he does. Not a dominant scorer like Kobe Bryant, and not a dynamic passer who controls the offense like Chris Paul. LeBron touches the ball every time down the floor, and most of the time, he either takes the shot, or makes the pass that leads to the shot. He is the man; he is in control.
At the same time, Shaq has always demanded the ball, and he always will. Sure, he made an effort in Phoenix to accept that the Suns were Steve Nash's and Amar'e Stoudemire's team. But at the same time, Shaq's primary basketball philosophy is that things work better when the offense flows through him. Even if he isn't taking 25 shots in a game, he still feels that the offense needs to be run through him. And when the Suns struggled, what was Shaq up to? Was he taking the blame, talking about how he needed to make things easier for Nash and Stoudamire? No, he was up to his old tricks, talking about how he needed to get the ball more.
How exactly does that work in an extremely LeBron-centric offense? Shaq will submit to LeBron as the team leader and the primary scorer, but nothing will ever change Shaq's underlying basketball philosophy, and sooner or later he will be making it known that the offense needs to run more through him, and less through LeBron. How will LeBron James, the "King," feel about that?
In order for Shaq to be effective in some ways, perhaps offsetting some of the various problems he poses with his presence on the floor, he'll need the ball. And not just on a dive to the hoop created by a LeBron James drive. He'll need to set up shop in the paint, receive the entry pass, and have his coach and teammates let him go to work. He'll not only need the ball – he'll need to control the ball. How will LeBron respond to that idea? He's never really had to deal with that in the past.
How do you think Michael Jordan would deal with Shaquille O'Neal coming onto his team, and sooner or later, telling him how things need to be. No, LeBron is not Michael Jordan – but he plays that same alpha dog role on his team, he has that same status in Cleveland, and I think he sees himself as being in the same position as Mike was on his old Bulls teams. He is the man; the game revolves around him. Jordan would not have done well with Shaq on his team – even old Shaq. LeBron is a better teammate than Jordan was, but I still don't really see him reacting to favorably to Shaq's inevitable demands.
Shaq will rebel against the "LeBron Iso" offense, but LeBron is tremendously fond of that offense. How will that end?
Let's Talk About Cleveland
The question of who will control the ball leads me to an issue that I hinted at earlier in this post: Size, strength, and length in the low post is not what the Cavaliers need most at this point. The pundits will tell you it is, but they're wrong.
The problem here is that the overall allergic reaction to blaming LeBron James for the Cavaliers' ECF loss, directly or indirectly, is causing everybody to approach this the wrong way. LeBron is untouchable. The media doesn't want to talk about what he did wrong in the Conference Finals, because he's their pride and joy, and they can't bring themselves to criticize him. The Cavaliers won't allow LeBron to take any blame, because they're just so afraid of bruising his fragile ego and pushing him even closer to New York. His teammates won't point any fingers at LeBron, because they would be laughed off the court by every other pro-LeBron interest group.
But the truth is that, either directly or indirectly, a large reason for the Cavs' Eastern Conference Finals loss was the way LeBron James played.
Since losing to the Magic, the talk has been that LeBron's "supporting cast" simply isn't up to par. He doesn't have talented enough teammates to win a championship. But before you buy into that rhetoric, ask yourself this: How does a team with one great player and a bunch of scrubs win 66 games in the regular season?
Or consider this: LeBron James isn't drastically better this year than he was last year. Individually, he was dominant last year, as well. In fact, his primary numbers have gone down slightly since last year. The biggest difference, for this Cleveland team, is not that LeBron was incredible – he has been that for a while now. It was that his teammates were also very good. That was the difference between 45 wins last year and 66 wins this year.
So how is it that now, when the Cavs lose in the playoffs, suddenly we forget how good LeBron's teammates were during the regular season, and the fact that it was their play that made the Cavs into the juggernaut they were during the regular season?
Now, it is true that LeBron's teammates struggled during the playoffs, and particularly against Orlando. But consider why that is? It's possible that they're just not good players, but considering what they did during the regular season, I find that highly unlikely. So what else changed during the playoffs, and particular during the Conference Finals? The offense did.
During the most regular season, the Cavs actually ran a real offense. This was a significant improvement over years past, when the Cavs ran what is commonly referred to as the "LeBron Iso" – with LeBron dribbling out half of the clock near halfcourt, then driving and creating either a shot for himself or a shot for a teammate. Essentially, it was wait and watch LeBron do something. This year, it was different. Players were moving, and the team actually ran offensive sets. Occasionally, LeBron even got the ball in motion, rather than having to set up beyond the three-point line and create for himself. The word was that coach Mike Brown had handed the reins to the offense over to a couple of assistant coaches, who had shown themselves to be more capable offensive coaches than Brown, and the result was very positive.
During the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs abandoned their offense and went right back to the "LeBron Iso." The result was gaudy numbers for LeBron, but significantly less efficient play from the team as a whole. While LeBron is a virtually unstoppable force, the LeBron Iso is much easier to stop than an offensive scheme in which players are moving, working together as a team, making extra passes, and finding open shots.
In a "real" offense, such as the one the Cavaliers utilized for much of the regular season, players remain involved, and as such, they play better. In the LeBron Iso, players find themselves standing, watching, waiting for LeBron to "do something." When they do get the ball, they are out of rhythm and uninvolved. The offense stagnates, and LeBron's teammates struggle.
This is why it is so important for the Cavaliers not to run the LeBron Iso as their primary offense. It is also why, when they did just that in the ECF, the offense sputtered and LeBron's teammates struggled. I don't know who's decision it was to abandon the offense and go back to the LeBron Iso – maybe it was Mike Brown's panicking and putting things in the hands of his star player, or maybe it was LeBron taking over and trying to prove himself on the big stage – but regardless, the end result was an ealier than planned playoffs exit. The rest of the team didn't perform poorly because they're subpar players – their regular season performance showed that to be the farthest thing from the truth. They performed poorly because LeBron's dominance of the ball took them out of the game.
If the Cleveland Cavaliers really want to improve to the point of being able to win a championship, the answer is not criticizing LeBron's teammates and bringing in Shaquille O'Neal. The answer is to recognize that LeBron's teammates are actually quite good, and that it was LeBron's ball dominance that caused them to struggle; the solution is to improve the offense, and to get their star player to stick to that plan regardless of what happens.
Let's Talk About Shaq
Wait, haven't we been doing that all along? Yes, but now it's time to talk about the extra-curricular activities that come included in the total Shaq package. You know this story well – from Orlando and Los Angeles, to Miami and Phoenix, every team has dealt with Shaq's drama, and every team has been thrown under the bus. This will happen in Cleveland as well.
What happens if Shaq doesn't get what he wants in Cleveland? He'll speak his mind at first. And if LeBron and the Cavs still don't budge? He'll turn up the heat. What happens if, in a low moment for the Cavs that Shaq inevitably blames on Mike Brown or even LeBron James, Shaq drops a line like, "Kobe wouldn't have done that." It seems crazy, but when the verbal sparring starts, Shaq goes for the lowest blow he can find, and that's just the kind of thing he would pull out of his hat. If it's not that, it will be something else. Will LeBron bite his tongue? Will the media laugh it off? Or will it cause the kind of drama storm that was a regular occurence when Shaq was in Los Angeles?
And what about LeBron's legacy? You know that as soon as Shaq arrives in Cleveland, he'll be pointing to his pinky finger and promising fans their long awaited championship. Has the media gotten over their Shaq crush, or will The Big Revisionist continue to shape the way victories and defeats are viewed?
This is a phenomenon that I refer to as the Shaq-22. If Shaq's team wins, he gets the credit; if his team loses, his teammates get the blame. That is how it has always been, though we saw a bit more realism in Phoenix. Has the media's love affair with Shaq finally passed, to the point that they will look past him and give credit and blame where it is actually due?
This is a bigger issue than you may think. If the Cavaliers win the 2010 Championship, it's possible that many will it as a direct result of Shaq's arrival. LeBron & Crew weren't able to get it done before, but now that Shaq has arrived, ta-daa! Championship. On the other hand, if the Cavs still fail to win the championship, how will that affect how people view LeBron James? Some people will begin to doubt him, questioning his ability to win a championship, pointing to the fact that he won 66 games in the regular season this year, but then couldn't win a championship even with Shaq added to the mix.
The question, in all of this, is how prominent these pro-Shaq perspectives will be in a year. In years past, Shaq would receive all of the credit for wins, and his teammates would receive all of the blame for losses. Has the media tide turned on him enough to prevent that from happening this time around? Personally, I'm not sure it's something I'd want to risk, and if I were LeBron James, I would not be looking forward to Shaq's media effect.
Let's Talk About This Trade
If I was Danny Ferry, I wouldn't have done this. If I was LeBron James, I wouldn't have wanted this. If I was a Cleveland sports fan, I wouldn't be feeling very good about this.
This isn't what LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers needed. What they needed was to recognize the strength of LeBron's supporting cast, and to admit and learn from the mistakes that LeBron and Mike Brown made in their approach to the Eastern Conference Finals, focusing more on developing an offense that got LeBron's teammates involved and made winning a team effort. Instead, they went for the publicity stunt and the quick fix – the one that allowed them to continue pointing fingers at everyone but LeBron James. Unfortunately, I think this trade will hurt them more than it will help them. It will clog the lane, making it more difficult for LeBron James to exploit his primary strength. It will drastically slow the pace down, rather than speeding it up and igniting the offense. It will create potential clashes on the court, as the team struggles to accommodate two players that require the offense to be run through them. It will create potential drama off the court, and could raise possible questions that could impact LeBron James' legacy.
And as if that weren't bad enough, everything potentially good about this trade is riding on the barely-operational body of a 37-year old, 350-lbs. center, who doesn't care much for conditioning, and whose back or knees could give out at any moment. In fact, Shaq is almost due for a major injury. If he can be the player he was in Phoenix, there's a chance for the Cavaliers to do some real damage, though I still wouldn't think this was a good idea. But if Shaq regresses to his Miami form even a little bit, the Cavaliers are screwed and LeBron is packing up his mansion and hiring a real estate agent in New York.
Unfortunately, this is what happens when the hopes of an entire city ride on a superstar whose contract expires soon. He is why the Cavs need so desperately to win a championship. He is also why they are pointing fingers in the wrong places, and trying to improve in the wrong ways.