When Suns' GM Steve Kerr decided to bring Shaquille O'Neal to Phoenix, he talked about Shaq rejuvenating the team. Kerr just didn't believe that the core of Steve Nash, Amare Stoudamire, and Shawn Marion could win a title. It wasn't that they weren't skilled enough; it was that they didn't have the right attitude.
So in comes Shaq and as it always is with him, hype followed. His personality is infectious. He gave writers a "new" phrase: The sun will rise in Phoenix. T-shirts were made and talk of bringing the title to the desert had resumed once again. A new era of hope had begun and Shaq was going to do what he did for two other franchises.
For his part, Shaq did rejuvenate the Phoenix Suns team. The problem is now they're simply not skilled enough to win a title.
In his first game as a member of the Suns, Shaq looked sharp in the second half. He ran the floor, set screens, and finished lobs. His presence in the paint makes little men think twice before waltzing in the lane. The Suns are more intimidating now with the big fella patrolling the paint.
Shaq played about as well as the Suns could have hoped and they still got beat handily by a very good Los Angeles Laker team. (Don't let the final score fool you, LA put the game out of reach late in the fourth.)
Shaq's subsequent games have been impressive. As a Phoenix Sun, he is averaging a double double (10.8 points and 10.4 rebounds) in only about 29 minutes a game. Not vintage Shaq, but pretty good for a player who is just returning from injury.
If Shaq is playing well, then why should Suns fans be concerned?
Because the Suns haven't won consecutive games since Shaq arrived. Because their gravest weakness—the inability to beat elite competition in the West—has not been remedied. Because their defense hasn't improved in any noticeable way and might be worse.
The Suns lost the season series to Pacific Division rival, Los Angeles, and then got swept in the season series by the Chris Paul led New Orleans Hornets.
Teams know that Shaq is intimidating when in the paint; that is why they simply bring him out of the paint. Shaq cannot play pick and roll defense. He's never been able to do it and never will. Los Angeles and New Orleans basically limited Shaq's effectiveness by running different variations of the pick and roll. Phoenix looked helpless and lost. It is kind of ironic in a way, since the pick and roll in past years had been Phoenix's greatest weapon.
Shaq's other glaring weakness is free throw shooting. Shaq is shooting a dismal 41 percent from the line as a Phoenix Sun. Phoenix has always relied on the superb free throw shooting of its personnel as a cushion.
Amare is a fantastic free throw shooter. Nash is perhaps the best free throw shooter of all time. Hill and Bell are equally reliable at the line. But Shaq? Let's just be honest, if a Suns' possession ends up with Shaq at the line, unless it is for a three-point play, the defense won.
Let's not lay all the blame at the feet of Shaq. He's doing his best. The real problem is that Steve Nash has never even been able to lead a team to the finals. That's right, I said it. His first MVP season he had a roster to die for: Amare, Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, Quinton Richardson. A solid bench. Couldn't get them to the finals.
Last year he had Amare, two of the best perimeter defenders in Bell and Marion, a fantastic interior defender in Kurt Thomas, the fastest player in the NBA in Leandro Barbosa, and he still wasn't able to lead his team to the finals. I mean, here's a guy with basically the most talented team in the league in the last few years and he hasn't been able to marshal any postseason success.
Let's face it, Steve Nash is not nearly as effective playing in the halfcourt set. Ask his best friend, Dirk, who became a much better player and led his Mavs to the finals only after getting rid of Nash. The Mavericks weren't nearly as effective with Nash as the floor leader.
The Pheonix Suns run a style of ball that is conducive to making Steve Nash look great, but has proven time and time again ineffective in the playoffs.
With Shaq in the middle they'll be forced to play in the half court much more often. They were able to play uptempo against the Grizzlies, but then again...it's the Grizzlies.
Against good teams like the Spurs, Lakers, Jazz, Mavs, and Hornets they are going to have to find a way to score in the half court set. The elite teams play tremendous transition defense and Phoenix has had to over-rely on their three point shooting in order to try to produce victories against these teams. As the odds might suggest, Phoenix has lost the vast majority of their games against them.
Finally, Nash has simply got to find a way to play better defense. He has been, by far, the best point guard in the league over the past four years, but that means nothing when his stellar production is matched or exceeded by other elite point guards when playing head to head.
Tony Parker blows by Nash with regularity, creating easy opportunities for his teammates and finishing at the basket with gusto. Poor Shaq. Already prone to fouls, what is he going to do when Tony Parker comes blazing into the lane at breakneck speed?
Chris Paul dissected Nash for 25 points last night and added on 15 assists for good measure, as if to say "your time at the top is coming to an end." To add insult to injury, both Paul and Parker play incredible man defense. I know Steve Nash has been the MVP of the league, but I'll bet money the Spurs would rather have Parker and the Hornets would rather have Paul.
Unfortunately Shaq's inability to guard the pick and roll and his dismal foul shooting combined with Steve Nash's inability to be effective in the half court set and play any semblence of defense renders the Suns' title hopes...well just that—hope.