As we watch Blake Griffin and others to step up and take the spotlight as NBA draft picks, team officials are hard at work trying to make themselves better in other ways. They will sign free agents, cut players to save money, and, in true draft-time fashion, they will trade, trade, trade.
This year did not disappoint, and we watched two of the most enigmatic characters in the NBA change teams and make two premier teams even better.
Orlando and Cleveland, in a kind of off-season splash battle, trade punches by acquiring Vince Carter and Shaquille O'Neal, respectively. So the question must be asked. Who wins this round of what is becoming a bona fide East rivalry?
"Cavs get Shaq Diesel"
Forget the experts. Shaq makes Cleveland better. He gives them a powerful presence both on defense and on offense. Marc Jackson claims that "(The Cavs) just acquired the most expensive backup center in the league."
I disagree. Who is going to beat him to be the starter on that team? Zydrunas Ilgauskas is not a strong enough figure in the post and Anderson Varejao is an energy guy off the bench who should never start.
The criticism is that Shaq will not be able to score as efficiently as in the past. But the thing about pairing up with King James is that you don't have to be the big scorer.
He can provide the muscle down low that Cleveland was hoping to get from Ben Wallace. He can chip in 10 to 15 points a game. And he can do the one thing that Cleveland got from him: slow down the East's other Superman, Dwight Howard.
That is why Cleveland made the move. But that being the criteria, will it work?
I do not think so. While I do think that this makes Cleveland better, I do not think that this move will stop Dwight Howard. Shaq will slow down Howard, but not stop him.
This past year, Phoenix and Orlando split the season series. The second game made headlines when Howard, playing a more up-tempo game to weaken his elder counterpart, forced O'Neal to flop.
Then consider that Howard is in his fourth season. And every season, he has taken a big step towards utter dominance. He is already considered one of the best rebounders in the game and his athleticism is revolutionary for his position. Whispers from the Magic suggest that Howard will focus his off-season efforts on improving his arsenal of offensive moves. Orlando GM Otis Smith believes that his All-Star center is only at "fifty to sixty percent of what he is capable of".
O'Neal, on the other hand, is getting old quick and his abilities are declining fast. He showed in that March third matchup that he just cannot keep up with Howard's speed and athleticism.
If Superman gets as many new tricks as Smith thinks he will, Shaq's impact will be diminished. He may have to give up the nickname too.
"Magic Pull Carter Out of the Hat"
Orlando answered in a big way by filling the hole that most critics felt was their most glaring. Carter will cement the shooting guard position that rotated between castaway Mikael Pietrus, rookie Courtney Lee, and defensively challenged J.J. Redick.
Carter brings the ability to score at will from the perimeter, a skill that the Finals team lacked sorely against the Lakers' up-tempo defense. His playmaking ability will further help provide open looks for Redick, Jameer Nelson, and Rashard Lewis. He also takes the scoring load off of Dwight Howard, who despite his superhero handle could not make a consistent difference offensively.
However, the immediate fallout of this trade is that the Magic may have lost their shot at resigning Hedo Turkoglu, who has been instrumental. I think Orlando are out as players for Turkoglu. They didn't want to give him as much as he wanted to begin with. And with Carter, another guy who tends to dominate the basketball like Turkoglu, I think Orlando knows that there are not enough touches to keep them both happy.
Also, to get Carter, they give up a very talented young guard in Courtney Lee. Lee chipped in 8.6 points per game, but it was his defense that made him such a good fit. He was a terrific on-ball defender, despite the fact that Kobe shredded him in the Finals. Kobe shreds everyone. He's Kobe.
Personally, I loved Lee. Sure, Carter is a better player, but guys like Lee are supposed to be cogs working toward the big picture, and in that way he was great. The Magic will have to find more guys like Lee to round out their roster if they want to have a shot at a championship.
So Who Wins?
I think this is a no-brainer. Orlando got the better end of their deals. They only gave up Lee, a replaceable back up in Tony Battie, and an overpriced Rafer Alston. In return, they get the Dunk Doctor himself, Vince freaking Carter. Personally, I wish they would have kept Lee and dealt Redick
Shaq will be giving up the "Superman" moniker to Howard this year. He can't handle playing against someone so fast and athletic, regardless of how limited his offense is.
That said, Cleveland will still be very good. Shaq and LeBron will create a dominant pair practically, if not statistically. Shaq won't be filling up box scores anytime soon, but then, that is not what they got him for.
Carter, coupled with Howard and sweet-shooting Rashard Lewis, even if Turkoglu does not resign, gives the Magic a good chance at repeating for the Eastern Conference championship and a fighting chance at an NBA championship.
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