Shaquille O'Neal is a big man. A Very Big Man with a big career. So big that the National Basketball Association shamelessly named him as one of the game's 50 Greatest Players in 1996, when he had been in the league just four years. That may be marketing at its worst by the league, but he is indeed one of the best big men the game has ever seen, a hulk of a man 2.2 meters tall and 140Kg, yet still as quick and agile as many players half his size.
From his early successes with the Orlando Magic up through his days playing for the esteemed Los Angeles Lakers, "Big Diesel" Shaq had been the face of the NBA, charismatic, tough as nails on the court, and generous with charities. The man also gives himself all kinds of nicknames, Big Aristotle, Shaqovic, the Big Diesel, the Big Shaqtus - his ego is nearly equal to his size, and he'd be the first to tell you that his boasting is righteous and justified.
But now, four championships and two teams later, he's living on a fat $21 million yearly salary and not playing nearly up to his potential. Instead of the "Big Aristotle," he's become the "Big Freeloader." Suns coach Terry Porter was fired just a few days ago on February 16, still in mid-season, and the Suns seem to be on the verge of falling apart.
The Phoenix Suns acquired Shaq in a trade with the Miami Heat last year for guard Shawn Marion. The Suns and their general manager Steve Kerr figured Shaq would be the man to finally get them over the hump to win an NBA championship. The Suns already had some good players, and they had come so close in the past, only to get knocked out of the playoffs by referee controversy and by teams that were only slightly better than they were.
So much for great expectations.
In the three previous years before signing Shaq, the Suns amassed 61, 62, and 64 wins, respectively, some of the best records in the league for those years. They fared pretty well in the playoffs, but their mediocre defense and rebounding kept them from having a true shot at the title. Last year they managed 55 wins, but Shaq was mediocre, averaging 13 points per game, well short of his 25 point-per-game career average. The Suns were subsequently knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. This year they'r
e on pace for a 47-35 record, certainly not bad, but they have virtually no chance at the championship playing road games for four consecutive playoff series. And with aging superstars like Shaq and Steve Nash, the odds don't look good for future seasons.
Before Shaq went to Phoenix, the Suns used to fly up and down the court like madmen on a prison break, playing a faster-paced, offense-oriented old-school type of basketball that vanished when Michael Jordan took over the league in the 1990's. The Suns of recent years past have been entertaining, almost everyone agrees on that, and with some kinder officiating by the referees in crucial playoff games they might well have had an NBA title by now.
Suns are dead
Regardless, those running, gunning Phoenix Suns are dead. We're in the Shaq era now, and the Suns look like a bunch of alzheimer's patients lost in a shopping mall; they only have a vague idea of where they are and what they should be doing. They do know for sure, though, that Time has passed them by.
The Suns' problems are not all Shaq's fault, though. There are twelve men on the team, and they are lethargic as a group. Shaq is shaving one of his best shooting years of his career, and he's finally learned how to shoot free-throws at a reasonable percentage. He's also averaging a very respectable 9 rebounds per game, and theoretically that should make the Suns faster - get the rebound, quickly pass it away, everybody races up the court, you score easily.
But you can throw all that out the window if the team has poor chemistry and doesn't show consistent effort.
Coming out of the locker room after an embarrassingly one-sided first half against the Boston Celtics back on January 19, Suns player Grant Hill jokingly asked the TV commentators if they wanted to trade jobs. The crew laughed heartily, but it wasn't the typical forced garbage of an exchange you'll normally see in such situations. Grant Hill probably really DID want to change jobs, better to sit behind a microphone with some dignity than to go back to the maelstrom of the Phoenix Suns. And is there any better vindication for TV talking heads than to know that their lives are actually much BETTER than the millionaire athletes they're covering?
It was easy to see that the Suns head coach would not last. The coaches are always the first to go in a mutiny, and Suns coach Terry Porter had definitely lost control of the team. He had a tough act to follow, though, with last year's coach Mike D'Antoni being fired and then signing on to coach the New York Knicks. And now D'Antoni has transformed the Knicks from being the laughingstock of the league into a franchise with a reasonably bright future.
Not bad for an organization that was in previous years riddled with horrible coaching, terrible fiscal and personnel management, and even allegations of sexual harassment. It was a genuine circus in New York, you know things are bad when your best player (Stephon Marbury) is booted from the team, but continues to make $20 million per year, all the while bashing the organization in the media and campaigning to play for other teams every chance he gets.
It hasn't gotten to that point yet in Phoenix, and it probably won't - but it could still be bad. Suns general manager Steve Kerr took a real chance when he traded for Shaq and his bloated contract, and he had to blame someone for the Suns' failure to perform. But it's hard to blame Terry Porter when Shaq and Steve Nash seem to visibly dislike each other. Kerr should have known that the two rivals wouldn't get along, they've had too many bitter battles on the court as adversaries to make peace now, and if you're a lip-reader you'll know they've had some foul verbal exchanges on the court. When the Big Diesel starts roaring, an arrogant, smooth-talking ladies' man like Nash is likely to feel nothing but contempt for the brute.
These two men don't have much time to patch things up, either, at the respective ages of 35 and 36, they're both in the twilights of the careers. The team's third superstar, Amare Stoudemire, has plenty of sheer athleticism, size, and talent, but he lacks heart and consistency. At 26 years old, he still has time to mature, but he doesn't seem to be that single player that a team can really build around, so unless the Suns can replace Nash and Shaq, they are in for some trouble.
To their credit, the Suns have won their first 2 games under new head coach Alvin Gentry. They also managed to score 140+ points in both games, which is an impressive tally even against the awful LA Clippers. They face a tough test this Sunday against the defending champion Boston Celtics, and if the Celtics' Kevin Garnett plays, Phoenix's chances are not good.
The Celtics are a beast of a team, and they couldn't care less about the Suns' tribulations - and if the Suns don't Believe anymore, the point is moot; basketball fans in Phoenix, Arizona will soon be hearing Steve Kerr and the rest of the Suns' management say the dreaded phrase "we're in rebuilding mode." In other words, "better luck next decade."
The Arizona sports fans have already taken one massive morale-killing blow earlier this year when their surprising Arizona Cardinals lost a heart-breaking Super Bowl to the Pittsburgh Steelers; the question is, has the next blow already fallen?