What’s Left in Shaq’s Tank?
Not to be outdone by the Magic’s draft-day acquisition of Vince Carter, the Cleveland Cavaliers pulled the trigger on a trade of their own on June 26, finalizing a deal for Phoenix’s Shaquille O’Neal. It was a swap that had been bandied about at the trade deadline — but ultimately not completed — and when the Cavs were ousted in an Eastern Conference Finals upset by Orlando, more than a few observers pointed to GM Danny Ferry’s unwillingness to acquire O’Neal in-season as a mistake that possibly cost them the series. But now that the supposed blunder has been rectified, O’Neal is officially a teammate of LeBron James (having come at the relatively low price of Sasha Pavlovic, Ben Wallace, cash, and a 2nd-round pick), and he joins a team that won a league-best 66 games a year ago. However, at age 37, how much can the Big Aristotle realistically add to Cleveland’s championship chances?
First, here are Shaq’s career numbers:
(Translated stats are explained here.)
You certainly can’t say Shaq didn’t enjoy a renaissance season last year; even as the Suns’ “Nash Dynasty” was crumbling around him, O’Neal posted his best numbers since early in his Miami days, quieting any critics who thought he was finished after a mediocre 2008 campaign. He’s far from the Shaq of old, of course, but he’s still a force to be reckoned with down low — while he’s not commanding the same number of touches as he did during his prime (0.92 touches/minute last season, compared with 1.4 for L.A. in 2000 & 2001), he’s still getting 70+% of his shots from the inside (including dunks on 23% of his FGAs), he’s still making 60% of his 2-point shots, he’s still drawing fouls at a fairly beastly rate (.617 FTA/FGA), and now he’s even making some of his free throws (.595 FT% was the 2nd-best of Shaq’s career). We know Shaq will be motivated by being on a strong team, alongside an alpha dog the likes of which he hasn’t played with since his pairing with Kobe Bryant — and despite what anyone says, you know Shaq would like to answer Kobe’s ring with another of his own. Plus, the Cavs can afford to give Shaq as much rest as he needs during the regular season, since Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao are still capable pivots in their own rights.
But we know one of the major motivating factors for Cleveland’s acquisition of Shaq this offseason was the way Dwight Howard eviscerated them during the Eastern Conference Finals. As the narrative goes, Ilgauskas and Varejao were too soft and too slow to really challenge Howard on defense or the glass, and they scarcely made the reigning DPOY sweat with their offensive games. Shaq, on the other hand, is still a beast that will keep Howard occupied on the boards and in the low post, and he has the bulk to muscle up defensively on Howard. Do the numbers from last year bear this out, though?
It’s likely that Shaq won’t use more possessions than Ilgauskas, but he will touch the ball more often and, more importantly, his possessions will definitely not end in 15-foot jumpers — he will indeed make Howard work on defense inside far more than Cleveland’s options did last season. However, while Shaq is stronger and will probably push Howard around the way Kendrick Perkins did in the Magic-Celtics series, it’s hard to see Shaq making a significant difference on pick-n-roll defense, since he’s just as slow as Big Z and that tough matchup was what really destroyed Cleveland in the ECF. Additionally, Shaq’s on/off defensive numbers have been mediocre since his Laker days, so there’s no reason to think he’ll be a huge upgrade for Cleveland at that end in general.
And then there’s the matter of Shaq’s age. Coincidentally enough, 37 just happens to be the magic number at which some of history’s greatest big men — Ewing, Olajuwon, Wilt, Robinson, Moses, etc. — either retired or saw their production fall off a cliff. In other words, Shaq had a nice comeback season last year and will be an offensive upgrade at center for the Cavs if he can retain that form, but if Cleveland is counting on him to be the final piece of the puzzle to help them beat the Magic or Celtics in the playoffs, they’d better have a backup plan, because relying on O’Neal is a bit of a gamble at this stage of his career.