Shaq no answer to Cavs weak spots
Shaquille O'Neal doesn't help the Cavaliers address their biggest weaknesses
Shaq is still a force, but he's not a great fit offensively alongside LeBron James
Splashy Shaq acqusition sent message to LeBron about Cavs commitment to win
Now that Shaquille O'Neal, LeBron James and the rest of the Cavaliers have officially begun preparing for the season, the question must be asked: By what logic do we expect the Big Diesel to provide a 2009-10 performance that is healthy and productive enough to take Cleveland to the next level in its quest for an NBA championship?
Begin with a series of inconvenient facts for Cavs fans and management. At 325 pounds, Shaq is listed as the NBA's heaviest player. (The second-heaviest, 310-pound Yao Ming, is out for the season with a foot injury.) With his 38th birthday looming March 6, Shaq is the league's third-oldest player, behind Chicago's Lindsey Hunter and Houston's Brent Barry. Most significant, with 39,926 regular-season minutes and another 7,843 minutes of more intensive playoff action, Shaq has logged more court time than any other active player and ranks in the top 20 all time in overall minutes.
This rather stupendous track record, gilded with four championship rings and three Finals MVP trophies, indicates that Shaq's many critics, going back more than a decade, were wrong in claiming that his plethora of side projects -- be it hip-hop, movies, commercials, police work or reality shows -- were ill-advised distractions that would prevent him from fulfilling his potential on the court. Yet even as we grant O'Neal that last laugh, and acknowledge him as a strong-willed freak of nature whose proud heart is as large as his clodhoppers, his weight, age and minutes are not the numbers you want to see pop up on the slot machine when you're feeding it $21 million in salary this season.
Beyond those daunting raw numbers, consider how the Cavs not named LeBron have to improve in order to help bring a title to King James -- the crucial, perhaps necessary, inducement for the NBA's best player to sign a new deal with Cleveland. Recall that even as the Cavs rolled to an NBA-best 66-16 record last year and then swept their first two playoff series, more than a third of those defeats (and five of their seven double-digit losses) to that point came against just three opponents: They went 0-2 against the Lakers, 1-2 against the Magic and 2-2 against the Celtics.
What those opponents have in common are large but mobile frontcourt players who can help spread the floor and compel a lot of quick interior rotations to defend against the high pick-and-roll, as well as the kick-outs and interior feeds off dribble penetration. With the game but aging trio of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace and Joe Smith, and the notorious flopper Anderson Varejao, the Cavs lacked sufficient resources to stymie this kind of attack. That was the story in Cleveland's stunning yet convincing six-game defeat against Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals. Everybody saw a seemingly invincible team that had won 74 of 90 games heading into the Magic series suddenly appear a step or two slow on defense, leading to an outcome that was obviously no fluke.
The circumstances of that unceremonious exit make the 2009-10 regular season mere prelude for the Cavs; their near-certain postseason matchups against any or all of the Magic/Celtics/Lakers trio will be the real standard by which the team is judged. And here's the rub: Aside from his abysmal free-throw shooting, the biggest flaws in Shaq's game are defending the high pick-and-roll and executing quick rotations in the paint. Put simply, he doesn't remove the Cavs' most glaring vulnerability against teams they must beat to make their season a success and foster the loyalty of their homegrown superstar.
In fact, a case can be made that Shaq isn't as complementary as Zydrunas Ilgauskas in teaming with LeBron on offense either. Although he is slowly improving as an outside shooter, James is still far more effective scoring off dribble penetration. According to 82games.com, 64 percent of LeBron's field-goal attempts last season were jump shots, a low figure for a small forward. But that's because his effective field-goal percentage (or eFG%, which factors in the extra productivity of three-point shots) on those jumpers was a mediocre 42.7. By contrast, on the 36 percent of his shot attempts categorized as inside, his eFG% (which is actually a straight shooting percentage because three-pointers aren't a factor) was a gaudy 71.7.
The bottom line is that James makes his bones in the paint. That works well in tandem with Ilgauskas, who, although he stands 7-3, is mostly a pick-and-pop player on offense. Indeed, according to 82games.com, Ilgauskas shot a higher percentage of jumpers (65.0) than LeBron. Shaq, on the other hand, takes jumpers on just 28 percent of his shots, meaning his double-wide body -- and the imminent double team he usually draws -- is too often going to be camped out in the same painted area where LeBron likes to finish.
So why did Cavs general manager Danny Ferry trade for a guy making $21 million who doesn't solve Cleveland's potentially crippling defensive flaw and also may not be the best offensive fit for the face, heart and soul of the franchise?
There are good reasons. Shaq remains such an extraordinary force, especially on offense, that coach Mike Brown can give LeBron more rest during the regular season without the guaranteed points deficit that used to occur when James sat. And despite some incompatibility in James' and O'Neal's natural spacing on the court, Shaq has always been adept at knowing when to dish out of double teams and when to barrel toward the hoop. Finally, this could be Shaq's last legitimate hurrah in quest of his fifth title, and it's a contract year, too, so he'll be highly motivated.
But if you had to choose one cause above all others as to why the Cavs added Shaq, it is because Ferry doesn't have a viable Plan B if James bolts to another franchise. Cleveland will pay more than $90 million in salaries and luxury tax this season. Next year, if James leaves as Ilgauskas and O'Neal come off the books, the salary totals plummet below $35 million and the team's cornerstones are Mo Williams and Varejao. You think free agents flock to that scenario, after LeBron has just departed? You think a back-of-the-draft rookie is going to pick up any of the slack? Plan B for the Cavs will be to cut corners and suck it up while they lick their wounds for a while.
Shaq is a Cav to prevent that nightmare, and in that respect he may be more valuable as symbol of earnest courtship than he is substance of strengthened court performance. Shaq symbolizes that the Cavs will pull out every stop and leave no expensive, risky, but attention-getting option unturned in demonstrating their desire to retain James. If LeBron is feeling at all unappreciated or pulled toward the brighter lights of the bigger cities, why not acquire the biggest slam-dunk, first-ballot Hall of Famer still lacing up his sneakers, the guy who lifted Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade so they could snatch their rings, and have him ride shotgun for the league's reigning MVP this season?
Interestingly, the Cavs' other new additions -- Anthony Parker, Leon Powe and Jamario Moon -- may go further than Shaq in addressing the lack of elasticity in Cleveland's defense. But after a season that elated their followers for months only to leave them crestfallen, a pattern the Cavs can't afford to repeat if they want to avoid disaster, the team couldn't retool with law-firm-like obscurities such as Parker, Powe, and Moon; they needed to make a splash. And no one displaces the status quo quite like Shaq.
But what comes in Shaq's wake may not be good times in Cleveland.
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