Suns need to set Nash free

Shaq was not pleased about being ejected from a game he was dominating. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)

Should the Suns' offense revolve more around Nash or Shaq? (AP/Ross D. Franklin)

When the rumors of a Shaq to the Suns trade first made the rounds last February, I posted on my buddy’s Facebook wall, “I GUARANTEE it doesn’t happen.”

Shows how much I knew.

But the reason I was so sure those crazy rumors were just rumors is because if there ever was a player who was the antithesis of the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns, it was Shaquille O’Neal. He doesn’t run up and down the court, he can’t shoot jump shots, he clogs up the lane, and he needs the ball to be effective.

On the flip side, Shawn Marion was perfectly suited to run up and down the floor with Steve Nash, shoot the 3, score without having plays called for him and mask a number of the Suns’ defensive shortcomings with his length and ability to guard multiple positions.

History, of course, tells us the deal was made, and that was the day the D’Antoni Suns died.

We all should have known D’Antoni’s days were numbered as well, regardless of the exact details of his eventual departure, because the Suns fundamentally changed the day the deal was consummated.

When the Suns reached the Western Conference Finals in 2006, they hoped to face Miami if they got to the Finals because in the regular season they had run Shaq off the map. How could that same system work with the Diesel in the middle?

The answer we found last year is that Shaq would not be best utilized playing the way D’Antoni prefers. That’s understandable, and (wiping away the tears) the day Shaq was acquired we lost the opportunity to find out if a championship could be won in Seven Seconds or Less.

But that’s water under the bridge, and now the question the team faces centers around how can the Suns best utilize their current roster?

On one side of the ring, you’ve got Shaq and Amare, and I can’t think of a team in the NBA with a better one-two punch down low. And hell, Boris Diaw is sneakily effective inside, particularly when he’s got a mismatch.

On the flip side, you’ve got the greatest fast-break point guard of this era and wings like Leandro Barbosa, Matt Barnes and Raja Bell well-suited and used to playing an up-tempo game, a style that fits Amare as well. In fact, I assume Amare will be the No. 1 option regardless of how the Suns play, so this argument mainly affects the rest of the roster, Nash and Shaq in particular.

Head coach Terry Porter has put an emphasis on defense this season and mandated his club only to run when it gets stops, in stark contrast to the D’Antoni days.

Therefore, the pace has slowed to a crawl, as the Suns rank 17th in the NBA in pace factor, averaging 93.7 possessions per game. Phoenix used to annually lead this category, just as D’Antoni’s Knicks currently do.

My biggest complaint about the offense is that in stretches it revolves around dumping the ball into Shaq and letting him go at somebody or kick it out to shooters.

The Lakers did a great job of combating this last week with a weakside zone that doubled with the other big, stayed on the entry passer to prevent an easy kick out and played a zone on the three other Suns, forcing a difficult crosscourt pass to the open man.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com analyzed an eight-minute stretch between the second and third quarters of that Lakers game in which only Shaq scored, comparing Nash to “a hummingbird trapped inside a sandwich bag,” which is about the last thing anybody would have described him as under D’Antoni.

The two-time MVP just seems out of his element, averaging 7.6 assists per game after averaging 11.5, 10.5, 11.6 and 11.1 the past four years. He seems a bit unsure of when to push, and he’s just looked flat-out strange throwing it into Shaq, getting it back, and throwing it in again after Shaq re-posts.

Nash may be the best pure shooter in the league, but his greatest strength is still finding open teammates and picking apart an opposing defense with his creativity.

At halftime of the Suns-Lakers game, TNT’s never-shy analyst Charles Barkley opined that the Suns would be better off running with Nash and Amare like they used to and making Shaq adjust to them as opposed to having them adjust to Shaq.

Barkley brought up the point that Houston would have been crazy to run its offense through him in his final years in the NBA because he just wasn’t that type of player anymore, insinuating the same thing about Shaq.

However, Portland head coach Nate McMillan doesn’t seem to think Nash is out of sync one bit, even after watching him record more turnovers (eight) than assists (seven) Saturday night.

“Their guy is Nash,” McMillan told Suns.com. “He is still orchestrating that offense, getting everyone involved and knowing the situations. He is probably as good as I have seen as far as knowing where to go with the ball and what to do. … That show runs with Nash.”

The problem to me is that the show doesn’t run enough with Nash. Pounding the ball into Shaq doesn’t take advantage of Nash’s proficiency in the pick-and-roll game and his prowess finding easy opportunities for teammates.

It’s a tough balance to strike, but I’d like to see the offense run a bit more through Nash and for Porter to loosen the reins on the fast-break attack, particularly when Shaq sits.

I’m not pleading for a return to the D’Antoni days (as much as I would like that), but I don’t think the Suns should be thinking about whether they should run, they should just go. A few more Nash-Amare pick-and-rolls would be nice as well.

In a simulation of 1,000 games between the pre-Shaq 2007-08 Suns and the 2008-09 version done by WhatifSports.com, the Arizona Republic reported that last year’s team won 63 percent of the simulations, speculating that was true because of its superior offensive strength.

There’s no question the Suns are an improved rebounding team with Shaq and look to be better defensively under Porter, and everyone knew this club would take a couple months to hit its stride after the major philosophical change.

But what if the Suns could combine those strengths with Shaq’s post-up game and an offense that took better advantage of Nash’s creativity like it used to?

Even D’Antoni would have to admire a team like that.

comments powered by Disqus