The Shaq trade revisited

Do Shaq and the Suns have time yet to run into a first-round matchup with the Lakers? (AP/Paul Connors)

Shaq and the Suns seemed to be running the wrong way during much of his tenure. (AP/Paul Connors)

When Steve Kerr traded Shawn Marion for Shaquille O’Neal, he bluntly proclaimed that history would either see him as a genius or a moron for making the deal.

With a season and a half of hindsight, it doesn’t take much of a genius to see that Kerr is looking like one hell of a moron right about now, a distinction that Suns fans can only hope will be different in the aftermath of a likely Amare trade.

To see what Kerr was thinking, let’s go back to February 2008, with the Suns atop the Western Conference and still considered a favorite to win it all.

The Suns were coming off three consecutive heart-breaking postseasons in which injury and bad luck contributed to the team’s Seven Seconds or Less style ending short of a championship.

With Joe Johnson’s face injury, Raja Bell’s calf injury and the Amare/Diaw suspensions, I would argue that we never got to see the Suns at 100 percent before playoff elimination.

I would have liked one more season, even just one last season to see if those Suns that we all knew and loved could put it together at the right time.

Kerr, on the other hand, saw a team that didn’t play the brand of defense and didn’t have the interior presence that wins in the playoffs.

He won championships with Tim Duncan patrolling the paint and the Bulls’ suffocating defense bullying opponents, and he just didn’t feel like the Suns could win the way they were trying to do so.

Of course, if you believe what has been said, Kerr wasn’t even the one who pushed for the deal. Apparently Mike D’Antoni of all people had to convince Kerr this team needed a shot of Diesel fuel (if you can believe that).

Legend has it Kerr was the last one in the room to give his OK, and he was most skeptical that it would work.

But the Suns did this deal because they saw a crumbling elite team with Marion bitching about his role on the squad while yearning to be the top dog. They felt this just wasn’t working when the defenses stiffened up in the playoffs, and they made the one move you never would have thought they’d make: they acquired the NBA player least suited to play under D’Antoni.

On the surface it made some sense. Shaq had brought every team he had ever played for (until now of course) to the Finals. He was the bullying presence that the Suns had never had, and the thought of Nash-Amare-Shaq going through the playoffs together was delightful.

He was to be the low post player the Suns have always been looking for, the type of winner who would will them to a championship. The Suns wouldn’t be giving up 10 rebounds a game to their opponent to start like they had been, and the theory was not everybody had to run the break, somebody had to get the rebound to start the break after all.

On the other hand, I was so shocked that it happened that when the rumors were going down I guaranteed to everybody who would listen that there’s no way the Suns would deal for Shaquille O’Neal. Good thing I didn’t run a Suns blog back then.

He used to be exactly the kind of player the Suns prided themselves in running off the floor. In fact, the Suns believe they would have won it all in 2006 if they could have only gotten by those Dallas Mavericks because of the way they dominated O’Neal and the Heat in the regular season.

As flabbergasted as I was and as obvious as it was that the Suns were changed forever from the start of the deal, I tried to get behind the move because it did make sense to some extent to bring in a center with a championship pedigree such as Shaq’s.

The Suns stumbled at first as they got used to playing with each other and then went on a nice tear entering the playoffs, only to draw the absolute worst matchup they could have in those hated Spurs.

A miracle Duncan three in Game 1, a listless Game 3 performance, and just like that Shaq’s Suns were done in five games.

This year, then, was supposed to be the year it all came together, with the team having an offseason to get acclimated to each other.

But with the departure of Mike D’Antoni and the arrival of Terry Porter, the Suns tried to become the defensive squad Kerr yearned for them to be.

That only led to a team that never found its identity through 82 games, and much of that stems from the presence of O’Neal.

The Suns with O’Neal were a walking oxymoron. Or should I say running oxymoron?

On one hand, Porter tried to turn the Suns into a defensive team without the defensive personnel while pounding it into Shaq and Amare on the other end. On the other hand, they had the best fast-breaking point guard of this era and a majority of players fit to run.

The plan was to have the best of both worlds in being able to run with Nash when the opportunities were there and throw it down low to O’Neal for easy buckets when they weren’t.

Instead the Suns had the best of neither worlds and never figured out who they were.

That brings us to now. Yes, we know the original O’Neal trade was a mistake, although who knows if Marion would have opted out to disrupt the team’s core and short circuit the Suns’ future. It seems crazy now to think he would have left $17 mil on the table in this market, but with the way he was bitching I actually thought it was a possibility way back when, and it was one of the reasons through which I originally tried to think positively about the trade.

We also don’t know if that team would have imploded under its own egos and if this was a defense mechanism to ensure it didn’t happen. We weren’t in the Suns’ 2007-08 locker room, but Mike D’Antoni was and I don’t see any reason why he would bring up such a deal unless he saw something he didn’t like.

Overall, this was really a boom or bust deal from the start. There was no middle ground.

You’ve got to give the Suns credit for swinging for the fences. As much as I would have loved to see a championship won in Seven Seconds or Less (and I still hope the Knicks do just that), if the Suns thought this was their one move for a title (kind of like what Cleveland thinks today), good for them for having the balls to make a move that could backfire so terribly.

Yes, it backfired, and the Suns are now rebuilding for it.

We can only guess where the Suns would be today if they had never dealt Shawn Marion for Shaquille O’Neal. At worst they’d be in the same position, only with Marcus Banks’ albatross of a deal still on the cap but Marion’s deal having expired.

At best, they win the 2008 championship, but that’s pretty unrealistic.

If you really want to play the what-if game, consider whether the Suns could have acquired a guy by the name of Pau Gasol for Marion, thus keeping the Lakers as a one-star team and possibly pushing the Suns to the heights of the current Lakers.

That we’ll never know, but as Shaq leaves town and a new era of Phoenix Suns basketball prepares to be unveiled in the coming weeks, Suns fans can only hope that Kerr’s next major move makes him look more like a genius and less like a moron.

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