Assessing The Impact Of The Shaq Trade

June 29, 2009

Last week's Cleveland-Phoenix trade for Shaquille O'Neal sent such shockwaves through the league that it rendered the annual NBA Draft into backpage news. In addition, the move forced the rest of the Eastern Conference's contenders into scramble mode, with Orlando making their own mega-deal for Vince Carter, and Boston actively shopping their point guard, Rajon Rondo.

When the smoke finally cleared, Cleveland was able to get O'Neal for the relatively cheap price of Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, a 2010 second-round pick, and cash. Although it was not quite the giveaway as Denver's Marcus Camby deal last season, it certainly involved a firesale comparable to the 2008 Pau Gasol trade.

This particular firesale unites two of the sport's biggest names, and instantly makes a previously dull, half-court jump-shooting Cavs squad, into one of the league's most interesting teams.

Here is's breakdown of the trade, including both its immediate and long-term ramifications.

The Effect On Phoenix

In terms of pure basketball worth, the Suns did not receive anywhere close to equal value.

Wallace already was a shadow of his former self two seasons ago when Cleveland acquired him from Chicago. The present-day version of Wallace has deteriorated that much more, as he is now only a 20 minutes-per-night player at this stage in his career.

Although Big Ben remains a tough and smart defender and rebounder, he is not nearly as active in either area as in past seasons. And as always, he remains an offensive liability. Should he decide to play out the year, he will likely be used in limited backup minutes when Amare Stoudemire needs a rest.

Pavlovic is a young 2 still trying to find his way in the league. He has good size, a nice stroke from deep, and will occasionally surprise by taking the ball to the hole. However, he is a decent, but not a great athlete, and that limits his overall upside. Ultimately, Pavlovic will also be used as a backup for incumbent Jason Richardson.

The second-round pick most likely will come late in the draft given Cleveland's recent regular season record. Hence, it offers Phoenix little guarantee that they will get a player capable of making the roster.

With such little return basketball-wise, Phoenix obviously made this trade from an economic standpoint.

In terms of the salary cap, Phoenix still takes approximately the same $20 million cap hit that it would have had with Shaq on the team because the trade salaries must match. However, the Suns could end up saving millions in actual expenses, since Wallace may retire or have his contract bought out for a lower price. Depending on which course he decides, the Suns could be in a significantly better financial situation.

Ultimately, the Suns realized that their championship window had officially closed, and have decided to begin the rebuilding phase of this once-proud franchise.

The Effect on Cleveland

1. On Court Impact

Last season, Cleveland romped to the league's best record, nearly equaling Boston's all-time home mark. The Cavs rejoiced in a year filled with big numbers, an MVP award, and some playful pregame introductions. Feelings of entitlement ran high, as a Kobe-LeBron Finals was assumed. Amid all the bliss, the Cavs' lone complaint consisted of the "insult" of having Mo Williams initially left off of the Eastern All-Star team.

The playoffs however, proved to be its own unique animal.

Cleveland was soundly defeated by the Orlando Magic, as Mo Williams proved an incapable second-fiddle when the games really mattered. The frustration of the loss become apparent when a classless LeBron James did his best Isaiah Thomas impersonation and hastily exited without a congratulatory handshake.

Although there were several causes behind the collapse, perhaps none was bigger than Cleveland's flawed offense.

In the history of the NBA, not one team has won a championship without having at least one low-post threat, at any position, capable of commanding a double team. And on last season's roster, the Cavs had no such threat.

Essentially, Cleveland's offense was entirely too dependent on LeBron James creating offense on the perimeter through pick-and-roll action or simple isolations. When the games slowed down into half-court slugfests, Cleveland's only answer was to unimaginatively have James dribble around the perimeter for 20 seconds against a set defense. As a result, the Cavs simply could not match the high octane Magic offense, possession after possession.

Compounding this problem was James' lack of a consistent low post skill set. Not only did that make scoring more difficult for Cleveland, but it also allowed the Magic to get away with defending James with 2 guards Mikael Pietrus and Courtney Lee. Because of those matchups, Hedo Turkoglu was able to stay out of foul trouble, saving the bulk of his energy for the offensive end.

By bringing in Shaq, Cleveland has solved their biggest hole offensively. The Diesel proved last year that he remains a capable double-digit low post scorer, who still requires double-team attention.

Shaq should fit in well offensively, provided that LeBron is willing to share the load and let the offense be run through O'Neal from time to time. The Cavs have solid spot-up shooters in Daniel Gibson, Williams, and Delonte West, all of whom will benefit from O'Neal's excellent passes out of the post.

More importantly, LeBron's life will be made easier, as Shaq will occupy some of the defensive attention normally reserved for The King. In particular, bigs looking to help contain LeBron's penetration will now also have to contend with being dunked on by O'Neal should they leave him to help.

The one problem area for the Cavs could be at the 4. Playing the poor-shooting Anderson Varejao simultaneously with Shaq would clog the lane offensively, and also could hinder the team's transition defense.

To solve this problem, the Cavs could play the better-shooting Joe Smith with Shaq, or perhaps go small and use James more frequently at the 4. Of course, they could always sign another perimeter shooting big man, such as free agent Rasheed Wallace.

Defensively, there will be positive and negative aspects to having Shaq on the team.

The benefits are that Shaq will be an upgrade over Zydrunas Ilgauskas in terms of one-on-one post defense and weakside shotblocking. With Shaq in the middle, the days of Dwight Howard dropping 40 might be a thing of the past.

On the other hand, the Diesel will be exploited in the pick-and-roll, as this is the one aspect of his defense at which he has always struggled.

2. Off Court Impact

There is a greater purpose for the trade beyond this season, and it involves retaining LeBron's services in the years to come.

Last season, the Cleveland brass could have made this trade and changed their entire season, but ownership was too cheap and decided to avoid the luxury tax. Specifically, the Cavs wanted to trade Ben Wallace for Shaq, but the Suns were demanding Wally Szcerbiak and his prized expiring contract. Astonishingly, Wally Szcerbiak, a journeyman, ended up being the dealbreaker, and the trade never materialized.

Now, management cannot afford to stand pat, as LeBron will be a free agent in 2010, and will surely be courted by all of the NBA's big spenders. To keep him in small-market Cleveland, management must demonstrate to LeBron that they have a championship-caliber team currently in place, or that they at least have the will to spend for such a team.

After flunking the test last year, Cavs ownership finally got things right and made the big move for a Shaquille O'Neal that is now one year older. For their sake, they must hope that the philosophy of "better late than never" applies.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for

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