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February 28, 2008
Every Play Counts
Shaquille O'Neal

by Kevin Pelton

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In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be fascinating. Also see Michael David Smith's original "Every Play Counts" at FootballOutsiders.com.

Over the final two months of the 2007-08 NBA regular season, no player will be more closely scrutinized than Shaquille O'Neal will be. How O'Neal will fit into the "Seven Seconds or Less" philosophy of the Phoenix Suns is the most interesting of the many questions to be answered entering a wide-open postseason that promises to be highly entertaining.

Since O'Neal was dealt to Phoenix on Feb. 6, everyone has shared their opinion on how Shaq will perform in Phoenix. As I wrote in a column looking at the number of blockbuster deals throughout the Western Conference, I'm dubious about the deal. I worry that the Suns have sacrificed too much shooting on the offensive end and are simply trading one weakness (lack of size) for another (immobility) on defense.

That said, I've been wrong before, so I'm willing to keep an open mind about the Suns fitting in O'Neal. The matter seems ideal to address in the Every Play Counts format, looking at how the Suns are different with O'Neal. Doing so after O'Neal has played just five games in a Phoenix uniform is, I admit, wildly unfair. Suns Head Coach Mike D'Antoni has not had nearly enough time to integrate O'Neal into his system; doing so will require time as well as trial and error. Nevertheless, I think it's worth an early look at the process, with the opportunity to compare and contrast a few weeks down the road.

I opted to TiVo and break down Sunday's game, when Phoenix hosted the Detroit Pistons. If you watched that game on ABC, or even if you just saw the final score, you know that it was a dismal outing for the Suns, who trailed by 32 points after three quarters and heard boos on their homecourt. It deserves to be noted before we go any further that O'Neal hardly deserves all the blame for the outcome; his -20 plus-minus was, amazingly, the best of any Phoenix starter. The Suns were also outscored by 10 points in the 15 minutes O'Neal spent on the bench.

Offense

I made sure to track how the Suns used O'Neal, although I should note that I did not start TiVoing the game until the late first quarter, missing all of O'Neal's first stint in the game. Here's what I counted thereafter:

  • 8 side pick-and-rolls
  • 8 high pick-and-rolls
  • 3 post-ups
  • 2 dribble hand-offs

Now, these numbers do not include all of O'Neal's offensive contributions; I didn't count second-chance plays or lobs to the basket, amongst other actions. However, the fact that O'Neal was involved in just 21 designed plays in 33 minutes of action indicates he was largely a bystander on offense in this game. The Suns did not deal Shawn Marion for him, or commit $20 million to him, for O'Neal to be a bystander.

Straight post-ups aren't a big part of the Phoenix offense, but I expect that to change to some extent in the coming weeks. This remains where O'Neal is most effective. While he no longer can consistently get deep post position like he did in his prime, O'Neal still has the ability to create makeable shots on a regulr basis, either for himself or by passing out of a double-team.

O'Neal on the pick-and-roll is a less enticing proposition. The pick-and-roll has never been a big part of his game and he is not effective catching the ball on the move, which the roll man is asked to do. The high pick-and-roll puts him too far from the basket to be effective most of the time, though he is dangerous finishing a lob to the rim. Additionally, O'Neal doesn't set on-ball picks well; I'm not sure he made contact with the defender once all game from what I saw. Running the pick-and-roll with O'Neal will give Steve Nash good shots, but the Nash/Amaré Stoudemire pick-and-roll provides far more options.

Where O'Neal was more effective was running a big-big pick-and-roll with Boris Diaw, something the Suns have used with Diaw and other big men. They run this out of the high post at about the free-throw line, putting O'Neal closer to the basket. Late in the third quarter, the Suns ran this play and O'Neal did a great job of sealing his defender, drawing a shooting foul. They ran it again the next time down and both defenders followed O'Neal, giving Diaw an open look. Phoenix even ran one pick-and-roll with O'Neal screening for Stoudemire, maybe the worst ballhandler I have ever seen run a pick-and-roll.

The most troubling thing I saw with O'Neal on offense was his difficulty finishing good looks in the paint. On one noteworthy play, O'Neal missed a point-blank layup (albeit a contested one), a shot he never would have missed early in his career. This echoes what TrueHoop's Henry Abbott found in a similar video analysis prior to the trade.

As for O'Neal's impact on the rest of the Suns offense, I didn't see anything that stood out as an example of poor spacing because of O'Neal causing a play to break down. There was one noteworthy play, picked out by ABC analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, in which the threat of O'Neal opened the lane for a Stoudemire dunk. In four games alongside O'Neal, Stoudemire has averaged 30.3 points; this deal might help him more than anyone else.

Even if nothing stood out, it was obvious the Phoenix offense was running uphill all afternoon long. The Suns shot 41.6% from the field and made just four three-pointers. Their best stretch of the day, a 7-2 surge with scores on three straight possessions, came with O'Neal on the bench in the second quarter. When O'Neal returned (and when Detroit's starting backcourt came back in the game), the Pistons finished the half on a 14-2 run.

Defense

My biggest concern with O'Neal in Phoenix is his ability to defend the high pick-and-roll, but I'm a little biased. For years when O'Neal was in L.A., the Sonics riddled the Lakers by setting screen after screen on O'Neal. Actually, to be technical, they ran the pick-and-pop, with Horace Grant or Vin Baker or Peja Drobnjak stepping back for an open midrange jumper time and again. The less-than-immortal Drobnjak averaged 15.0 points against the Lakers in 2002-03, his highest average against any NBA opponent, and the 40-win Sonics split with the 50-win Lakers.

O'Neal did a better job defending the pick-and-roll than I anticipated. He's capable of stepping out to show, though switching picks involving O'Neal is a sure recipe for trouble. The Suns did a good job covering for O'Neal getting back with their rotations behind him, and ultimately Detroit did relatively little damage in these situations. I would say, based on what I saw, that O'Neal is moving better and in better shape than conventional wisdom would have you believe.

Where the Pistons had more success against O'Neal was in pulling him away from the basket defensively when he was defending capable midrange jumpshooter Antonio McDyess. Looking to stay ready to help in the paint, O'Neal often drifted too far from McDyess, allowing him an uncontested look. Inevitably, O'Neal did a poor job of closing out on shooters when they had open chances.

A key argument in favor of this deal for the Suns was that they would be adding a shot-blocking presence in the paint, something Phoenix has not had in the Nash/D'Antoni era. Such a player might well help, but I'm not sure O'Neal, despite averaging nearly two blocks a game in Miami, qualifies. His help was inconsistent in this game, and he did not block a shot in 33 minutes. On one play late in the first quarter, O'Neal weakly helped, leaping to try for a block he had no chance of getting. O'Neal's help left Jason Maxiell all alone under the basket for a follow dunk.

The biggest issue with O'Neal on defense was in transition. Critics of the trade argued that O'Neal would be too slow for the Phoenix offense, and advocates countered that a fast-break team can be very effective with a trailer, citing the example of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Showtime Lakers. I agree with that, but transition defense--long a Phoenix strong point--is a slightly different issue.

Usually in the past, four Phoenix players got back quickly and Stoudemire was the fifth guy back. Now O'Neal is the fifth guy back--but Stoudemire, at least in this game, wasn't any quicker back downcourt. I noted a couple of examples where neither player made it over halfcourt on a Detroit fast break, and Jackson and Van Gundy were highly critical of Phoenix's transition D. The Suns don't have the margin for error on defense that will allow them to struggle in transition.

Overall

It would be entirely premature to panic about O'Neal fitting in with the Suns. On offense, I'm confident D'Antoni will devise a gameplan that effectively takes advantage of O'Neal's skills and keeps the rest of the Suns involved. Based on this game, my biggest concern about O'Neal on offense is about his own diminishing skills and ability to finish, not necessarily his compatibility with the Phoenix offense.

The outlook is somewhat less optimistic on defense. While I was impressed by O'Neal's ability to defend the pick-and-roll, opposing teams can pull him away from the basket, neutralizing his already diminished shot-blocking ability. Moving Stoudemire to power forward will make his post defense less of an issue, but will given the Suns trouble against teams--including the Pistons--with versatile big men who can step away from the basket. It's also worth noting that Marion was the team's best defender in the frontcourt, so dealing him hurts the D.

Looking at the entire five-game stretch O'Neal has played in Phoenix (still an extremely small sample) supports the notion that defense, not offense, should be the area of concern for the Suns. Phoenix's 109.9 Offensive Rating in that span is down from the team's league-leading 114.9 mark over the course of the season, but the Suns' Defensive Rating has exploded from 108.2 points allowed per 100 possessions for the season to 114.5 per with O'Neal. That would rank Phoenix last in the league over the full season. Clearly, there is work to be done on the defensive end if the O'Neal experiment is to succeed for the Suns.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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