When rumors first connected Shaquille O’Neal with the Cleveland Cavaliers before the trade deadline, I wasn’t a fan of the deal. Now that a deal has reportedly been consummated in the wake of the Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference Finals flameout against the Orlando Magic, I like it even less. It’s not that I question O’Neal’s ability to contribute, something he demonstrated last season in Phoenix. It’s that he’s a terrible fit for Cleveland for two primary reasons.
1. O’Neal Needs the Ball to Be Effective on Offense
Adding another scorer certainly wasn’t a bad idea for the Cavaliers, who proved highly dependent on LeBron James on the offensive end in the Eastern Conference Finals. When Cleveland has succeeded without James dominating the ball, it’s been by making use of him in the post or through ball movement. O’Neal’s post-ups are an entirely different animal. They mean having James spotting up, far and away the worst part of his game, or at best a threat as a cutter.
The Cavaliers could be effective with an offense based around O’Neal when James is on the bench (which might allow him more rest than he got in the conference finals), but most of the time the two of them are going to have to coexist, and I suspect that pairing will be uneasy at best. O’Neal isn’t a threat outside of 5-8 feet, meaning his defender will always be in the paint as a deterrent. The fact that O’Neal remains a strong finisher in the paint reduces the ability for his defender to give help without surrendering a certain bucket, but the spacing is still nowhere as strong as with Zydrunas Ilgauskas spotting up.
2. O’Neal is a Defensive Liability
When the Suns dealt for O’Neal in February 2007, it was in large part because they believed he could help them at the defensive end of the floor. Instead, their defense tanked with the loss of Shawn Marion. In terms of post defense, O’Neal remains solid, his strength giving him the ability to establish position. Everywhere else, however, O’Neal has trouble at this stage of his career.
The biggest problem for O’Neal for years has been his ability to defend the pick-and-roll, something I watched the Sonics work over and over again in the early part of this decade. At this point in his career, it’s unreasonable to expect him to be able to step out and cut off a ballhandler while getting back to a dangerous roll man like Dwight Howard. Instead, Cleveland will likely be forced to keep O’Neal behind the play at the edge of the paint, giving quicker guards the opportunity to build up a head of steam before blowing by O’Neal. For a team that has prided itself on defense, that is an untenable situation.
Even last year, during O’Neal’s bounceback year, the Suns were better defensively when he was on the bench, and it’s hardly as if his backup (primarily Louis Amundson) is highly regarded for his defense.
Now, the upside for the Cavaliers is they really didn’t lose much in this deal, sending out Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, a second-round pick and cash. Wallace was injured throughout the second half of the season, scarcely played in the playoffs and has openly considered retirement. Pavlovic is, well, Sasha Pavlovic. Mike Brown gave him a chance in the postseason in Orlando, and Pavlovic did little with it, which is generally the story of his career.
However, there’s always an alternative cost in the deal not made. O’Neal may have an expiring contract that makes him moveable at any point of the season, and allows the Cavaliers to walk away at season’s end, but Detroit found out the hard way that when it’s attached to a name like O’Neal or Allen Iverson, an ending contract is more than just a contract. There’s a certain pressure to use Iverson or O’Neal because of who they once were, one that helped undo the Suns and one that the Pistons never resolved until Iverson’s season conveniently ended early due to injury.
Acquiring O’Neal distracts from Cleveland’s task of finding a solution to the problem that truly proved costly in the Eastern Conference Finals–a big three or undersized four who can play alongside James in a lineup capable of matching up with versatile power forwards like the Magic’s Rashard Lewis. The Cavaliers surely won this trade on talent, and it’s not even close. But succeeding in the NBA is more about fit than talent, and there O’Neal is not the answer.