March 3, 2008
“This has nothing to do with Shaq. This has nothing to do with Shaq,” repeated coach Mike D’Antoni.
“I’m fitting in. I’m swinging the ball to the top and I’m only taking four or five shots a game. I’m just rebounding and trying to fit in,” said Shaquille O’Neal.
“We are still learning what we have to do to win games. We’ll be fine. We just caught a team that was called out by their coach and they played very well,” O’Neal also said.
“If everyone just sticks with their role, we should be fine.” said… O’Neal.
“Right now we don’t have a lot of emotion and we need a little more,” offered Steve Nash.
“If I’m Seattle, I’m not going to let Barry go, I’m going to let Donyell Marshall go. Brent’s a guy who is much more productive. Donyell Marshall doesn’t have much more left in the tank. Sam Presti used to be in San Antonio as an assistant. Who knows? I don’t have any proof,” whined GM Steve Kerr after Barry spurned overtures by his Suns and instead chose to resign with the Spurs.
Steve Nash Photo Credit: Icon SMI
Well, I think it’s safe to say the post-O’Neal trade honeymoon is over in Phoenix. The 39-20 Suns dropped to 2-4 since the Marion-for-O’Neal swap after suffering a five-point loss to the improving Philadelphia 76ers Saturday night, and clearly all parties involved are starting to get a little anxious. The fans have been intermittently booing them, opponents are hanging about 113 points a night on them, and suddenly the Golden State Warriors are licking their chops at the realistic prospect of catching them in the Pacific Division standings.
Most NBA observers knew that implementing O’Neal into this franchise would take some time, but the early results are more troubling than most could have predicted. For the past three seasons, this team’s identity was forged in stone: high-flying offensive juggernaut who might not be able to stop anybody, but can make up for it by outscoring them. Now, besides adjusting to the introduction of an over-the-hill big man and scrambling to make up for the loss of their best defender, the Suns can’t even say that’s who they are anymore. The fact is, nobody knows what to make of these Suns yet.
I know it’s easy to pile on the Suns right now after their string of underwhelming performances. And to be fair, three of their four most recent losses came at the hands of Los Angeles (the team that matters), Detroit, and New Orleans, all teams that are entertaining serious championship aspirations, and one of their wins did come over the Boston Celtics, who currently sport the best record in the league.
But we’re having a hard time figuring out how or when the Suns are going to suddenly put a happy face on their current situation. It’ll be no small task for a team that played poor team defense as it was to compensate for the loss of Marion, who may have been cancerous in the locker room but who was the Suns’ only player who consistently competed at a high level on both ends of the court. Trading Marion, who was likely to walk this summer, and getting something in return was the right move, but perhaps doing it for O’Neal wasn’t. They simply don’t have a single intimidating defensive presence in the frontcourt anymore, and unfortunately D’Antoni has never been a coach to emphasize getting stops or to properly get his team to play solid help defense after penetration to the hole inevitably happens.
Regardless of how you feel about Steve Nash’s defense (have fun wading into those decidedly charged waters), right now I don’t think he’s as much the problem on D as Amare Stoudemire, who seems to have taken Marion’s trade as approval for him to run up big numbers on offense and to disregard his duties on defense. Oh, he’s scoring like gangbusters, but opposing power forwards are absolutely lighting him up. See Thaddeus Young and Reggie Evans combining for 26, David West scoring 27, Rudy Gay 36, ‘Sheed Wallace 22, etc.
And for all the “give it time” talk coming out of Phoenix, they’re the ones who invited all this scrutiny upon themselves. The minute O’Neal arrived in the desert, dishing out his “hilarious” quips at his introductory press conference, then rising out of his seat and pointing to his championship ring finger to a standing ovation on Valentine’s Day, the Suns were raising the bar very, very high. And maybe that explains the impatience of their fans and the criticisms being levied in their direction before O’Neal has even been there a month.
There’s a lot of offensive talent on that roster, and there’s still plenty of time for Phoenix to figure themselves out and turn it around. But the “we’ll be fine” talk will wear thinner and thinner if their current malaise continues for much longer. The Western Conference is an unforgiving one, and the Suns are tasked with navigating through what could be the most difficult remaining schedule of anyone in the league. The clock is ticking.