I was tired last night, and I went to bed at 10:45 pm. I had no clue a Cavaliers trade was imminent. So when I woke up this morning, I looked at my phone and was surprised to see a bunch of texts and emails waiting for me. I knew something had happened. Before I could even check the first text message, I heard the news on ESPN. The Cavaliers made waves overnight as they traded Sasha Pavlovic, Ben Wallace, a 2nd round pick, and some benjamins to the Suns for Shaquille O’Neal.
It’s hard to even know where to begin when thinking about this deal. I mean, on face value Danny Ferry just shipped off 2 players who offered nothing to the Cavs and who were barely even part of the rotation by the end of the season, for a player Slam Magazine just last month named as the 4th best player of all time. Nobody would have you believe the version of Shaq the Cavaliers are getting is the same player as the guy listed as #4 on that list, but this is still a player who just last season averaged 17.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, shot 60.9% from the field, and had a PER of 22.3. So yeah, the Cavaliers just got a little bit better. You could add Pavlovic and Wallace’s production together, double it (maybe even triple it), and still not get the numbers Shaq put up last year as a 36 year old veteran. But what will the Cavs be getting in this 37 year old version of Shaq, and how will he fit on this team? Is this really the missing piece of the puzzle? Was this really the best Danny Ferry could get for Wallace’s expiring contract and for Pavlovic’s super-savings contract? There are really 2 sides of this to look at….on court issues and off court issues.
We’ll start with the on court issues. It’s pretty hard to argue with the production the Cavaliers are getting in this trade. If anyone is concerned about the Cavaliers losing Ben Wallace or Sasha Pavlovic, then they probably didn’t watch the Cavaliers play too much last year. Ben Wallace looked rejuvenated for, oh, about the first month of the season. After that, he had little left to give the Cavaliers. He gambled too much on defense and overestimated his own limited athleticism. His rebounding was a bad joke, and his offense was even less funny to Cavs fans. I always liked Ben Wallace as a person and I loved having his quiet leadership on the team. I’ll miss that about him. But strictly sticking to on the court issues, Ben Wallace is far past his prime. As for Sasha Pavlovic, well, he’s good for one good game every 4 or 5 times out there. He has never been consistent enough of a player to make a strong positive impact on the Cavaliers, and even his status as a “big defender” on the Cavs last year was really more a function of his status as the only guard with size, rather than about him actually being a good defender.
Shaq may be slow these days, but whereas that was a big hindrance on what Phoenix was trying to do offensively, it will actually fit in with Cleveland’s offensive identity. The Cavaliers have sorely, and I mean sorely, lacked an inside scoring presence the last couple years. Joe Smith and Anderson Varejao have pretty much by default been the Cavaliers best inside options the past couple years, but neither one can give the Cavaliers the kind of offensive post presence that Shaq will give. How many times the past couple years have we seen LeBron use his ability to draw defenders to feed the ball inside the post to someone only to see them either mishandle the pass or miss the resulting shot? Well, that’s not going to happen with Shaq there. If LeBron can get the ball to Shaq in position to score (and lets face it, we know he will), Shaq is going to finish the play. With Shaq’s inside scoring, LeBron’s ability to drive, distribute, and score, and Mo Williams’ ability to knock down outside shots, the Cavaliers now have a 3 pronged offensive attack. Bringing Zydrunas Ilgauskas off the bench will be an adjustment for sure, but it’s hard to not feel good about Z and Shaq’s ability to cut into each other’s minutes and keep each other fresh. We’ve seen Z’s skills decline sharply the last 2 seasons, but his production and efficiency levels have not been that far behind Shaq’s the last couple years. When Shaq goes to the bench now, there won’t be that sharp of a drop in production with Z coming in. There will be a difference stylistically of course, but not in terms of pure output.
There will be plenty of adjustments that will need to be made, and there will definitely be a rough period of adaptation as the Cavaliers get used to playing with Shaq. He’s going to demand the ball at times, he’s going to slow down the offense at times, he’s going to use up some of LeBron and Delonte’s driving lanes. All those concerns are real concerns. But they’ve been issues with Shaquille his whole career and teams have always found ways to use him to their advantage and to win championships. The onus will now fall on Mike Brown to make sure the Cavaliers find a way to best use Shaq on offense.
Defensively is where the biggest question marks come into play for me. Are the Cavaliers really any more suited for defending the Orlando Magic’s pick and roll attack today than they were a few weeks ago? Absolutely not. What Shaq can do that the Cavaliers couldn’t do last year, though, is defend Dwight Howard (somewhat) one on one. Not having to double Howard constantly will definitely help the Cavaliers not have to chase Orlando’s shooters around the perimeter, which is a good thing.
Shaq and Howard have faced each other 7 times in the past, and for the most part Shaq has had the upper hand statistically. Overall, Shaq averages 19.1 pts, 8.3 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and shoots 62.1% from the field against Howard. For his part, Dwight averages 15.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 0.7 blocks, and shoots 55.6% from the field against Shaq’s teams. If you just look from 2007 through 2009, they have played each other 3 times. Shaq averaged 19.67 points, 7.0 rebounds and 0.67 blocks, while Howard has averaged 18.33 points, 10.67 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks. So the margin is closing. Overall, Shaq is 3-4 against Howard’s teams and is 0-3 in the last 3 matchups. You have to go back to April 9, 2006 to find the last time Shaq’s team beat Howard’s team.
And lets not forget the 2008 NBA Champions, either. It would be a mistake to overlook Boston’s role in the Eastern Conference. Over the last few years, Kevin Garnett has simply abused Shaq’s teams head to head. In the 5 games head to head since Garnett joined Boston, Shaq has average just 13.2 points per game to KG’s 22.8 ppg. Shaq’s teams are 1-4 in those games. You have to be a little concerned about those numbers, but at the same time, it’s important to remember that for most of these games Shaq was playing on mediocre teams. Now that he will be paired with LeBron James and playing on a real contender for the first time since he won the title with Wade in Miami, the Cavaliers are obviously hoping the results will even out.
There are definitely going to be some question marks on the court with adding Shaq, but overall the Cavaliers are better team today for having him. I don’t think there’s any way to doubt that. And when a team that won 66 games last year finds a way to improve itself, you should feel good about that. The bigger issue with bringing in Shaq is off the court, and that’s where the real circus will play itself out.
The Cavaliers now have 2 of the largest personalities in the NBA in LeBron and Shaq on the same team. It raises all kinds of questions. Who is the leader of this team? Will Shaq really defer to a 24 year old LeBron James? Will LeBron really be able to give orders to Shaq? The media scrutiny and intensity was going to be overwhelming this year as it was with LeBron possibly becoming a free agent in the off season, but now it is going to be off the charts. It’s hard to even describe how mammoth this is in scope, bringing in someone like Shaq to play with LeBron.
All last season we praised the Cavaliers for their uncanny chemistry together. Now that Shaq is added to the equation, will that chemistry be disrupted? There’s no question that Shaq has been a distraction everywhere he’s been. It hasn’t always been his fault, as at times he is a distraction just because of his stature as one of the 5 greatest NBA players of all time, but often times it is his fault. Shaq loves to dish out quotes to the media. He loves to put his name in stories by making controversial tweets through his Twitter account. He likes to be the center of attention and he craves the spotlight. How will that style mesh with LeBron in Cleveland? Only time will tell.
At the end of the day, though, we can talk about all these issues and what Shaq gives the Cavs and what he takes away from them. The main feeling I get from this trade, though, is a feeling of being underwhelmed. This trade doesn’t excite me. I’m not convinced this trade suddenly makes the Cavaliers the team to beat in the East, let alone in the NBA. I’m not convinced this trade was really the best Danny Ferry could get for Wallace and Pavlovic. Rather than building a team that will impress LeBron for years to come, the Cavaliers instead made the push to try to salvage one more rental year out of Shaq to see if he could bring a title to Cleveland. Does this mean Ferry thinks this is the last year LeBron will be in Cleveland and was thus desperate to make one final stand? Or does it simply mean at this point in time Ferry isn’t willing to sacrifice future cap space to sign another star to play with LeBron, and thus decided Shaq was the best player with an expiring contract that he could acquire?
This trade is an exciting trade from a marketing and media standpoint, but in terms of affecting the Cavaliers, I’m not sure it really changes anything. I still think the Cavaliers will have huge matchup problems with both the Lakers and the Magic (assuming Ariza, Odom, and Turkoglu all stay put), and I don’t think this changes the future of the Cavaliers as far as LeBron James is concerned one way or the other. The good news is that if Shaq isn’t fitting in with this team and if the trade clearly isn’t working come January or February, Danny Ferry will still have a $20 million expiring contract in Shaq that he can try to trade. This move doesn’t close out any options for the Cavaliers. They still have to re-sign AV or find a way to bring in someone like Charlie Villanueva. They still need to find some size on the wings for both defense and offense. They still have their Mid-Level Exception to use to sign a veteran free agent. They still have the potential to make a move or two tonight in the draft. It’s hard to imagine feeling underwhelmed by an entity as enormous as Shaq (in all ways), but this morning, that’s essentially exactly how I feel.