Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The facts, storylines, and subplots of Shaq to Cleveland


A blockbuster trade sending Shaquille O'Neal to Cleveland is being finalized. This is just too ticklish. There are so many story lines and subplots and egos and things to prove and legacies and careers hanging in the balance that it would take an entire book to hash them all out.

But I'm going to try and cover some of this filled story.

First of all I don't think this trade carries as much value for Cleveland as it does in star power.

Shaq changes the way the Cleveland offense is going to work. Remember, this offense won 66 games last year, so this is a risk they are taking. Shaq clogs up the middle in ways that LeBron has never had to deal with, and will slow down the offense in a big way. He also doesn't bring the outside shooting and spacing that Z brought at center.

He does bring good things on offense as well, like someone the Cavs can run it through other than LeBron, an offensive rebounding presence, and a markedly missing low-post option. LeBron doesn't have a good post game yet, and their best option last year against the Magic in the playoffs was Delonte West.

Butttt, Shaq is 37 years old. He is entering a contract year, but he has been carrying around a huge amount of weight for a lot of NBA years. He is known to have a lax work ethic and only plays well when motivated. The good thing here is that he might have enough motivation to be effective, but at this point his body may not be able to respond in ways it has in the past.

Shaq is an attention whore, and both him and LeBron are alpha dogs. What happens when two alpha dogs try to co-exist on the same team? Just ask Kobe and Shaq. It was a marriage built by success, and their bond broke apart once the success started fading.

If the Cavs don't do well, or don't do as well as last year, look for problems to come up between the alpha dogs. If they do well, all should remain well on this front unless they lose unexpectedly in the playoffs. Then Shaq is a free agent, LeBron is a free agent, and blame will have to be put somewhere. This story will not end well for Cleveland fans who are pinning all their hopes on getting LeBron back at any cost.

Let's face one simple fact. This was a desperation move by Danny Ferry, the Cleveland GM.

Shaq was dominant for a long time and he is one of the greatest centers ever. He had a short good stint on Phoenix when he was motivated to prove he could still do his thing, but he can't sustain that ability for much longer. This is similar to the move the Lakers made to get Pau Gasol for Kobe, but the difference is that Pau is young and has a bright future, and has no problem playing second fiddle. Shaq doesn't share any of those traits.

Danny Ferry had to give LeBron a reason to believe that Cleveland can give him what he wants not only in terms of love and money, but in terms of a supporting cast. Last year they called off the move before the trade deadline thinking their team was good enough as is. They were wrong. LeBron was obviously upset.

They needed to get him help for this year, and instead of getting Tyson Chandler who they were avidly pursuing and could have had, they went the safer route of getting Shaq who only has one year left on his contract, leaving cap room for the 2010 free agent sweepstakes.

That is fine, but the problem with that thinking is that it assumes LeBron is coming back in 2010. And he might only come back if he has a trusted sidekick already in place this year. Shaq won't be that guy who will be his sidekick long-term.

If the Cavs had gotten Chandler, a young, athletic, big, and they did well, LeBron would have a much easier time staying in a settled, long-term situation than starting over some place else. The problem for the Cavs is that they have basically leveled the playing field, as every other team coveting him is also looking to start fresh with him and whoever he wants.

The obvious counter to this is that the Cavs need to keep it open to make sure they can pursue a big free agent to convince LeBron to stay in Cleveland. If Chandler doesn't work out, they are stuck with his contract and much less room to pursue someone else for LeBron.

Both ways are risky and scary situations for Cleveland fans, but with this move they are basically just using Shaq for one year to get back to the same position they were just in, a year from now.

This seems intelligent, but if I were Ferry I would have used the fact that I have an advantage in the LeBron sweepstakes in that I have him on my team right now. I would have gotten some big that was younger, and less risky than Shaq. I wouldn't have just settled for staying even and waiting for next summer.

But, hey, I'm not a GM of an NBA team so that's just my two pennies worth.

Moving on now to the more fun stuff. The underlying subplots for a bunch of key characters. The stuff that doesn't really pertain to actual basketball:

For Kobe...

This could turn out one of three ways.

1) The Cavs don't do as well as they need to for this trade to be a success, and the Lakers do well. Shaq will look like extra baggage for the second time. Kobe will be spared all the comparisons and probable unfavorable media news cycles. He will gain another notch up on LBJ and Shaq. He was way behind Shaq before this fourth championship, just moved up to right behind even, and this would put him past Shaq. This would also move him further ahead of LeBron.

2) The Cavs win the championship or do well and the Lakers don't. This would be semi-bad news for Kobe. Shaq would move ahead of him and would become the Great Deliverer of championship rings. LeBron would enter the discussion with his first ring, but would probably still be a little under Shaq's shadow, so that would still have to be played out a little bit more.

3) Both teams do equally well or equally badly. If they both do badly, Kobe won't be able to ride last year's championship and will take heat, and the Cavs trade would be a failure. If both do well then Kobe is par per expectations and adds to his legacy of consistency, and the Cavs trade is a success and both LeBron and Shaq look good.

For Dwayne Wade...

1) If LeBron can't win with Shaq, he'll have a leg up on LeBron (even though that sounds weird, I know). Shaq is obviously older now than he was with the Heat, but still, this story would play out like "Dwayne could do it but LeBron couldn't, he got his help and still came up short." All the usual nonsense.

2) If LeBron does win a ring, he'll solidify his ranking above Wade and start challenging Kobe in terms of legacy and championships.

For LeBron James...

1) If he doesn't win, then he should take the blame. I don't know if he will because he is the face of the NBA and a media darling (imagine how much flak Kobe would have taken if he pulled a no-handshake stunt), but he should take it.

In '07, he was young and the team wasn't very good, so making the Finals was more than enough. In '08 they lost to the eventual champions and again expectations weren't that high. In '09 it was the FIRST time in LeBron's career that he underachieved. All through high school and the NBA he had overachieved and surpasses expectations.

In a sense we saw him fail for the first time in relation to expectations when he didn't shake Dwight's hand. This would be a failure and a tough one, so he must exceed whatever expectations the team has, which is probably at least making the Finals.

2) If he does win, he'll become another one in the class of Wade and Kobe who have won with Shaq. It will be his first ring so his legacy will begin, but Shaq's shadow will still be pretty strong (my guess). Regardless, it'll be his Finals MVP and his ring, and he'll have all the media attention from Kobe/Wade and whoever else, and for the first time for the ultimate reason.

For Shaq...

He wants to prove a lot of people wrong. He thinks he can still do it. He wants to win another.

1) If he does win, he'll cement his legacy and would have brought rings to the three best wingmen in the game. He'll be able to boast about how he could deliver rings and teach people how to win and carry teams and blah blah. I'm sure he'll have a lot to say about it. The good thing is that Wade got Finals MVP and LeBron probably would as well, so he wouldn't talk as much as we know he can.

2) If he doesn't win, and HE doesn't play well, he'll take the blame for not delivering for LeBron and his career is basically over.

3) If he doesn't win, and he does play well, he could continue on possibly with LeBron in Cleveland or elsewhere if they don't re-sign him. As long as he isn't the clear-cut reason they don't win he'll be able to maneuver his way into playing longer.

As we can clearly see, a lot of things are on the line for a lot of big-name people. I'd say the most is on the line for Shaq, then LeBron, then Kobe, then Dwayne. Shaq needs to prove he belongs. LeBron has a lot to prove and redeem, but he is still very young and could be starting a new career someplace next year.

Kobe has only recently severed ties with Shaq, but all the talk about their partnership in LA will live on through the LeBron/Shaq partnership and the Kobe/LeBron comparisons. I can't wait to see the puppet commercials on this.

Dwayne is mostly out of the picture because he has gone through injuries and his team badly needs help, but if the Heat can threaten in the East next year, this could get a lot more fun.

Stan Van Gundy would probably take extra pleasure in beating the Cavs in the playoffs again with the guy who called him the "Master of Panic." But that is an if and mostly a caption story.

It is still so ironic and weird to me that the same nutty, talkative, great big man is going to get to play with Kobe, Wade, and LeBron. They will be at similar points in all their three careers and he is going to have such an insight into the debate between the three. He is scarily going to be the most qualified person to speak on the Kobe vs. LeBron vs. Wade debate.

He could compare them in so many ways and create enemies as well as friends. No matter what they might say, you know Kobe and Wade rolled their eyes when they heard about this trade happening, solely because of what they'll have to put up with just knowing the Big Fella and his new situation. He always finds a way to put himself in the discussion. And here's just another example.

Will the Cavs be better for it in 2009-2010? I don't think so, and even if they are it will be marginal all else being equal. Regardless of what analysts will break down and project nobody will really know until the preseason in October and the first few months of the season.

Until then, let's just wait and see how many story lines we can pluck out of this thing.

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