Shaq in the Court of King James

Shaquille O’Neal in Cleveland tightens the Cavaliers’ grip on the Eastern conference title.

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The Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs, the NBA finalists in 2007, both exited the post-season earlier than expected this year. This week, they made big trades that alter the balance of power in the conferences. The Cavaliers acquired future Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal from the Phoenix Suns for guard Sasha Pavlovic and center Ben Wallace. For Phoenix, the trade brings enormous financial benefits. The trade will reduce their payroll and save several million dollars in luxury tax levies, perhaps even more if Wallace, as expected, retires. (This would bring to a quiet close a career that deserves Hall of Fame consideration; Wallace was Defensive Player of the Year four times and anchored the defense of the 2003-04 NBA champs.)  

For Cleveland, the benefits of the trade are obvious. It restores them as the favorite to win the Eastern conference title next season, and it should end the speculation that Cavs forward LeBron James, the league’s Most Valuable Player, will leave town next summer when he can opt out of his contract. How many teams win 66 games like the Cavaliers did in 2008-2009, then make major upgrades? James, a native Ohioan, will be very hard-pressed to find a better situation. 

O’Neal, of course, is the big part of this equation. He has been a cornerstone of four title teams, (three in Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant and one in Miami with Dwyane Wade). But last season, he did something just as remarkable. The 37-year-old center halted a steady decline in his play. Since Miami’s title in 2006, O’Neal’s game had diminished with each passing season, which wasn’t a surprise; 35 is ancient in basketball years, and Shaq has never known to be a fitness buff. Last season, playing for a Phoenix team that missed the playoffs, he put up stellar numbers, 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game on 60.9 percent shooting.  (It was the first time since O’Neal’s rookie campaign that he played for a lottery team.) He averaged 30 minutes a contest in 75 games, the most he’s played in four years.  

Cleveland’s interest in O’Neal became public shortly—as in about 15 minutes—after the conclusion of the NBA finals. Cleveland was the favorite to reach the finals if not win it all, but fell in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Orlando Magic. In the early going, they double-teamed Magic center Dwight Howard and were torched by Orlando’s perimeter sharpshooters, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis. In the final games of the series, the wing defenders stayed put and Howard went wild, scoring a career high 40 points in the Magic’s series-clinching win. Although O’Neal isn’t an elite defender anymore, he has done well against Howard in the past. If he stays healthy, then this deal both erases the disappointment of the 2009 playoffs and makes the Cavaliers the team to beat in the East again. 

The trade between San Antonio and the Milwaukee Bucks has received less coverage, but it’s equally significant. San Antonio sent swingman Bruce Bowen, forward Fabricio Oberto and center Kurt Thomas to the Bucks in return for forward Richard Jefferson. For Milwaukee, the motive and benefits are financial; the team saves a bundle in payroll. The Spurs get younger, more athletic and much more likely to compete deep into the playoffs.  

Since drafting pivot man Tim Duncan in 1997, the Spurs have won four titles, and it’s unusual not to see them in the second or third round of the playoffs. Last season, they bowed out meekly in the first round to the Dallas Mavericks, and it seemed that their run as a dominant team was finished. Their roster was top heavy with role players on the wrong side of 30, and a key member of their nucleus, swingman Manu Ginobili, was often injured. Only point guard Tony Parker was on the upswing of his career. 

Now with the addition of Jefferson, a superb complementary player who has averaged 17.7 points per game during an eight-year career, the Spurs have addressed their perimeter weaknesses and served notice that they won’t away go quietly. Jefferson gives the Spurs another player who can penetrate the lane and shoot well from the perimeter. The Spurs are usually among the top defensive teams in the league, but last year their offense fell to the middle of the pack; this acquisition addresses that issue. 

Whereas Cleveland can start looking ahead to the regular season, the Spurs have more work to do. They are still a bit thin behind Duncan in the middle. However, there are several power forwards and centers to choose from on the open market. Although the Los Angeles Lakers are still the team to beat, the Spurs are one move away from making themselves a top contender again in the West.

 

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.