Just 5 hours before February's trading deadline, when rumors of the Cleveland Cavaliers' acquiring Shaquille O'Neal from the Phoenix Suns first surfaced, I wanted the trade to go through. I figured the Orlando Magic's season ended a little more than two weeks earlier, when Jameer Nelson suffered a severe shoulder injury against the Dallas Mavericks. And the night before the deadline, the New Orleans Hornets drilled Orlando by 32 points on national TV. While I wouldn't necessary root for the Cavs, the prospect of the gregarious O'Neal joining LeBron James in Cleveland made for great theater. Those talks fell through; the Magic made a surprise, 11th-hour deal for Rafer Alston; and went on to defeat Cleveland in a 6-game Eastern Conference Finals series to advance to the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Now, on the eve of the NBA Draft, O'Neal is indeed headed to Cleveland in exchange for Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, this year's 46th overall draft selection, and $500,000 cash. The trade gives the Cavs the dominant post presence they lacked in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Magic and Dwight Howard, who exposed their lack of front-line bulk. Howard averaged a personal playoff-best 25.8 points per game in that series, to go with 13 rebounds. He also shot 65.1% from the field and had no trouble scoring over whomever the Cavs threw at him, be it Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Wallace, Anderson Varejao, or Joe Smith. And the Cavs' season ended in a game Howard dominated to the tune of 40 points (14-of-21 shooting) and 14 rebounds.
Somehow, I'm still okay with Shaq joining Cleveland, although I'll quickly tire of the ensuing media circus, which will no doubt touch on his open feud with Magic coach Stan Van Gundy and his constant belittling of Howard, of whom he is (probably) jealous.
With Shaq anchoring the middle, the Cavs have undoubtedly improved from a talent standpoint. Should O'Neal falter in Cleveland, his production will nonetheless trump whatever Wallace or Pavlovic would have provided. Bearing that in mind, is Shaq enough of a difference-maker to vault Cleveland past Orlando in the East? After the jump, a look at what this move means for the Magic's chances of holding off the Cavaliers again next season.
First off, Shaq greatly helps Cleveland's defense in at least one regard: he can defend Howard one-on-one, which in turn enables the rest of the Cavaliers to stay at home on Orlando's three-point shooters. The Magic torched the Cavs for 62 three-pointers in 152 attempts (40.8%) in the Eastern Conference Finals, with many of those looks being wide-open as a result of Cleveland paying too much attention to Howard down low. WIth O'Neal in the fold, Orlando figures to get fewer such opportunities against an otherwise stingy Cleveland defense.
And I don't just say that Shaq can defend Dwight because he's a flippin' giant; in the past, he's been fairly apt at stopping the Magic's franchise center, this monumental flop notwithstanding. Here's a look at their statistics in head-to-head meetings. Note that Howard only averages 7.7 field goal attempts per game against O'Neal, which is far less than his 10.7 career average, which suggests O'Neal does a good job discouraging entry passes to Howard.
Where Shaq's acquisition doesn't help Cleveland is in the pick-and-roll area. In 17 professional seasons, Shaq has yet to master how to defend that play. And at 37, he's ill-equipped to keep up with Howard on the move. If nothing else, the Shaq trade means the Magic must now use more pick-and-roll schemes against Cleveland than they used to. Ilgauskas and Smith, too, struggled to keep up with Howard on the pick-and-roll. Varejao is younger and much more athletic, but lacks the strength to sufficiently bother Howard. Shaq falls squarely in line with Ilgauskas and Smith in this regard, and as such doesn't do much to help Cleveland.
Offensively, Shaq gives the Cavs a low-post scoring option. He's performed well on the low block even against the Defensive Player of the Year. Take another look at that last link showing their head-to-head meetings. Save for a poor 3-for-8 effort against Dwight three years ago, O'Neal has shot no worse than 53.3% against Howard in any other career meeting, and 62.1% overall. Previously, the Cavs had no inside presence of which to speak, relying on long-range shooting from Delonte West and Mo Williams; mid-range shots from Ilgauskas and Smith; and whatever creative finishes James could muster in the lane. Now? They can post-up the Magic's defense, throwing another look at it. But they also lose something, namely the pick-and-pop with Ilgauskas. And it remains to be seen how O'Neal's presence in the lane affects--if at all--James' many forays to the rim. For all we know, he'll just clog everything up. Cavs coach Mike Brown is not known for his offensive creativity. I don't trust him to immediately solve the Cavs' offensive woes, if O'Neal presents them with any.
Think of it this way: Orlando is no slouch on defense, finishing tops in the league in defensive efficiency last season. There's no reason to believe the Magic can't handle Shaq in the low post, even if he has LeBron to draw attention from him.
Another reason for cautious optimism in Orlando is that this trade did nothing to improve the Cavs' depth at the wing positions. James doesn't need much rest, which is the good news for Cleveland. The bad? Cleveland was so thin at the wings that it had to play West 45 minutes per game against Orlando in the Conference Finals. West is a fine player, and perhaps an underrated one, but he should not have to be forced into 45 minutes a night for an NBA championship contender. With Wally Szczerbiak off the books and Pavlovic shipped to the Valley of the Sun, the only swingman joining West on the Cavs' roster next season is Tarence Kinsey, and his deal is non-guaranteed, so says this report on his recent DUI arrest. Cleveland will need to keep busy in tonight's draft--it owns the 30th overall selection--and in free agency in order to round out its collection of shooting guards and small forwards.
Ultimately, the trade improves the Cavaliers, but not enough to assert with any degree of certainty that they are set to leapfrog Orlando. Even at his age, Shaq's a great player--Hell, he led the league in field-goal percentage last year--but he hardly solves all Cleveland's problems. It'll still be vulnerable on the pick-and-roll, and it still needs to stock-up on wing talent. Orlando is still the team to beat out East until the Cavs improve in those two areas.