A little over year ago Shaquille O’Neal first became a Sun. His initial appearance was as a spectator in a suite at US Airways Center. He pointed to his ring finger, then gave a thumbs up to the wild cheers of the Suns faithful. His intentions were clear and the fans believed him.
And today? The response would be 30-70 at best. Yet, as crazy as it seems, the Suns are perhaps in a better position to make an impact in the playoffs (provided they even get there) than they were last season.
You know the backstory. The Suns had the best record in the West prior to the Shaq trade. However, they were still reeling from the stunning loss to the Spurs in the previous playoffs. Shawn Marion was seen as an uber-grump who requested a trade in the offseason and wanted nothing more than proper recognition and a max contract. As the trading deadline approached, and faster than anyone could say “opt-out clause,” Marion was out and Shaq was in. It started out bad. The team lost a lot of games and its high playoff seed. Things turned great as the Suns went 15-5 in their last 20 regular season games. It finally ended with a whimper and a near sweep to the Spurs in the playoffs.
This year, all the bad feelings are already behind the team. Psychologically, the Suns are on an upward trend with a “we got nothing to lose” attitude. And then of course, there’s Shaq. I made a comment to my previous post that the ‘08-’09 season has been very kind to Shaq. He was rebuilt physically by the Suns’ training staff. His game was rejuvenated by Terry Porter’s blind loyalty to the low post offense. And he was gifted the All-Star co-MVP award by the league.
Nevertheless, as today’s trade deadline approached, the Suns were in serious negotiations with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The offer on the table was Shaq in exchange for Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, and perhaps a draft pick. The player the Suns wanted was Wally Szczerbiak and his expiring contract instead of Wallace. The Cavs didn’t like the counter offer and the trade talks were off. Can you imagine the final trade in Shaq’s career could have been for Wally Szczerbiak???
In a surprising move, the Suns staff made a basketball decision. They didn’t trade Shaq or Amare Stoudemire. They decided to stick with what they’ve got and give it their best shot. Amazing.
After the second practice of Alvin Gentry’s career as head coach of the Suns, before Tuesday’s game with the Clippers, before the two-day, 282 point barrage by his rejuvenated squad, Shaq was fully recovered from the “cold and cough” that kept him silent in the aftermath of the coaching change. And he spoke glowingly of the future:
“I’ve been dreaming about how this season’s going to end,” explained O’Neal. “This is how it’s going to go down: We’re going to finish 22-9. We’re going to change the conversation about this team. We’ll be a force in the playoffs and if we win it all, I’ll consider retirement.”
It’s been very evident that Shaq wants to end his career with one more championship. He worked hard in the offseason to get into great shape. And as the Porter-led Suns were crumbling, Shaq tried to carry the team on his back. Now, two games into the relaunch of the Suns, things are looking good. True, the team had the luxury of playing perennial doormat, the LA Clippers, and the Clips were shorthanded at that. But the beginning of the Gentry era could not have gone any better.
The most dangerous competitor in sports is the one that is laser focused on the here and now. For the Suns, there really is no future because no one has any idea of what that future will look like. The players received a new lease on life with Gentry and the return of run-and-gun. With the trade deadline now behind us, the team knows that it will remain intact for the balance of the season. They also know that there could still be major changes in the offseason. Gentry may not be retained. Any number of players might be traded. When summer arrives, the team will most likely again be in flux. Therefore, the players have only one thing to play for. Finish the season with reckless abandon. Today we fight for tomorrow we die.
Mark your calendars for two upcoming dates. The new Suns will have their stiffest challenges yet, the Boston Celtics on Sunday and the LA Lakers on Thursday. If they manage to win both games, then it’s time to buckle your seatbelts, return your tray tables to their upright and locked position, and prepare yourselves for one wild ride.