A Western Conference Arms Race
February 2008 was a crazy time in the Western Conference. The Phoenix Suns were 3 and half seasons deep into the Seven Seconds or Less era in all of its deliriously frenetic and half-baked glory. The Suns had the most entertaining team in the league and managed to make deep playoff runs but could never close the deal (losing once to the Dallas Maverics and twice to the San Antonio Spurs).
On the Bright Side™ the Suns had managed to bounce the Los Angeles Lakers in two out of those three years. Unfortunately for the Suns, those days ended on February 1, 2008. That was the day the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies for the rights to his brother Marc and an assortment of players and draft picks. Gasol joined a Laker roster that included Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and Derek Fisher. The entire Western Conference was put on notice: our big men are better than your big men (with the notable exception of Tim Duncan).
Immediately, the rest of the conference (with the notable exception of the Spurs)… panicked? San Antonio did that very Spurs thing where they just knew this too would pass and stuck to their once in a generation guns. Meanwhile the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns went into an instant and public bidding war to acquire the talents of Shaquille O’Neal from the Miami Heat.
In his prime, Shaq was a juggernaut. From his rookie season with the Orlando Magic in 1992, through his Laker years and up until his final full season in Miami in 2006, Shaq never averaged less than 20 points per game and only once averaged less than 10 rebounds per game. No other player in that stretch gobbled up the paint like O’Neal.
But this was 2008 and after 16 years in the league, that Shaq was probably gone for good. But the Mavs and Suns didn’t need that Shaq. With solid younger cores, they needed just enough Shaq to supplement the rest of their rosters. Pat Riley took a look at their competing offers and decided that he liked Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks better than whatever Mark Cuban was offering.
Shaqtus: Year One
So Shaq became the Shaqtus. His public debut in Phoenix was at a Suns game in which he waved at the crowd on the big screen while pointing at his ring finger, in no way setting the bar way too high for Suns fans.
After starting the season 37-16 before the trade, the Suns struggled a bit with their new acquisition going 18-11. O’Neal did his best to fit in, pulling down 10.6 rebounds per game while adding in 12.9 points per game. But it wasn’t enough to save the Suns playoff hopes or even Mike D’Antoni’s future in Phoenix.
The Suns got bounced in the first round by the Spurs and Mike D’antoni bounced himself from Phoenix after an off-season meeting with general manager Steve Kerr in which Kerr allegedly suggested that coach put a greater emphasis on coaching defense. With D’antoni out, the brief and terrible Terry Porter era began.
Seven Seconds or Shaq?
Terry Porter was terrible: literally everyone hated him and with a core of prime Steve Nash, Jason Richardson, Amare Stoudemire and resurgent seasons from Grant Hill and Shaquille O’Neal, he could barely muster a .500 record. He was fired 51 games into the season after installing a very slow, very Shaq-oriented offense that was significantly hampered by Nash’s complete inability to throw and entry pass to his big man in the post.
Player favorite Alvin Gentry took over the head coaching reins and for three glorious games, Suns fans got a taste of what might have been. Gentry opened up the offense and introduced “Seven Seconds or Shaq.” In consecutive games against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Suns put up scores of 140 and 142 points in blowout wins. They would do it again, hanging 140 in a third straight game against the Oklahoma City Thunder behind a 41 point performace from Leandro Barbosa, but the SSOS era was over before it had begun. Amare Stoudemire suffered a season ending eye injury in the second Clippers blowout and Barbosa didn’t become a 40-point per game scorer.
But hey, Shaq had a renaissance season! The big fella put up 18 points and 8 rebounds in 75 games, the most he had played in 3 years. He credited the Suns’ training staff, dubbing them the YUMS (Young Unorthodox Medical Staff). But again, it was not enough to save the Suns’ playoff hopes. The Suns finished 46-36 and missed the playoffs.
Shaq moves on
And that was also the end of O’Neal’s Phoenix Suns career. Over the summer, Phoenix would send him to Lebron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in return for not having to pay him $21 million. Phoenix ostensibly received Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic in the trade, but neither man played a minute for Phoenix. They also got $500,000 and a second round pick, but they never suited up for the Suns either.
Shaq’s time in Phoenix will likely not be mentioned in his Hall of Fame induction. He was part footnote and part death knell to one of the greatest eras of Phoenix basketball. It also officially ended the Shaquille O’Neal era. Shaq would go on to put up career worst numbers in Cleveland and finally Boston before retiring to the soundstages of TNT. But for 3 totally awesome games he was part of the best offense in Suns history. And that’s something worth remembering.
And so is this commercial: