Thursday, June 25

Diesel power

It happened about four months too late, but Shaquille O'Neal was finally dealt from the Phoenix Suns to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The deal, finalized in the wee hours of Thursday morning, brings the Big Diesel to the North Shore in exchange for Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, the Cavaliers' second round pick in tonight's draft (number 46 overall), and $500,000.

This was a financial move for Suns, plain and simple. If Phoenix cuts Pavlovic and his partially guaranteed contract ($1.5 million of $5 million), as most expect, they will save close to $10 million next season when you factor in the luxury tax. If Ben Wallace either retires outright (unlikely) or negotiates a buyout for less than the $14 million he's owed, the Suns can save significantly more. The $500k is probably the reason the Cavs were able to hang onto their first round pick, as that was rumored to be part of this deal prior to its announcement.

No tears will be shed for the departed Cavaliers. Ben Wallace, though gutsy and very fun to watch in his prime, had little or no petrol left in the tank, and was pondering retirement. Wallace was only in town to make the salaries match in the Larry Hughes trade, but in spite of his diminishing skills, he made some positive contributions during his time here. Sasha Pavlovic may yet develop into a consistent rotation player as a sixth or seventh man, but that wasn't going to happen in Cleveland. In addition to the fans, Mike Brown had clearly grown weary of Pavlovic's tease routine: showing flashes, but ultimately taking two steps back for every one step forward.

The 37-year old O'Neal is coming off his most productive season since 2005-2006, averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, all while shooting an efficient 60.9-percent. During his stint in the desert, O'Neal's conditioning saw a marked improvement, and his work with the vaunted Phoenix training staff allowed him to play 75 games, his highest total since the '99-'00 season when he wore purple and gold. As another testament to his improved durability, Shaq was able to average 30 minutes per game for the first time in the last 4 seasons.

Let's not pull any punches -- even entering his 18th season, Shaq will be the most talented teammate LeBron James has ever had. Although he's getting a bit long in the tooth, Shaq is still one of the game's most dominant post presences, and putting him on the floor with number 23 will cause some serious match up headaches for the opposition, in addition to creating even more open looks for guards Mo Williams and Delonte West. This trade won't be as beneficial as the infamous "Pau Gasol and some waffle fries...FOR FREE" deal was for the Lakers, but it should still be a major boon to the Cavs' championship chances.

It is far from surprising to see Shaq end up in C-Town, but it is a little unexpected to see it happen so quickly. Personally, I thought there was a 50-50 shot of Shaq ending up in Cleveland, but it seemed like Danny Ferry was content to make Shaq his safety option, and keep shopping the Wallace/Pavlovic expiring contracts to see if something better came along.

Seeing this trade consummated so swiftly leads me to believe a couple of things. Number one, this is at the very least a partial reaction to the Eastern Finals loss, during Cavs had serious problems guarding Dwight Howard. If the Cavs had played the Celtics in the Eastern Finals, win or lose, I'm not sure they'd have felt such pressure to get this done. Number two, Ferry might have been trying to keep Shaq away from another club. Not sure who that might be, but especially if it was a competitive Eastern Conference team (Chicago, perhaps?), that may have encouraged Ferry to pull the trigger sooner rather than later.

The alleged contingency plan if Shaq was unattainable was New Orleans' Tyson Chandler. Chandler would have been an upgrade, although not as significant as O'Neal, as the wiry Chandler wouldn't have solved the Cavs' problems with Dwight Howard. Shaq won't stop Howard altogether either, but we've seen Howard have problems with bulky centers under the hoop, with Kendrick Perkins being the latest example. It might change as Howard matures, but at present he can be frustrated under the rim by players whom he is unable to merely out-muscle with his imposing physical gifts.

On offense, Shaq is a definite upgrade over Chandler and any of the other bigs on the Cleveland roster last season. While Chandler is a solid rebounder who can certainly run the floor better than O'Neal, his offensive game is largely limited to dunks and garbage buckets. Chandler also has a player option worth almost $13 million for next season which he will almost certainly exercise, so adding him would limit the Cavs' financial flexibility during the Free Agent Armageddon of 2010.

Unfortunately, Shaq does not arrive completely risk-free. Injuries are always a concern for players of his size, and their frequency usually doesn't diminish with age. Conditioning has also been a problem for O'Neal during his illustrious career. However, Shaq's expiring contract might encourage him to stay in shape, in addition to having other incentives for the Cavaliers.

There's no doubt that Shaq is nearing the end of his career, but the question is whether or not he'll continue to play after this season. If he intends to keep playing, he'll need to post another solid season in order to sign another expensive contract. On the other hand, if Shaq is going to retire, what better way to ride off into the sunset than with a fifth NBA title? The facts that Kobe Bryant just won a title, and that Kobe now can match O'Neal's four rings should also serve as motivational tools. Regardless of Shaq's intentions, if he wants an extension immediately as some have suggested, that's going to be a very tough sell to Cleveland management.

Let's consider how adding O'Neal will alter the front court. You still have Zydrunas Ilgauskas under contract assuming that he exercises his player option for next season, and Anderson Varejao and Joe Smith may or may not be back. Shaq will start, and Ilgauskas will likely come off the bench and see a reduction in minutes, as it would be difficult to match up defensively with both Z and Shaq on the floor, neither of whom are fleet of foot. JJ Hickson and Darnell Jackson will return, and we know that Danny Ferry sees Hickson moving into the rotation this season. That may be somewhat presumptuous, but we'll have a slightly better read on Hickson's development when the exhibition season gets underway.

Danny Ferry still needs to add at least one more quality big, and two would be a safer number. I'd love to see Joe Smith come back depending on his price tag. Smith is heady, consistent, a good scorer, and can deliver 15 to 20 quality minutes off the bench or start in a pinch. As for Varejao, I'm not so sure. While it'd be great to keep him on the team, he seems more and more expendable, given his contract demands. Varejao can't be counted on for any offense in the playoffs, and he can't guard bulkier bigs. Although A/V's a good rebounder who brings plenty of energy, can't we find unskilled spark plug bigs who rebound in either the draft or free agency?

If Varejao thinks he can cash in for eight figures a year, Ferry will let him test the market. About $8 million a season is probably what Varejao ends up receiving, but do you commit that kind of cash long-term to a guy with no offensive tools to speak of, especially with all the talented players hitting the market next season? If it's me, I'd rather overpay Varejao for one season than commit to him for the next three or four. That gives you another year to decided whether or not Varejao fits into the team's long-term plans.

While the acquisition of the Shaqtus will undoubtedly be the biggest splash of the summer for the Cavaliers, the O'Neal deal should be the first of several dominoes that fall for Danny Ferry and his management team. We've established that the Cavs need to add at least one more big (and we're treating Smith and Varejao like they aren't on the team), but they are also keen to add a wing player, and possibly a backup point guard. It is with that wing player, especially, that the Cavs should look to add a young player with whom LeBron James can grow and improve.

We need to face the fact that the Cavs haven't exactly done a bang up job of positioning LeBron to build a dynasty thus far. Instead of building things from the ground up with draft picks and moderately-priced, up-and-coming free agents, the Cavs chose to expedite the process with expensive veteran free agents. Unfortunately, Ferry's deal with the devil backfired, and our GM is still suffering the consequences of the ill-fated summer of 2005 (Hughes/Marshall/Jones). The Cavs have some good supporting players who should be around for the foreseeable future in Delonte West and Mo Williams, but that's still not a very strong case for LeBron to stay in Cleveland, based solely on basketball reasons.

During our Cavs podcast Monday night, Erik Cassano and I chatted with Brian Windhorst of the Plain Dealer, and Windy floated the concept of the Cavs pursuing a young player like Charlie Villanueva. A guy like Villanueva strikes me as a great fit in Cleveland, and Danny Ferry should go after him like gangbusters.

Villanueva is long, a good rebounder, a solid scorer, and has the ability to stretch the floor. His shooting would only improve if playing with Shaq and LeBron, and Villanueva, who turns 25 in August, would be the youngest Cleveland starter whose last name isn't James. If Ferry could find a way to get Villanueva, then he has a solid core of West, Williams, Villanueva, and (fingers crossed) LeBron James. Add a quality center to that group next summer and you've got yourself a strong starting five.

Shaq is the first piece of Danny Ferry's off-season puzzle. Although O'Neal wasn't the ideal addition, he should provide the Cavs with the best low post scorer they've had since Brad Daugherty, and he also won't compromise the team's cap flexibility next summer. The Cavs are a much better team today than they were yesterday.

But Danny Ferry's work is far from over. After firing his two biggest bullets by dealing the expiring contracts of Pavlovic and Wallace, Ferry will now have to find more creative solutions to add more depth at forward and a wing player who is at least good enough to enter the rotation from day one. One of those needs could be satisfied during tonight's draft, and we'll have a far better idea of what the Cavs opening day roster will look like after the draft's completion.

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