The Cleveland Cavaliers are a desperate franchise — desperate to win a title, and desperate to keep LeBron James in their uniform in 2010.
And the trade for Shaquille O'Neal is a sign of that desperation — but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad trade. It's clear now it's a good enough trade Cleveland should have made it four months ago at the trading deadline when it was first proposed.
It’s not a bad trade for a few reasons, the first being that Cleveland gave up virtually nothing in this deal. The Phoenix Suns are now the proud owners of the contracts of Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, the No. 46 pick in the draft and $500,000 in cash. At least the cash is useful.
Cleveland gets the 2009 version of Shaq, which may be a shadow of his former self, but that shadow can run circles around what’s left of Wallace, and that’s whose minutes he is replacing. Big Ben averaged 2.9 points per game shooting a sad 44.5 percent from the floor and just 42 percent of his unguarded free throws. The man who was once a rebounding and defensive force averaged just 6.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. If nothing else, Cleveland gets addition by subtraction shedding those minutes.
Shaq can help at both ends of the floor to counter what undid the Cavs against the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals.
First, he can still score inside and can still make Dwight Howard have to work on defense. It was Orlando’s defense that was key to that series, don't forget. While Shaq isn’t nearly as quick with his baseline spin move as he once was, he can still use his power to back people down and score. He still has a deft touch around the rim. He averaged 17.8 points per game last season on 60.9% shooting. Compare that to Wallace.
Second, he gives Cleveland somebody who can defend Howard. You remember how Howard destroyed Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals, doing so on the pick-and-roll with Hedo Turkoglu and even more often just on isolation in the post. Eventually Cleveland had to bring double teams and everything opened up for the Orlando shooters.
With Shaq, Cleveland doesn’t need to double team. In six games over the last four years, Howard has averaged just 16.7 points per game against Shaq. Howard doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to shoot — much like he didn’t against the Lakers.
There are about 427,813 ways this could all backfire for Cleveland. Shaq had not exactly been the picture of health and could miss a lot of games — Phoenix’s magical training staff that got him back into shape is not part of this trade. On paper the idea of Shaq and Zydrunas Ilgauskas splitting time at the center position looks great but will Shaq’s ego get in the way of that? Will Shaq’s big body in the paint get in the way of LeBron James’ drives to the lane (it will be a lot easier to pack the paint against Cleveland now, and who will hit the outside shot)? Will teams just pick-and-roll Shaq to death (he couldn’t defend that play well in his prime)?
Most importantly, does anyone really trust coach Mike Brown to be the guy to make this all work?
This trade may not make Cleveland a better team than Orlando. But with Shaq taking up the minutes that used to go the corpse of Ben Wallace, that matchup is a lot closer. Now Cleveland and Orlando is a real contest. And if the Cavs can get another good wing defender and shooter, maybe a real series against the Lakers.
And that is what Cleveland desperately needs if it is going to keep LeBron.