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Suns hoping O'Neal has something left in tank

PHOENIX – They were sitting together, the golden boy and the architect, two of the most popular people in the league thrust into an uneasy alliance. The owner, Robert Sarver, had wanted Steve Kerr, his San Diego neighbor, to take this general manager’s job for years, but he had resisted until this spring. Mike D’Antoni, the coach, had revolutionized pro basketball with a fast and furious style. He earned the GM job, but had his authority stripped with Kerr’s hiring.

The tension can be tenacious. Truth be told, it was inevitable. D’Antoni is protective of his delicate creation, an innovator, a relentless advocate of a system he relentlessly insists can deliver a title. Kerr is pragmatic, a student of the Bulls and Spurs dynasties with a belief system born of defense and physicality.

Five days ago, Kerr walked into D’Antoni’s office and told him that the Miami Heat had called him. They could have Shaquille O’Neal. D’Antoni’s eyes grew wide. He nodded yes, and Kerr cautioned, “Well, let’s talk about this a little bit.”

They shut the door and started an excruciating week of deliberations that resulted with the biggest gamble in the history of the NBA. The Suns had the best record in the Western Conference. They lost in the playoffs a year ago, when Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended in the conference semifinals. They lost two years ago, when Stoudemire had been lost to knee surgery. Finally, they were together. They had Grant Hill. They had the best record in the Western Conference.

And they had this, too: A GM who had little faith the Suns could win an NBA championship as constituted.

“I think we had a puncher’s chance,” Kerr said. “If the matchups were right, and if we got hot – yeah, we could do well.

Listening to that, D’Antoni shifted in his seat. When it was his turn to talk again, he sniffed that, with or without the Shaquille O’Neal trade, “I think we’d win, anyway. We were really good. And we are really good.”

This is D’Antoni’s natural defense mechanism, his insecurities with the new kid suggesting that the best record in the West was something of a mirage. Around the league, there was a lot of suspicion that Kerr had pushed this trade onto his coach. “This was a Kerr move,” one Eastern Conference GM insisted. Only, that wasn’t the case. As it turned out, D’Antoni was selling Kerr on risking it all with Shaq, as much as Kerr was selling him. Kerr wouldn’t have done the deal without D’Antoni’s blessing. They had been shopping forward Shawn Marion for months and had gone long past believing they would be a stronger team without him in the locker room.

As D’Antoni said, the trade had come down to a simple uncertainty. “The question mark was, ‘Does (O’Neal) have any gas left in the tank?”

Ultimately, that was the debate that raged within the Suns for several days: What does Shaq have left with his 36th birthday approaching, with a body that is forever betraying him? As Kerr watched days worth of tape on O’Neal, there were Suns officials fearful that he was unsold on committing to 2½ years of the $50 million still owed him.

Among Suns hierarchy, there was fear the Lakers had passed them. They had lost twice to Los Angeles, and Andrew Bynum had destroyed Stoudemire for an average of 21 points and 13.5 rebounds. And then, the Lakers stole Memphis’ Pau Gasol. What’s more, Kerr knew Miami was exchanging proposals with the Dallas Mavericks, too. They had an urgency, bordering on a panic. They had missed on Kevin Garnett. They had missed on Gasol. They wanted badly to believe Shaq could be the difference.

They took it to the players, and Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire were unblinking: Get him. For the Suns, they believed they could incorporate Shaq into the system. “If he gets a rebound and passes, we’re gone,” D’Antoni said. “He doesn’t have to catch up with us.”

They have to believe Shaq can stay on the floor, and that’s where most people are dubious of this trade. Still, the Suns believe this: If Shaq wasn’t motivated to stay with his rehab and take care of his body on a horrid Heat team, he would be while chasing a championships with the Suns. Kerr insist the Suns doctors – considered the benchmark staff in the sport – are sold that they have a rehab remedy for Shaq’s troublesome hip to work him back into shape.

“He’s going to make dramatic improvement with us,” the two doctors told Kerr, and that carries credibility with the Suns basketball people. Before the Suns signed Nash, Hill and Antonio McDyess with serious past injuries, the medical staff assured them that they could keep these players healthy.

With Shaq, it’s one thing to tell everyone what they want to hear – that he’s determined to win his fifth title, that he’s angry over the public sentiment that this trade will be a bust. In the past, his rage could summon monumental performances. No more. He has to stay in shape. He has to work. Often, Pat Riley doubted his commitment. He knew Shaq would lose interest with the losing, lose faith and his body paid the price. For a time, Shaq was benefiting from regular visits to yoga classes and a holistic doctor, but lost interest and stop showing up.

Suddenly, there are comparisons with Shaq and the Suns to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Showtime Lakers. That’s a mistake. Yes, Kareem was older, but he stayed in excellent condition and still could deliver that skyhook pushing 40 years old. Hornets coach Byron Scott was one of the Lakers carrying Kareem on those Lakers and understands the deep differences between the two centers.

“Kareem was into martial arts and yoga,” Scott said. “He kept himself in great condition all year round. I don’t know what Shaq does in the offseason, but I know when he’s in great shape, nobody can guard him.”

Of course, Scott is mortified over a motivated Shaq. Without O’Neal, the Hornets have won three straight over the Suns, including that wild 132-130 double OT victory Thursday night. Ask him, though, if he wonders what Shaq has left and he confesses.

“Yeah, I wonder,” Scott said. “But the one thing I do now is everybody is saying this is a bad deal. Everybody is jumping off his bandwagon. And all that does is fuel him.”

In the end, does O’Neal’s size and strength – his defense and rebounding – make up for the loss of Marion? Here was a player as unique as any in the league, assigned to defend the Spurs’ Tony Parker one night in the playoffs and Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki another. Marion was the highest-paid player on the Suns, but wanted an extension past next season that management wouldn’t do. Over the summer, he demanded a trade, but killed a deal that would’ve sent him to the Celtics and Garnett to the Suns.

Always, he was needy for attention, for credit, and he constantly sulked over slights real and imagined.

Yet now, what does it tell you that he is relieved to be leaving Phoenix for the Heat, the worst team in the league? How bad had it gotten between Marion and his teammates? One Hornets player remembered the last time the two teams played, Marion was griping out loud about Nash’s failure to deliver him the basketball.

Between Stoudemire and Marion there was endless friction. Marion was constantly fighting Stoudemire for star status. Stoudemire did the scoring, made the All-Stars and Marion was made to the dirty work of defending. More and more, the Suns worried that Nash had to spend too much time den-mothering these two on issues. In the end, there was so much jealousy within these Suns, so much smoldering beneath the surface.

If nothing else, the arrival of Shaquille O’Neal ends all that in the locker room. The Suns need him to be a productive player, but Nash is dying for Shaq to burden a share of the leadership. “One of the real positives of this deal is that we have a more pronounced pecking order,” Kerr said. “In all the great teams I played on, there was a pecking order, a totem pole. …His presence is magnetic.”

Kerr is counting on it. Listen, you have to give Kerr this: In his position, fresh to the job, there isn’t an executive who would’ve made this trade. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it’ll fail, but this is an industry where GMs are determined to play it safe and keep their positions.

Here’s the thing about Kerr: He doesn’t need the job. He had to be talked into running the Suns. He loves living in San Diego. He doesn’t see himself as a lifer in the front office and understands, “If it doesn’t (work), I’m a moron, I guess.”

You don’t have to love this trade to appreciate the guts it took to make it, to chase the risk-reward on the biggest gamble in NBA history.

They introduced Shaq to a long, loud standing ovation Wednesday night at US Airways Center, and a wave out of his luxury-box suite wouldn’t do. Here, the longest-running NBA team without a title cheered longer and longer and soon Shaq slid an imaginary championship ring onto his finger. How they roared. Somewhere downstairs, Steve Kerr understood that Shaquille O’Neal eventually has to come down out of the suite, onto the basketball court and deliver on the faith of a desperate franchise.

Kerr could’ve done nothing, let D’Antoni ride it out with a team that the GM was sure wouldn’t win in these playoffs. That would’ve been on his coach, on his creation. No more. Now, it’s Kerr’s ass on the line.

“I’m good with it,” he said.