As long as the Phoenix Suns linger as that championship-free franchise in the desert, they will continue to regret making a trade for a broken-down Shaquille O'Neal. Between going for it, and sheer desperation, there is the finest line. What happened to believing in Mike D'Antoni's system? What happened to believing speed and finesse could deliver a championship?
In every way, this trade is an indictment of these D'Antoni glory years with the Suns. If Suns president Steve Kerr is thrusting Shaq onto his coach, he never bought into his coach's system. If D'Antoni is going along with this, you have to wonder whether he ever truly believed his way could win a title.
If he's willing to trade Shawn Marion for this Shaq, the architect of this system has surrendered.
"What are they (expletive) thinking?" one Western Conference executive blurted late Tuesday night.
"I have no clue what they are thinking," one Eastern Conference scout said. "Shaq retired two years ago."
"It seems like a classic clash of styles," one Western Conference GM said.
Still, there was one Eastern Conference GM who said, "I give Phoenix credit for rolling the dice and trying to make this happen."
This is beyond a roll of the dice. Shaq has to pass a physical in Phoenix on Wednesday, a source told Yahoo! Sports, and you wonder if the Suns elders might come to their senses and make sure that O'Neal "fails" the examination.
For reasons that are clear, Shaq doesn't fit offensively with the Suns. He can't run anymore. He can't shoot. He still was groaning about his touches in Miami, and you think he's going to accept life as the fourth, maybe fifth, option at times? There's little evidence to suggest Shaq simply will embrace the role of defensive stopper that the Suns so desperately want of him.
Do you think Shaq will be content with rebounding and throwing outlets to start fast breaks, never to be rewarded on the offensive end? Alonzo Mourning did it late in his Miami career, but Shaq never has come to terms with his basketball mortality. He still thinks he's the Diesel, and God bless him for it. It makes him bigger than life. Yet it doesn't make him right for the Suns.
Most of all, Shaq can't stay on the floor. He is broken down. He will be 36 next month. He always is hurt now. He has been meeting constantly with doctors this season, MRI after MRI on his hip. His knees still struggle to carry those 340 pounds on his bones. Shaq's spirit was built to endure forever, but his body is a different story.
The Suns are hoping a chance to play for a contender will motivate him to do his rehab and keep his weight down, but even that is wishful thinking. Listen, Shaq had one title left in him. Pat Riley squeezed it out of him. It's over. He doesn't bring Grant Hill's desperation to be a champion. Shaq has been there, done that four times, and you wonder how much that lure even drives him anymore.
Sure, Shaq would've made more sense for the Dallas Mavericks' half-court style, for an owner, Mark Cuban, who doesn't dump good players and future draft picks to stay out of the luxury tax. Yet that's all the Suns have done for the past year under owner Robert Sarver. If the Suns are willing to pay the $40 million owed Shaq over the next two years, they never should have traded tough-guy Kurt Thomas to the Seattle SuperSonics. He always did a good job defending Tim Duncan. He rebounded. He made shots. Most of all, he stayed on the floor.
Ultimately, Shaq can't do that anymore. How in the world is he going to make it to the end of June, through a long playoff run? Odds are he'll be wearing a suit on the bench come playoff time for the Suns.
So yes, Marion wants out of Phoenix. What does it tell you about him that he would welcome a trade to the worst team in the NBA? He wants a max-contract extension, and the Suns are unwilling to pay him. Here in Phoenix, he has a chance to win a championship, but apparently he is thrilled with taking a trip to lottery-land with the Miami Heat. Maybe Marion will opt out of the $17.8 million owed him in 2008-09 and become a free agent. Maybe Pat Riley re-signs him. Either way, Marion ought to call the Atlanta Hawks' Joe Johnson and see how life is with a loser.
Nevertheless, Kerr has played for too many championship teams to even understand a player who would want out of a system and away from a point guard who made him a star. To trade Marion is plausible for a lot of reasons, but for Shaq? Now? Without the suspensions against the Spurs in the conference semifinals, the Suns were sure they could've beaten San Antonio. Maybe they were right, but trying to change themselves because the Lakers grabbed Pau Gasol, because they fear the Mavericks will get Jason Kidd, is the wrong way.
Yes, the Suns believe they need strength in the middle. They need a defensive presence. They wanted Amare Stoudemire to move to power forward, where the league's centers no longer can destroy him on a nightly basis. Still, this trade doesn't get the Suns closer to a title, just closer to heartbreak.
"Shaq doesn't fit anything they do," one Eastern Conference assistant coach said Tuesday night. "What makes the Suns great in the half-court is that they pick and roll everybody, all of those guys can shoot it. They have everyone playing a position bigger than they are, like Amare at the five, and Matrix at the four. … And now, you put Shaq out there, and I just don't see how it works.
"I guess he clogs the middle for them on defense, but you are stripping the identity of this team with him. Plus, what does he have left right now?"
Since Kerr took the Suns job in June, he has considered so many different trade scenarios for Marion. He talked with Minnesota and Boston about a three-way deal that would've brought the Suns Kevin Garnett. He talked with Utah about Andrei Kirilenko. To settle on Shaq seems just that – settling.
All along, the Suns believed they had a system that made teams change for them, that ultimately lived and died with the genius of Steve Nash and the go-go teammates. Suddenly, the Suns look so desperate, so unsure of themselves. Maybe this is Kerr and D'Antoni together; maybe this is the president going it alone.
Nevertheless, the message is unmistakable: When it comes to believing they could win a championship with the coach's style, this was a complete cut-and-run on Super Tuesday.
Somehow, this doesn't feel like the Suns are going for it.
It feels like unconditional surrender.