It’s absolutely the most fascinating trade I can remember in the last two decades. The only comparable case, and it’d be somewhat of a stretch, was the July blockbuster the Dodgers pulled off four years ago. That was Penny and Choi to the NL West-leading Blue Crew, with Enarnacion, Mota, and LoDuca shipped to the Florida Marlins. A front-line but oft-injured starter for a top reliever and the heart of the team (now Mitchell Report disgraced). There are parallels, to be sure. But compared to this, that was small beans. Just a month ago, I wrote what was essentially a eulogy to the basketball career of Shaquille O’Neal. Now? We’re in for one hell of a final act.
You could make the case that but for the twist of fate, the Phoenix Suns would be the Western Conference champs each of the past two years. Amare’s injury. Nash’s bloody nose. The Robert Horry hip check. And at the time they shipped Marion and Banks down to Miami just a couple of weeks ago, they were standing atop the Western Conference. The run n’ gun Suns, who had essentially transformed the league the past three years, hoping once again to dispel the notion that their style of play couldn’t deliver in June – when it counted. They had as good a chance as anybody else.
The Pau Gasol trade changed all of that. When that went through, one of the first thoughts that flashed through my mind was that it was us and the Spurs now. There was no doubt – with a frontline of Odom, Gasol, and Bynum, the Lakers would absolutely crush Phoenix inside. At the very least then, the blockbuster trade Steve Kerr pulled off challenges the veracity of that claim. That’s what 7’1″, 325 does for you. Regardless of mobility, regardless of athleticism (or lack thereof), Shaq remains a presence. He clogs up the lane. But it’s everything else that remains a question mark. It’s everything else that makes it so captivating.
It’s been one of the most memorable months in sports history. The fantastic Super Bowl. The ongoing Gasol domino effect. The Clemens hearings. The dunk contest. But Shaquille O’Neal and the Phoenix Suns might be the biggest story of them all. A Lakers-Suns series would be the most heated playoff matchup since Lakers-Kings, since Knicks-Bulls (or Knicks-Heat, Knicks-Pacers, or anyone and the Knicks, apparently). It’d be the most anticipated matchup since Magic and Michael in 1991, when I first started watching basketball. But I’m getting ahead of myself. In just two days, Shaq will likely make his Suns debut. In Phoenix, against the Lakers. It’s poetic. But I don’t feel sorry for him anymore. He’s wearing enemy colors.