Shoals Unlimited: Shaq's Last Hurrah

Welcome to Shoals Unlimited, where Bethlehem will post a long-form piece on basketball once a week.
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↵All hail Shaquille O'Neal. The Big Obligato has drunk from the fountain of youth in the deserts of Arizona, and for the first time in a while, he is measuring up to his legendary reputation. We all thought Shaq was done, useful mostly as a leader, mentor and large, breathing symbol of championship basketball. He was supposed to clog the paint, stand tall against San Antonio and provide inspiration. So his performance this season, which will likely land him in the All-Star Game as a reserve, has been a welcome surprise. ↵
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↵But as Shaq thrives and demands attention, the Suns have hit the skids. Instead of expanding their options, he's limiting them. Steve Nash himself told The Arizona Republic that "everyone other than Shaq plays that (fast) style better." Instead of being the ultimate team asset, O'Neal has become the opposite: A black hole at odds, however innocently, with his teammates. We want to praise Shaq for this sudden burst of effort, something distinctly lacking from other phases of his career. Yet ironically, this bout of relevance is helping bring down a contender. ↵
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↵Nash has looked various degrees of uncomfortable with Shaq. He's too smart a player to not understand the strategic value of a monster in the post. However, the two-time MVP has built his entire game around a fluid, open-minded exploration of space on the court. Suddenly, there's an immovable object in the way of his patented baseline dribbles, a wall that keeps Nash from seeing his usual range of novel passing lanes. As this season has unfolded, Nash has gotten more and more adept, or at least resigned, to feeding Shaq down low. But the point guard's quote about a clash of styles applies to no one more than himself. When Nash warned that O'Neal "can't do it alone" and that the team can't stand to "lose [its] connectivity," he could very well have been describing what it's like for him and O'Neal to co-exist. ↵
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↵Steve Nash is mild, reflective and, like O'Neal, universally beloved. So while they're the two poles fighting for the soul of this team, as well as its two most important players, no one's blaming them for the Suns' shortcomings. Volatile forward Amare Stoudemire, though, is always fair game: He's limited defensively, plays with unspeakable swagger and isn't the best at controlling his emotions. While Stoudemire was voted into the All-Star Game, he's having his weakest season as a grownup, and he certainly didn't deserve the honor. With Amare less than thrilled with the way this season's going -- and likely to leave the floundering Suns when he's up for free agency in 2010 -- there have been loud murmurs about trying to move the star. ↵
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↵But one of the main reasons the Suns wanted O'Neal was to aid in Amare's progress as a player and person. Getting Shaq allowed Stoudemire to move from center, a position he never liked, to his natural power forward spot. Sure, the Suns bowed out in the first round of the playoffs last year, with Nash not looking himself (granted, the Spurs were a rather tough first-round draw). But in three of those five games, Amare was absolutely unstoppable, just as he'd been from the time Shaq arrived. O'Neal anticipated this, calling Amare his "project," as if his old dominance would allow him to mentor an heir apparent. His persona could also serve as a model for Amare, showing him a way to retain his individuality and outspokenness without rubbing people the wrong way or consistently confusing them. ↵
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↵It's hard to blame O'Neal's resurgence for Amare's struggles this season. After all, it's not like it's impossible for two high-scoring big men to co-exist; if there's any problem in that regard, it's probably due to Stoudemire's ego. Still, Shaq was supposed to be a positive influence on Amare, helping to improve the young star's attitude and show him the value of being a good soldier. Unfortunately, Shaq's personal improvement seems to coincide with Stoudemire becoming a worse teammate and less forceful player. That's the bitter irony of what's likely the last hurrah of an all-time great↵

This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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