Western Conference Arms Race

Pau Gasol, Chris Webber, and now Shaquille O’Neal. In one week, the Western Conference leaders imported three potentially impact big men to make a run at the title. GM’s finally see the light, run and gun leads to regular season supremacy, not NBA rings. Outside of Detroit, each champion in the post-Bulls era had a dominant big man. Despite only the fifth best record in the West, the road to the Finals still goes through San Antonio and the Big Fundamental, these acquisitions prove the other teams finally figured that out.

Phoenix shocked the NBA, trading an intricate part of their run and gun style and leading rebounder for an aging, injured O’Neal, a mere shell of the player with four championships. Forget that O’Neal does not fit the uptempo style Phoenix thrives in and has been ineffective most of the past two seasons, the Suns have the best record in the West – why change now?

Last year’s playoffs, and the year before, and the year before, that’s why. GM Steve Kerr, who know a thing or two about title runs, clearly made a risky move, but his goal is not the Pacific Division or the most wins in the league, its to win it all. The Suns tried the fast pace style, it only took them so far. While trading Marion for Shaq may blow up in their face, after watching LA obtain another 7 footer in Gasol to go along with an improving Bynum, and knowing Duncan still looms, Phoenix decided if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. O’Neal is a playoff acquisition.

When O’Neal returns, Stoudemire slides over to his natural Power Forward spot, to go along with Boris Diaw and Grant Hill on the wing, matchup hell for opponents.  O’Neal adds a defensive presence in the middle, a big body to help grab the crucial rebound, a post player that attracts defensive attention freeing up Stoudemire, and opening the perimeter for open shots. Shaq can actually trigger fast breaks by controlling the defensive glass, allowing his teammates to run out for quick outlet passes. Come on, you did not expect me to say he would be filling the lane in transition.

The move can just as easily blow up in the desert. Marion led the team in rebounding, ranks among the best defenders in the league,  and is widely viewed as one of the Top 15 or 20 all-around players in the league. He wanted out after last season when the Suns did not reward him with a fat contract extension, but did Phoenix get enough in return for a big time player in his prime? Kerr broke all the rules of NBA trades, obtaining an star player past his prime with an albatross of a contract. The Suns must win the NBA title this season or face immense scrutiny for giving away Marion and burdening the salary cap for nothing. In the Sunshine state, despite criticism for the awful performance, Pat Riley is quietly rebuilding this team, ditching Antoine Walker’s contract and now Shaq, plus teaming Marion with Dwayne Wade, a potential dynamic duo.

Kerr rolled the dice. In May and June we find out if he rolled snake eyes or a big 7. With LA and Phoenix in position, will Dallas, San Antonio, New Orleans, Utah, or Denver respond? Is Jason Kidd next? Last week and the next two weeks will go a long way to deciding this years NBA champion. And don’t forget Boston in the East, in need of a veteran point guard.

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