Friday, December 19, 2008

Mining Shaq's Rejuvenation

Chances are you've noticed by now that Shaquille O'Neal is having a bit of a bounceback year this year, particularly in terms of scoring efficiency, as he's currently on pace to set a career high in True Shooting Percentage at 61.4%. This isn't merely a case of being in better shape or trying harder, either -- from the games I've seen, the starters in Phoenix have gotten more accustomed to getting him the ball in the places where he's most effective. I noticed several occasions last season when Shaq would establish low post position but the guards wouldn't get him the ball quickly enough to take advantage, and that sort of hesitation seems to be gone this year.

The sort of success Shaq's having, though, raises some questions about the trade that brought him to Phoenix. The story we were sold when the trade was made was that O'Neal provided much-needed interior defense and rebounding. Most basketball fans probably noted at the time that Shaq is no longer a defensive/rebounding force, so obviously we were skeptical. Looking at Phoenix so far this season, they are once again one of the most efficient offensive teams in the league (4th overall), but they are the 26th ranked team in terms of defensive efficiency -- they're worse than they were in the D'antoni years. Specifically, their defensive rebounding rate is 22nd in the league (not any better than they were in 2006-2007, before Shaq's arrival). Individually, O'Neal's defensive rebounding numbers are pretty much in line with his career numbers, but digging a little deeper, the Suns only rebound 72.2% of opponent misses while Shaq is on the floor, which would put the Suns right around the level of the Knicks as a team, and opposing centers are averaging 13.8 rebounds per 48 minutes (for comparison, Erick Dampier, who plays on a similarly paced team, allows opposing centers to get 12.6 rebounds per 48). I don't mean to say that Shaq has hurt the team or anything like that -- in all he's having a positive effect and defensively he's a tremendously better option at center than Amar'e Stoudemire, but it does seem like a stretch to say that Shaq has improved the defense enough to justify the trade.

In a very close game last night against the Portland (who, granted, are the best offensive rebounding team in the league), the Suns gave up 15 offensive rebounds -- if Phoenix can corral two or three of those the outcome of the game is completely different. Most of the second chance opportunities allowed weren't Shaq's fault, but it does seem a concern that Phoenix can continue to get beat in this way after trading for him.

On the other hand, while Phoenix's offense isn't quite as efficient as it was in its most free-wheeling D'Antoni days, it is still very efficient and Shaq brings a lot to the table here. We've already gone over how efficient he's been at scoring, but there have also been other little changes that might help Phoenix in the long term. The most important, I think, is shot-creation. For the last several years, people have criticized the lack of an adequate backup to Steve Nash. Since there are so few players who can consistently create their own shots on this team, they were looking for someone to be able to create when Nash was off the court (this was part of the reason they were excited to bring Grant Hill aboard, for instance). But now, with Shaq, they have the option of running their offense through him, since he's such a skilled passer. Seven Seconds or Mess did a nice job breaking down some of Shaq's plays against the Knicks recently, and notice how many of them are passes leading to easy shots for teammates:



I'm wondering if, instead of helping the defense, Shaq's main benefit on this Suns team this year will be to create easy offensive opportunities when Nash isn't on the floor (obviously Shaq plays most of his minutes with Nash and the starting unit, but that unit doesn't seem any more efficient than it was before the trade, so I'm looking at those few minutes with the reserves). For instance, while Shaq is averaging 2.3 assists per 40 minutes on the floor with Nash, he's averaging 4.5 assists per 40 when he's on the floor with Goran Dragic. It seems like a really obscure reason to pay someone $20 million and trade away Shawn Marion, but is it possible that those few minutes of increased offensive efficiency when Nash isn't on the floor could mean the difference in close games in April, May, and June (recall, for instance, in game 1 of the playoff series against the Spurs two years ago, before all the controversy of the suspensions, there was the Nash bloody-nose game that the Suns lost after Nash had to sit out a couple of key posessions at the end of the game getting his nose bandaged and re-bandaged)? I'm not really sure, but it seems like an interesting tidbit to keep an eye on.

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