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Thursday, February 7th, 2008 at 1:42 pm  |  84 responses

Death to Small Ball

The Commish loves the Shaq Trade.

By Vincent Thomas

There were a lot of pansy aspects of the current NBA, things that were disappointing me about my favorite athletes and league on the planet. Disappointing events like, say, one of my main dudes throwing a sucker punch in MSG, then doing the cabbage-patch in retreat. Or, a trend where grown men stand in the way of a potential scorer and then get all World Cup on me and fall backwards like they just fainted after seeing Brad Pitt. These things irritated me. But nothing got under my skin more than seeing these teams trot out a bunch of undersized lineups under the wack guise of this Small Ball Revolution garbagio.

I’ve always been a fan of Small Ball Novelties. Those Doug Moe Nuggets teams captured my young imagination. It’d be something like little-man Michael Adams, a skinny dude named Fat, ‘Lex English and/or Walt Davis ripping and running, usually with one of their big, affirmative action white guys – maybe the grossly overpaid Danny Schayes — catching a breather somewhere. A couple years later, G-State and Run TMC was my ISH. Mully, Mitch and Tim, plus maybe a Russian or Billy Owens going bonkers – running the competition clear out of their jock-straps. These squads made my day (much like the current Warriors). But they were all harmless. They were entertaining diversions. I preferred my hoops to be classic, pure and transcendent and these teams weren’t that. They were more side shows meant to entertain the deviant streak of my basketball jones.

But then this Phoenix ideology came along and, for the first time, a free-wheeling, small-ball jester-squad was being hailed as a new paradigm for success. It started during the 2004-2005 season, the Suns’ first with Steve Nash. I loved every player they featured at the opening tip of games: Nash, Matrix, ‘Mare, Q, and Joe Johnson. Those were all some ball-playing fools. But this wasn’t 1989 and it wasn’t the NCAA. It was 2005 and the NBA – no room for the Illinois Fighting Illini in this league. Kendall Gill, Steve Bardo, Marcus Liberty, Kenny Battle and Nick Anderson might have a chance to sneak up on that ladder and scissor off a piece of twine in the late-80s NCAA, but no squad of runts is going to sniff at the chip in the New Millennium NBA, right? You need a mix of finesse and brawn; you need some beautiful flair and a rugged mean-streak. That’s not old-school. That’s classic and pure. Yet, here were the Suns, flying down the court with a Svengali, three slashers and an undersized center, playing with the defensive budget of Canada. They were smokin’ folks and people were taking notice and it was being championed as the new archetype for success.

I remember arguing, until I was midnight blue in the face, with my dude Chuck about that Phoenix squad. “That pack of matador midgets will not win a trophy, dude. It cannot happen,” I’d rant. The foundation of basketball and its set of roles and overarching ideology was being challenged. It would have been Phoenix today and the And-1 All Stars tomorrow. I was sure of it. Thankfully, a real champion took care of that Suns business in ‘05, but not without a fight. We seemed to be at the edge of a cliff, the Suns jumped and I feared the lemmings would follow.

THEN (lawd have mercy!) they returned next year, with an even flimsier bunch of hoopers – including a French man that could double as a backup singer for Maxwell – and they still managed to get a slew of wins. Cue more media fawning, even if a Lakers squad nearly squashed them in Playoffs by simply trotting out Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown (of all players). It surely didn’t matter to the Small Ball slurpers that the 2000, 2001 and 2002 Lakers averaged more than 100 points in route to championships. They actually featured true centers and power forwards. It also didn’t matter, apparently, that the Webber/Divac Kings didn’t have to dispense with post-play to play pretty ball. All the little school-girl experts kept shrieking about the Suns like they were at a Hannah Montana concert. It sickened me. I’m sorry, but I found little excitement in Shawn Marion hot-potato’ing up an awkward floater or Barbosa barrowing down the court doing his jack-leg Clyde Drexler impersonations. The ball movement was extremely crisp. The Nash-‘Mare pick-n-roll was fantastic, but we could get all of that without sacrificing some of the core tenets of pro basketball. This was a squad where Raja Bell was the dude dispensing hard fouls and Nash was the enforcer, a squad where there was no such thing as dropping it down into the post and letting a man go to work for a late-fourth quarter, clutch-bucket.

Shaq had already deebo’d centers into being power forwards and Magic had already made most big men think it was hotter to lead the break and pop 20-footers. This New Small Ball Paradigm Thing was going to exterminate the big man for good.

As this season began, after Phoenix was, perhaps, a game suspension away from the Finals and G-State exiled Dirk to Australia; we seemed that much closer to the cliff the Suns leaped off back in 2004 and I was watching as the lemmings followed. Orlando – a team I don’t respect – was winning misleading games with a starting lineup of Howard, shooters and a point guard. Even the Spurs would trot out a crunch-time squad of Duncan, Bones, Finley, Ginobli and Parker. Dallas liked that Dirk At Center squad a little too much. It was a Small Ball Epidemic. I didn’t mind Small Ball as a mid-game change of pace or the MO for one rogue squad like G-State. But, as a paradigm for success? Gimme a break. No, gimme, like, 23 breaks.

Then two things happened. 1.) An insurgent L.A. added another 7-footer to its dark horse title-contending squad; and 2.) Steve Kerr – he and his classic basketball mind – could see from experience and years covering games as an analyst that Small Ball was indeed a novelty. It was meant to be a jump-off, not a wifey. Yeah, I’m sure he also noted that Nash’s contract ends when Shaq’s does, at which point they could use over $30M to rebuild around ‘Mare. I’m also sure Kerr didn’t want to lose Marion for nothing or resign him for another $80M-$100M. But, at its core, this surprise trade was a green-n-yellow loogey hocked at Small Ball and I’m loving the way the throat-rocket is sliding down its face.

“How’s Shaq gonna run with the Suns?!” That’s what all the skirts are bunching up their panties about. Well, how did Kareem run with the Lakers or Laimbeer run with the Pistons or Divac run with the Kings? They didn’t. That doesn’t mean the Suns can’t remain a fluid and potent offense. What it means is they have presence and balance, now. Shaq and 12-14 points, 7-10 boards and 23-28 minutes bring legitimacy to this once semi-bastardized squad.

True, Classic, Grown Ball is returning – in full force – to the NBA, putting an end to the brief scare that was Small Ball. Take your 6’5, 210-lb power forward with you on the way out. Good riddance.

Vincent Thomas writes a weekly column for SLAMonline and contributes regularly to SLAM Magazine. He can be reached at vincethomas79@gmail.com.

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  • Marcel Mutoni

    “Take your 6’5, 210-lb power forward with you on the way out” – charles barkley’s (height) respectfully disagrees.

  • http://slamonline.com/ Vincent Thomas

    Chuck was 210-lbs? That’s news.

  • http://www.mybleedingfingertips.blogspot.com/ Myles Brown

    Okay, it took me a minute to get over “small ball slurpers”. Im back. I was never convinced that PHX’s style of play would produce a chip, but I also dont think this move provides any semblance of balance. Shaq doesnt really provide what the team was missing and now theyve just developed more significant holes elsewhere. I still dont think PHX is in position to win anything, but just as before, Ill still watch…

  • Marcel Mutoni

    dude, check what’s in the parentheses.

  • http://slamonline.com/ Vincent Thomas

    Oh. True. But we know Chuck was freak, Cel.

  • http://www.mybleedingfingertips.blogspot.com/ Myles Brown

    And if the Suns wouldve been able to run at such a torrid pace without sacrificing a similar effort on the defensive end, I really wouldnt have had a problem with their small ball. I dont think that this should necessarily be a lesson to all GM’s that small ball is dead, as much as it is a notice that it still needs development.

  • http://slamonline.com/ Vincent Thomas

    Interesting point, Myles.

  • http://myspace.com/bodiebarnett jbn74sb

    Kareem, Laimbeer, and Vlade could all shoot from more than 2′ away from the hoop. The Suns have, in effect, traded Marion for a soon to be 36 year old Stanley Roberts.

  • http://tadone.blogspot.com/ TADOne

    If Diaw can regain some of that magic he had in 2005, the Suns could do some things. But that is a big “if”.

  • http://whitehoteboysworld.blogspot.com white hot eboy

    Great piece, Vince. Good luck in your fight for the salvation of balanced ball with these dudes. I’m with you.

  • http://kayceonline.com/blog/category/basketball-related/ Kevin

    hahahaha wtf’s up with the picture of Barbosa groping Diaw’s ass…. jesus. gonna read the rest of the article now haha..

  • Jim Mora

    Plus, now they’re ready to beat the spurs. remember how marion played against them in 2005 & 2007? whereas now duncan will have to guard either shaq or stoudamire which will tire him. oberto is gonna have a hard time

  • http://www.mybleedingfingertips.blogspot.com/ Myles Brown

    I think a team like Denver plays a similar style of ball but isnt exactly a “small” team, position by position. Theyre anchored by the best defensive center in the lig, and have relatively decent defenders at every other spot. Popular belief would have one believe that theyre a poor defensive team, but looking at the numbers per 100 possessions, theyre actually in the top ten. They have the nuts and bolts players in Najera and Kleiza along with two of the most potent scorers in the lig in Melo & Liz Claiborne. So why isnt/couldnt the fast break style working for them?

  • http://whitehoteboysworld.blogspot.com white hot eboy

    Oh, and “matador midgets” is fantastic. I tried to gloss over “small ball slurpers” but it was really hard not to choke after reading it.

  • riggs

    i cant take the image of barbosa slapping diaws ass while he tippy toes out of my head…

  • http://myspace.com/bodiebarnett jbn74sb

    I thought you, Myles, in all your lavendar splendor, were Liz Claiborne. Glad to see you’re over it, though.

  • http://myspace.com/bodiebarnett jbn74sb

    Jim Mora – As to the Suns, as now currently constructed: Playoffs!? Playoffs?!

  • http://whitehoteboysworld.blogspot.com white hot eboy

    Bodie, you really think they won’t make the playoffs? I thought you were purposely being ignorant on Ryan’s post. You’re serious, really? Hmmmm…………………..

  • http://tadone.blogspot.com/ TADOne

    Suns would have to fall pretty far not to make the playoffs. Granted, they may slip to a low 6-8 seed, but they will be in the playoffs.

  • http://slamonline.com Russ Bengtson

    Shaq is 36 years old with a bad hip, and he hasn’t played effectively in a year and a half. Why are so many people conveniently ignoring this?

  • http://www.mybleedingfingertips.blogspot.com/ Myles Brown

    I was Bodie. And I am. Just like to reference it every so often. But to the point, I think that many aspects of small ball open the game up and take advantage of its core principles of spacing, sound ball movement and teamwork. The fast paced play is certainly a weapon that can wear down opponents as the Suns have proven, its just that their one significant flaw is their lack of an interior presence. There was another player available to them that wouldve allowed them to maintain their pacing and not have missed Marion for a second. And he wouldve shored the inside on both ends of the floor. And he wanted to be there. So if the Suns hadnt passed up on KG only to take Shaq, then this whole discussion would be moot and wed be talking about how other teams should be trying to duplicate PHX rather than mocking them.

  • dez

    Awesome article. Also think that Shaq brings way more intangibles in the locker room than he does on paper.
    On paper, KG might be equal to Al Jeff, but there’s a lot more than that.
    Also, highly doubtful that Horry will clock Nash in the face in these playoffs, when he knows that Shaq could hand out payback.

  • http://kayceonline.com/blog/category/basketball-related/ Kevin

    damn someone beat me to it.. after i read Horry’s casual comments about how Shaq couldn’t move anymore somewhere, i wanted Shaq to come out and dare Horry to even touch Nash again this year haha..

  • http://kayceonline.com/blog/category/basketball-related/ Kevin

    btw, the ACTUAL commish is probably lovin this too.. ratings just went thru the roof.

  • http://whitehoteboysworld.blogspot.com white hot eboy

    Horry’s ring count allows him to spout off more than the typical backup forward.

  • Jim Mora

    agree with dez
    shaq is a WINNER. he may no longer be a franchise player (understatement) but he will definitely add
    sommething to that team of whinners

  • http://myspace.com/bodiebarnett jbn74sb

    I think it is certainly possible that the Suns will fall out of the playoffs. I really do think that this Stanley Roberts experiment will fail in pretty spectactular fashion. As a result, I am going out on a limb and saying that the Suns will be in the lottery. Good thing they kept their picks in the Kurt Thomas deal.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Cub Buenning

    Myles, despite the reputation, the Nuggets just aren’t committed to actually running. Their numbers would lead one to believe that, but they just don’t push the pace enough and they have a dribble-happy guard who pounds the rock for much of the game.

  • http://whitehoteboysworld.blogspot.com white hot eboy

    I just copied that quote to my hard drive, Bodie. I will repost it, with your permission, if the Suns make the playoffs.

  • http://why-bother-reading.blogspot.com/ H to the izzo

    Bodie:Would you be willing to bet E-money on that?

  • http://slamonline.com Russ Bengtson

    Bill Russell has a lot of rings and would bring a lot of intangibles to the locker room, too. Bottom line is the Suns traded an everyday, 47-minute, 18/10 guy who could guard four positions for a 35-year-old part-time player. What are the chances that Shaq, Hill, AND Nash manage to stay healthy for the rest of the season?

  • http://www.mybleedingfingertips.blogspot.com/ Myles Brown

    Cub, I only see them every often (just once in person) and I guess I did let their rep get in front of any actual facts, but they dont remind me of the classic half court team either. Lots of jumpers early in the clock. Little to no set plays. Tons of alley oops. I just lumped them in with PHX, GS & the other running squads. I hear you on the dribble happy guard, but with his ability to penetrate and create for others, along with the other pieces they have, couldnt this be a running team that could actually play defense?

  • http://www.slamonline.com Cub Buenning

    Wow, Bodie, wow.
    Do you really think that Shaq’s limited minutes are going to a(e)ffect the team’s ultimate ability to win enough to qualify. I don’t see him having much of an influence (pos or neg) on the court, but should be a HUGE locker room gain over the Matrix. Diesel is still the best at that.
    I am just sick of the “wait until Bynun comes back” argument……

  • http://slamonline.com Russ Bengtson

    I think the Suns wind up as the six or seven seed. But given how tightly bunched the top 10 teams are, it’s not entirely unlikely that they fall from the top eight.

  • dez

    If the Suns got healthy and hot at the right time in the playoffs, they could knock everyone out.
    Have the Giants taught you nothing?

  • http://tadone.blogspot.com/ TADOne

    As of today, PHX is 34-15. So there are 33 games left in the season. If PHX goes 16-17 the rest of the way, they will have 50 wins. I say that gets them in. I honestly think they can be no worse then a .500 club, but we will see.

  • dez

    Also, all this talk of Shaq clogging the lane is overrated. He can still pass his krispy kreme ass off.

  • http://www.mybleedingfingertips.blogspot.com/ Myles Brown

    I hear people complain about Marions locker room presence, but when he was on the floor he laced em up and shut up. And gave that team something that no one else could. Why does anyone think that Shaq is going to be such an improvement as a locker room presence unless everyone on that team is willing to defer to him? He just left ANOTHER team after a crumbling marriage with someone else he once wholeheartedly professed his love for. Does anyone else see this pattern?

  • Tone

    “It was meant to be a jump-off, not a wifey.” Classic.

  • http://tadone.blogspot.com/ TADOne

    Yeah, but he didn’t trade himself Myles.

  • http://www.mybleedingfingertips.blogspot.com/ Myles Brown

    He still wore out his welcome.

  • http://tadone.blogspot.com/ TADOne

    So has Riley. I’m just saying.

  • http://slamonline.com Russ Bengtson

    Shawn Marion was always gracious and accomodating with the media, if that counts for anything. And weren’t some of his complaints well-founded? Weren’t Amare and Nash promoted over him, despite their glaring deficiencies when it came to playing defense? Far easier to ship the malcontent out of town than listen to him.

  • http://slamonline.com Sam Rubenstein

    Nice column again Vince. I like small ball and the big guys beating each other up too. Variety. But I supposed in the end it’s better for small ball to stay a novelty, too much chaos would lead to anarchy.
    The Godfather analogy stuff… I guess the Suns are Godfather III. Andy Garcia, Joe Mantegna, I don’t really remember much about that movie other than Andy Garcia wanted to do his sister.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Cub Buenning

    NO doubt, Miles on the Nuggets’ early shot clocks shots (maybe Doug Moe is coaching more than we think?) and not being a true half-court team, but their main issue is that they have no identity at all. They are not running, bad in the half-court, way too inconsistent and lazy on defense, and can’t figure who(m) they truly are. Their talented but almost “lost” persona makes them an exciting team at times, but one that ultimately frustrates the fan of the team AND the game. I am not sure how they are 10 games over .500….. Guess an amazingly talented and stacked line-up. I like George a lot, but they need some sort of consistent on-court mentality.
    They’re almost too dificult to stomach on a regular basis. I am lucky there is tons of college hoops on TV.

  • http://slamonline.com Sam Rubenstein

    I mean cousin.

  • http://slamonline.com Russ Bengtson

    Also, this move strikes me as the roster-shift equivalent of Avery Johnson changing his starting lineup before the Golden State series. The key to success, to me, is making opponents react to YOU. Not the other way around.

  • http://myspace.com/bodiebarnett jbn74sb

    TaDOne has a point – looking at those numbers, they should be fine. But Mihm proclamations aside, I do not believe in retractions, so I’ll stick with what I said. And eboy – not that you need it, but you have my permission.
    And yes, Myles, I concur. Shaq as a leader and locker room presence? On what planet? He has ran out coaches and had problems with teammates at every stop. Finally, in Miami, they realized he is the problem. As to the rest of you, he is The Big Sheep, because he has pulled the wool over all of your eyes.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Cub Buenning

    Didn’t Marion get paid more than STAT and Nash?

    I agree that Marion is nothing but cool in my experience, but having Shaq is like bringing in a bunch of Dave Chappelle DVDs for the fellas.

  • http://tadone.blogspot.com/ TADOne

    I like grazing.

  • http://slamonline.com Russ Bengtson

    Comedians win championships?

  • http://www.slamonline.com Cub Buenning

    He can’t hear you Bodie, because he has rings stuffed in his ears.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Cub Buenning

    Russ, Carrot Top was an integral part in his middle school wrestling team’s success.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Ryan Jones

    Good times.

  • http://tadone.blogspot.com/ TADOne

    I always thought Duncan was hilarious.

  • Reggie Evans

    Nene be playing small ball.

  • http://slamonline.com Russ Bengtson

    If Shaq’s career were a movie, we’d currently be sitting through the credits waiting to see if there was just one more goofy scene afterwards.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Cub Buenning

    I can’t hate… I have never hided my love for the Suns; I am bummed about this shift. They were the most enjoyable team in the league to watch. I should have capatilized WERE.
    I just hope Shaq doesn’t play that many minutes.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Cub Buenning

    ala Cannonball Run?

  • http://tadone.blogspot.com/ TADOne

    Don’t they show the funny edits at the end when credits are rolling?

  • http://myspace.com/bodiebarnett jbn74sb

    They may be rings that measure the age on a tree, Cub, but they are rings nonetheless.
    BTW – I should getting out to Colorado from 2/15-2/19 to a town called Beaver Springs or Beaver Creek (?). A girl I am seeing has a sister who lives out there, and it appears to be time to go f-ck around in the snow and what not. Not planning on boarding. Are you familiar with the area at all?

  • Sko

    Myles, I thought it wasn’t that the Suns passed on KG but that Marion blocked the trade.. can anybody clear that up?

  • http://myspace.com/bodiebarnett jbn74sb

    Uh, Buena Vista, near Salida, south of Denver. Not sure where I came up with Beaver.

  • http://www.mybleedingfingertips.blogspot.com/ Myles Brown

    As always, I could be wrong.

  • Jim Mora

    well russ…the spurs actually did react to the suns and played offense. and they beat them. what do you want them to do?

  • http://slamonline.com Holly MacKenzie

    Cub Buenning says:
    I can’t hate… I have never hided my love for the Suns; I am bummed about this shift. They were the most enjoyable team in the league to watch. I should have capatilized WERE.
    I just hope Shaq doesn’t play that many minutes.

    Ditto to this.

    Aloso, while Shaq may or may not be a disaster, I think they are going to miss Shawn’s defense a lot more than they realize. They just gave up one crazy athletic player in a system that thrives on athleticism for Shaquille. It shall be interesting, and I hope he gets limited minutes because even if it does work out okay for them, I dont want last night to be the last of the Suns small-ball.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Cub Buenning

    Bodie.
    Buena Vista is a couple hours from Denver. Not much going on there, but a beautiful place for sure. Not a ski/board type town, although Monarch is real close, but probably a great place for snowshoeing, XX-skiing, snowmobiling, and back country fun.
    Denver and the nearby foothills (where I reside) and staying pretty dry and nice (mid40s and sunny) but the mountains are getting absolutely dumped on. The perfect Colorado winter.

  • http://myspace.com/bodiebarnett jbn74sb

    Excellent – not looking to drop the dough associated with boarding on this trip anyway.

  • http://kayceonline.com/blog/category/basketball-related/ Kevin

    there’s no way the Suns don’t win at least 52 games, sorry. unless Amare and Nash both get injured for the rest of the season tomorrow.

  • http://www.mybleedingfingertips.blogspot.com/ Myles Brown

    Turns out I was wrong. Partially. I forgot that Marion didnt wanna resign with Boston in that three way trade proposal. So I doubt that he wouldve wanted to resign with Minny in a direct deal.

  • http://slamonline.com polowthaJon

    diaw can easily replace marion, as much as it hurts me to say. the question is can he be the diaw of old or not?

  • data187

    perhaps the suns are not done trading….
    maybe a boris diaw trade is in the future?

  • http://www.ravingblacklunatic.blogspot.com Allenp

    Myles, the Nuggets have horrible ball movement, and do not relentlessly run the way the Warriors and Suns run. In fact, most Nuggets fast breaks come from steals or turnovers. Neither Iverson or Melo like to fill the lane on a consistent basis. But, good looks on the Nuggets defense. They can play defense when motivated.

  • http://www.ravingblacklunatic.blogspot.com Allenp

    Ooops, Cub beat me to my comment.

  • http://www.rubensborges.wordpress.com Rubens

    vince, eboy, I’m with you guys, a little late to the party but…

  • http://fjsdklf.com Jukai

    Vince, I’m not sure I’ve agreed with ANY article you have ever written.

  • http://slamonline.com Ben Osborne

    Jukai, the beauty of Vince is that even when that is the case his articles are still extremely entertaining.

  • http://sun.planetorange.net Dacre

    ^_^

    Love this article.
    Love the emotion.
    LOVE THE FACT THAT THE SUNS GOT SHAQ…

    See you at the orangeplanet.net site ladies!
    PHX for it all in 08.

  • Andy

    Didn’t Steve Kerr say they were looking at bringing in one more player before All-Star Weekend?

  • http://www.freewebs.com/betcats BETCATS

    Death to it! Good job commish.

  • don

    until i see the SUNS raise the cup in june… i remain quiet. if they do… i’ll glance toward the author and give him a “i-kept-the-faith” look.

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