The Shaq Trade: Good for the Suns. Bad for the nerds.

Save for a few comments over the past few days, I was ready to leave this one alone. I changed my mind when I got to work this morning and saw this email from my dad.

Subject: Shaq trade

Text: What’s up with the Suns?

My dad likes the NBA, but he doesn’t follow it like he used to. When I was growing up in SoCal, we both followed the Showtime Lakers pretty religiously. Then, in 1988, we moved to Phoenix, and while I stayed fiercely loyal (ironic in hindsight, huh?) in the face of all the Laker-hating Suns fans I was suddenly surrounded by, my dad sort of started rooting for the Suns. He didn’t root against the Lakers, he just thought it was cool to pull for the new home team. The fact that the Lakers were about to fall off just as the Suns were on the come-up probably didn’t hurt.

My dad lives in Tulsa now and sort of roots for Oklahoma State. What are you gonna do.

Anyway, because of those years spent in AZ, my dad still pays some attention to the Suns. He might not watch more than two or three NBA games in a season, but he’s aware of the league on a general level. This is the level at which he encountered news of the Suns-Heat trade. And his question, understandably, was “What’s up with the Suns?”

A lot of people are wondering that, often in much more colorful and specific language. Many such people are regulars on this site. That’s cool. I still love you. I just don’t understand why some of you are so put-off by this trade, and I worry — I really do — that some of you are overly influenced by those egg-heads whose inability to see the game as anything other than a giant f*cking calculus problem to be “solved” is, I’d argue, a pox upon our collective fandom.

(I may be way off on this, but this all started with Moneyball, right? Again, I may be way off, but can someone tell me how many World Series the Oakland A’s have won lately? Or even played in?)

Whatever. Here, in three* parts, from someone who’s never been particularly good at math, is my take:

1. The Suns, up until about 24 hours ago, were not good enough to win an NBA championship.

F*ck their record. This is a great regular-season team that has not shown the ability to do the job in May and June, and we all know it. Most of us have said as much on this very site. Had anything changed this season? Was there anything that implied they’d figured it out, found some new reserve of toughness and interior defense that was going to allow them to beat some combination of Dallas, San Antonio and the much-improved Lakers — and they’d most likely have to beat two of those three — in the playoffs? No, there’s not, and you’re fooling yourself if you think otherwise.

History — that of these past few Suns teams, and the NBA in general — tells us that teams like the Suns don’t keep getting close and then finally win it all. What they do is, they keep getting close, and then eventually they fall off. These Suns were destined for just such an ending. You know this to be true.

2. You either build for today, or you build for the future. You can’t really do both.

Happy birthday, Steve Nash. You’re 34 today. That’s the same age as me, so I’m reluctant to call it old, but it’s certainly not young by NBA standards. We know this. His numbers, still great, remain steady, so it’s not like dude is falling off. But he will, at least a little, and sooner than later. The window for this Suns team, led by a 34-year-old two-time MVP, will not stay open that much longer — and as already stated, they weren’t good enough to get through that window 24 hours ago.

If you’re Phoenix, you know this. So you make your pick: You say f*ck it, let’s blow the whole thing up and build for the future, go out like Minnesota and Memphis and try to put together a team that might be able to compete for a title in five years. Only you can’t do that, obviously, because your team is still pretty good. The problem is, you’re not going for “pretty good,” for another 55-or-so-win season. You’re trying to win a Larry O’Brien, the one thing you’ve never been able to do, and something that’s particularly frustrating considering how many times you’ve been close. The team you had 24 hours ago would’ve gotten you close again, but it wouldn’t have been good enough. Again.

So, again, you have a choice: Blow it up and rebuild — which isn’t a choice at all, not yet — or try something, even if it’s something drastic and not at all guaranteed — to shake things up and maybe take that last step. What you try is bringing in the most dominant big man of his era in exchange for a disgruntled tweener forward (and I say that as a big Shawn Marion fan. Seriously.) That, certainly, is something.

3. Shaq is roughly 487 times better when he has reason to give a sh*t.

Feel free to consider the above an indictment of Shaq’s character — the idea that he’s only really motivated by perceived slights, or by being on a contender, and that if he’s not duly motived, he tends to get fat and underperform and feign injury. Even if all that’s true (and maybe it is), guess what? He will feel slighted now. He will be motivated now. And he is on a contender now. These things tend to bring out the best in Shaquille O’Neal.

Obviously, Shaq’s best circa 2008 is not what it once was, but health permitting, it’s still not bad, and actually has the potential to be pretty good. Will he be healthy? I have no idea. But again, if he’s motivated — and he will be — he’s more likely to be in shape, and thus more likely to be healthy. Again, I have no idea if this will work, but again, they had to try something.

Here’s how I know I’m right about all of this: Stephen A. Smith probably doesn’t know anything about math either, and he totally agrees with me. I realize this logic is counterintuitive and insane, yet I’m convinced of its truth. I caught two minutes of Screamin’ on the follower last night, and he made, as he will on occasion, a great point.

People say this fun-n-gun Suns team is crazy to add a plodding, halfcourt player because it’ll kill their ability to run. Ah, but — as Screamin’ wisely pointed out — we forget about the late-era Showtime Laker teams. Around ’87 and ’88 — you know, when the Lakers were winning back-to-back championships — the presence of an increasingly immobile Kareem Abdul Jabbar meant the Lakers ran deadly four-man fast-breaks whenever they could. When they couldn’t run, those other four Lakers would get up court and set up, and then Cap would join them with like 14 left on the shot clock and set up on the low block. Even as a 14-year-old kid, I got a kick out of the watching to see how long it would take before Kareem would come loping into view on the TV screen. He looked like the oldest, slowest man in the world.

But guess what? It worked.

Obviously this isn’t the exact same situation, and there’s no guarantee this will work. But it might, and it was worth a shot, because sometimes change for change’s sake is all you’ve got. The Suns, these Suns, were not going to win an NBA Championship with the roster they had at the beginning of this week, and I don’t care if anyone’s abacus tells them differently.

4. “I tend to root for… interesting sh*t to happen.”

I said that. Couple days ago. I think most of you understood where I was coming from. So tell me, what’s not to love here? The Big Lunatic in Phoenix, playing on a team for which he seems ill-fit? This is outstanding! Even if you think it’s the worst trade in NBA history, it should only bother you if you’re a Suns fan who thinks it’s the worst trade in NBA history. Otherwise, why would you not just sick back and enjoy it? This sh*t is interesting. You should feel lucky it happened while you were alive to see it.

Sam, I hope this helps.

*Told you I wasn’t good at math.