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What’s Left in Shaq’s Tank?

Posted by Neil Paine on July 29, 2009

Not to be outdone by the Magic's draft-day acquisition of Vince Carter, the Cleveland Cavaliers pulled the trigger on a trade of their own on June 26, finalizing a deal for Phoenix's Shaquille O'Neal. It was a swap that had been bandied about at the trade deadline -- but ultimately not completed -- and when the Cavs were ousted in an Eastern Conference Finals upset by Orlando, more than a few observers pointed to GM Danny Ferry's unwillingness to acquire O'Neal in-season as a mistake that possibly cost them the series. But now that the supposed blunder has been rectified, O'Neal is officially a teammate of LeBron James (having come at the relatively low price of Sasha Pavlovic, Ben Wallace, cash, and a 2nd-round pick), and he joins a team that won a league-best 66 games a year ago. However, at age 37, how much can the Big Aristotle realistically add to Cleveland's championship chances?

First, here are Shaq's career numbers:

Year Ag Tm Ht Pos G Min trORtg %Poss trDRtg Stat+/- OWS DWS WS
1993 20 ORL 85 C 81 3071 108.7 26.7 100.7 5.24 4.5 5.9 10.4
1994 21 ORL 85 C 81 3224 121.9 28.2 104.5 8.95 12.1 4.8 16.9
1995 22 ORL 85 C 79 2923 117.7 30.5 104.4 8.85 9.9 4.5 14.3
1996 23 ORL 85 C 54 1946 110.3 31.4 104.0 6.44 3.9 3.0 6.9
1997 24 LAL 85 C 51 1941 111.2 30.2 100.2 8.03 4.1 3.9 8.0
1998 25 LAL 85 C 60 2175 116.3 31.1 103.7 7.25 7.0 3.6 10.5
1999 26 LAL 85 C 49 1705 122.0 31.4 107.7 7.97 7.4 1.9 9.3
2000 27 LAL 85 C 79 3163 119.7 30.7 98.4 10.40 11.7 7.0 18.7
2001 28 LAL 85 C 74 2924 119.9 31.3 105.8 9.92 11.1 3.9 15.0
2002 29 LAL 85 C 67 2423 120.1 31.0 103.0 8.62 9.3 4.1 13.4
2003 30 LAL 85 C 67 2535 122.4 29.6 107.1 7.33 10.4 3.0 13.4
2004 31 LAL 85 C 67 2464 114.8 26.3 103.4 6.02 6.0 4.1 10.1
2005 32 MIA 85 C 73 2492 113.8 30.3 101.5 8.09 6.4 4.6 11.0
2006 33 MIA 85 C 59 1806 109.9 29.4 103.5 4.37 3.3 2.9 6.2
2007 34 MIA 85 C 40 1135 106.6 28.6 106.0 3.05 1.3 1.4 2.8
2008 35 MIA 85 C 33 945 100.6 25.5 107.9 -0.22 0.1 1.0 1.1
2008 35 PHO 85 C 28 803 103.8 21.7 104.0 0.19 0.5 1.3 1.8
2009 36 PHO 85 C 75 2252 117.1 23.8 108.8 3.68 5.9 2.3 8.2
2010 37 CLE 85 C Proj 1.79

(Translated stats are explained here.)

You certainly can't say Shaq didn't enjoy a renaissance season last year; even as the Suns' "Nash Dynasty" was crumbling around him, O'Neal posted his best numbers since early in his Miami days, quieting any critics who thought he was finished after a mediocre 2008 campaign. He's far from the Shaq of old, of course, but he's still a force to be reckoned with down low -- while he's not commanding the same number of touches as he did during his prime (0.92 touches/minute last season, compared with 1.4 for L.A. in 2000 & 2001), he's still getting 70+% of his shots from the inside (including dunks on 23% of his FGAs), he's still making 60% of his 2-point shots, he's still drawing fouls at a fairly beastly rate (.617 FTA/FGA), and now he's even making some of his free throws (.595 FT% was the 2nd-best of Shaq's career). We know Shaq will be motivated by being on a strong team, alongside an alpha dog the likes of which he hasn't played with since his pairing with Kobe Bryant -- and despite what anyone says, you know Shaq would like to answer Kobe's ring with another of his own. Plus, the Cavs can afford to give Shaq as much rest as he needs during the regular season, since Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao are still capable pivots in their own rights.

But we know one of the major motivating factors for Cleveland's acquisition of Shaq this offseason was the way Dwight Howard eviscerated them during the Eastern Conference Finals. As the narrative goes, Ilgauskas and Varejao were too soft and too slow to really challenge Howard on defense or the glass, and they scarcely made the reigning DPOY sweat with their offensive games. Shaq, on the other hand, is still a beast that will keep Howard occupied on the boards and in the low post, and he has the bulk to muscle up defensively on Howard. Do the numbers from last year bear this out, though?

Player Ht ORtg %Pos Floor% Stop% DRtg %FGA FTr OR% DR% Blk% T/Min
Shaquille O'Neal 85 117.1 23.8 0.596 0.548 108.8 22.0% 61.7 10.1 22.3 3.5 0.93
Anderson Varejao 82 116.1 14.5 0.582 0.581 99.9 13.4% 49.6 8.9 20.6 2.3 0.57
Zydrunas Ilgauskas 87 108.2 23.2 0.522 0.570 100.4 25.1% 24.0 11.0 21.6 3.8 0.78

It's likely that Shaq won't use more possessions than Ilgauskas, but he will touch the ball more often and, more importantly, his possessions will definitely not end in 15-foot jumpers -- he will indeed make Howard work on defense inside far more than Cleveland's options did last season. However, while Shaq is stronger and will probably push Howard around the way Kendrick Perkins did in the Magic-Celtics series, it's hard to see Shaq making a significant difference on pick-n-roll defense, since he's just as slow as Big Z and that tough matchup was what really destroyed Cleveland in the ECF. Additionally, Shaq's on/off defensive numbers have been mediocre since his Laker days, so there's no reason to think he'll be a huge upgrade for Cleveland at that end in general.

And then there's the matter of Shaq's age. Coincidentally enough, 37 just happens to be the magic number at which some of history's greatest big men -- Ewing, Olajuwon, Wilt, Robinson, Moses, etc. -- either retired or saw their production fall off a cliff. In other words, Shaq had a nice comeback season last year and will be an offensive upgrade at center for the Cavs if he can retain that form, but if Cleveland is counting on him to be the final piece of the puzzle to help them beat the Magic or Celtics in the playoffs, they'd better have a backup plan, because relying on O'Neal is a bit of a gamble at this stage of his career.

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23 Responses to “What’s Left in Shaq’s Tank?”

  1. Roy Johnson Says:

    If Shaq is limited to atleast 20-25 MPG, I think he can do well. Trying to play him more than 25 MPG is too much of gamble.

  2. will Says:

    As a native Clevelander, I appreciate your analysis.

    I personally expect O'Neal to have not much in the tank left, but I would be very happy (and worth the deal) if he gives 15/8 a game, for 60 reg. season games and is healthy and shows his 08-09 campaign throughout the playoffs.

    Z does not have much left in his tank either and I thought it showed as the season progressed (the stats don't give a clear trend - http://www.basketball-reference.com/fc/psplit.cgi?player=ilgauzy01&year=2009. I expect his stats to fall tremendously, even for controlling playing time) next year.

  3. KneeJerkNBA Says:

    Shaq's managed to stay lean and relatively fit for three years now. It makes you wonder how much longer his career could have lasted if he didn't balloon up in LA.

  4. Alex Says:

    To say Shaq is as slow as Ilguaskas is absolutely terrible.

  5. Patrick Says:

    To analyze this properly, I think you have to look at Cleveland's offensive style. Since there's a lot of half-court doubling on Lebron, and since there will be West and Williams waiting around the 3 point line, there a lot of new and improved angles Lebron can look at when he has the ball at the top of the key. Let's say you put Anthony Parker out there as the other forward, and you have a great possibility for a pick and roll offense that draws a double-team on Lebron, and gives LJ two options........if he drives to the lane, he'll have a semi-open Shaq, who simply has to stand close to the basket to be effective, or he can kick out to anyone, since they can all shoot the 3-ball.

  6. Jason J Says:

    If I was a Cavs fan, I'd have to be a little concerned with whether or not Shaq still cares enough to give top level effort. Is he more interested in winning another title or being a TV star these days?

    The All-Shaq team is getting to be incredibly stacked though, isn't it? Digging up players who have played with O'Neal, you could field a starting line-up of Penny, Wade, Kobe, Bron and O'Neal with subs of Mo Williams, Eddie Jones (Laker), Glenn Rice, Horace Grant (Magic), and Alonzo with Horry and Van Exel as 11 and 12. Not bad!

  7. SkeptiSys Says:

    More to clarify than to be picky, Wilt was willing and able to play at age 37, but was forced to the sidelines by a dispute between the NBA and ABA. The NBA, in effect, refused to let Wilt continue to play with San Diego.

  8. Johnny Twisto Says:

    Jason, I'm no Shaq fan, but he has always dabbled in outside pursuits. I can't believe any of them will distract him at this point. The question is whether he makes the effort to be in top shape. Historically he seems to do that if he's not hurt and he feels he has something to prove. So assuming he's fit, I don't think you need to worry about his effort on the floor.

  9. Neil Paine Says:

    Shaq may be able to beat Ilgauskas in a foot race, but does anyone really want to watch it to find out for sure? For all intents and purposes, both players have all the acceleration of a Mack truck lumbering up the side of a mountain.

  10. Karl Says:

    Shaq brings attention to Cavs, pick your poison. You try to slow down lebron and play single def. On Shaq or let the King do his thing. No Matter how old Shaq is or gets along as he can be the bully in the paint that we all respect the Cavs will be a Problem

  11. Reg Says:

    Who is Neil Paine?

  12. JMillott Says:

    The thing about this move to get Shaq is that it can't hurt the Cavs.

    They not only got him for nothing but in doing so opened up spots for Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon who have proven themselves as reasonably solid starters and now only need to provide solid depth.

    If Shaq gives 14/7 in 25 minutes they'll be better off for it then anything they gave up to get him.

    With a player like LeBron they actually don't need a second legitimate star as long as they don't have any guys that actively hurt them and a few other good players they're scary as hell.

    If LeBron doesn't have to force bad shots he is impossible to defend right now and is heading into his absolute prime now with a team that he can surely trust more then ever before.

    It wouldn't shock me if LeBron shoots 52% or better from the floor this season and improves his assist to turnover ratio towards 4:1 or close to it.

  13. MYoung23 Says:

    People need to realize that the Shaq deal of this summer wasnt the same one from last year. If the Cavaliers had traded what Phoenix wanted in West and Szczerbiak it would have created more holes other places. It would have forced a terrible Sasha Pavlovic into the starting lineup, removed a stretch PF from the rotation and would have left Wallace/Varejao to team with Shaq. The Wallace/Pavlovic package was the one that Ferry offered last season and the one Steve Kerr ultimately relented and took this summer.

    In terms of this article I did all this research and made the same arguments using the same players and even used phrases like "fell of a cliff" on Cavaliers forums before the Shaq trade was even made.

  14. Neil Paine Says:

    Now folks, don't mistake my questions about how much Shaq has left in the tank for a criticism of the trade Cleveland made to acquire him -- they truly picked him up for next to nothing. But, unfortunately, sometimes you end up getting what you pay for.

  15. Daniel Bui Says:

    @ Reg

    Neil Paine is the writer of this article and he's also a writer/ sport analyst for Basketball-reference.com

  16. Bryan Wright Says:

    i think Cleveland made a good move here.
    if shaq works they can keep him for the other two years.
    if he doesn't.... they can always release him for no money out of their pockets

    i don't believe they will win a ring for the king this year though...
    they might make it to the finals.
    but this year is the year of the Maverick. Shaq's fellow all-decade player Dirk Nowitzki will finally get that ring over shaq that shaq got over him in Miami

  17. Kaveh Says:

    #6

    I think the best power forward of all time (or one of them) and one of the best PGs of all time, both in the top 35 players of all time, would have a gripe with you leaving out their names on that all-shaq list. Albeith Karl Malone and Gary Payton were a bit washed up by the time they played with Shaq.

  18. Kaveh Says:

    Bryan, wow, you must be hoping that LO goes to Miami right? Otherwise there is no way you would be predicting a Mavs even going to the finals...and also how will the mavs win in the finals against Celtics/Cavs/Magic?

    The Mavs window has opened and SHUT. It is over. J Kidd is a grandpa now, and grandpa's don't play basketball. Josh Howard / Jason Terry are not the players they were a few years ago, and niether is Dirk for that matter. Also, the Gortat deal fell through and you guys lost Bass. It's going to take more than an old Marion to help the Mavs --they couldn't even give the Nuggets any problems last year.

  19. McCoy Says:

    Illguaskas lack of foot speed was only one of three issues we had with the pick and roll against ORL. The other two problems were:

    2. Delonte West gave up too much size to be able to effectively prevent Turk from creating opportunities off the screen. Whether it was Howard rolling or Shard slipping, Turk could pretty easily make plays for both over West's head.

    2. Not being able to trap the ballhandler coming off the screens...IMO due to overzealous makeup calls. In the Mike Brown era, the Cavs bigs have been coached to put some contact on the ballhandler coming off a pick, making him go wide before he could look to facilitate. As long as they moved their feet and didn't impede the dribbler too much, it's usually allowed. It really gives the screened defender time to get under, and it makes the quick lob to the cutter a difficult pass to complete. It's the staple of our PnR D. With LeBron getting a whistle on nearly every foray to the basket (since Howard is literally ALWAYS standing in the paint)the refs were giving those fouls back to the Magic with a plethora of non-shooting calls, largely in the PnR game. In one game a struggling Hedo went to the stripe several times on slight contact coming off screens, even though he usually wards defenders with the off arm. It decimated what we could do to slow their screen game down. Outside of Howard and Lebron, the FT disparity for the supporting players was pretty lopsided, especially when you consider how rarely the Magic actually attacked the basket off the dribble.

    While Shaq won't help the PnR defense, Moon and Parker...6'8" and 6'6" respectively ...certainly will.

  20. Walter Says:

    I think one of the most interesting things about the Lebron/Shaq duo that NO ONE is talking about is the final minutes of games. Often times games are decided in the final minutes with free throws... the Cavs big two of Lebron and Shaq are not great free throw shooters by any stretch. Will this cost them? I don't know... Shaq didn't have to worry about it in L.A. because Kobe was always the go-to guy in the clutch because he could hit free throws if they team fouled him.

  21. Jason J Says:

    Good point, Johnny. He has always performed well on the court despite all the distracting side ventures he gets into - I do wonder if a certain lack of dedication may have precipitated his fall from dominance though. I was watching an old LA game a while back, and I had forgotten the type of touch he used to have on his moves. That one-handed baseline turnaround used to have great snap and surprising range (not like Patrick Ewing range, but at least twice what Shaq's got now), and he trusted it. His up and under and jump hook both had much better spin as well. I don't see any of that anymore. He's most effective from the right block now and powering up the baby hook Tim Duncan style.

  22. Greg Skaljac Says:

    Regarding the Shaq pickup--that's a no brainer even if he only plays 60 games and puts up 12/6--they got him for Wallace and Sasha (who combined wouldn't play 60 games or avg 12/6) and there is no hit to the 2010-11 salary cap. They had no bigs with any bulk, now they most certainly do. It moves Z to the bench where he will make the 2nd team much more formidable. Bottom line, the Cavs are a better team with Shaq than they were at the end of the season with Wallace & Sasha. Not to mention wing upgrades of Moon and Parker over Wally and Gibson's minutes.

    Whether it helps them against Orlando or LAL remains to be seen. The PnR of Orlando hurt them more when it was Turk (now gone) and Lewis or Turk and Pietrus. Howard really didn't score coming off the PnR--he scored by beating everyone down the court and camping near the hoop where he could face up Z and Varejao and either beat Z off the dribble or muscle thru Varejao. Plus, for whatever reason, Mike Brown kept insisting that our bigs try to chase the dribbler all over the court to double and then have to sprint back to catch up with Howard--not a good plan. Then, once Howard gets his position down low, the helpside guards pinched down from the wings or corners to double DH and he would kick out to Pietrus, Lewis or Lee in the corner for wide open 3's which they knocked down all series. The problem the Cavs had was defending DH mano y mano in the low post--hopefully, Shaq's bulk will affect DH much like Perkins did the series before.

  23. Inversion table Says:

    I think Shaq can do well. Trying to play him more than 25 MPG is too much of gamble.