The Cavaliers need an athletic, quick, tough power forward. The Nuggets need cap relief. If the Cavaliers offered Shaquille O'Neal to the Nuggets for Kenyon Martin, should the Nuggets make that deal? It deserves some serious consideration...
How many more games do the Cleveland Cavaliers need to play before realizing that the acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal has been an utter failure? As noted in last week's Stiff List, without O'Neal the Cavs are 5-1. With him, 7-4 (including losses to the Raptors, Bulls at home and the Bobcats).
But that record doesn't tell the whole story.
Watch any Cavs game with Shaq on the floor, and it becomes immediately evident that he clogs up the middle, slows the game to a halt and, even worse, contributes next to nothing defensively. Moreover, not only weren't the Cavs hurting at center to begin with, but the center they had/have - Zydrunas Ilgauskas - may have been/may be the perfect center to play alongside LeBron James. After all, the Big Z can hit a long jump shot from anywhere on the floor, forcing opposing defensive big men to play him outside while leaving the lane wide open for an LBJ dunk or drive-and-dish to an open teammate.
(On a side note, I found myself in an elevator once with the Big Z at the historic Boston Harbor Hotel in downtown Boston. At a legitimate 7'3", the poor guy had to completely bend his head and arch his back down to fit into the tiny elevator. Nice guy, though!)
If you watched the Cavs play last season, their biggest problem wasn't at center but rather, power forward. Anderson Varejao is a nice change-of-pace, wreaking havoc, flopping pest for 20 or so backup minutes, but you don't want him as your featured power forward late in games (remember his shot attempts against the Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals? Ghastly!). The Cavs are in dire need of a power forward who brings Varejao's defensive toughness and peskiness, but can also finish on a fast break and will get out of LBJ's way on the offensive side of the floor. The Nuggets just so happen to have such a player in Kenyon Martin.
Having spent over six seasons learning how to play alongside Carmelo Anthony, K-Mart would be a great fit for Cleveland. With K-Mart on board at the four spot, the Cavs could move the Big Z back to being starting center and fill out their lineup with LBJ at small forward while their backcourt combo of Mo Williams at point guard and Anthony Parker at shooting guard stays in-tact. As another plus, rather than having Big Z eat up meaningful bench minutes the Cavs bench would be comprised entirely of their "energy foursome" of Delonte West (when he's on his meds), Varejao, Daniel Gibson and Jamario Moon. Now that's a team that can contend with Orlando and Boston in a conference final.
And while K-Mart's salary (more on that momentarily) might be tough to swallow for Cleveland, it will feel a lot better if K-Mart helps get LBJ back to the NBA Finals meaning LBJ will be more apt to stay in Cleveland. (And yes, I know I predicted that LBJ might go to the Nets to be coach by George Karl just a few days ago. While I believe LBJ will stay in Cleveland - and why would those Chinese investors pony up to own the Cavs if LBJ is walking? - I also believe if he goes anywhere, it's to the Nets.)
By now you're probably thinking: you haven't said one good thing about Shaq, so why the @#$% would the Nuggets do this deal?
For the Nuggets, it's all about economics. Shaq's $20 million salary comes off the books at the end of this season, whereas K-Mart's is still owed $16.5 million next season. (It should be noted that the money due to K-Mart next season is a "player's option," but I have a sneaky suspicion he'll be exercising it. Thank you, Kiki Vandeweghe. K-Mart's contract is the gift that keeps on giving.) Also, K-Mart's $15.4 million salary this season is close enough to Shaq's $20 million that the Nuggets would only have to use a little trade exception money to make the numbers work.
Before you accuse me of asking the Nuggets to throw away this season just to get K-Mart's salary off the books, consider this: next season, Melo, Chauncey Billups, K-Mart, Nene and J.R. Smith's salaries combined will be $64.2 million - expected to be near the luxury tax line in 2010. Throw in Chris Andersen's $4 million due for next season and the Nuggets are guaranteed to be at or over the tax line paying the salaries of just six players. Last I checked, that's less than half of a 13-man NBA roster.
If this deal actually happened (and remember, I've suggested crazier deals before...like the time I proposed trading Allen Iverson to Detroit for Billups and Antonio McDyess way before it actually went down), what would it mean for this season? How would it affect the Nuggets on the floor?
In theory Shaq would give us the center we desperately desire, enabling Nene to dominate at power forward (Nene's more natual position). In theory Shaq would give the Nuggets much needed size to go up against the bigger Western Conference teams. And in theory Shaq would be so amped up to get revenge against his former team, the Lakers, that he'd give the Nuggets a much needed ally in their war with L.A. with one more burst of energy for the remainder of the season and into the playoffs before riding off into the sunset. And lest we forget, good Shaq or bad Shaq, he puts asses in the seats (admit it, you'd watch every game with Shaq in a Nuggets powder blue and gold jersey).
But these are the same arguments that recently duped Phoenix and Cleveland into acquiring Shaq. And watching the 37-year-old center "play" these last few weeks, I can't with a straight face say that he'd be good for the Nuggets on the floor. Shaq would undoubtedly clog up the lane for Melo and Nene and slow down the Nuggets overall pace, which is what makes the Nuggets so deadly in the first place...especially at Pepsi Center. It shouldn't be a surprise that a Suns team sans Shaq is back to running teams off the floor en route to a top two record in the Western Conference right now.
Furthermore, in spite of the inexcusably unacceptable loss to the Timberwolves on Sunday night and another bad loss to the Clippers a few weeks ago, at 13-5 the Nuggets have tied their best start in franchise history and have a good thing going. The players seem to genuinely like each other, seem to listen to head coach George Karl (at least a majority of the time) and it feels like they haven't even played that well yet. (They also haven't played that many good teams yet...it has to be said.) As-is, we're looking at back-to-back-to-back 50-win seasons and another shot at the conference finals, if not more if the Nuggets catch a few breaks.
That said, if we - and/or Nuggets management - truly believe that this incarnation of the Nuggets, constructed as-is, can beat the Lakers and march into the NBA Finals then I say fine; let's see how the season plays out and hope for the best. Maybe Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol will get injured. Maybe the Lakers will get shorter. Who knows.
But if we - and/or Nuggets management - think that another Western Conference Finals appearance is the best this team can do, why not bring in Shaq and unburden ourselves of K-Mart's contract? At the very least, the Nuggets would remain a top five team in the West, would be fascinating to watch, would make any Nuggets/Lakers games and a possible playoff series an instant ESPN Classic and, most importantly, would free the Nuggets up financially to be a player in the 2010 free agent sweepstakes. As of today, the only free agents the Nuggets will be able to afford next summer will be from the D-League.
K-Mart for Shaq? Would you make this deal?
Like I said at the top of this column, it deserves some serious consideration.
Shaquille O'Neal photo courtesy of Getty Images: Isaac Baldizon
Kenyon Martin photo courtesy of AP Photos: David Zalubowski