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Article:Suns look out of sorts with O'Neal

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The more I watch the Phoenix Suns play basketball, the more I can't help but question the blockbuster trade that sent Shawn Marion to Miami for Shaquille O'Neal.

I hate to say this, but the Suns are no longer the NBA team I enjoy watching the most. They're not even in my top five.

Not that G.M. Steve Kerr or anyone within the organization cares about my viewing interests, but they do care about finally getting to the NBA Finals. If I were them, I'd worry first about making the playoffs in the brutal Western Conference.

Phoenix has lost its identity. If it wants to make the postseason, it better rediscover it or create a new one ASAP. That's where the trade gets in the way.

Think about it: What, before the trade, made the Suns such a dangerous team?

1. Their ability to run. Steve Nash would get the ball with four options spaced to his right and left. Now, when O'Neal is on the floor, there are just three players racing downcourt in front of Nash. Big difference. The Suns' transition baskets have dipped big-time.

2. Room to work for Nash in the half-court offense. This is huge. Nash used to be able to dribble from the top of the key down to the baseline, along the baseline, and then back out top -- all the while looking for the open man. Now, "The Diesel" gets in the way. He's simply too big, and he's not nearly as agile as Amare Stoudemire. Phoenix's half-court offense -- which pundits said would improve with O'Neal -- has gotten worse.

The Suns say they made the deal for defense. But here's the problem, and I'm surprised that the former champion Kerr didn't realize this: Defense is more about a team's attitude and mentality than its makeup. Sure, the Pistons haven't been nearly as good defensively sans Ben Wallace, but the reason for this has been that Flip Saunders doesn't stress "D" to the extent that Larry Brown did.

As long as coach Mike D'Antoni doesn't make defense a huge priority -- something I don't see happening -- the Suns are not going to be a good defensive team. Period. They certainly haven't been since O'Neal's arrival.

Phoenix is 2-4 with O'Neal, and five of their opponents have scored at least 113 points. Only an anemic 77-point showing by the Celtics made the Suns' defense look good. Otherwise, it's appeared even more vulnerable than pre-Diesel. In other words, very bad.

The Suns' ability to stop people has been so poor, the Grizzlies scored 113 points and the 76ers put up 119. Any time you allow Willie Green 17 points, you know you're doing something wrong.

The Suns are giving up 104.9 points per game this season. I'm sure this number has gotten a ripe boost over the last two weeks.

Kerr n' company might not admit it, but they might be realizing just how much the team misses Marion's versatility. O'Neal is the opposite of Marion. At his old age, he is limited in what he can do. He's slow to run up the court, you can only post him up on offense, he can't shoot free throws, and on defense he's not a great shot-blocker.

Marion, on the other hand, is a high-flyer who can do it all -- finish on transition, shoot the 3-pointer, guard shooting guards and power forwards, rebound.

Most important, Marion was a perfect fit in Phoenix's system. He and Nash had a great working relationship, and the rift between him and Stoudemire was overblown. Plus, he was young. At 29, Marion probably has another good six or seven years in the NBA. O'Neal, 35, might be out of the league by 2010.

I don't question O'Neal's desire. I know he truly wants to prove that he can be the man to push Phoenix over the top. And come playoff time -- if there is a playoff time in the desert -- he'll do whatever it takes to make that happen. But whether that's enough is another question.

The more I see the Suns play, the more I view the trade as a panic move. The Lakers had taken a huge step forward by acquiring Pau Gasol for close to nothing. The Spurs are, well, the Spurs. Kerr thought that a change was needed. I tend to disagree.

It's not as if the Suns haven't come close -- really close -- to getting to the finals. Consider last season. If not for the suspensions of Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for Game 5 of the conference semifinals against the Spurs, there's a decent chance Phoenix would have won that game and the series. Then, they certainly could have beaten the Jazz in the conference finals.

Go back two years. If not for a huge Dallas comeback in the Mavericks' clinching Game 6 victory, the Suns would have taken the Mavs to a winner-takes-all Game 7 with a finals appearance on the line.

The Suns have been on the brink of making the finals -- so close that a personnel shift wasn't needed. All they needed was a few more big plays. A block by Stoudemire here, a few more midrange jumpers by Diaw there (which he's provided this season), a little more defense by Nash everywhere.

It's still too early to write off the new-look Suns. We'll likely have to wait until April or May to do that.

But early indications are that they made an unnecessary trade that not only will hurt them in the long run, but isn't paying off in the present either.

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