- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

Steve Kerr acted in resignation in landing the shell of Shaquille O’Neal.

Kerr decided the Suns could not reach the NBA Finals with their aesthetically pleasing but hollow version of small ball.

It produced 62 victories in 2005, 54 in 2006 and 61 last season. Yet it inevitably was exposed as too soft around the basket during the halfcourt grind of the playoffs.

That was the thinking of Kerr anyway, and we have to assume he knows his personnel far better than all the pseudo-experts reduced to scratching their heads over the Shawn Marion-O’Neal exchange.

It certainly is a one-sided trade at first glance. Marion is a four-time All-Star who is in the prime of his career at 29 years old. It is true that he could leave the Heat after he becomes a free agent this summer.

If so, that merely will give Pat Riley the salary-cap space to pursue the top-tier free agents, one of whom will be Gilbert Arenas.

Most important, Riley is rid of O’Neal’s restrictive contract, worth $20 million in each of the next two seasons. That debt now belongs to the Suns.

Kerr undoubtedly made all these calculations, including O’Neal’s diminishing relevance, before going to coach Mike D’Antoni and saying, “Well, do we go for it or not?”

Skeptics note O’Neal’s plummeting numbers, 36th birthday next month and injury issues.

They also note his free throw miseries that are a curse in the final minutes of a tight game and his lumbering gait that is at odds with the fast break proclivities of the Suns.

Those are all valid but obvious objections and ones Kerr and D’Antoni calibrated before giving the thumbs-up sign.

The risk is considerable. But it is a risk that could pay off if O’Neal is healthy during the playoffs. And that is what the trade comes down to from the point of view of the Suns. It is all about the playoffs.

They do not care whether O’Neal misses 40 games in each of the next two seasons. They do not care whether he is mostly indifferent to the regular season. All they care is whether he has the capacity to be the piece that propels them to an NBA championship.

It is impossible to say whether he will be that piece because an aging center lugging around 330 pounds is destined to have recurring problems with his lower torso. Yet anyone who professes to know how the O’Neal acquisition will turn out should not be writing or pontificating on it. They should be putting their crystal ball to use in Las Vegas.

O’Neal’s spirit is willing, as he made clear in his introductory press conference in Phoenix yesterday. And he has ample motivation after hearing all the pessimists speak out since the trade was consummated.

He spoke of adding two more championship rings to his jewelry collection, which would allow him to tie Michael Jordan with six.

O’Neal repeatedly laughed and flashed his million-dollar smile during the press conference. He said all the right things about meshing with his new teammates.

He said he would try to be a big brother to Amare Stoudemire. He said he would try to help Boris Diaw get better looks from the 3-point line. He also said he could not do much to aid Steve Nash because the two-time NBA MVP already is one of the best point guards ever.

O’Neal has not lost his personality, even if he has lost so much of what once made him the NBA’s most feared player.

And Kerr and D’Antoni, despite their beaming facades during the press conference, know they have landed a broken-down player whose dominance is limited to ESPN Classic.

Their scaled-down hope, with fingers crossed, is that O’Neal can make enough plays in the postseason to catapult the Suns past the competition.

If not, they had a strong feeling what the outcome would have been if they had not made the move.

In that context, the gamble, steeped in long odds though it may be, is worthwhile.

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