- The Washington Times - Friday, July 24, 2009

Shaquille O’Neal either has put the Cavaliers ahead of the championship pack in the NBA or left the Cavaliers vulnerable to any team that runs one high pick-and-roll set after another.

The elementary tactic shows O’Neal to be a disinterested defender whenever he is required to step out of the comfort of the three-second lane.

Watching O’Neal and Steve Nash defend the pick-and-roll play at the top of the key or foul line extended was like watching two players in quicksand. Anytime the opposition wanted to get an open shot on the Suns, it merely would have its center set a screen or pick 20 feet from the basket.

That exploitive maneuver led to the undoing of the O’Neal experiment in Phoenix. He landed with a championship-contending team and left it as a lottery team.

Yet one team’s curse can be another team’s charm because of the personnel and style of play around the player.

The pairing of Nash and O’Neal was ill-conceived on so many levels that Steve Kerr has to be thankful he still has a job. His status is helped by a sinking economy; no NBA owner is eager to eat a contract during these uncertain economic times.

Nash and O’Neal were not only an inept tandem on defense but also at odds with each other on offense. Nash is at his best in the open floor, always pushing the ball, always looking to attack, while O’Neal is partial to the dump-and-probe halfcourt set.

In this respect, O’Neal should feel right at home in the uninspired offensive sets of coach Mike Brown.

The Cavaliers’ offense amounts to giving the ball to LeBron James and letting everything evolve around him as the 24-second shot clock winds down.

If O’Neal truly is ready to be a second banana - a debatable proposition - then his time in Cleveland will be far more productive than it was in Phoenix.

Brown certainly will have to structure a defense that acknowledges O’Neal’s defensive shortcomings on the perimeter. O’Neal never has been one to step in front of a ballhandler coming off a pick, and he is not about to become that guy at age 37.

O’Neal’s move to Cleveland is just one of the high-profile changes of the offseason. It has been an offseason in which the strong appear to have become stronger, what with Richard Jefferson going to the Spurs, Ron Artest to the Lakers, Vince Carter to the Magic and Rasheed Wallace to the Celtics.

Each move comes with an element of risk, with the exception of Jefferson joining a strong-willed team that takes its cues from Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan.

As a borderline All-Star, Jefferson has the capacity to restore the Spurs to their championship past after the team was denied the last two seasons because of the injury problems of Manu Ginobili.

Jefferson has a touch of Ginobili in his game, only he is larger, shoots a higher percentage and rebounds better.

The Artest, Carter and Wallace additions have a high-risk, high-reward hint about them.

Both Artest and Wallace are combustible sorts with strong personalities. The first time both players are heard grumbling about the officiating or the quality of the X’s and O’s, will they cause a fissure in the team ranks? Or have Artest and Wallace been through enough that they are willing to acquiesce to the forces around them?

The latter has a better chance of happening in Los Angeles than in Boston, where the emotions of Kevin Garnett and Wallace could add up to ballistics galore.

By acquiring Carter, the Magic elected not to re-sign Hedo Turkoglu, the driving force behind the team’s run to the NBA Finals last month.

Turkoglu may lack Carter’s ability to dominate a game, but he meshed perfectly with Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis as a pass-first point forward. Carter has no such proclivity.

If there is an offseason winner - and not to forget Allen Iverson, who is still seeking a home - the nod goes to the Spurs.

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