Why Shaq Shouldn’t Start

July 26th, 2009 by John Krolik

(HT on Pic: AV Club)

Since the Shaq trade occurred, I’ve alluded to the fact I don’t think he should start a few times. Due to breaking moves around the league and my responsibilties as a citizen to the American Justice system, I haven’t had the time to fully spell out all the reasons why I believe Shaq would serve the team better off the bench.

Well, now I do. So here, in no particular order, are my reasons why Shaq should come off the bench for this team after coming off the bench 9 times in the first 1,117 games of his career.

To Be Clear:

This has nothing to do with how good I think Shaq is. If he has the year he had last year this year, it would be the best statistical season of anyone alongside LeBron James. In a vacuum, Shaq represents a massive upgrade over anyone on our frontline. This isn’t a question of whether we should get Shaq, or whether he should get big minutes. We have him, and he’s going to get big minutes, as well he should. This is all about how those minutes should be allocated.

Anderson Varejao Should Definitely Start For This Team, and Shaq Can’t Play With Varejao.

For almost his entire career, Anderson Varejao has been characterized as an “energy guy.” Since energy guys generally come off the bench, the Cavs fell into the trap of thinking that Andy was better suited as a 6th man, even though he was playing in crunch time and was clearly the best 4 on the team for several years.

Fortunately, the Cavs had enough depth at the four in previous years to get away with bringing a starter off the bench. The eminently serviceable Drew Gooden was the “show” starter for a few years, and last year the Cavs had the good fortune of a revival year from Ben Wallace, who actually played fantastically in the starting lineup doing many of the same things as Anderson. (He actually was having a quietly great year until a broken tibia stopped him.)

But once Anderson got into the starting lineup, it was clear that he belongs there long-term, and he was rewarded with starter money this off-season. Andy’s different from most “energy” players because of how well he understands his limitations and plays with intelligence as well as energy. It’s his rotations and hard shows that form the backbone of Mike Brown’s defense, which is absolutely something that has to be established by the starters. He’s also great offensively in the starting lineup; when he’s out there with 4 players as skilled as LeBron, Mo, Delonte, and Z, all of whom are good passers and shooters, he’s free to do what he does extremely well offensively; move without the ball to get layup opportunities and convert inside.

Off the bench, Anderson’s defensive prowess would be wasted on weaker offensive units, and he’s only as good offensively as the players around him.

And if Anderson and Shaq are out there at the same time, the fact that neither of them can stretch the floor at all is a recipe for disaster offensively. Andy’s a 35% jump shooter, and with his slow, awkward release he doesn’t project to get much better as a shooter. And Shaq is Shaq. Andy will hit that jumper every now and again, and some ball movement could make things passable, but smart defenses are going to be able to dare the Cavs to beat them with an Andy jumper. Over time, that’s a losing proposition.

If Anderson doesn’t start, there isn’t another starting-quality power forward currently on the roster.

JJ Hickson has tons of potential, but is still unproven and coming off a major injury. Ben Wallace is gone. Joe Smith is gone. Darnell Jackson and Jawad Williams don’t have what it takes. The backup 4 situation looks like it’s going to get solved with a lot of small-ball, but…

You can’t start with small-ball.

Small-ball during games, with LeBron and/or Jemario Moon guarding a 4 they feel comfortable marking? Great. When you dictate the move, it works beautifully. But when you let opposing coaches game-plan to beat up Moon (who hasn’t played significant time at the 4 before) or James (who can’t pick up fouls) by ISOing big 4s against them to start off, you can have serious problems.

Z is perfectly suited to start alongside Bron and Andy.

(By the way: Z hasn’t come off the bench since the 01-02 season)

Just as Andy is one of the few power forwards who is quick enough to defend on the perimeter and rotate back defensively while being an excellent finisher inside offensively, Z is unique in that his skills are guarding the rim defensively and stretching the floor offensively. Z has soft hands and can catch and finish inside, and is a surprisingly good playmaker working out of the high post, but his real offensive strength is that he can stretch the floor at the center position and doesn’t do dumb things with the ball, which is extremely rare from a player who defends the rim.

Z is also a guy who benefits tremendously from playing with LeBron; Z has no post game whatsoever, and once he catches the ball he’s not much of an improvisor-he’s gotta play with people that know how to find him when he’s open, and people that can get him open. Like Andy, Z is a guy with a impressive but limited skill-set that’s best utilized in the current Cavalier starting lineup.

Start With Defense, Finish With Offense.

At the beginning of a game, teams are looking to establish their offensive balance-lots of movement, everyone getting involved, looking to implement their will, tempo and tone to start the game off. It’s important to start off with a solid defensive unit that goes 5 deep and doesn’t give up easy looks or mismatches. As Anderson is the Cavs’ most consistent team defender, the starting lineup is suited for him.

In crunch-time, it’s going to be the other team’s money player going pick-and-roll or ISO. You can afford a mismatch, because no coach is going to risk taking a key possession out of his best player’s hands. In crunch-time, Cleveland can go with Shaq, LeBron, and 3 shooters to stretch the floor, because Jemario isn’t going to get posted up by Michael Beasley-the ball’s going to be in Wade’s hands anyways.

Shaq will do absolute wonders for the 2nd Unit offensively.

Basic rule: you always want to have a player who commands the attention of multiple defenders on the floor. If you don’t have that, it’s hard to get anything sort of run going offensively. Common sense.

Mo Williams, for all his gifts, is not a guy who can consistently get into the paint and collapse defenses, and neither is Delonte West. They’re guys who do much better work out of catch-and-shoot situations or penetrating against a defense already in react mode-when asked to create a play themselves, most of the time you get a pull-up midrange jumper. Last year, the 2nd unit was ugly, and let defenses play everyone straight-up without ever having to go into react mode-if the jumpers weren’t falling, there was going to be an offensive lull.

Shaq can put defenses into react mode. If you try to single-cover Shaq in the post, you’re going to get beat. You’ve got to bring a second defender, and that’s when the floor can get unbalanced and Mo, Delonte, and everyone else can really go to work. He’s someone you can reliably go to to end an offensive drought, which is absolutely massive for the second unit. The gap from 0 playmakers to 1 playmaker is a lot bigger than the gap from 1 playmaker to 2.

You want as much consistency as possible in the starting lineup.

I think 65-70 games is a realistic expectation for Shaq this year, especially since the regular season will be de-emphasized somewhat. Changing the starting dynamic every couple of games can get guys out of their routines and rhythms, which can lead to flat-footed starts. Injuries will happen, but you want to keep the starting lineup a constant as much as possible.

Forget the status quo.

Admit it. A lot of the reason this sounds crazy is because you can’t imagine Shaq passing up the big intro every night. The lights off, the mic down, the PA announcer growling “Annnnd at Center…From L.S.U….Number Thirty-Three…Cleveland, WEL-COME…” The roof falls off the place. The first 5 minutes feels like a Roman Exhibition.

But who really cares? First of all, the Second Coming wouldn’t get the ovations that “From St. Vincent-St. Marys…In Akron, Ohio…” gets on a nightly basis. Second, who on this team, or any team, deserves the big ovation more than Z? Third, wouldn’t the love Shaq gets when he enters off the bench get everyone pretty pumped up?

But most importantly, isn’t this the way for Shaq to quiet the backlash that’s come his way? After years of winning the Kobe-Shaq divorce, all of a sudden Kobe’s got a parade and looks like he just might be a team player after all. Meanwhile, Shaq’s gotten bounced in the 1st round, missed the playoffs, and looked increasingly like the real egomaniac of the pair. Shaq wants to prove that he’s team-first once and for all and not The Brand of Shaq first? What better way to do it than this?

I’ve even got a nickname picked out- The Macrowave.  So that’s why I think Shaq shouldn’t start. Lemme know what you guys think.

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