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Lion's Share of Blame In Desert Not Shaq's

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Shaquille O'Neal will miss the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season this year, and he won't be surprised if he gets the blame for that.  He doesn't deserve it.

Perhaps this was merely more big talk from a fellow who enjoys being the center of attention, but the Big Cactus made that expectation clear to the Arizona Republic's Paul Coro over the last week and a half in saying the following:

"Of course, when it's all said and done, I'll get the blame," O'Neal said. "I accept that. I never run from that. I understand that."

It goes without saying that Shaq isn't the player he once was.  Coro notes that the center even admits to being a beneficiary of playing on good defensive teams through his career rather than being a defensive stud (a bit modest in my view), and he has no doubt lost a step by this point in his career.

But none of that should cancel out the revival season O'Neal has had or absolve the many more responsible culprits of their mistakes in Phoenix.

Shaq isn't the one who made the decision to blow up a 58-win-per-season run-and-gun team in the middle of last year to bring in a $20 million-per-year center battling injury issues and age decline.  Steve Kerr and to some extent Mike D'Antoni took care of that.

Shaq didn't replace D'Antoni with a coach who would not only fail to get the team's respect but would manage to strike the middle road on the issue of playing deliberate defensive basketball or run-and-gun offense.  Instead, the new coach slowed the tempo but didn't actually make the defense any better.  Worst of both worlds.  Kerr and Terry Porter get the onus there.

Speaking of not earning the respect of the players, that's a two-way street.  By all accounts, the players didn't necessarily make the effort.  Amare Stoudemire was vocal throughout the early portion of the season about how unhappy he was playing for Porter, and as Phoenix Stan notes at Bright Side of the Sun, Steve Nash has really never stopped pining for the way things were in previous years.  Raja Bell didn't much like it either and saw his value to the team decrease to the point that Kerr felt it necessary to make a move for Jason Richardson that seemed to counter the defense-oriented direction he had been stressing for his team.

It was Kerr who scrapped that slow-it-down plan by midseason in giving the coaching reins to Alvin Gentry, who promptly rolled the ball out and let the team fling away.  To finish the Kerr part of all this with some brevity, he hasn't been able to decide on and stick to a plan during his time in Phoenix.  This is a problem.

Meanwhile, Stoudemire got hurt.  That isn't a fault of his, but it's one more factor that made this a more difficult season for the Suns.  Led by Nash, several members of this team didn't defend at all.  Finally, no matter which side of the "Is Robert Sarver that cheap?" debate one falls (Phoenix Stan made an interesting case for "no" in a recent fanshot at BSotS and in our pregame podcast earlier this season), it's hard to argue that the owner's constant meddling with the front office, coaching staff and players has been anything but trouble for this team (see Johnny Ludden's great midseason column about this for details).

Shaq isn't flawless by any stretch of the imagination (the public flirtation with Mark Cuban's Mavs wasn't necessary), but while all that was going on, he had himself a revival season.  He arrived in camp this year fresh off the two least productive seasons of his career and a slew of injuries that had allowed the rise of speculation that the then-36-year-old was finished or close to it.

That proved far from the truth.  While still not his former self, O'Neal has put on a fine performance in the season he crossed his 37th birthday.  He has played effective low-block basketball, establishing position to make catches deep in the post and finishing dunks, lay-ins and even the occasional floater with abandon.  He not only returned to his old levels of efficiency, he bested them.  Shaq has posted his 17.8 points per game on 60.8 percent field goal shooting, second in the league and the best figure of his career.  His 60.3 free throw shooting, while still nothing to brag about, ranks second for his career, and his 62.4 percent true shooting is a career high.  His 8.5 rebounds per game qualifies as respectable as well.

Shaq has remained healthy through most of the season, playing more than 70 games for only the second time since 2001.  For all the talk that he would slow the Suns' offense down to the point of inefficacy, the team rose back to second in offensive efficiency for the season once Alvin Gentry picked the pace up.  He came to work nearly every day, made efforts to mentor rookie Robin Lopez (albeit occasionally with some tough love), acted like he cared about what happened to this team and earned himself an All-Star berth with his level of play. 

O'Neal has the status and the pay check to merits a higher standard of expectations than many others around the team.  But while he hasn't been perfect - his defense is still a step slow, and he clearly can't dominate like he used to - he has exceeded expectations this year.  The defensive issues in Phoenix run across the board, and Shaq is far from the biggest problem.

The Big Cactus did what he was asked to do this season, but others in Phoenix could not do what they were supposed to do.  Shaq has earned far less than the majority of the blame in the Valley of the Sun.

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