While the majority of the trades from a fairly calm NBA trade deadline were executed with 2009-10 and beyond in mind, many fans were left thinking about the "what ifs?" had some of the rumors with potentially significant impact on this season's playoffs gone through. One such rumor involved the sport's biggest personality and one of its best teams. The move would send Shaquille O’Neal from Phoenix to Cleveland for Sasha Pavlovic and Ben Wallace. What if Shaq played with the LeBron? Could the Cavs lockup the East's top seed and the NBA's best record? Would they be favored against the Celtics or Lakers in a playoff series? Are they any different than before?
Fortunately, we live for the "what ifs" and can answer all of those questions. Using our NBA simulation technology, we were able to determine that the Cavs would increase their expected record by four wins from 62-20 to 66-16, which would put the Cavs about even with our projection for a healthy Boston Celtics squad (65-17) and a couple games ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers (64-18) for the league's best record. Over that span, Cleveland outscores its opponents 102.8 to 92.0, improving its already league-leading average margin of victory (10.0 ppg) to 10.8 ppg.
That being said, Cleveland's chances in a seven-game series versus the Celtics would not change much – increasing from winning 44.1% of the series to 44.7% if Boston has homecourt and from 49.0% to 49.8% if the Cavs earn homecourt (whether they have homecourt does go up from about 40% to almost exactly 50% likely, so the overall chance of winning against Boston would go from 46.1% to 47.3%). Any long-term effects of an injury to Kevin Garnett or any other player presently assumed to be healthy could obviously have a sizeable impact on the actual results.
Since we can assume that Cleveland would have homecourt for any Finals series, if they were to get past Boston (and all other East contenders), Cleveland would improve from having a slight 50.9% likelihood of winning a championship over the Lakers to a much more impressive 54.7%. In general, against the other West playoff teams, the Cavs would go from a 57.4% Finals favorite to 60.6% likely to bring home a ring.
To reach these conclusions, we utilized our free NBA simulation technology to simulate through the rest of the season and various playoff scenarios with the Cleveland Cavaliers roster as currently constructed and with Shaq in place of Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic. Each scenario was run 10,000 times to come up with the probabilities and expected outcomes seen above.
Some Potential Pitfalls (in the Trade and Analysis)
Despite the improvement there are some concerns that come through in the analysis. The loss of Sasha Pavlovic (even when fully healthy – appears to be out 4-6 weeks) may actually be addition by subtraction for a team now rich in shooters and focused on defense, but losing Ben Wallace puts a strain on the Cavaliers frontcourt.
Our analysis on a player's abilities to play and guard specific positions confirms what most NBA fans could probably guess: Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Shaquille O'Neal cannot play together effectively. Because there are so few "true centers" is very rare to find any player in the modern NBA would, in our system, is 100% effective at center and not power forward. Shaq and Big Z are two of those guys. Neither has been rated above 95% effective at power forward in his entire career. Playing both for about 24 minutes a game to keep them fresh through the playoffs and ensure a true center on the court at all times may sound like a good plan, but it leaves a big hole at power forward, especially on the defensive end.
He may not play as many minutes as he use to so his per game numbers are not as gaudy, but Ben Wallace is still a very good defender. The best compliment that I can give him for this season is that Wallace consistently makes his specific opponent as efficient on offense as he is. Further acknowledging what most NBA fans already know, Wallace is not a very efficient offensive player. In 2008-09, Cavs opponents are scoring 9.3 less points per 100 possessions when Wallace is on the floor as opposed to when he is off it, meaning that he is one of the biggest reasons for Cleveland’s exception defense this season.
Anderson Varejao and J.J. Hickson would be forced to play and defend the power forward spot almost exclusively. Relying on that tandem is daunting. The simulations assume that both players finish the rest of the season at a similar level to how they have played thus far, but that may be unrealistic. Varejao has only played in 55 games or more once in his five year career and he just played in game 52 of this season. He is an average defensive player who the numbers suggest struggles more against power forwards than centers. Hickson is a rookie with great upside and offensive ability, but who has not played much power forward this year, is not a good defensive player (opponents score 12.3 more points per 100 possessions with him on the court) and could easily see his efficiency decrease with more minutes and more games in his first season.
And then there is Shaq. O'Neal is having a great season that few expected. The simulation utilizes this year's statistics only so it is his contribution to the team's offensive efficiency as the Cavs’ third scoring option (along with Ilgauskas as they never appear on the court at the same time) from the interior that really drives the four-game increase in wins. Essentially, with Big Z and Shaq, the team gets a capable scorer on the floor in the paint that also helps to free up shooters and let LeBron room at all times. But can Shaq stay effective throughout the playoffs? At 36 and still carrying well over 300 pounds, O'Neal has already played 1395 minutes. His average over the last three years is just 1563. There is enough ample evidence to suggest that he could not maintain his health of this level of play for the rest of the year and through a deep playoff run.
Would it have been a good move for the Cavs? We say yes – more likely than not – if winning more games this year is the goal. But, it would not significantly alter the team’s chances of defeating the Celtics in the playoffs and it would be a risky proposition to put so much pressure on the fragile/rookie power forward tandem and the platoon of two 33+ year-old centers. Financially, all three players have two years left on their deals and none of them would likely be re-signed, so it's mostly a wash. Shaq probably means a little more to Phoenix in terms of ticket sales, merchandise, etc., but his presence also causes a few headaches including agitating the franchise power forward.
The Phoenix Suns
We did not focus on the Suns here, but it is difficult to see where they would benefit from the deal. Pavlovic could be a good tool as a long, athletic shooter for the team's re-instituted running style. And, though Wallace is still clearly better suited to run than Shaq, he is a defense-first player who would be going to a team that just gave up on defense altogether. I think it could work if Wallace was not run into the ground and Robin Lopez (see concerns about J.J. Hickson) and Louis Amundson could maintain their development as bigs.
Paul Bessire is the Senior Quantitative Analyst and Content Manager for WhatIfSports.com. With any comments, questions or topic suggestions, Paul can be reached at BtB@whatifsports.com. Thanks!