All year long and in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Orlando Magic gave the Cleveland Cavaliers trouble because of "matchup problems." Of course, "matchup problems" was a fancy way to say the Cavs couldn't guard Dwight Howard.
After Thursday night's blockbuster deal that sent Shaquille O'Neal to Cleveland for a bunch of scraps, the Cavs are hoping that matchup problem no longer exists.
On paper, it’s genius. Shaq is 7-1 and weighs significantly more than 300 pounds. Dwight's biggest problems come against big, strong defenders who use their strength to keep Howard away from the rim. The league's premier Dwight stopper, Kendrick Perkins, is listed at 280 pounds (and likely weighs more than that). Yao Ming - another defender who gives Howard a lot of trouble - is known for his unworldly height, but it's his strength that makes him a truly great post defender.
The Cavs are hoping Shaq’s size has the same effect.
Shaq will guard Dwight in the post. He’ll help keep Dwight off the offensive boards. He’ll be a low-post threat to make Dwight work on defense and maybe get him a few cheap fouls. He’ll tire Dwight. He’ll annoy Dwight.
This trade was as much about Dwight Howard as it was Shaquille O’Neal.
If not for Howard and the Magic, the Cavs probably would've might’ve won the NBA title. Instead, the Cavs couldn't stop Orlando's offense because neither Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao or Ben Wallace could slow down Howard, and the Cavs were forced to bring a double-team. When that happened, one of Orlando's sharp-shooters was left open.
With Shaq in the mix, will things be different?
Here are Dwight Howard’s numbers against Shaq (two games since 2007) compared with Dwight’s usual numbers. Keep in mind that Dwight’s numbers against Shaq use an incredibly small sample size, so you can’t base any real conclusions off these numbers. With the Shaq-Dwight situation, there aren’t many numbers at our disposal.
Against Shaq, per 36 minutes: 19.8 points, 10.9 rebounds, 1.0 blocks, 61.9 FG%, 12.0 FTA
In East Finals, per 36 minutes: 24.1 points, 12.1 rebounds, 1.1 blocks, 65.0 FG%, 10.5 FTA
This season, per 36 minutes: 20.7 points, 12.6 rebounds, 2.9 blocks, 57.2 FG%, 10.8 FTA
Looking at these numbers, it would seem like the acquisition of Shaq will certainly help the Cavs defend Howard. Like I said, though, this was for from a scientific study - Dwight has only played 69 minutes against Shaq in the last two years.
Furthermore, here’s a look at Howard’s two games against Shaq in the past two seasons:
March 3, 2009: Magic 111, Suns 99Dwight Howard: 21 points, 8 rebounds, 7-14 FG, 7-13 FT, 5 turnovers, 4 fouls
Shaquille O’Neal: 19 points, 11 rebounds, 9-13 FG, 1-3 FT, 4 turnovers, 4 fouls
What happened: Fresh off his “Master of Panic” comments, Shaq earned ire from the Magic and people around the league because of his attempted flop in the third quarter (shown below). It was a desperate attempt to stop Dwight because little else was working. Howard played 30 minutes in this one, again battling some early foul trouble. But Howard was extremely effective in his time on the floor in a physical matchup. All of Howard’s 21 points came with Shaq on the floor.
Check this out from the AP recap:
“With nearly 600 pounds of All-Stars banging on the inside, bodies were flying. On one play in the third quarter Howard backed down O'Neal, sent him to the floor flopping and dunked over the 325-pounder while O'Neal rolled under Rafer Alston and Matt Barnes, wiping them out like bowling pins.
The back-and-forth jostling wasn't just physical. The two were trash-talking throughout, with each turning up the lip -- and the intensity -- after every dunk.
Howard came out in the third with force, scoring eight points before picking up his fourth foul with 3:36 remaining in the period. O'Neal would return the favor, dunking twice in the period to put the Suns ahead 81-78 at the end of the third.
Howard converted a 3-point play on a foul by O'Neal to tie the score at 88 midway through the fourth, putting the thunder-stick pounding home crowd into a frenzy.”
Nov. 24, 2007: Magic 120, Heat 99Dwight Howard: 17 points, 13 rebounds, 6-7 FG, 5-10 FT, 2 turnovers, 2 fouls
Shaquille O’Neal: 20 points, 6 rebounds, 8-15 FG, 4-6 FT, 3 turnovers, 4 fouls
What happened: Shaq scored 10 points in the first five minutes, and a bulk of Howard’s points came with Alonzo Mourning on the floor. This game’s difficult to use for reference, though, as Howard’s offensive game wasn’t as developed as it is now and Shaq was almost two years younger.
And oh yeah, for your viewing pleasure.
My take: Throwing out all of the numbers and propaganda, are the Cavs really counting on a 37-year-old to be the team's savior? Is an aged star - known for his mouth as much as his game these days - really going to take this bewildered team and make it an NBA champion? This move reeks of desperation, and while it's certainly going to receive a lot of attention leading up to the season, I'm not sure how much of a difference it will make on the court. Despite a nice bounce-back campaign this past season, Shaq hasn't averaged more than 31 minutes per game since 2004-05, and he'll likely be capped at 25 minutes per game throughout the season. I don't know that he can consistently guard Howard one-on-one, either. That said, I don't blame the Cavs for making the deal. They gave up nothing - absolutely nothing - to get a big expiring contract and a better big man than is currently on their roster. I don't blame the Cavs for making the deal; I just don't know if it will make that much of a difference.