EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Shaquille O’Neal is officially a Phoenix Suns skeptic

Feb 7, 2022, 4:50 PM

Shaquille O’Neal has his old guard code. His opinions will remain stuck in the time of his dominant playing days and sometimes get dismantled by his more modern TNT counterparts.

That said, sometimes he has a point even if he can’t explain it.

His opinion of this year’s Phoenix Suns team might be the latter, though the Suns themselves surely can use it as motivational material if it’s taken as the former. Throughout the year on his TNT broadcasts, O’Neal has been apprehensive at best when discussing Phoenix’s title chances.

O’Neal stuck with that stance this week.

Speaking about who the struggling Los Angeles Lakers (26-28) would want to face in the playoffs, O’Neal on The Big Podcast named Phoenix as a favorable target.

“They ain’t got nobody that scares you,” O’Neal said. “Listen, Phoenix is like Utah to me. Got a lot of good players, but some of those players can be punked now … I’m just saying.”

While O’Neal put it clumsily, there’s precedent for the Suns swimming uphill despite their NBA-leading record and 2021 NBA Finals appearance acting as evidence they are championship favorites in the Western Conference.

For one, the Golden State Warriors have an edge in the season series with Phoenix. Golden State also has a higher-profile player in Stephen Curry and championship blood on the roster.

Beyond that though, there’s historical precedent that the Suns are fighting. The Athletic’s John Hollinger laid that out well in a story from last week. He highlighted why this Phoenix team just might be able to show that the perception held by O’Neal and other more apprehensive basketball observers will only be wrong if the Suns are an anomaly.

Not that the Suns aren’t without stars — Chris Paul is going to stroll into Springfield the second he’s eligible, and Devin Booker is an absolutely lethal scorer.

But if you make a list of the top 10 players in the league, there probably aren’t any Suns on it. And for a top-tier contender, that makes them an anomaly. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a team win the championship without That Dude as the centerpiece.

The last 10 NBA champions, for instance, had either Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James on their roster. Steph and Giannis are angling to make it 11.

This is not a new trend either. Add just five more players — Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon — and you can account for all but three champions since 1990.

Hollinger pointed to the 1989-90 Detroit Pistons, 2004 Pistons and 2014 San Antonio Spurs as those three teams that didn’t have an all-world-caliber player who won the NBA championship.

So yeah, there is evidence to do a better job than O’Neal at casting doubt about Phoenix’s status as title contender. It’s for sure fair.

Again, it sure looks like the Warriors will have a say in the conference, if other teams don’t improve and join them by the end of the regular season. The Suns themselves know that making it back to a Finals series won’t be easy, nor will that success or failure solely be used to judge how good this year’s team is.

O’Neal’s not all correct in being apprehensive about the Suns. Where exactly is there evidence of anyone punking this team over the past two seasons?

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