Hollinger's PER Diem: Nov. 18, 2008

So I guess that's why they don't want Shaquille O'Neal playing back-to-backs.

Phoenix's big man looked unusually heavy-legged Monday night in the Suns' 109-97 loss to Utah. He not only finished with only one rebound but also treated us to the unimaginable sight of having three straight shots rejected -- including a point-blank dunk that was snuffed by 6-foot-7 Paul Millsap. Between that and his flagging attempts at defense, it was obvious that the Big Cactus had an empty tank.

However, Monday night was the exception rather than the rule. A big reason for Phoenix's early-season success has been that Shaq has performed far better than expected. He's shooting 59.7 percent from the floor and averaging 22.6 points per 40 minutes, and even with Monday night's one-board effort, his rebound rate is higher than it was at any time in Miami. Perhaps more importantly, he has cut down sharply on the insanely high turnover rate that plagued him a year ago.

As a result, O'Neal's 22.62 player efficiency rating ranks fourth among centers, and he's just a few percentage points out of second. He even has been competent from the free-throw line, hitting 59.7 percent.

Since I've been pretty hard on Suns team president Steve Kerr during the past nine months, we also should note that O'Neal's performance has vastly exceeded that of Miami's Shawn Marion, whose PER of 15.71, though coming in far more minutes, ranks just 15th among small forwards.

The irony is, Phoenix was hoping to change its identity as a result of the trade, but that hasn't really happened. The Suns rank 16th in defensive efficiency, which is right around where they were throughout the Mike D'Antoni era; in fact, the only change is that instead of having the league's best offense, they're now sixth. Also, they're playing the league's 17th-fastest pace, so clearly Terry Porter's plan to put on the brakes has taken effect.

But if we're going to assign blame for Phoenix's inability to hang with the West's elite -- and I still think that will be the outcome this season -- we can no longer start with the O'Neal trade. Don't worry, plenty of other candidates exist, from age to defensive talent to the mysterious pursuit of Goran Dragic (who was scoreless Monday even though he was left wide open the entire time he played, and he sports a 5.39 PER). But Monday night excepted, O'Neal has performed about as well as the Suns could possibly have hoped.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.