Know thy enemy: Phoenix Suns
Phoenix Suns (55-27, 6th Western conference, 2nd Pacific)
Key additions: Matt Barnes, Goran Gragic, Robin Lopez
Key losses: Gordan Giricek ... um, Eric Piatkowski count?
Like blues icon Robert Johnson, Bone Thugs N Harmony, and thespian Britney Spears, the Phoenix Suns are all about the crossroads this season. New Coach Terry Porter is installing a more traditional system and abandoning the franchise-reinvigorating "seven seconds or less" style of Mike D'Antoni (now in New York, where he truly may learn the meaning of "fun" -- as in "no" -- and "gun" -- as in "one will be jammed in his mouth by March"). Gone are the days of small ball, three balls bombed 24/7 and Shawn Marion resenting Amare Stoudemire. Now it's about establishing a defensive identity, making the most out of a roster with a sizable mix of unproven youngsters and injury-prone vets (the elephant in the room -- literally and metaphorically -- among the latter contingent being Shaquille O'Neal, acquired last season in a blockbuster deal that paid few dividends) and taking one last shot at the brass ring before the whole thing likely needs to get blown up.
As anyone who remembers my incredulously confused reaction will attest, I thought the deal for Shaq was not only illogical on a head-spinning level (he's gonna improve the defense how, exactly?), but one that would leave Phoenix in considerably worse shape both during last season's playoffs (check) and this coming season (jury is out). "Phoenix Stan," blogger in chief of the excellent Bright Side of the Sun also didn't dig the Suns switching to diesel fuel, but he has considerably more confidence in his team than yours truly. For some local perspective, check out his thoughts on a few questions.
From minute one, I thought the Shaq trade was a mistake that smacked of panicked desperation. Clearly, it didn't pay immediate dividends, as he didn't elevate the team's play and they were eliminated more quickly by the Spurs during the playoffs than in 2007. Steve Kerr has maintained that meshing Shaq into the mix isn't easy and would bear more fruit with time passed. I think time passed only leads to it getting worse, similar to Shaq's durability and play. What are your thoughts?
- Phoenix Stan: Bright Side of the Sun - From the first text alert I received while in line picking up Chinese food, I thought it was the worst idea ever. Sometimes first impressions are right. Shaq is a clear liability on defense and while he did manage to increase team rebounding markedly last season that could have been done in other ways. Less costly, disruptive and less embarrassing ways. What has changed since February 7th (a.k.a, Black Wednesday) is who I blame. The trade for Shaq happened because D'Antoni was too stubborn. He had finally realized that trying to compete with Amare at the five wasn't working. He needed to improve the inside presence and was willing to slow the team speed to do it. What he wasn't willing to do was sacrifice his ideology of the score.
D'Antoni (still) believes that the way to win a basketball game is by scoring more points than the opponent. That sounds sweet and all, but like freedom and democracy in the Middle East, it ignores certain aspects of conventional wisdom that are also sometimes known as reality. D'Antoni was unwilling to play a lesser skilled big man who he considered an offensive liability. His system requires not so much blazing speed but unstoppable firepower. He would not tolerate playing anyone who wasn't a legit threat. Even Kurt Thomas, who can shoot the ball, had a career low in minutes per game under the D'Antoni regime. He didn't demand the double in the post, and he couldn't shoot the 3. He was an offensive liability and didn't play. Instead of finding away to get a lower-priced (younger and less crazy) big man to play defense and rebound he forced the team's hand into gambling on the legend that once was MVP Shaq. Kerr and Sarver bought off on it, but it was D'Antoni's stubbornness that made it happen.
How big of an impact will Terry Porter make as the new coach? He's preached defense and the preseason has actually seen Phoenix surrendering fewer points. But there's also a reason it's called "the preseason," because games don't matter. Do you think this team is capable of changing their "no D" image over the course of an entire season (or in the case of certain players -- Shaq, Amare)? And with that mission in mind, how much will Shawn Marion be missed? Could a guy like Matt Barnes help?
- I don't understand when ESPN's Chad Ford and others say the Suns don't have the players to be a good defensive team. Look at the Spurs. Is Parker or Finely or Ginobili any more defensively gifted then Nash, Diaw or Amare? Defense is about coaching emphasis, accountability and a consistent system. I see absolutely no reason that the Suns can't adjust to that. This is not a team of Cory Maggette's and Eddie Curry's. These guys want to win and even Shaq knows that they have to improve on the defensive end.
Amare is the most misunderstood player of all when it comes to defense. This is a guy who was undersized for his position for four years and simply did not get the kind of coaching he needed. I wrote an entire piece on this recently. Amare at the four will be great. He will benefit from consistent coaching and a reliable and steady system playing against guys his size. He won't have to try and adjust on the fly every night or be asked box out the likes of Andrew Bogut or Brandon Haywood. He also won't get away with giving a half-assed effort on that end of the floor either.
Sure Marion will be missed. You don't replace a guy like that. But again, under the old system he was told to go out and singlehandedly be the defensive stopper. It was team offense and isolation defense. It didn't work. With Barnes now being named as a starter, the Suns will have their two best individual defenders at the 2 and 3 matching up against most team's top scorers. Amare will be able to roam and get weak side blocks and Lopez will guard the rim. Nash and Shaq are still sub-par, but no team has five great defenders on the floor at once. If the rotations are established and consistently coached the Suns will be a good defensive team. Key word is team.
On the flip side, with "7 Seconds or Less" now a thing of the past, what should we expect from the Phoenix offense?
- Think Detroit Basketball with better low post scoring. The Suns will work the clock only running off defensive stops and the offense will have far more isolation for Amare (the most efficient threat in the game) and will otherwise feature off-the-ball motion and cuts. The ball handler will be still while his teammates cut, screen and create mismatches and the occasional open look. On the perimeter, the Suns have several guys who can hit cutters. Hill, Barnes, Bell, Tucker along with Nash and Dragic of course. What you won't see is near the number of pick and rolls or Nash driving baseline creating for his teammates. And of course you won't see a Phoenix basketball team play rope-a-dope by allowing the other team to score quickly just so they could run the ball up the floor even faster. It was a fun gimmick but sometimes there's a reason things are the way they are.
In my opinion, Mike D'Antoni's biggest weakness as a coach wasn't his run n' gun style or defensive outlook (if you consider opposing FG%, an argument could be made that Phoenix was underrated), but his insistence on a very short rotation. It kept Phoenix from developing young players (not that they had many, since they kept trading draft picks) and wore down his core guys. Will Porter do a better job and who do you see contributing with a longer bench?
- The short bench was definitely part of D'Antoni's downfall, but I still think that stemmed from his instance on only playing guys that could score. He just wouldn't tolerate not having five threats on the floor at all times. That's too much to ask of any 9- or 10-man rotation. Porter and Kerr understand that you have to balance offense and defense and that you need to be able to win some games by holding the other team to 17 points in a quarter.
One of the Suns strengths this year is the bench. Porter said he will go at least nine deep and easily has the horses to go 10 or even 11. It's hard to play 10 guys in a game, but there are some solid options. In fact if everyone is healthy, it will be a tough job to manage the minutes. Behind the starting five (Nash, Bell, Amare, Shaq and Barnes) you have three immediate guys that are all legit NBA starters (Hill, Barbosa and Diaw) and then you have the two rookies (Dragic and Lopez) who are going to be needed to back up Nash and Shaq. Don't be surprised either if you see a line-up with no true point guard. Something like Hill, Diaw, Amare, Barbosa and Shaq (or Lopez). Porter has already said that Barnes might run the point at times as well. There's a lot of flexibility there especially to go big.
Then going even deeper, you have Alando Tucker, who I think will surprise some people this year. He's as good as any two guard in the paint, and his shooting off screens is impressive. He defends and handles the ball for his size, and his decision making and maturity are clearly evident. He plays like a vet. I hope he gets a solid chance this year to show what he can do, but it will likely only come if someone goes down. That just leaves Amundson and Singletary riding the pine. Both are decent bench guys that bring energy and hustle. This is the deepest Suns team in a long time and easily as deep as any other team in the West.
Amare, Barbosa and Diaw -- who has never played well for anybody but D'Antoni - may still be on the good side of 30, but Phoenix's other mainstay players (Nash, Shaq, Grant Hill, Raja Bell) have crossed that line and have injury issues. How concerned are you about them remaining healthy and bench players being able to step up in their absence, should they get hurt?
- You can't worry too much about injuries. If Kobe, Duncan or Paul go down, their teams will suffer too. There's certain guys you just can't replace. For the Suns, that's Amare and Nash. Nash is certainly getting older, but he's in great shape and with reduced minutes and a reduced burden to create every shot he should be fine. Amare is a beast and is no more or less prone to injury then any other player. His knees are great, and he's well rested for this season. Now with his safety glasses he's cleared to fire. The biggest concern is Shaq. It is highly unlikely he will play more than 60 games and that leaves the Suns having to start Robin Lopez. Lopez is impressive, but he's a rookie and will struggle. Even more troublesome is that when Shaq goes down, there isn't a third-string center. Either Amare or Diaw will have to move over or the 6'9" Amundson will be called on to fill in as the backup. I have been pushing all summer for the Suns to either trade Barbosa for a very solid backup center or at least sign a guy like Steven Hill instead of third- string point guard Sean Singletary. The Suns biggest weakness is at center. I do not want to see Amare and Diaw on the floor together playing the four and five, but my guess is we will.
As you've likely guessed from my questions, I have my doubts about the Suns and see them as a slipping "power." How do you envision their season shaking out?
- Most Suns fans are looking forward to the freedom of being underdogs. After years of sky-high expectations, it's actually a bit of a relief. I think the team will start slow and get a bit behind in the standings. From there, it's hard to see how they make up enough ground to pass L.A., Utah, New Orleans, San Antonio or Houston. The leaves the Suns fighting with Dallas, Denver and Portland for the 6 or 7 seed. On the other hand, there's something about this team that has me excited. It wouldn't take much more than a few injuries and some solid play to pass either San Antonio or Houston and end up in the fourth or fifth spot. This team has too much talent to miss the playoffs and not enough to reach the top again. At least not in the West.
I am not going to make a prediction for what happens come April, but I certainly won't be shocked if the team gels late and can go as deep as the conference finals. I look at this collection of talent and mix of youth and experience, and you put that together with a solid coaching job by Porter and you just never know. But that's fine, I am good with everyone counting us out. We certainly didn't live up to front-runner status, so maybe we will surprise some people as underdogs.
Good stuff. I'm not signing off on everything Phoenix Stan says. For example, I don't think Amare's problems playing D had as much to do with the players he was guarding as a lack of interest in guarding anyone. But he lays out some well-constructed opinions. Unfortunately for him (and Suns fans in general), they strike me as very "best-case scenario" dependent. Between the age/health/"fuel in the tank" issues for a handful of principal players and the general growing pains that come with implementing a new system, there seem to be more ways things could go somewhere between bad to mediocre than good.
Prediction: Gun to my head, they make the playoffs, but I'm guessing not by a huge margin and it wouldn't shock me to see them done in April. Win total in the high 40s and an 8 seed.