By Wes Lilliman
Head Coach: Alvin Gentry
PG – Steve Nash
SG – Jason Richardson
SF – Grant Hill
PF – Hedo Turkoglu
C – Robin Lopez
G – Goran Dragic
F – Josh Childress
F – Jared Dudley
F – Hakim Warrick
F/C – Channing Frye
They were SO CLOSE.
Last year, Phoenix stormed into the Western Conference Finals with that sort of spooky momentum. Everything was clicking. Their star players were playing at a high level, role players were doing exactly what they needed to do, the bench was providing more than adequate support, and it was all coming together so smoothly. They ran right through their longtime nemesis (the Spurs) and, despite being flat-out physically outmatched, they truly believed they could roll into L.A. and take out the defending champs.
And they damn near did, but a few things happened here and there, Ron Artest provided some heroics, and it was all over.
It was a little sad to probably anybody other than fans of the Lakers. Phoenix sort of became the underdog to cheer for as the playoffs moved on. They had a great combination of mostly-likeable players and an up-tempo, exciting style of play that could attract even non-basketball fans for a look or two. Going into this summer, it was hoped that they could keep it together for another run.
Well, they didn’t.
That’s not to say that they won’t still have an exciting team that plays in a similar fashion. They did retain most of last year’s team… only problem being that AMAR’E STOUDAMIRE was one of the guys they lost.
There goes one of the best pick-and-roll combos in the league. Say goodbye to the constant threat of a 6’11”, mega-athlete flying down the lane and jackhammering the Spalding down on damn-near everyone. For all of the flaws Stoudamire had (namely on the defensive end), he was/is the type of guy that changes a team’s post game and is a bit of a headache in the matchup department for most teams.
He’s only one player (they also shipped off Leandro Barbosa – valuable in his own way), but man, what a massive player to lose. It starts to hurt a little more when you look at the guys that the Suns brought in to fill the void:
Hedo Turkoglu. Hakim Warrick. Josh Childress.
As far as I’m concerned, a team’s likeability factor takes a huge hit when they choose to employ that son of a bitch named Hedo (for more on my “Hedo hatred,” check out the “Toronto Raptors preview”). However, I’ll try and keep it objective.
The main problem is that, in this case, it’s just really difficult to replace the departed. Turkoglu’s main skill is being able to shoot, and that’s not really what the Suns need more of (especially from your starting power forward, if that’s where he lands). On top of that, he’s even worse than Amar’e when it comes to defense and rebounding, and he’s nowhere near the physical presence. So, with him as your 4, the floor gets spread even more and allows a team like the Lakers to dominate inside in an even more impactful manner than they did last year. Finally, Steve Nash’s abilities as a motivator will be put to the test yet again, because Hedo will quit on you in an instant unless you give him two things:
2) As he would say, “BALL.”
Warrick isn’t much better, although they’re much more likely to resemble the Suns that you know when he’s in the lineup. He’s an athletic, slender big who can fly around and run, and he might be able to help approximate some variation of the pick and roll game that worked so well for the team. But realistically, Warrick has never been a go-to-guy in the league (averaging about 10 points and 4 rebounds over the course of 5 years), so he’d have to take some gigantic leap in order for him to approach the type of contribution Stoudamire gave.
At least they have a legitimate center in Robin Lopez, who is coming along nicely and should continue to improve. Lopez showed a lot of promise in the L.A. series and is the anti-Phoenix type who rebounds and defends well in the middle. They’re obviously slower with him in there, but he’s a vital guy to have on the court when teams try to counter the Suns’ high-octane approach with various behemoths. You can also throw Channing Frye in that slot, although he basically does nothing but spot up from beyond the arc and doesn’t really add much else at this point.
Now, let’s talk about what Phoenix does have: potential small forwards. There are a ton of guys who can play the position. Grant Hill, Jared Dudley, and all three of the aforementioned new additions can do it. For you high schoolers out there, you might expect to see the following question on the S.A.T.:
“‘Luther Vandross in his musical prime’ is to ‘calories’ AS ‘the 2010-11 Phoenix Suns’ ARE TO ‘______________'”
The correct answer is “small forwards.” A similar analogy could utilize “the Minnesota Timberwolves” and “point guards,” or “the Denver Nuggets” and “idiots,” but I digress…
The reanimated Grant Hill should once again get the starting slot and provide his all-around abilities (provided whatever healing potion he’s discovered doesn’t run out and send him back to his broken-down state that he spent so much of his early career in). Childress will probably spend most of his time here, as well, and he’ll bring his combination of decent scoring and good decision-making on both ends of the floor, along with two valuable years of experience playing in Greece (it never hurts). Plus, you have the returning Jared Dudley, who can actually play multiple positions and is unquestionably a crowd favorite in Phoenix. He’s also a great energy guy off the bench who is all heart and effort. Just imagine if he could give just a little bit of that to Turkoglu.
The rest of the backcourt is obviously anchored by Nash, who continues to age and continues to show little signs of doing so. The Suns also have the emerging Goran Dragic to take pressure off Nash and allow him to rest. Dragic showed he could shine in the playoffs, and at 24 years-old, fans have a lot to be excited about as it pertains to the future. Jason Richardson is also back as the starting shooting guard. Richardson is the type of player I like for many reasons: tough, gritty, fearless, and a gamer. The problem with J-Rich is that he has some off nights, and that presents a more complicated problem for the Suns because there’s no established backup at the position. It’s likely that Dragic, Childress, and possibly a few others will rotate over to the spot when Richardson is off or needs rest.
Gani Lawal of Georgia Tech was Phoenix’s top acquisition in the draft, and while I happen to believe that he could develop into a very solid pro, we’re at least three or four years away from that. He might grab a few minutes here and there, but don’t expect to see him that much.
So… the run-and-gun is still alive, bu
t it’s set to take a hit. There’s no doubt that this team will continue to put up points, but there’s even less doubt that teams will be able to put numbers up on them in return. This year, the league’s featured sprinter is, unfortunately, about to lose a step or two.
IF THEY GET LUCKY: Something works out at power forward, and Nash wills the team to another dynamic playoff performance. This would require Alvin Gentry to find the perfect mix of small ball and a more methodical style that employs more of Lopez and a halfcourt offense (not likely).
IF THEY DON’T: The Suns feel the impact of Amar’e’s departure in a huge way, and the void lingers over the team all year long. Additionally, the offseason additions actually subtract from the team’s energy (I’m looking at you Hedo), and age finally catches up with Nash (and takes Hill along with, for good measure).
REALITY: This is likely the season where we see the Suns start to really fade away. Key components are aging, and their chemistry/balance is about to take a big hit. The West is full of teams that are playoff hunting, and it’s very possible that this could be a year where we don’t see a Phoenix team in the postseason. However, I’m giving Gentry and Nash the benefit of the doubt and saying that they’ll somehow find a way to sneak into the postseason after accumulating somewhere around 46 wins. I don’t expect much more than that.
(SUNS BONUS) GORAN DRAGIC PUTS THE DAGGER IN THE HEART OF THE SPURS.
While Goran Dragic was a contributor for the majority of the last year, until the playoffs, you probably best knew him for this:
However, Dragic shrugged that off and provided what was arguably the best moment of the playoffs last year. In San Antonio for Game 3 of their semi-final series, the Suns were in another dog-fight going into the 4th quarter.
Enter Dragic. His 23-points in the quarter and one-man breakdown of all things Spurs virtually assured that Phoenix would go onto finally best Duncan and company. Enjoy 3 minutes of glory, highlighted by the particularly cool scene of the entire Suns team mobbing Dragic as the game ends: