By Holly MacKenzie
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“I’m so focused on winning a title. It’s all I can think about.”
Record in ’06-07 61-21
Projected Record in ’07-’08 60-22 (1st in Pacific, 3rd overall)
Forearm shiver…Nosebleed of the year…Shady ref… Two suspect suspensions…. The series that ended the Phoenix Suns 2007 playoff run played out more like a TV drama rather than a battle of NBA Titans. Regardless, the end result was a familiar one for Suns fans; a defeat at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in 6 games. After brushing aside the Lakers 4-1, the Suns were handed the Spurs and a cruel fate to go along with it. After tying game one with under a minute left, Steve Nash was stuck on the bench because of a gash on his nose that all of the band-aids in Arizona could not stop. Fast-forward to game 4, with the Spurs leading the series 2-1 and We all know what happens next. The image of Nash crashing into the scorer’s table will forever be etched into the brains of Suns fans as it prompted Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw to leave the bench, earning them each a one game suspension for game 5. Try as they might, the NBA’s most lethal offensive team lost their most potent weapon against the Spurs in Stoudemire, and were unable to recover. Eliminated from reaching that elusive goal of a championship, the Suns, comprised of the strongest nucleus in the NBA, are ready to take it to the next level and this year’s campaign will get them there. What makes this year any different than the last? Experience, experience, experience.
While Phoenix rid themselves of the trio of little used players in Jalen Rose, Jumaine Jones and James Jones, of more significance was the parting of ways with forward Kurt Thomas. In a move that was purely for financial gain, the loss of Thomas will be felt by the Suns who are surprisingly thin up front behind the monster play of Stoudemire. Because of the Suns up-tempo game they will manage just fine throughout the regular season but it will be tricky to hide behind in the playoffs. Luckily, the late signing of forward Brian Skinner and the play of back-up reserve Sean Marks will help provide some breathing room for Stoudemire. Skinner will prove effective on the defensive end, bringing some rebounding to the team as well.
The biggest blow suffered by Phoenix this summer was not the loss of a player but of assistant coach extraordinaire Marc Iavaroni. Iavaroni will be leaving the team after taking the head coaching position in Memphis. He served as Coach D’Antoni’s head assistant and in addition to serving as the defensive coordinator, he also was the scout responsible for many of the Suns high-profile opponents such as the Mavs and Spurs. His shoes will not be easy ones to fill, but D’Antoni is known for making the improbable work and this will be no exception.
With two draft picks and two signings as of media day, led by new GM Steve Kerr, the Suns have done well for themselves in the off-season. Kerr said he believed the Suns were very close to a championship and he went out and brought them even closer. The draft brought Wisconsin’s Big 10 player of the year Alando Tucker into the mix with the 29th pick as well as Maryland’s defensive-minded DJ Strawberry with the 59th pick. Both of these players need to work on their shooting to be successful in the NBA, especially so playing within the Suns “07 Seconds or Less” offensive strategy. This transition will be aided by their being welcomed onto a team with some of the most helpful veterans in the league.
One of those savvy vets is also the biggest move made by the Suns this off-season. If the Suns are champions this year, Grant Hill will have a lot to do with it. One of the smartest players in the league, Hill has developed his basketball knowledge over the years as a result of having to sit on the sidelines as well as having to learn to play through injuries. With Hill running alongside Nash, the Suns will have arguably two of the smartest players in the game as well as two sets of eyes to see what others cannot. Look for Hill to start immediately in place of Boris Diaw, and he will make his contributions early and often. The only question mark regarding Hill is how he will adjust to playing big minutes in an up-tempo offense every night. In addition to filling one of the forward spots, Hill also allows D’Antoni to give Nash some much needed rest, by being able to take over distributing duties in a point-forward role, freeing up Leandro Barbosa to keep his focus on scoring, even when he is the player coming in for Nash.
The single biggest reason why the Suns can and should expect to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy to Phoenix is their group of returning players. With the addition of Hill, the Suns are 6-deep with all-stars and recipients of all of the NBA major awards. There is not another team in the league that could easily have 5 of their own in the all-star game come February. Just running through the individual achievements of the Suns is dizzying;
Starting with point guard Steve Nash, a two-time league MVP as well as 1st team All-NBA last season, Nash led the league in assists with 11.9 per contest, almost half of the league-leading 25.9 assists per game that the Suns had as a team. Nash is simply the best point guard in the League for this offense.
Moving to the two spot is Raja Bell, who was on the All-NBA defensive team last season, and will continue to hustle, defend and bring the necessary grit to the team.
The small forward spot will now most likely be taken by Hill who is a six time all-star and is looking to add another trip this year. Hill will understand the importance of getting the ball into Stoudemire’s hands early and often, especially when Nash is on the bench.
The power forward spot is filled by Shawn Marion who was an all-star last season and is in position to be one again this year. Amid all of the recent trade rumors and the request made by Marion, one thing that is not up for debate is his commitment to leaving it all on the floor every game. While he may not be happy about being with the Suns for one more season, there is no doubt he will not only bring his A-game every night, he will get the job done as well.
The man in the middle also known as a monster, a beast, or Black Jesus, Amare Stoudemire joined Nash on the All-NBA 1st team last season as well as silenced his critics, returning from a year’s hiatus after undergoing the dreaded microfracture surgery on his left knee. In short, Amare should be the one called the answer, because he is what it comes down to for all things concerning the Suns and a championship this year.
Even Barbosa, their first man off the bench, is coming off of a campaign that saw him win the 6th man of the year award and chances are good that he will repeat again this year.
The transition of Diaw from starter to reserve works well as he can come in and play essentially any position, helping to prevent snags when someone gets in foul trouble. Confident in his abilities to play many roles, he is used to having things his way. When asked in an interview whether he dates American women, he responds “I do not date American women, I have them” This season Diaw will be having his way on the court as well as off of it. He is also coming into season lighter, and down to 8% body fat from 13% last season, showing he is committed and serious about his contributions to the team.
There are two main points that come to mind when thinking about what has hindered the Suns in the playoffs; the first being shaky interior defense and the second being the conditioning of players after playing 82 games at neck-breaking speed. Look for both of these concerns to be improved upon this season. Stoudemire understands the importance of his defensive efforts and after spending a summer under the defensive tutelage of both Coach Krzyewski and Coach Nate MacMillan with team USA he will step it up on the defensive end, as he wants to prove he is the difference when he is in the game. As mentioned before, the loss of Kurt Thomas will be countered by the addition of Skinner and his defensive-minded game while Phoenix’s perimeter defense will continue to improve with rookie DJ Strawberry’s hard-nosed play and of course, Marion, Bell and the ever-improving Barbosa. Another way in which the Suns have become adept at concealing their interior defense is to prevent players from getting inside to score. The result is fewer trips to the free throw line and the Suns were 4th in the league for opponent FT attempts last season. A stat which, if continued, will help them play around their post defense weakness.
The second issue, regarding the fast pace of the offense and whether the team can survive not only an 82 game season but also a successful playoff run was addressed with the addition of Hill. Although Hill is only one player, he can facilitate the offense, giving D’Antoni many options for his line-ups. As well, his presence frees up Diaw who can now flip-flop between positions, as he is needed. Barbosa will also serve as a capable distributor leaving the Marcus Banks experiment open to try his success as a shooting guard. Banks impressed with a 41-point outing in summer league play this year, but has proved disastrous as a backup for Nash. One of the most important keys to Phoenix going all the way this year will be getting Nash some rest especially in the late games of the season when their record in the Pacific division should be all but decided. While their rotation of their best 8 players is tops in the league, Pheonix will need to get minutes from everyone on their roster this season if they want to ensure their starters have enough gas left for the playoffs. D’Antoni has been preaching this for the past few years but the difference this year is he has enough versatility and distributors to make it happen.
The other thorn in their side has been the Spurs. Unless there is an upset, the road to the finals will go through San Antonio. The Nash and Stoudemire pick and roll has been beyond effective for the Suns, but the Spurs can play the exact same game and can play it just as well. While Phoenix has trouble playing in a half-court set, the Spurs excel in it, and are also able to match the Suns up-tempo style. To get past the Spurs, Phoenix will need to either improve their half court sets or ensure that the Spurs do not get to dictate the pace of the game. The other obvious key in any match-up is going to be getting Amare the ball. Allowing Stoudemire to unleash his dominance and get to the foul line will be the Suns key to victory. When he has the ball, only good things can happen for the Suns. This will only happen if he stays in the game, and out of foul trouble. Everyone on the Suns roster from coaching staff down to managerial staff recognizes the catch-phrase for this season. That catch-phrase is Carpe Diem. The boys in orange and purple realize if they are unable to seize each moment and learn from each misstep, their season will end prematurely, and most likely once again at the hands of the Spurs. D’Antoni and crew will be working overtime to ensure this does not happen again this season.
Ultimately, Suns fans can expect to watch their team through rose-colored glasses this year. Remember, it was only four years ago that Barbosa was drafted, learning the offense through a combination of broken English, Spanish and Portuguese. Only three years ago that Nash took his place as leader of the pack. Only two years since the Suns signed Bell and only one year since Stoudemire’s surgery. The growing curve of this team is off the charts and that will continue. The past playoff disappointments will be turned into important lessons that will be remembered when they win this year. There is no better leader than Steve Nash for this team. He leads a group of guys with great chemistry and he will lead them to greatness this season. While they all played well and to their potential last year (with the exception of Diaw), everyone on the roster is aware this could be the last shot for the team to stay together and there will be that sense of desperation and a passion that only necessity can bring. With the exception of their 2 rookies, the team is experienced and that will pay off in the playoffs. They have been there before and know what is needed to succeed.
With an offense that led the league at 110.2 points per game last season, the Suns also boasted 49.4% shooting on their field goals, also tops in the league. Not surprisingly, they were the number one team in terms of three-point field goals made, connecting on 9.6 shots per game while also maintaining the number one three-point field goal percentage, shooting 40.0% for the season. It is no secret, the Suns offense is the most deadly in the NBA. As the saying goes, if it is not broken, don’t fix it. Offensively Phoenix will thrive, this is a given. Defensively, they will find a way to make it happen, because they know the alternative and will not be denied again this season. If the Suns survive the playoffs without any injuries, suspensions or major trades happening before it, there will be something great about this year. It will be the first time the championship is brought to Phoenix.
While every team has lingering possibilities that can affect the outcome of their season, the Suns are no exception. Only one week ago, Shawn Marion went public with a trade request. There have been rumors of possible trades involving either the Utah Jazz (Andrei Kirilenko) or the Los Angeles Lakers (Lamar Odom), but Marion has since reported to training camp and things are quieting down for now. If he does leave, the shake-up might be too much for the Suns to take, having to try to re-create a chemistry that was naturally already there.
Another potential problem is the news of Amare Stoudemire’s latest knee surgery. A very common and relatively simply procedure, Stoudemire has to undergo arthroscopic surgery to clean out some loose particles in the knee. While expected to be back in under a month, the news is troubling for Suns fans who remember only 2 short years ago when Stoudemire went under the same procedure on the opposite knee only to wake up and find out he had microfracture. Intial reports have come out declaring the surgery a success and he is slated to be ready for the season opener. Hopefully this will ring true but, if he needs more time Phoenix management will be smart and ensure he gets it.