30 Teams, 30 Days
Phoenix Suns Season Preview.
We continue previewing the Pacific Division with the Phoenix Suns. You can read past previews here.
by Sherman Johnson
Last season was an anomaly for the Suns when they went away from their bread and butter and didn’t make the playoffs for the first time since the run-and-gun era despite winning 46 games. But this year that won’t be the case with Alvin Gentry at the helm and if Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire remain healthy.
When Gentry took over late last season with 30 games to go, the Suns reverted to their run-and-gun ways and exploded for 140 points in three consecutive games and finished 17-13. They did it again on Tuesday against the Kings when they erupted for 143 points off the strength of play from Stoudemire and Channing Frye who was a good acquisition during the off season when they were able to shed a lot of dead weight.
There’s a lot of speculation surrounding Stoudemire’s health at the start of this season but hardly anyone questions his ability. In his four healthy seasons, Stoudemire’s averaged 81 games; in his three years plagued by injury, he’s averaged 30. He’s second to none when it comes to his combination of points and rebounds and both percentages are reeDICulous. However, some major question marks remain entering the season. Like, can he see? He had another eye surgery during the off-season, and the Suns haven’t signed him to an extension. Another question is whether his blocks will return to the 2.1 mark he reached a couple of years ago. Last season’s 1.1 wasn’t that impressive. He normally shoots in the high-50s percentage-wise but last season he was only human at 53 (which ain’t bad. At. All.) If this preseason is any indication, then fans are in for another roller-coaster ride this season because he’s slowly but surely gaining ground as evidenced in the triple-double he pulled in the trouncing they took from Philly last week and the 27 he poured on against Sacramento.
But if STAT is the biggest question mark then Steve Nash is still the answer. Critics have been pointing to his age since he rejoined the Suns four seasons but fail to mention he played in nearly every game last season and logged something like 36 minutes per. Whether he’s up to it or not isn’t the issue. Nash is always gonna get his no doubt about it. He and Amare are always at their best when it comes to putting their feet in haters’ mouths.
As for the rest of the squad:
Channing Frye could finally have a breakout season now that he’s in a system suited to his skills. But people probably said the same thing when he landed in Portland last season. Everything went downhill since he showed he could be a force to be reckoned with in the League after averaging 12 points off 48 percent shooting in his inaugural season. He had a promising combination of steals and blocks too but since then he’s fallen off. Last season in Portland he started launching 3-pointers on the regular, sinking 11 of 33 shots, so perhaps Steve Nash can enable him off the pick-and roll. But then he doesn’t rebound or block shots that well, which the Suns need desperately if they’re to be contenders this year, and he shoots too many jump shots for his field goal percentage to be a plus. Even his free-throw percentage has dipped every year since he entered the League in 2006. He’ll have to take serious strides forward before once again making an impact but his team-leading 29 points against the Kings was encouraging.
Grant Hill, like Nash, is constantly being assailed for his age but it seems as though his layoff between 2000-2004 added extra mileage to his legs because he averaged 30 minutes in 82 games last season. He effed up his ankle early in the preseason but he rebounded with 16 points Tuesday before he got tossed for barking at the replacement refs. Perhaps it’s a sign of the fire that lurks deep within. When he’s healthy, Hill can still contribute in just about any category as evidenced by his 5 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists in 20 minutes against Philly last week.
J-Rich’s combination of 49, 78 and 38 percent from the floor, stripe and long range last season made him a different player than he’s been in the past. His 16 points per game was more than two below his career average, but he shattered his career bests. Gone are the days of flirting with 25 points per game. The era of better shot selection and significant contributions in points, steals and 3s is in. Richardson’s been working on his defensive intensity this preseason which should be good news for Suns fans but his two-game suspension the first week isn’t, but he’ll have plenty of value in the Suns’ offense when he returns.
I don’t think the Suns can boast of having the smallest lineup in the League anymore. Not since Amare is back and Frye is in the starting lineup. And Robin Lopez and Earl Clark make them look a little bigger even though it’ll remain to be seen what impact they’ll have coming off the bench.
Clark is one of my favorites of this year’s draft class because of his considerable upside. He only played 7 minutes Tuesday against the Kings and didn’t look good at all (he’s gonna have his ups and downs) but if he can stay on the floor, he should be fairly productive in the Suns’ offense. Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley, Louis Amundson and Goran Dragic will figure more prominently off the bench though.
A lot of people scratch their heads at why Barbosa still isn’t a starter, pointing to him averaging only 24 minutes a game. It’s probably the reason why his production took a dive last season. But he shot nearly 50 percent from the floor, which was the highest of his career. For a shooting guard it’s killer. Add 1.3 3-pointers and 1.3 steals and it definitely looks like his production was bottled up more by lack of minutes than talent. The Suns’ll definitely get a boost if Barbosa can get 30 minutes a game.
Alvin Gentry hasn’t really shown what kind of rotation he’s going to use this season, or how big a role Jared Dudley will have in it, but he’s certainly capable of putting up decent numbers in the Suns’ system if he gets enough court time as well. He was a big surprise late last season after coming over from the Bobcats. He only got 15 minutes of burn per game and while his numbers were lacking, but in last season’s final eight games, Dudley found his outside touch, hitting a surprising 1.6 3s per outing. With more minutes, and a continued improvement from downtown, Dudley should turn some more heads this season.
Speculation of Goran Dragic as Steve Nash’s future replacement are premature but the lanky Slovenian has started to demonstrate that he can hold his own so far in the preseason if given the minutes. Kind of. He came up big on Tuesday in the free-for-all against the Kings when his playing time increased but he’s a long way from Capitain status. Phoenix probably wont be his last stop but at least he has a pulse. And a quick one at that. He’s young and his confidence is lacking but he has the tools to emerge as a contributor under the tutelage of Steve Nash.
The starters on the other hand aren’t lacking in confidence. They’re veterans who’ve risen from the ashes time and time again. The more Stoudemire shows and proves he’s over the eye injury the more confidence this team will gain as the season marches on. They’ve been in the position of underdogs before and everyone’s witnessed what they can accomplish on the come-up. With Yao out for the season and Houston on the elevator down, the Suns should be able to make the playoffs this season off the strength of their offensive scheme but if they’re to move past the first round they have to prove they have what it takes to rebound and rise from the ashes of last season’s debacle and play defense to balance out their assault.