This is the latest in a series here at FB&G that will run through the start of the season, focusing on some of the top teams in the West and maybe a couple from the East. Today we talk about recent rivals — the Suns. — Reed
Last Season Record: 55-27 (sixth seed, but had the fourth-best record, just two games back of the Lakers)
Last Playoffs: Lost to the Spurs in the first round in five games
Offensive Rating: 109.5
Defensive Rating: 104.4
No team currently evokes more spontaneous hatred, spite, fear, annoyance, and general negative emotion from me than the Suns. I’m not exactly sure why. The Spurs are the natural rival, or “enemy,” right now – the team we have regularly competed with for titles, dominance, and team of the decade honors. They are the team we don’t want to play in the playoffs. They have the only other player (Duncan) or coach that are relevant competitors with our superstar and coach for places in history. The Celtics are the recent finals opponent and only true epic rival. The Suns, on the other hand, will probably just pass as a cute little blip on the radar. A fun new style, an exciting point guard, but no real substance or accomplishments. Yet, they are the only team I watch with real anti-emotion.
This strange circumstance probably relates back to the crushing defeat in 2006. It was then, after several dark years post-Shaq, that I first allowed myself to hope again, only to have it cruelly snatched away by an opponent that openly despised all things LA (as revealed in Seven Seconds or Less). Immediately after the epic come behind victory in game 4 of that series – the “double Nash turnover, jumpball, Kobe buzzer-beater” victory – my twin basketball obsessive (“Brig”), a lifelong Phoenix native, Suns fan, and friend of Suns management, sent me the following email, summing up the general demeanor of every true Suns fan I have ever met:
An absurd farce of a game. I’m not an NBA fan anymore, it’s like watching professional wrestling – the whole damn thing is rigged. Good luck cheering on your team full of criminals, drug addicts and CBA throw-aways. I hate everything now, the Suns (who have played like garbage, we shouldn’t have even been in the situation for the refs to steal the game from us, since you knew they were going to try if it were close; Marion in particular is a complete waste), the Lakers (who are pure evil, Phil Jackson is in fact Beelzebub, and I refuse to watch any more games, because I can’t stand the camera shots of phony celebrities and every other stupid, plastic, useless Lakers fan), and all things relating unto these two teams and the sport that they play. I renounce the Suns, basketball, and all organized athletics. May Kobe Bryant die of some painful disease and rot in hell.
This captures the Suns fan. Frustrated, desperate, scorned by destiny, tragically scarred, and, mostly, intensely anti-Laker and LA. As a Cubs fan, I can understand the mentality, for nothing has worked out for this team. The Barkley era came and went with no rings, as it happened to coincide with the Jordan era. Then a brilliant team emerges that caught the league by storm with its new style of unselfishness and offensive fireworks, but destiny seemed to firmly snatch away every chance in their window: the Joe Johnson injury in the 2005 playoffs, the missed Amare season in 2006 (when they would have been the heavy favorites with him), the Horry hip check/Amare suspension in 2007, and then the ill-fated Shaq-Marion trade last season, followed by the death matchup with San Antonio. Top to bottom, they were probably the most talented team over the last four years, and yet they could never make the finals. Now, with the rise of LA, Utah, New Orleans, and Houston, their window has probably closed. Again. This delights me.
Now, putting biases aside, let’s look at the state and future of this worthy rival.
This is the last stand for the Suns as we know them. Nash is 35, Shaq and Hill 36, with no significant young talent ready to take their places. This is a classic “glass half full, glass half” empty team. One person might see extraordinary talent and experience. Another might see over the hill stars and chemistry issues.
First, the glass as half full. A fan could look at the roster and see one of the few teams with two legitimate mvp candidates (Nash and Amare), a dynamic point guard-power forward combination, a veteran all time great and matchup nightmare in the middle (Shaq), steady role playing veterans on the wings (Bell, Hill), a top 6th man candidate (Barbosa), and a few talented and versatile bench players (Diaw, Barnes, Lopez). On paper, that’s a balanced, talented, powerful team.
With the arrival of Shaq, the team’s focus seemed to shift from Nash to Amare, as Shaq’s presence freed Amare from his failed role as defensive and rebounding anchor and allowed him to focus on what he does better than anyone – score efficiently. Amare has become hands down the preeminent scoring big man in the game. After the all-star break he averaged 28.5 points on 59% shooting, 83% free throws (and 10.2 attempts a game). On the season he led the league with an incredible 65.6% true shooting percentage (reflecting field goal and free throw combined efficiency), and was third in PER (behind Lebron and Paul). He finished second in both offensive and total win shares (behind Paul in both). He developed a deadly 20 foot jump shot, finishing 12th in the league in 2pt jump shot % (ahead of Kobe and any Laker), was third in the league in inside fg%, was second in total dunks, and first in “and ones.” He is, simply, the most efficient and productive scorer in the game. And, with the arrival of Shaq to anchor the middle, he is no longer the massive defensive and rebounding liability he was as a center. In their prime, Duncan and Garnett were better players than Amare was last year, but the league hasn’t seen this offensively dominant of a power forward since the young Karl Malone. And, at 25, he’s only going to get better.
Shaq’s arrival didn’t help everyone, however, as Steve Nash’s production noticeably dipped with the arrival of the diesel. The presence of Shaq caused Nash to slip in every statistical category, including a sharp decline in assists from 11.7 per game to 9.9. The reason for this appeared to be that Shaq’s constant presence on the low block hurt the Suns offensive spacing, as the middle wasn’t clear for penetration and cutters. The running game also obviously slowed down, as the team transitioned to a more traditional half court offense centered around their two big men. So, instead of having Nash feeding shooters and cutters, we saw more of Amare isolating on the high post, or Shaq hitting shooters from the low block. A great question entering this year is what type of style Porter will endorse – can he find a way to harmonize Nash’s freelancing and fastbreaking abilities with Shaq’s plodding, power game?
Shaq himself actually played very well after the trade, averaging 13 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 61% shooting in 28 minutes a game. He also instantly changed them from the worst rebounding team in recent memory (they were -5 per game before the trade) to an above average one.
There are, however, clear warning signs. With Shaq, they were only 18-15 (including the playoffs), but only 8-14 against winning teams. Nash showed worrying signs of slippage last year, especially defensively, as he simply could not stay in front of the new band of young, elite point guards in the West. Tellingly, Phoenix went 0-4 against New Orleans, 1-2 against Utah, and were dismissed 4-1 by a Tony Parker led Spurs team (Shaq largely neutralized Duncan, so Poppovich put the ball in Tony Parker’s hands with endless pick and rolls). In the four losses to New Orleans, Nash allowed Chris Paul to go off for 29 points, 4.5 rebounds, 11 assists, and 4 steals. Against Utah, Deron ran wild for 20 points, 4 rebounds, 11 assists, and 53% shooting. In the playoffs, Parker went off, averaging 30 points and 7 assists on 52% shooting. At this point of his career, Nash is simply too slow and weak to guard these opposing point guards, which had devastating effects given Phoenix’s general defensive weakness. Clearly, Nash needs more rest and the Suns are hopeful that new backup PG Goran Dragic is the answer.
There are also warning signs in the front office. After a power struggle with new owner Robert Sarver, Bryan Colangelo left the Suns to tak eover the Raptors. Since then, the team has been run disastrously. In 2004, they owned the 7th pick but traded it away for a later pick and cash. That pick turned out to be Luol Deng, and Andre Iguodala was also still on the board. In 2006 and 2007, the team continued to sell their first round draft picks, trading away the rights to Rajon Rondo, Sergio Rodriguez, and Rudy Fernandez. At the same time they were trading away cheap young talent, they were signing overrated players to inflated contracts, with Marcus Banks landing $21 million and Diaw landing $45 million (D’Antoni was a great coach but horrific GM). These latter moves led the team to desperately cut costs last summer, trading away Kurt Thomas and two unprotected future first rounders to Seattle for nothing. Would there have been a need to sign Banks, Diaw, and trade away Thomas (with two picks) if the team had simply kept Deng, Rondo, Rodriguez, and Fernandez? Of course not. And the team would be better positioned for the present and future. Now, the team faces a need to rebuild around Amare whenever Nash and Shaq break down, but lacks the budding young talent or future draft picks to acquire the necessary players. We’ll see if Kerr can reverse the tide.
With few remaining future draft picks, a bare cupboard of young talent, and the financial inability to take on more salary, the team has no real resources to immediately upgrade their current roster around Nash, Amare, and Shaq. The lack of young players and picks means it will also be very difficult for them to quickly retool around Amare. Thus, if things start to fall apart, they might be in a position where they have to make a few bold moves, such as trading Nash, to put a few strong pieces around Amare for the future. They will also have Shaq’s expiring contract next summer, which will be a huge piece on the trade market. IF they can’t use these pieces to rebuild, they could face a long, dark winter in a year or two.
I see this team as darkhorse title contenders this year. The talent is there. Very few teams have two top 10 players and mvp candidates. Very few surround such stars with experienced veterans at the other positions. But they will need to stay healthy and find a system that harmonizes the talents of their key pieces. And do all of this with a new, inexperienced coach who has to juggle difficult ego’s in Amare and Shaq. The potential is there for great success and great failure. Which, from a Lakers fans perspective, is all we can hope for – great drama and tension from our key rival.
Now, back to my friend Brig, who is a true basketball intellectual and friendly with a few higher ups in Suns management. I asked for his perspective on a few issues:
Question: In hindsight, would you make the Marion-Shaq trade over again?
Absolutely. While it didn’t work out in the playoffs as hoped, we faced the defending champions and were in every game. Marion was causing problems with chemistry. He was complaining about shots, he was grousing a lot (saying that D’Antoni didn’t do enough to promote him as an All-Star candidate), and he and Amare never really got along. Amare and Shaq are actually very close – Shaq has been kind of a mentor since he first came in the league. The Suns needed a big presence inside – someone to help with rebounding, clog the middle, help Amare avoid foul trouble by taking on guys like Duncan, Yao, and Bynum for 20 minutes a game. Shaq can certainly do those things. And Shaq is a mean, tough, playoff tested veteran that everyone in the league respects. The Suns needed attitude as much as interior defense and rebounding.
The Suns are also one of the most veteran player friendly teams in the league. They have light practices, a cool, understanding coaching staff, probably the best training staff, excellent facilities, and a great group of guys (by all accounts, Nash, Raja, Grant Hill and Barbosa are some of the coolest guys in the NBA). They have unselfish players (except for Amare, who loves and respects Shaq), and Nash will find a way to keep Shaq happy. So it’s a good situation for Shaq at this stage.
I can now fully reveal my hatred for Marion – an insecure, crybaby little nancy who complained about being underappreciated and underrated, even while he was the highest paid guy on the team and a 4x All Star who couldn’t get his own shot and consistently choked in the playoffs. We had a three-way deal for Boston in place to get Garnett, but Marion refused to go to Boston. Good riddance. He is now lumped in with Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Jason Kidd, Joe Johnson, Michael Finley, Stephon Marbury and AC Green – former Suns players who are dead to me.
The Suns weren’t going to win it with Marion, and Shaq plugged a gaping hole, so I’d make that trade again, obvious concerns included. There was enormous risk in the move, but they could be unreal if they can get Shaq healthy and keep him that way. Shaq helps in exactly the way the Suns need – defensive rebounding (a fatal weakness before – Marion is a great rebounder, but he doesn’t keep other people from getting offfensive rebounds, which is what we really need); keeping Amare out of foul trouble; increasing FT attempts (Suns are the best FT shooting team in the league, but other than Amare, never get to the line – Shaq, though a terrible FT shooter, puts other teams in the penalty); gives the Suns a low post option when Amare isn’t on the floor to open things up for shooters, and provides size to discourage penetration. And, perhaps most importantly, toughness and intimidation. All NBA players fear and respect Shaq, even at his age now.
Question: What direction are the Suns heading? Should they go all in this year for another title run or should they cash in on Nash while he still has value?
Definitely have to go all in one more time. There is no sense in attempting to “rebuild” at this stage. Shaq is likely completely untradeable. The Suns will not trade Nash. It is unlikely the Suns would deal Amare (I’m just not sure who they would deal him for that would fit with Nash and Shaq and approximates equal value). So, as long as you have to pay three max-contract guys for multiple years, your only choice is to try and contend. Also, Diaw is awful, and nobody will trade for that guy. You can try, but it’s not going to happen.
The Suns did a pretty good job of addressing their needs this offseason. They needed: (a) a versatile, atheltic defender who can guard rangy 4s (like Dirk or Bos) and wings (like Kobe or McGrady); (b) a reserve point guard for Nash, someone who can fit into the system and is young enough to groom behind Nash, but competant enough to start playing minutes now; (c) a mobile big who can defend the pick and roll and crash the boards. Through free agency and the draft, they picked up Barnes (the wing defender), Dragic (the backup point guard), and Lopez (the energy big). Add in an offseason to integrate Shaq, and the team could be markedly better next year.
I think a lot of the problem last year can be attributed to cohesion – just not having played together and integrating a drastically different piece to the system (it’s not like the Suns traded Marion for Nocioni and Noah, or for Granger and Jeff Foster – those would have been easy pieces to integrate). Shaq can’t score on pick and rolls, so he has to get the ball in the post to be effective, and the Suns just aren’t used to that. So this has led to turnovers, which leads to increased scoring from opponents. This year, I’d expect the team to be on the same page and the pieces to fit together more efficiently.
Question: How do you feel about Porter as the coach?
It’s as good as can be expected. He’s got a good reputation among veteran players, so I think both Shaq and Nash will respond well to him (though I worry that Shaq will resent him for not being Shaw). He played on some great Portland teams (those teams are right up there with the Stockton/Malone Jazz and the Barkley Suns of great, non-title winning teams). He’s coached under Adelman and Flip Saunders, so he’s had some great apprentice opportunities on good teams with great offensive minds, and he’s played for Popovich. Plus, he was a decent head coach for a mediocre Bucks team. I don’t think he’s as good D’Antoni, but he’s as good as we can get under the circumstances.
Question: How will Dragic fit in?
Dragic has actually been on NBA radar screens for a couple of years, so I’ve seen more of him that most other Euro prospects. He reminds me of Keyon Dooling – very athletic, an excellent defender, great size for his positions, but a questionable decision-maker, a technically-sound but inconsistent shooter, and (unlike Dooling) frail physically. I understand the Suns’ attraction – he’s an almost ideal backcourt mate for Barbosa, because of his size and defense, and ability to be effective without taking a lot of shots, and he’s a nice understudy for Nash (international guy, humble kid, team-oriented). But he clearly does not have Nash’s vision or shooting ability. I feel a little about Dragic the way I feel about Lopez – the right idea (i.e., exactly the kind of player we need), but I’m not sure that the player we picked is good enough. In Lopez – we clearly need an athletic, defensive-minded front-court partner for Amare in the future (and to spell Shaq and defend the pick-and-roll now), and Lopez is that exact kind of player. But he had a less-than-stellar collegiate career – the numbers say he won’t be that good. Same with Dragic – ideal type of player, great fit, but his numbers in small European leagues say that he either isn’t that good, or isn’t ready to assume a big role (and being Nash’s backup next year is a big role). Maybe getting Lopez out of his Brook’s shadow (he played much better when Brook was suspended last year), and getting him working with Cartwright/Shaq/Amare will help him accelerate his development, and getting Dragic into some top flight competition (obviously Tau Ceramica, one of the top Euro teams, agreed with the Suns that he’s ready for prime time), and putting him with Porter and Nash will help him develop. I’m cautiously optimistic.
Question: Tell me about how the Suns approach scouting for the draft. Are they refocusing their energies on the draft after selling all those picks?
Yes, they are very interested in drafting good young players now, although they are severely handcuffed by the picks lost in the Thomas and Shaq deals.
The scouts have a cutting edge computer program, where they can literally call up video clips of any player in the draft based on certain categories, like “transition defense” or “three-point shots” or “post-up possessions”, and the computer will run a series of clips of the good and the bad of that player in those circumstances. Just awesome.
They approach workouts wisely. A lot of what the scouts are looking for is preparation – does the player take the workout seriously, came in prepared and in shape, and showed good work habits and competitiveness. I think it’s as much an evaluation of character as it is of basketball ability.
Also, it’s an intelligence test. They throw a lot of sets and install plays quickly to see how well the player remembers and reacts and takes instruction and coaching.
It’s also about trying to measure players against other draft picks. This is particularly important where the player (1) comes from a smaller school or played overseas in a non-elite league; or (2) only has a year of college experience (or less), and thus may have only played against elite talent at his respecitve position twice, even if the guy played for a top college team. Even for major programs in top conferences, there are only maybe 10 NBA caliber guys at any position in college at any given time. Most teams won’t play all of those guys, so for a freshman, you may have only evaluated him playing against someone of his own caliber once or twice.
Also, his college team may not have allowed him to exhibit all of the skills you’re looking at. Someone like Hakim Warrick or Jared Dudley were forced to play as power forwards in college, but they aren’t well suited for those positions in the pros. So you need to evaluate their skill sets for other positions, which you can’t do in game tapes. Top to bottom, the scouting department is first rate.
I hope the Suns are great this year. The Lakers season will be more interesting and rewarding if they battle the Suns all year for the division and then have to worry about them in the playoffs. And the league is simply a better place when Nash, Shaq, and now Amare are involved in important games. But, ultimately, I don’t think this team can beat LA in a series, so I welcome their relevance without great fear. There are just too many concerns and too much has to go right for them to come out of the West.
Finally, lest there be any question about the importance of this rivalry, here is Brig’s immediate response to the Gasol trade last winter:
Do you realize that you have sold your immortal soul to a franchise that would sooner defile everything you love and hold dear than extend a hand of fellowship to mankind – a dark necromancer haunting us all?
I am a well informed NBA fan, and understand completely the implications of this trade. But I refuse to be cowed by evil – even in such a monstrous and terrifying form.
The Suns: fun to hate; always frustrated; the perfect rival.