Phoenix Suns: Good enough to be good, but not good enough to be good enough
January 20th, 2009

I hated the appointment of Steve Kerr as the Phoenix Suns General Manager. Hated it. I loved Steve Kerr as a player even if I did miss his best years, but I didn’t like his writing much, and he ruined my entire NBA Live 2006 experience with his insistence that Kirk Hinrich was in some way like Steve Nash. (They’re both white and keep their dribble alive when circling the baseline. Identical!) Why would a man whose take on the NBA was limited to the games he was commentating on suddenly be qualified to run an NBA franchise, short as he seemed on experience, the CBA know-how, and the depth of knowledge base that was surely required for such a position? How much can you learn about the prognosis of thousands of potential NBA basketball players worldwide when sitting alongside Marv Albert? I hated the entire idea.

Similarly, I hated the Shaquille O’Neal trade when it happened. The Phoenix Suns’ style of play under Mike D’Antoni wasn’t really getting anywhere, but was the answer really to trade for a player who commits your team to a life of halfcourt play, yet who isn’t effective enough any more to build an offence around? And why would a team that had recently gifted away Rajon Rondo and Rudy Fernandez for immediate financial savings now be so willing to take on the huge contract of a declining player, committing them for the foreseeable future to the luxury tax that they had been so desperately trying to avoid? It was all the eggs in one basket, and the basket wasn’t worth it.

However, as I am wont to do, I have since backtracked on both opinions.

Acquiring Shaq has not affected the Suns’ ability to acquire talent, as I feared it might. No longer are they selling first-round picks, and they have made good free agency pickups, such as Matt Barnes and Grant Hill, even though they seem to be getting highly favourable discounts to do so. Despite the Jason Richardson trade seeing the Suns take on slightly less money than they gave out, and their dogged insistence on running with the NBA’s bare minimum number of players at all times, the Suns haven’t made drastic roster changes just to get under the luxury tax, like other teams have. They have found their payroll limit (just above the tax threshold) and kept it there. Phoenix may have about $4 million of their MLE unspent, but at least they aren’t foolishly dumping Leandro Barbosa just to save a few million. In purely relative terms, this is progress.

To this end, Kerr has made some decent roster moves. Signing Hill for the Bi Annual Exception and Barnes for the minimum salary are absolute steals at their price, and Kerr did well to pick up the strangely-overlooked Louis Amundson (who’s always been able to do exactly what he’s doing now, yet who Sacramento and Philadelphia let slip through their fingers). Kerr was also smart enough to insist upon Jared Dudley, a decent young role player who doesn’t understand beards, in the Richardson trade with Charlotte. It bears repeating that the trade worked financially even with Sean Singletary in and Jared Dudley out of it, a variant which would have seen the Suns save a significant chunk of money in the process, an added bonus for a franchise always looking to save money. Yet Dudley was included anyway, presumably at Kerr’s insistence, and the trade as a whole saw one of the league’s weakest starting shooting guards upgraded dramatically for little more of a cost than an expensive, replaceable backup (Boris Diaw). Kerr also made what I still believe a solid draft pick with Robin Lopez at #15, who has been poor thus far, but whom I still blindly feel will turn out all right. (Stick with Lopez, Suns fans. He can play. He just sort of…..hasn’t.) Admittedly, I have no idea quite what the Suns see in Goran Dragic, whose only redeemable skill so far seems to be his rebounding, something that isn’t exactly vital from your point guard. But even that might pay off in time. You never know. Dragic won’t shoot 29% and foul this much forever. You just have to stay ignorantly confident in the face of his kind-of-bad performances so far.

This doesn’t mean, though, that the moves have worked. They haven’t. After being roundly dumped on by Boston last night, Phoenix sit with a 23-16 record, and in that same place that they had so wanted to avoid – good enough to be good, but not good enough to be good enough.

Further still, the Suns’ future prospects are not good. The younger players of Lopez, Amundson, Dudley and Alando Tucker are all decent, but there’s not a starter amongst them, and there may never be. Phoenix’s financial situation still shows no hope of providing flexibility any time soon, yet the team’s competitive nature means they’ll never get a high first-round pick. Most disturbingly of all, their supposed young superstar, 26-year-old Amar’e Stoudemire, seems to be regressing, unwilling or unable to overcome his problems with defence, rebounding, fouls or petulance. We’re seven years in now, and despite all the physical tools, Amar’e has never learnt – or never tried – to be the defender that he could be. Without this, the Suns are treading water.

Perhaps trading Amar’e is the answer. Getting a highly talented defensive player for the power forward position (someone in the role of Emeka Okafor) completely redefines the Suns’ interior defence, their biggest weakness, and even though it leaves the team with a starting frontcourt featuring two players with absolutely no offence to respect outside of the lane (thereby making it even harder than it’s already become for Steve Nash to get to the rim), the Suns have the makings of a potentially good defensive system. But maybe the scapegoat shouldn’t be placed on the shoulders of one of the league’s best offensive big men, or onto the General Manager who put together one of the stronger eight-man rotations in the league today.

The current Suns are a slower and less efficient version of their former selves, on both ends. The 2008 Phoenix Suns were second in the league in offensive efficiency and 16th in defensive efficiency, transformed now into a team with the fourth-best offence and the 26th-best defence. And it’s not all due to the loss of Raja Bell.

As Brent Barry once said, you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit. Two of the best defensive teams in the league – Cleveland and Boston – boast former Defensive Player Of The Years in Ben Wallace and Kevin Garnett, respectively. The two also host between them a variety of other decent defensive players, such as Anderson Varejao, Kendrick Perkins, LeBron James and Rondo, all of whom combine to create a system that can both mask and enhance the defensive (li-)abilities of some of their team mates.

Phoenix don’t have this. They don’t have any of it, really. Steve Nash takes a ton of charges, but can’t keep anyone in front of him. Jason Richardson often has a distinct strength advantage, but he struggles with the quicker guards. Hill can’t run backwards as well as he used to. Amar’e doesn’t try as hard on that end of the floor, and watches the ball almost as much as he does on offence. O’Neal is still a reasonably feared interior defensive player, but only if he doesn’t have to move. You can’t make much out of these ingredients. These aren’t the makings of a decent defensive unit. There’s no lockdown perimeter defender, no anchor in the middle, or enough disruption of the passing lanes. There’s not even enough rebounding, as the Suns have only the league’s 12th-best rebounding differential. Distinctly average. As was their defence.

Maybe Barry is right. The Suns are in no way chicken shit, but they haven’t the personnel with either the players or the coaches to put together the defensive unit needed to get the team over the hump, one that they still can’t see the top of. Trading for Shaquille O’Neal helped, as have many of the recent pickups, but it hasn’t been enough. And what certainly hasn’t helped the defence is changing coaches.

Perhaps they should change up the personnel again. Perhaps the Nash era is reaching a logical conclusion. Perhaps trading Amar’e really is the answer. Perhaps they could put together a package for Andrei Kirilenko, or someone of that nature, giving them someone who can vastly improve their defence, while also not preventing a return to their running game. Perhaps they could create a defensive scheme that will compliment and support the roster’s natural offensive talent. Perhaps they’ll just stop playing Goran Dragic.

In the mean time, they could start pushing the ball again and play to their strengths.

Posted by at 4:53 AM