Last season the Phoenix Suns were in the playoff race until the final games of the lock out-shortened year.
This year, most of the prognostications have the Suns finishing at the bottom of the Western Conference. Many experts have the Suns winning fewer than 30 games.
Mark Stein’s first Power Rankings have the Suns slotted as the second-worst Western Conference team. Yet the upgraded 2012-13 version of the Phoenix Suns will prove these analysts wrong when they make the playoffs in April. This article discusses why.
One of the Suns' biggest improvements is at point guard. With all that was stellar about Steve Nash, much of his greatness had faded with age. Offensively he can't do what he once did.
Gone is a deceivingly great first step. Gone is an ability to create his own shot with consistency. Gone is his ability to compete for long minutes with a high level of intensity. And although the Lakers may believe differently, Nash's impact in NBA game is largely gone as well.
Nash averaged 12.5 PPG last year, and it will be fewer this year. That production is not good enough for the Suns. Phoenix needs a real scoring threat from the point guard position. Nash can no longer be that threat.
Compounding this issue is that Nash is an absolute liability on the defensive side of the ball. With him on that side of the court, the Suns would have been playing four-on-five. Nash will be in the Suns Ring of Honor one day, but his departure opened the door for a better guard.
Goran Dragic has returned home from Houston. Formerly a Suns backup, Dragic is a Slovenian 26-year-old point guard who can shoot, pass and defend. As a starter last year he averaged 18 points and 8.4 assists. Two other players accomplished that last season: Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Dragic is young, athletic, exciting and fits the new team very well.
The biggest difference in his game is what Nash has lost. Dragic can score baskets. Suns fans won't soon forget the 23 fourth-quarter points he dropped on the Spurs in the 2010 playoffs.
Dragic is coming into his prime and after taking over the reigns in Houston and playing well last year, he is brimming with confidence. Dragic is a substantial improvement over his former mentor.
The Suns seem to have options and maybe even some good depth at the shooting guard slot.
Jared Dudley looks to have locked up the starting role, but Shannon Brown is nipping at his heels. This type of competition among firebrand guys like Dudley and Brown is a good thing. This will make each one better.
Dudley is a veteran player who competes hard and can knock down an open shot. He has an uncanny ability to make good plays. Brown is a high flyer with an improving offensive package. His progress during the season last year was impressive, and if he can continue at that rate he will take over the starting role at some point during the season.
Add to this mix a combo two-guard small forward in Wesley Johnson.
Johnson, much like Beasley is a high potential, "wait and see" player. If he can get it together for the Suns, it adds another weapon to the bench and some scoring at the 2 and 3 spots. With three viable options at shooting guard, the Suns have flexibility, good healthy competition, and depth that the team was without last year.
The Suns starting small forward last year was Grant Hill. Despite being a fan favorite, Hill is now 40 years old. He is a good defensive player, but can no longer produce on the offensive end. Last year he averaged 10 PPG, 3.5 RPG and two assists. Although the Suns did not have to get much of a small forward to improve their roster at this spot, the team hit a home run.
Michael Beasley is a potential superstar. His profile is scary: 6’10’’, good shooter, can handle the ball, can play with his back to the basket or on the perimeter, is quick and strong and he can score with the best scorers in the league. He has good vision, is a better passer and playmaker than given credit for and can spread the court. He has the skill set to be a great player for a long time in the NBA.
Yet the curious reality is that Beasley has not performed.
Four years after being selected second overall he is widely considered to be a bust. Last year he averaged career lows of 23 minutes, 11.5 PPG and 4.4 RPG. But the Suns decided to take a risk, while still getting a steal of a contract, because Beasley's on-the-court trouble seems to be connected to his off-the-court mistakes.
His troubles with marijuana have been well documented. Stepping into the league at the age of 19, handed millions of dollars and previously unrealized freedom doesn't make a bad habit go away. Many times it makes problems worse.
Maturity is what finally pushes trouble to the curb. At the age of 23, with a new scene and a coach with a knack for connecting with players, Beasley is perfectly situated for maturation. If he can take advantage, he will grow into the player he was expected to when drafted. If Beasley does pull it together, he is a 25 PPG scorer and a high-level difference maker. Even if he is mediocre, he is much better than a 40-year-old Grant Hill.
Beasley's acquisition improves the Suns immediately and substantially.
Last year at the power forward position, the Suns started a 6'10'' shooting guard. Channing Frye, like several other Suns starters last year, is a bench player. He can not play in the post, is not a good rebounder and took up space on the perimeter by launching 439 threes in the last full season. A power forward, when most effective, can play with his back to the basket, can rebound and plays inside the three point line. Frye is a great spark plug, like an Eddie House, but was a weak starting power forward.
Luis Scola is a profound upgrade for the Suns.
He is a savvy power forward that plays a unique brand of basketball. He can post up and has a good mid-range game. He produced to the tune of 15.4 points and 6.5 rebounds a game last year for the Rockets. His ability to go down low will open up the offense, creating more shots and a half-court game that does not bog down as often as it has in the past. He also has a toughness and a grit that most coaches want, and frustrates other players to the point they want to step on his face. Luis Scola improves the Suns at the 4-spot.
Marcin Gortat’s level of play is unpredictable. At many times last year, he looked like a guy simply collecting a paycheck—withdrawn and uninterested. However, with his size and the tools he brings to the court—a strong seven footer with a soft touch, who can run the floor, and has a decent mid-range shot—Gortat has the potential to be great.
However, he has been complacent on the court during his tenure in Phoenix. This may be another case for Gentry, and if he can get Gortat to play with fire, Marcin is a top-five NBA center. At worst, the Suns have the same guy from last year, but with his contract ending after next season, he has incentive to pick up his game.
Playing for a team he believes can have a say in the conference may up his play as well. Time will tell with Gortat.
After a series of poor first round draft choices (Earl Clark, Alando Tucker, Robin Lopez), the Suns hit the mark with Markeiff Morris. The guy is a beast. With his aggressive play, he is pedal to the metal on both ends of the court and brings an intensity necessary for real contenders.
On top of his warrior mentality, Morris has great skills. He is 6’10’’, can shoot, play in the post, is a fierce defender, rebounds and has a good basketball I.Q. He added 13 pounds of muscle this off-season and average nearly 20 PPG and 10 RPG in the summer league.
Morris will be an all-star in a few years and will most likely take over the starting power forward position by the end of the year. He is one more tool Gentry can pull out of his bag this season that was simply not available last year.
The 2011-2012 Phoenix Suns team was made up of backups and the elderly. The team should have been competing for Anthony Davis, not a playoff spot. All credit for the team's relative success went to Steve Nash.
But Steve Nash was not the reason for the Suns success. Alvin Gentry was.
Gentry is the most unappreciated coach in the NBA. For most of his career, he has been placed with teams void of real chance to have success, but his teams have performed nonetheless. He did it in Phoenix when he was hired. In 2009 he inherited a team slightly better than .500.
A year later he took that same team to the Western Conference Finals. Last year he was handed a group of replacement players. Michael Redd, Hakim Warrick and Robin Lopez all had important roles on this team. Channing Frye started. Two other starters averaged 38.5 years of age. To show the how concrete the desperation was, Josh Childress (yes Josh Childress) played nearly 15 minutes a game. Without any good reason, Gentry and the Suns were in the playoff hunt until the 65th game of the year. It is no exaggeration to state that Gentry performed a miracle last season.
This year will again be a challenge because of all the new pieces, but this season Gentry actually has solid pieces to work with.
With improvements at every spot, and a potential superstar waiting to make his mark, Gentry is positioned to turn this Suns team into the league's biggest surprise.
The Suns aren't as good as the Lakers, Thunder, Spurs or the Clippers, and probably not as good as the Nuggets or the Grizzlies. Phoenix will compete for the final playoff spots with the Mavericks, Jazz, Trailblazers, Hornets, Timberwolves and Warriors (the Kings are a mess and this is the only mention they will get).
Starting with the Timberwolves: even if they play well after their stars return, it will be too late. The race will come down to a few games and with Kevin Love missing up to two months and Rubio out until mid-December, the T-Wolves are out before the season begins.
Houston is abuzz after they picked up the former Sun Devil and Thunder guard James Harden. The good news for the Rockets is that they picked up a good player in the trade. The bad news? They have one good player.
The Hornets are talented and on any given night might upset one of the league's best teams. But the 82-game schedule will be too much not only for the college sophomores on the roster, but also for Eric Gordon and his mending knee. The Hornets' time is coming, but not this season.
In Portland, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge will be fun to watch, but the 'Blazers are a mediocre team. The Jazz made some off-season moves, acquiring Marvin Williams and Mo Williams, but these adds don't make the team much better. They will compete as they did last year, for the eighth, ninth or 10th slot.
The Mavericks are the most overrated team in the West. They are old, as usual. Dirk will miss a few weeks after knee surgery. They now have O.J. Mayo, but O.J. Mayo hasn't been good since high school.
That leaves Golden State. The Warriors are the sexy pick for the Western Conference this year. They have lots of interesting pieces with Curry, Thompson, Lee and Bogut. Yet the team doesn't have a true point guard, has too many shot-happy players and won't play any defense. Phoenix is better than the Warriors.
And as always, one of the teams assumed to be very good won't be. Stock is high on the Nuggets and the Grizzlies, but these teams are both candidates for the "not as good as advertised" label and one of them will take a step back. If so, the Suns will step into their backslide and up their own playoff position.
The Suns were a borderline playoff team last year, kept what made them effective and improved at nearly every position. Alongside these truths, the other teams in the conference did not do much to help themselves. Against the prognostications of most experts, come April the Suns will be competing for the sixth slot in the Western Conference, not the first pick in the draft.