With Big Shaq Gone, the Leaner Phoenix Suns Can Get Back To Running
To many, February 6, 2008, represented the end of an era.
This was the day the Phoenix Suns seemingly abandoned their customary "seven seconds or less" style of play, clearly making a move towards adopting a more traditional, playoff-tested half-court style.
We all know what has transpired since.
Head coach Mike D'Antoni had trouble finding a place for Shaq in his offensive scheme, thus making it a difficult transition for the Suns.
They were then quickly ousted after just five games in the first round of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs.
Reportedly unhappy with the direction new Suns' General Manager Steve Kerr had chosen to take his club, D'Antoni was given permission to seek a job elsewhere, and subsequently bolted to the Big Apple to coach the Knicks.
With Phoenix, D'Antoni was 253-136, without an appearance in the NBA Finals.
Former back-to-back MVP award winner Steve Nash was vocal about his great relationship with D'Antoni, and was clearly not pleased with the coach's departure.
Kerr chose to replace D'Antoni with friend and former Milwaukee Bucks coach, Terry Porter.
Porter lasted just half a season with the Suns in 2008-09 before being fired with a disappointing 28-23 record.
Porter was replaced with longtime Suns assistant Alvin Gentry, who did a decent job, falling just short of reaching the playoffs.
Gentry has been retained and will be the Suns' coach going into the 2009-10 season.
Last month, the Suns traded Shaq to the Cavaliers in exchange for Sasha Pavlovic and Ben Wallace.
Wallace was just acquired to save money, and was promptly bought out for $10 million two weeks ago.
The Suns lost forward Matt Barnes to free agency, while they re-signed forward Grant Hill, signed power forward Channing Frye, and drafted forward Earl Clark in the first round of the draft.
On Monday, Nash signed a two-year contract extension worth about $22 million to remain with Phoenix for the next three seasons.
So, the question is: after finishing 46-36 and falling just short of the playoffs last season, how will the Suns fare in 2009-10?
The consensus as of today says that most of the top teams in the Western Conference, including the L.A. Lakers, San Antonio, Dallas, Portland (with Andre Miller), and New Orleans (if they add Okafor) have all improved from where they were last season.
Where does this leave Phoenix?
I think the Suns will go into next season flying under the radar, and wouldn't be at all surprised if they came out and won at least 50 games again.
Although they didn't receive much in return for him in terms of on-the-floor talent, I do believe the Suns are a better team without Shaquille O'Neal.
His departure once again frees up the paint for Steve Nash, helping to open the door for the pick-and-roll play with Amar'e Stoudemire that was so dangerous until Shaq was added to the mix.
It also means that Phoenix will flat-out be able to run up and down the floor at will again.
Second-year center Robin Lopez is likely to see his playing time rapidly increase next season, and his contributions combined with those of Louis Amundson, Stoudemire, Frye, and Clark gives the Suns a nice collection of big men that can get up and down the floor with Nash and company.
Second-year point guard Goran Dragic, who struggled through much of his rookie campaign last season, looked much more comfortable during summer league play in Las Vegas, and should warrant more minutes, thus sparing the aging Nash from having to play too much.
Grant Hill, though 36-years-old, enjoyed something of a resurgence season last year, averaging 12 points for the Suns.
The departure of Matt Barnes should give Hill more playing time and more time to flourish playing in the running style.
Jason Richardson is a supremely athletic two-guard, who was able to fully showcase his talents playing in a run-and-gun style under Don Nelson for the Golden State Warriors.
Playing a fast game once again next season in his first full season in Phoenix should be beneficial for Richardson, and he will be a very dangerous player on the wing.
Guard Leandro Barbosa remains one of the most potent bench threats in the league, possessing the unique ability to essentially score at will at any time with his combination of skill and speed.
Without question, however, the Phoenix Suns will go as far as Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire can take them.
While Nash is getting up there in age, he still averaged about 16 points and 10 assists per game last season, without the freedom to run at will.
Nash was an MVP under D'Antoni because he was able to run the offense so effectively and so efficiently.
I wouldn't be surprised at all if his numbers from last season actually went back up next season.
Stoudemire is coming off of major eye surgery, but that shouldn't be much of a hindrance.
He will also be in a contract year, meaning he'll likely be at his best to attempt to lock up a max-contract next summer.
He's one of the most dominating post players in the league.
To go with his repertoire on the low block, Stoudemire has developed a deadly mid-range game, allowing him to score it from just about anywhere on the basketball floor.
While I would still not consider them favorites to win the Western Conference, I think the Suns have had an extremely effective offseason, and they could once again find themselves amongst the league's elite.
They still have a fairly talented roster, and if they are able to find the right blend with the coaching, look out for the 2009-10 Phoenix Suns.
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