Suns at 8-4, Facing Lakers Showdown, Where Does Phoenix Go From Here?

Michael BairCorrespondent INovember 18, 2008

The Phoenix Suns, considered by most sportswriters to have past their championship window, have started off the season 8-4, second in the western conference and 1.5 games behind the Lakers going into Thursday’s showdown with Kobe and the Lake Show.

While the departure of Mike D’Antoni and aged stars Steve Nash, Shaquille O’Neal and Grant Hill a year older not many imagined the Suns being where they are even so early in the season.

The Suns led the league in scoring early on in the season, since dropping to fifth at 100.5 games, silencing any critics who said that the Suns offensive output would drop without D’Antoni’s "hell on wheels" philosophy.

While Coach Terry Porter has stressed defense and a more balanced approach, the Suns still move the ball well and have established an intimidating post presence pairing Amare Stoudemire with the rejuvenated Shaquille O’Neal.

O’Neal’s strong play has been a big reason for the Suns’ success.

Shaq is averaging 15.1 points and 7.8 rebounds and has had two dominant games scoring 29 points twice, his most points in over a year.

Shooting 59.4 percent from the field and an above average 59.7 percent from the line, Shaq is fifth in the league in field goal percentage at 36 years young.

Shaq’s presence has allowed Amare Stoudemire to dominate. Stoudemire ranks ninth in the league in scoring at 23.3 points per game to go along with his 8.4 boards.

At 58.2 percent from the field, Stoudemire sits directly behind O’Neal in field goal percentage at sixth in the league.

Stoudemire has already turned in his best game as a pro this year putting up 49 points, 11 boards, six assists, five steals and two blocks in a fantasy dream game two weeks ago at Indiana.

How can the Suns sustain and possibly improve on their early season success?

A lot of it is riding on health. Nash, O’Neal and Hill all have a long history of injuries and all are elder statesman. The cooperation of father time would greatly benefit the Suns.

Not to mention microfracture patient Amare Stoudemire, who has missed an entire year in his career already at 26, but appears to have fully recovered and hasn’t missed a game due to injury in recent history.

An injury to any of these players, especially Stoudemire or Nash would most likely doom any championship aspirations the Suns have.

Assuming they stay healthy, the development of a solid bench throughout the season is the biggest X-factor for the Suns.

Goran Dragic has been streaky at best in his early season grooming as Steve Nash’s backup and first round pick Robin Lopez has shown potential in his limited time.

Rookie Sean Singletary has been getting more time as of late, as has free agent pickup Louis Admunson, both performing fairly well.

Porter has stressed developing the bench, and followed through, playing the entire roster on some nights, a 180-degree shift from Mike D’Antoni’s seven and eight man rotations.

The bench looks solid boasting Grant Hill, Leandro Barbosa, Boris Diaw, Goran Dragic, Robin Lopez, Louis Admunson and Sean Singletary.

The Suns look to be the deepest they have been in the Steve Nash years and if the trio of rookies can improve throughout the season and Diaw and Barbosa live up to the potential that got them big money after the 2006 playoffs, Phoenix can brag of a formidable bench for the first time in recent memory.

The Suns defense has also been brought back from the dead under Porter. Phoenix is giving up 97 points a game this year, down from 105 a year ago.

Continued defensive improvement is another key for the Suns, who hardly discussed defense under Mike D’Antoni.

The Suns still have many flaws ranking second to last in both turnovers and offensive rebounds. Both must improve as the season goes on.

The Suns fast start has sparked optimism for me as a Suns fan, as this team has many new pieces and a new coach to assimilate, and should only continue to improve as the team gets more experience together.

If the Suns can continue to improve and mesh as a unit, they could enter the playoffs the best equipped to win since Nash revived the franchise.

Staying healthy, continued improvement of defense and development of the bench, along with less sloppy play and better offensive rebounding is the key to the Suns reaching the playoffs with a high seed and having success in the postseason.

However, I think that everything needs to start with a win over the Lakers. Expect Shaq to be in top form against Andrew Bynum, leading to a great game between the West’s top two teams.