We've all seen it: The Phoenix Suns have run circles around their competition the last two years.
Their success has been nothing if not impressive. Indeed, the Suns made an almost instantaneous transformation from a 29-win team in 2004 to a Western Conference Finals unit in 2005 and 2006. Phoenix's secret? The acquisition of Steve Nash, and the installation of a breakneck, shoot-first-ask-questions-later style of play.
But can it work for everybody?
It was only a matter of time before other teams jumped on the small-ball bandwagon. The Celtics, already stacked with young gunners, passed on Brandon Roy in the draft in favor of Sebastian Telfair, who they envision as a quarterback for their up-tempo attack. Golden State hired Don Nelson to institute a similar system. The Raptors hired the architect of the Suns' strategy, Bryan Colangelo, to run their franchise—and then watched Colangelo ship promising big man Charlie Villanueva to Milwaukee for the lighting-quick T.J. Ford. Washington and Seattle have also established their own up-tempo styles, bringing to six the number of teams who have fully bought into the Phoenix model.
Of the six imitators, only Golden State has a winning record through the first two weeks of the 2006-2007 season.
And the question: What gives?
Sure, instituting a new offense isn't the easiest thing in the world—but the Suns made it look so simple. And sure, there's only one Steve Nash out there—but Baron Davis, T.J. Ford, Luke Ridnour, and Gilbert Arenas aren't exactly slouches. So why are the nouveau fastbreak teams taking such a pounding?
Put simply, not every exception proves a rule.
When people point to Phoenix as evidence that a running team can win fifty-plus games in the regular season and have success in the playoffs, they don't realize that the Suns are what statisticians like to call an "outlier." The team should be viewed as an anomaly, not a model for success. Despite what the Suns have done in the last two seasons, defense always has and always will win championships in the NBA.
So what has made Nash's squad different? The truth is that Phoenix had three things going for it in 2005 and 2006 that none of the new wanna-be's can match:
First, the Suns caught the NBA by surprise with their reckless, all-offense style. They got some help from the league office on that front with a series of subtle-yet-significant rule changes that favored scoring...which Nash and the boys, to their credit, were quick to exploit.
Secondly, Phoenix in the last two seasons has boasted a versatile group of big men who could run the floor, shoot the rock, and play good individual defense—even if it wasn't a team focus. In '04-'05 they had three big men balling at an all-star level; they've since kind of lost one (Amare Stoudemire) and kind of gained another (Boris Diaw).
Last but not least, they've had the best distributor in the game playing absolutely out of his mind. Let's face it: Steve Nash is one of a kind. No one—not Baron Davis, not T.J. Ford, not anybody—can do what he does.
And no other team can do what the Suns do, as the stats bear out. Last year, five of the league's ten best defensive squads—based on opponent field goal percentage—made it to the conference semifinals. Of the ten worst units, only one had that kind of success. The lucky winners? You guessed it: the Phoenix Suns.
So here's my message to front office big shots around the NBA: Watch for the signs. If the only time your center sprints is to inbound the ball; if your wings start jacking up three-pointers as if their hands were on fire; if your coaching staff starts saying your team needs to "get up and down the court," or needs guys who can "run the floor"—
Run away. Fast.