The Phoenix Suns have had trouble competing against the San Antonio Spurs over the years, and have had specific problems containing big man Tim Duncan. The Suns felt they had found the answer when they made a midseason trade last year that sent star forward Shawn Marion to the Miami HEAT in exchange for aging vet Shaquille OíNeal. Phoenix would run into the Spurs in the first round of the Playoffs, but fell in just five games. The addition of Shaq led many to believe that the Suns were heading in a different direction, possibly away from the run and gun style of play. When Mike DíAntoni left for New York, this belief was more than solidified. With new head coach Terry Porter in tow, it will be interesting to see how the players adapt to the changes in the system. Whether or not it brings them closer to the title is horse of a different color.
Offense: Since Steve Nash made his introduction with Phoenix in 2004, the Suns have had one of the most effective and efficient offenses in the NBA. With the addition of Shaq last season, though, the thought was that the Suns offense would slow down to be able to integrate the Big Fella in the post. The offense, however, didnít seem to suffer too much. Even though the Suns had to give Shaq his fair share of touches, the offense was still surprisingly fast-paced. From the sounds of it, Terry Porter isnít planning on changing up the offense too much, which will make it easier for the current players to adapt to the smaller changes, as well as possible defensive transformations. The Suns will be one of the highest scoring teams in the league once again and despite having Shaq in the lineup, they will still be a fast-paced team.
Defense: If there has been one chink in the Sunsí armor, it has been their defense. The Suns have had immense troubles containing the bigger players in the league, especially Tim Duncan. Having Shaq in the post is a big plus, but the Suns still had their problems. Phoenix management has obviously more than admitted to the lack of defensive pressure on the floor as the primary reason of for Shaq was to gain an interior presence. The changing of coaches was another clear sign, and Terry Porter will be expected to bring a defensive mindset to this team. It will take some time to adjust, but the players should gain an understanding of Porterís defensive plays without too much of a hassle. Amare Stoudemire could be a key to the team defensive schemes as he is quick, strong, and a great shot-blocker. Stoudemire, however, focuses most of his attention on the offensive end of the floor, and sometimes gives a half-hearted effort on defense. If Porter can give him the confidence to be a truly impactful defensive stopper, Stoudemire could be a stellar game-changer on both ends of the floor.
On the perimeter, the Suns have Raja Bell, who is one of the best, and most underrated defenders in the game. His involvement in Porterís rotation should be vital. The Suns also brought in former Warrior Matt Barnes. Barnes is just as valuable defensively as he is offensively and will be looking to make an impact after a not so spectacular season last year in Oakland. With Bell and Barnes, the perimeter is solid, but both Steve Nash and Leandro Barbosa are susceptible to manipulation by quick or strong guards. Both players have the ability to stay in front of their man, but exert so much energy offensively that they just donít have the extra push on defense. Perhaps changes will be made to the minutes and offensive implementation of these two players if it helps their defensive attitudes, but that is all just speculation at this point.
Strengths: The up-tempo style is still the biggest strength for the Phoenix Suns. The addition of Shaq didnít have much of a negative effect against this, and in fact, having his size and power on the inside will give the Suns versatility on offense that most teams cannot say they share. The offense is still the bread and butter for this team, so continuing the up-tempo play is worthwhile unless they begin to get run out of arenas, which seems very unlikely.
Weaknesses: Defense has been the major weakness for the Suns over the years. The belief that a fire-powered offense without much defense can win a title has been acknowledged as specious by Phoenix management. The hope is to mix a little defense in with the offense with beliefs that it will take them to the title. It will take time, but they could become a solid defensive team, but that is no guarantee.
Five Players to Watch:
Steve Nash - Stevie Nash is getting up there in years, but he is still the most valuable player on the Phoenix Suns. He was second to only Chris Paul in assists last year, and while the offensive style had a part to play in that, the uncanny court-vision and unbelievable passing abilities of Nash are the primary reasons for his numbers. The idea has been tossed around that Nash will see less playing time this year and perhaps even sit a few games so that he isnít so worn out come Playoff time. Nash plays so hard every night that he tires himself out by yearís end, so this might not be a bad idea. The addition of Goran Dragic will be helpful in case this does happen, but either way, Steve Nash will still be the leader of this team, both on and off the floor.
Shaquille OíNeal - Shaq is another Phoenix player who is getting a little old, but his effect on the team will still be very strong. His numbers will be low, by Shaq standards, but his impact will be noticed, as it was last year. He brings an intimidating presence to the post on both sides of the floor, and opens up the court for the smaller players to get their shots. What is most valuable, however, is that with Shaq in the lineup, Amare Stoudemire has been able to open up his game and have a higher impact on the offense. This year, Shaq should play the same role, and that will create many new opportunities for the offensive players to expand their games.
Amare Stoudemire - This team will soon be Amareís, if it isnít already. After the addition of Shaq last season, Stoudemireís game was off the hook and he had reached new heights that many people never would have seen possible after his surgery. The one glaring hole in his game, however, was his defense. Now, STAT seems to want to focus a chunk of his game on defense, which will only benefit him, as well as the entire team. With Shaq at his side, Amare is able to step down to the power forward position and is able to create his own scoring opportunities rather than waiting for Steve Nash to find him around the basket. The sky is still the limit for Stoudemire, and if he can latch on to coach Porterís defensive schemes, he could be the MVP of the NBA.
Grant Hill - No player in the league has worked harder at getting back to the NBA despite suffering injury after injury after injury than Grant Hill. Hill had a very beneficial tenure for Phoenix last season and it couldnít have happened to a better guy. Hill brings leadership and experience to the Suns, which are values that will only help the team. It would be nice to see the Suns make it past the first round of the Playoffs this year, if just for Grant Hill. Yes, I have a bias.
Leandro Barbosa - The possibility of a trade still looms, but Barbosa is a vital cog to Phoenixís offensive machine. The Brazilian Blur, as he is called by his fans, is a deadly shooter who will see plenty of open shots with the lane being clogged by both Shaq and Amare. His clutch shooting and blinding speed make him the perfect fit in the up-tempo offensive style. His defense, however, has been less than reliable. In the past, Barbosa had shown signs of being a strong backcourt defender, but that has since evaporated. He can still stay in front of his man and force the occasional steal, but many times he risks going for a steal at the expense of the teamís overall defense. Barbosa still has the potential to be a solid defender, but until he shows it, the playing time might start to drop for the Road Runner.
Title Hopes: The Phoenix Suns still have a shot at the title despite the belief that the window of opportunity has closed. If Shaq can be inserted more successfully into the rotation, and the team begins to play a little more defense, there is a definite possibility that the Suns could find themselves in the NBA Finals. With the Lakers, Hornets, Jazz, Rockets, and those bullies the Spurs, the path to the Finals is a treacherous road to pass. A first round exit is much more likely for this ultra-talented team.
Prediction: 2nd Place, Pacific Division