Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's late-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Phoenix Suns.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
Rare is a team this aesthetically pleasing turn out this depressing, so you're really going to have to work on your cheery outlook this season while approaching the Phoenix Suns.
The front office was relegated to merely retaining what it had last year as the Suns missed the playoffs. The team will be allowed to utilize Marcin Gortat more often in 2011-12 despite his broken thumb, Jared Dudley's ascension has been fun to watch, and Grant Hill remains a sturdy defender, but beyond that there's not a whole lot on paper to get excited about.
The games aren't played on paper, says the hack sportswriter. They are played on a shiny court, 33 times this season out in Arizona. 33 times elsewhere, says the math major, and the Suns will be fun to watch in each and every one of the contests that Steve Nash plays in. There are entertaining players elsewhere on the roster -- Dudley's smarts and corner work are a good watch, I love watching Grant Hill go left, Gortat can throw down and Shannon Brown is a powderkeg -- but it's Nash's passing and shooting accuracy that made us such fans of his on that same shiny court a little over 15 years ago.
The best hope is the worst for Suns fans. That the season will be so desultory and depressing that even the Suns will finally cave in and trade Nash to a team that seems one Steve Nash away from a title. That's 12 teams, by the way.
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It really is the only hope, because the times have more or less grown up around the Suns. They still might lead the NBA in possessions this year, but Nash-led track outfits are not the novelty they once were. That's a good thing, and we should appreciate it, though this switch and Nash's loyalty may have cost him a ring.
So, yes, the most depressing cheerful outlook yet takes on a group that might be the most entertaining squad in the league at times. Such is the collective fandom and respect for Nash. If anything, look forward to that 66 times, Phoenix. Fans of 29 other teams will be as well.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Phoenix Suns
I'm so excited for you!
Sadly, there doesn't appear to be a ton to look forward to with the Suns this year -- no hotshot rookie, no big-ticket signing and, frankly, no real hope of this being the year that Steve Nash's boys rally 'round and win a ring for their boy. But instead of punting on this entirely, let's take a moment to get excited for Jared Dudley, who looks to be on his way to entering the season as a starter for the first time in his five-year NBA career.
Back when Dudley was starring for Boston College, if you'd told me that he'd eventually work his way into a starting gig, I wouldn't have been particularly shocked -- he had a pace, fluidity and assuredness about his game. He always seemed to find the right seam, get to the right spot on the floor and come up with the loose ball (whenever BC played my Providence Friars, at least). I remember thinking that, even if he didn't seem to have the physical tools to be a star, feel for the game could translate to the pros.
What would have surprised me, though, would be finding out that the 6-foot-7 Dudley, who earned second-team AP All-American honors as a hybrid forward would eventually crack an NBA starting five as a shooting guard -- that the guy who got on NBA teams' radar screens by doing yeoman's work in the mid-range game and on the boards would establish himself as one of the more accurate, efficient long-range bombers and capable wing defenders in the league. That I wouldn't have seen coming. But that's what's happened.
The Suns signed former Los Angeles Lakers guard Shannon Brown to a one-year, $3.5 million deal to compete for the starting off-guard job. But after a strong preseason that followed two-and-a-half seasons of establishing a rotation spot, changing and refining his game to better fill his role, and continually giving a level of effort that has made him a fan favorite in Phoenix, it looks like Dudley will toe the jump circle on opening night. In a league where hardworking players don't always get their just rewards, it's cool to see things go right.
So big up yourself, Jared. You are now BDL's most successful contributor. Until my prog rock band gets off the ground, obviously.
I'm so worried for you!
In a micro sense, if I was a Suns fan, I'd worry that the front office running my favorite team thinks a second unit on which either Ronnie Price or Sebastian Telfair try to run offense through Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress will actually score enough points to be competitive when Steve Nash isn't on the floor. Then I'd worry that maybe they don't think that, that maybe the slack-jaw-inspiring backup point guard situation is instead intended to convince Alvin Gentry to keep Nash on the floor for 40 minutes a game, and that maybe Lance Blanks is secretly trying to use up all of Steve Nash's life force so that he just crumbles into dust when he leaves Phoenix at the end of the season. (But not during the season, of course, because Nash won't force his way out of town and because Robert Sarver would never trade away the one thing selling Suns tickets).
In a macro sense, I'm worried -- for Nash, for Suns fans in particular, for people who love the game in general -- that this amazing era of basketball in Phoenix is going to end with a whimper, with consecutive trips to the lottery and without a championship, and that as a result, we're going to wind up relegating it to the recesses of our collective memory, like it was just another time and just another team. It wasn't. For a lot of basketball fans, it was more than that.
But then, as Eric Freeman told me a couple of weeks back when I started working on this series, some things are not worries; some things are just facts. Barring a miraculous run this season, the quiet fizzle of one of the brightest lights in recent NBA's history looks to be one of them.
I have no idea what to make of you!
Hey, what happened, Robin Lopez? Two seasons ago, you were a pretty important part of the Suns lineup, helping the team to a 22-9 record when you started, playing well in the postseason and looking like an X-factor in the Western Conference Finals. Then, given the chance to start last year, you kind of fell off a cliff.
While you were averaging the same number of points per 36 minutes of floor time, your field goal percentage dropped precipitously from 58.8 percent to 50.1 percent and your usage rate went up, meaning you were using more possessions but doing significantly less with them. Your offensive rebounding rate dropped three full points, your per-minute block numbers went down and you started fouling more. Pretty much all the cool stuff you used to do went out the window and was, at least allegedly, replaced by not-cool stuff like trying to sabotage playing-time rival Marcin Gortat.
I'm kidding about the Gortat thing, but I'm honestly asking: Are you the guy who hustled, defended and played himself into a starting job two seasons ago, or the guy who frittered away a chance to take feeds from Steve Nash and basically gave Gortat a job last season?
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If you're the former, well, good -- every team can use two starting-caliber big men. If you play that way and earn your keep, a few good things could happen. Maybe you win your job back. Maybe you don't, but your improved play impresses some other team in need of extra bulk up front, and they sign you to an offer sheet when you're a restricted free agent. Maybe Phoenix decides they're happier with Gortat and let you walk, and then you get a shot at cracking into your new team's rotation and starting fresh. Or, maybe Phoenix decides to keep you on board, so they match the offer sheet and give you a raise. Sweet!
If you're the latter, though ... well, that's a bummer. Just one fewer thing to be excited about in the desert this year.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
PHOENIX SUNS: "The Killing"
In 1956, long before AMC ran a stupid murder mystery series that announced itself as half-baked in the pilot, not in the finale like everyone thinks, Stanley Kubrick directed a really excellent heist movie called "The Killing." Long-time crook Sterling Hayden recruits a ragtag group of accomplices for One Last Job, except those guys are ragtag for a reason and screw up the whole plan at every opportunity. What helps the movie stand out, apart from the peerless lighting, is a foreboding sense of fatalism throughout the whole picture. It's always clear that the heist is going to end poorly.
This season is free-agent-to-be Steve Nash's One Last Job with the Suns, but he's unfortunately been given a crew not much better than that of "The Killing." There are good players involved, like Grant Hill and Marcin Gortat, but the days of playing next to multiple All-Stars are long gone. A good season for the Suns would be any sort of playoff appearance, and even that seems like an optimistic goal.
Nash is going to play basketball after this season -- if form holds he'll probably sign with a playoff mainstay in need of some additional offensive firepower. But there's still a feeling that he's playing out a few of his last really excellent seasons on a team that doesn't know what to do with him. What's the point when the situation can't possibly end well?