Ask anyone in the 602 and 480 area codes about the upcoming NBA season and they'll tell you the Suns should be preparing to defend their championship.
Had commissioner David Stern not suspended Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the bench after the Spurs' Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the scorer's table in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals, then the Suns likely would have finished the postseason with their own sweep of Cleveland in the NBA finals. That, at least, is the near-unanimous opinion of desert dwellers.
Coach Mike D'Antoni even called Stoudemire's and Diaw's decision to leave their seats "the most memorable moment" of Phoenix's season.
"I don't think we'll build on it," D'Antoni joked. "I think we'll just try to sit down next time."
That said, the Suns – as they have for each of the previous three seasons – once again figure to be standing atop the Pacific Division.
Here's the predicted order of finish:
1. Phoenix Suns
Allow us to introduce: Grant Hill, Brian Skinner, D.J. Strawberry and Alando Tucker.
Dearly departed: Kurt Thomas, James Jones, Jalen Rose, Pat Burke and Jumaine Jones.
Is that confetti in your hair? There's no reason for the Suns to think they can't finally break through to the NBA finals this season. Nash hasn't shown much sign of slowing down. Shawn Marion, despite asking to be traded, has played well in the preseason. Hill is a significant upgrade over James Jones and Phoenix's doctors expect Stoudemire to recover just fine after his latest knee scope.
How's Cancun in June? Trading Thomas for salary cap reasons cost Phoenix its best defender for Tim Duncan. Former Spur Sean Marks might squeeze into the rotation after playing well in the preseason, but defense isn't his specialty. The Suns also are still waiting for Stoudemire to improve his own defense – even if it's only from "atrocious" to simply "bad."
In the crosshairs: Marion asked for a trade after Phoenix turned down his request for a max extension, but he hasn't pouted or been a problem since camp opened. The Suns hope he'll continue to put aside his unhappiness long enough for the team to accomplish its goals.
Allow us to introduce: Marco Belinelli, Austin Croshere, Troy Hudson, Brandon Wright and Kosta Perovic.
Dearly departed: Jason Richardson, Adonal Foyle and Sarunas Jasikevicius.
Is that confetti in your hair? After stunning Dallas in the first round of the playoffs, the let-it-fly Warriors won't be catching anyone by surprise this season. Golden State's athleticism coupled with coach Don Nelson's unorthodox lineups can create matchup problems for nearly every team. Baron Davis also served notice – check out the singe marks on Andrei Kirilenko's spiked scalp – that, when healthy, he's one of the game's most dominant guards.
How's Cancun in June? The Warriors need to start rebounding if they want to go any farther in the playoffs. Then there's the little matter of Davis' contract extension. As in, he wants one or he might become a free agent after the season. Matt Barnes and Mickael Pietrus didn't get the paydays they were seeking, so both accepted short-term deals in hopes of cashing in next summer. Too much money on the mind?
In the crosshairs: Judged on his playoff performance alone, Davis seems worthy of the extension he's seeking. But he's also missed at least 15 games in each of the past five seasons because of injuries. Losing close to 20 pounds in the offseason could help keep him on the court longer.
Allow us to introduce: Derek Fisher and Javaris Crittenton.
Dearly departed: Smush Parker, Shammond Williams and Aaron McKie.
Is that confetti in your hair? For now, the Lakers still have Kobe Bryant. On many nights, that's usually enough to give them a chance to win. Fisher is nearing the end of his career, but he should provide some stability at point guard. If Lamar Odom recovers from shoulder surgery and Andrew Bynum taps into some of his potential, the Lakers should be in the hunt for a playoff berth.
How's Cancun in June? The Lakers might reach the postseason, but it's hard to see them doing much more than that. Even though Bryant has vowed not to be a distraction, his teammates will have a difficult time sidestepping the circus. And chances are Bryant's not going to be getting any happier as the season progresses.
In the crosshairs: The Lakers have so far refused to part with Bynum, much to Bryant's chagrin. But while owner Jerry Buss thinks Bynum deserves two more years before he can be fairly critiqued, the young center would be wise to reward that faith as soon as possible.
Allow us to introduce: Mikki Moore, Spencer Hawes and Orien Greene.
Dearly departed: Ronnie Price, Corliss Williamson and Vitaly Potapenko.
Is that confetti in your hair? Reggie Theus' playing resume gives him some credibility in the locker room, or at least more than his predecessor, Eric Musselman. But he's still a rookie coach, and he's going to need to convince Ron Artest to share the ball – and get everyone else to defend – if the Kings are going to have any success.
How's Cancun in June? Mike Bibby was nearly shipped to Cleveland during the summer, and he'll probably be on the block again as the trade deadline approaches. Artest can opt out of his contract this summer and rookie center Spencer Hawes, the team's lottery pick, might not be fully healthy until the end of November after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Kevin Martin looks like a potential All-Star, but that's probably not enough to get the Kings back to the playoffs.
In the crosshairs: Bibby played in every game last season but never seemed to shake his lingering wrist injury. He averaged 17.1 points, a four-point drop from the previous season, while shooting a career-worst 40.4 percent. His assists (4.7 per game) also were a career low. Sacramento twice turned down offers for Bibby from Cleveland but will probably look to move him if the season quickly turns sour.
Allow us to introduce: Brevin Knight, Ruben Patterson, Dan Dickau, Al Thornton, Josh Powell and Guillermo Diaz.
Dearly departed: Jason Hart, James Singleton and Daniel Ewing.
Is that confetti in your hair? Any thoughts the Clippers have of making the playoffs hinge on Elton Brand's return. The team says Brand, who ruptured his left Achilles' tendon during the summer, won't miss the entire season, but his teammates will have a hard time staying in the hunt until he gets back.
How's Cancun in June? The Clippers were already coping with Shaun Livingston's devastating knee injury when they lost Brand. Sam Cassell turns 38 next month and is coming off a season in which he often didn't know from night to night whether his body would allow him to play. Tim Thomas might be forced to fill in at power forward and Chris Kaman's production has dropped ever since he received his new contract.
In the crosshairs: Corey Maggette feuded with coach Mike Dunleavy through the first half of last season, but he responded well after moving into the starting lineup. After turning down a three-year, $25.5 million extension from the Clippers during the summer, Maggette almost certainly will opt out his contract at the end of the season. He can help himself and the Clippers by becoming a more willing defender.
- Amare Stoudemire