For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the he's-not-there-anymore Phoenix Suns.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
We were about to log in the 21,000-some words about our take on the Phoenix Suns to Ball Don't Lie's steam-powered publisher when this tweet, from the Arizona Republic's Paul Coro, hit the wire:
Season opener, against another run and gun team, 16,000 out of nearly 19,000 tickets, "distributed." They will have 40 home games and 81 total to slog through after that.
After peeling back the layers and diving into rebuilding, a year too late perhaps, it is pretty remarkable to note that the Suns actually finished at the .500 mark during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign. It's a tribute to Steve Nash, obviously, but the mark is also due to the fine work of the team's coaching and medical staff; something to think about when coach Alvin Gentry is perhaps the first to be fired during the 2012-13 season.
Gentry isn't new'ish GM Lon Babby's guy, but at this point Babby probably isn't even sure he has a "guy" yet. The Suns GM did what he could in dealing Nash for a pair of lower-rung first round draft selections in July, and faced with no obvious rebuilding parts to square themselves upon (the Suns may have been done a favor when the New Orleans Hornets matched guard Eric Gordon's maximum contract offer), Babby merely attempted to create a passable group of players to work through 2012-13 with. In a seller's market, it was his only choice.
This is why Luis Scola is around, and Goran Dragic will be asked to stir the drink not as a game-changer off the bench (as he worked under Nash), but as lead scoring dog in the backcourt. It's why, in a less endearing move, Michael Beasley and his 18-foot jump shots have been added for a potential three years and $18 million total. It's why the Suns and their medical staff are taking a swipe at Jermaine O'Neal, just to sop up minutes as Channing Frye sits out the year following his enlarged heart diagnosis.
A stopover that hopes to look at the very least entertaining, but one that will probably result in a statewide batch of ennui; weird for a team that was appointment viewing by NBAniks even in the Nash years that didn't see this team in the postseason.
Weird, for an ostensible farm club, the Suns haven't really loaded up the roster with would-be rotation fillers. This puts an odd onus on Scola, Marcin Gortat,and Dragic — three players who have never averaged over 32.6 minutes a game in a season.
The offensive hallmarks should remain, with an emphasis on ball movement that wasn't around during Nash's last few years in Phoenix. Steve is this league's best passer, but he does dominate the ball in ways that you won't see with this year's model. Undoubtedly Scola will be asked to initiate movement from the high post, feeding cutters like Dragic and second year big man Markieff Morris, and Gortat will be asked to find a way to sustain that 15-points in 32-minutes rate while making more than half his shots without the luxury of Nash's sometimes breathtaking dump down passes to the big man.
It will be a rough year — even the squad's younger players like Beasley, Wesley Johnson, and Morris aren't much to behold in the athleticism department, and Kendall Marshall's eventual move into the role of a point guard to be trusted upon will take a while. Though Marshall was great value and a needed pickup at that position, late lottery point guard prospects usually don't come flying out of the gate.
As such, in a league getting faster and faster, the Suns will be left behind. By construction, as is the feature of rebuilding teams, but also in literal terms.
With that in place, however, the team's various top players are an engaging watch in terms of individual play, and Gentry shouldn't have to feel the pressure of a chopping block just because he was Steve Kerr's hire instead of Babby. We expect dour mugs and dwindling attendance in Phoenix this season, but this doesn't have to be the case. The Suns won't win much, but they will be worth a watch.
Projected record: 28-54
Fear Itself with Dan Devine: Hurricane-Hastened Bullet-Point Edition
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
Because the world as Brooklyn knows it might be ending, he will try to do so more quickly.
What Makes You Scary: The screen game should still be potent.
-- The Suns finished second in the league in points scored per possession by the roll man in pick-and-roll scenarios, and eighth in the league in PPP from the ball-handler on such plays, according to Synergy Sports Technology's play-tracking data. That level of productivity is due largely to the pick-and-roll excellence of point guard Steve Nash, one of the best at orchestrating off the screen in the history of the game and a top-flight table-setter.
-- Nash's most frequent partner in the pick-and-roll was Marcin Gortat, one-third of whose offensive plays came as a P&R roll man. The burly Polish center was extremely effective as he streaked to the basket, converting better than 63 percent of those opportunities and producing 1.23 points per possession, 10th-best in the NBA.
-- Nash, obviously, is gone, but that pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop magic doesn't need to be. To fill their starting point guard slot, the Suns brought back free agent Goran Dragic on a four-year deal, and while the 26-year-old Slovenian lefty isn't quite as crafty and efficient off the screen as Nash is (again, few triggermen ever have been) he's still quite effective, more explosive in attacking the rim than Nash is and, with some adjustments to the reads required of him in Phoenix's primary sets, should keep Gortat's talent for diving to the rim and finishing moving forward a vital part of the Suns' offense.
-- Nash also helped make long-range shooting big man Channing Frye into a weapon off pick-and-pop plays, drawing a defending big's attention with penetration just long enough to allow Frye to slip behind the arc, where he hit 34.6 percent of his tries last season.
-- Dragic unfortunately won't be able to team with Frye and utilize his long-range gifts this year, but he will have a familiar pick-and-pop partner in power forward Luis Scola, amnestied by the Houston Rockets to make room for the future (which we now know to be quite hirsute indeed) and picked up on the cheap to man the four-spot in Houston. The Argentinian doesn't have Frye's 3-point range -- he's shot just 17 long balls in five NBA seasons, and made only one of them -- but he's a reliable midrange option for a big man, hitting 46.8 percent of his tries from between 10 and 15 feet out and 44 percent from between 16 and 23 feet away last year, according to Hoopdata's shot location statistics.
-- The Suns figure to drop off from last season's No. 8-ranked offensive efficiency by dint of losing a legendary facilitator like Nash, but if Dragic can find that old familiar groove with Scola and quickly develop a rhythm with Gortat, the damage might not be as bad as many would think.
What Should Make You Scared: Relying on Michael Beasley. After four seasons in the NBA, we know that Michael Beasley can score (he's averaged 19.5 points per 36 minutes during his career) and that he likes to shoot (he's averaged 17.3 field-goal attempts per-36), which means we know that Michael Beasley's not a super efficient scorer. He hasn't worked a whole lot on anything else in his game, though, which is why the No. 2 pick in the 2008 NBA draft is on his third team in a five-year career and largely considered a circling-the-drain type of prospect before his 24th birthday.
So we enter another year reading stories about how Beasley's hoping to find a permanent home, looking for a coach who understands him, searching for a system that can help him develop into the All-Star that all that talent suggests lies just beneath the surface, just waiting to break free. We want to believe that it's possible, because we've seen the glimpses of how freely he can score, and we remember all those double-doubles at Kansas State, and we harbor an irrational love for lefties. And we have visions of Beasley beating slower fours off the bounce and free-jackin' shots in Alvin Gentry's up-and-down system -- the Suns have played at the league's fourth-, eighth- and ninth-fastest pace in Gentry's three years at the helm -- and, in an offense that looks like it could use all the offensive firepower it can get, finally becoming the kind of quick-scoring lightning bolt that can change games. (For the better, I mean.)
It's just that every time I get past that initial image of a triumphant Beas, his blowout looking crispy-custom in that dry desert heat, the next thing I see is a clanged jumper, a failure to even attempt to check his man on the run-out, a fast-break bucket the other way to cap a 9-0 run, an exasperated Gentry calling timeout and Wesley Johnson taking off his warmups to go check in. Like a lot of Suns fans who'd like to see something special and surprising come of a roster that doesn't look like a legitimate postseason threat out west, I hope that I'm wrong ... but with Beasley, I fear it's more likely we were just all wrong four years ago.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
Since the fall of 2004, the Suns have quite clearly organized themselves around the unique talents of point guard Steve Nash, an offensive savant who also happens to handle the ball more often than any other player in the NBA (in a sense of time of possession, not usage rate). Now that he's in a Lakers uniform, the Suns have to re-conceive their entire operation. After a summer in which the organization attempted to reload, this task might be more difficult than the franchise braintrust appear to think.
To be sure, the Suns made some nice moves this offseason, adding scoring point guard Goran Dragic, drafting a point guard with excellent vision in Kendall Marshall, and picking up several other players who can at least be useful pieces in the right context. On the other hand, there is simply a major talent gap on the roster, to the point where it's not insane to think that the Suns will be the worst team in the NBA this season. After all, we're talking about a squad whose coach has actively encouraged Michael Beasley to shoot more.
The problem with the Suns, really, is that many of their holdover players figure to have very different roles with Nash gone. Center Marcin Gortat has been a very good player, for instance, but he clearly benefited greatly from having Nash around to create for him. With Dragic and/or Marshall in the lineup instead, we can't assume that Gortat will be the same player statistically. The entire form of the offense has changed.
There are ways that the Suns could improve without Nash, primarily at the defensive end. But with this group of players and no clear first-option (though Beasley will certainly consider himself to be that guy), it's unclear what this team intends to be in the short term. By all indications, the Suns will be in for a lengthy period of trial and error. In truth, they might not rediscover an identity until next spring's lottery, when they find out which rookie will try to become their next franchise player.