Suns Basketball: A Love Story

Boy falls for girl.

Boy loses girl.

Boy gets girl back.

The Phoenix Suns are counting on a happy ending of their own this season.

 


(NBAE Photos)

Under the guidance of Coach Mike D’Antoni, the Suns brought the NBA a passionate, exciting style of basketball and fans couldn’t help but fall in love. The fast pace, the unselfish spirit, and a sense of genuine joy were the hallmarks of a team that proudly brought fun back in style.

Perhaps everyone got spoiled on the excitement. Maybe it was the all-too-early exit from last year’s playoffs. Whatever the reason, there was a feeling that fun was getting harder to find. The Suns entered the season with a serious goal – championship or bust.

The team got off to a hot start, but it wasn’t long before the team’s potential was questioned. Despite claiming the best record in an intensely competitive Western Conference, there was a sense that something wasn’t quite right. Whether it was chemistry or matchups, Steve Kerr candidly told reporters, “Ultimately – going into the playoffs – would we have felt comfortable with what we had? Maybe not.” [Read more...]

Land of the Giants

Nearly a week after the most dominant big man in NBA history moved to Phoenix, every journalist, fan, analyst, GM, coach and blogger has pontificated on the ups and downs of the deal. The shotgun blasts of opinion have riddled the Internet – and everyone (of course) is dealing in absolutes. The overwhelming sentiment is a combination of the following:

  • Shaq has nothing left in the tank
  • The Suns gave up too much (Shawn Marion)
  • This officially marks the end of the Suns trademark run & gun offense
  • Phoenix has mortgaged its future for one last, desperate attempt at a title

People much smarter than I have addressed all of these points, but think about trade in the context of this question:

Before the Shaq trade, did you feel confident the Suns would win the 2008 NBA Championship? I know you HOPED they would win, and justifiably felt that they could have at least one Larry O’Brien trophy if not for a couple of unfortunate injuries and suspensions the last 3 seasons. But did you know this year would be different?

I think GM Steve Kerr presented it well by saying that he felt the Suns had a “punchers chance” of winning the title this year. If the matchups fell just right and our team got really hot at the right time, everything could fall into place.

After watching Shaq practice on Monday, I told Mike D’Antoni I wished I could be as out-of-shape as Shaq. 320 pounds, 11% body fat – are you kidding me? As a life-long Suns fan, it was almost surreal to see a true big man with Suns gear on. No disrespect to the centers that have graced our franchise through the years, but none was as big or dominant as Shaq. Amaré looks like a 5th grader standing next to him.

The truth is, none of us know how the remainder of the season will play out. Sports compel us for many reasons, but one of the biggest is its unpredictability. At what point do you think New York Giants fans thought that this was their championship season? About 7:00 last Sunday night when the clock hit zero? Before the season even began, their All-Pro running back (Tiki Barber) retired, questioning the leadership abilities of both the head coach and quarterback on his way out the door. They began 0-2 and lost one of their best offensive players (Jeremy Shockey) to injury. They faced seemingly insurmountable odds in the playoffs – they couldn’t possibly win at Dallas AND at Green Bay, could they? Even then, Super Bowl 42 seemed to be merely a coronation to the Patriots’ perfect season. Even when New York regained the lead in the 4th quarter – hadn’t we seen this movie before? Didn’t you just KNOW Brady would lead the Pats down the field for a game-winning TD? But sports isn’t scripted, it’s the ultimate reality TV.

So the Giants pulled the big upset, and now the Suns’ giant hopes to do the same.

Why Phoenix Made the Deal for Shaq


Eddie Johnson lists the top 5 reasons the Suns made the Shaquille O’Neal trade. 

(NBAE Photos)

Then when the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol, my mind started to wonder and mainly because there are two teams that the Suns view as huge hurdles to the finals: the Lakers and the Spurs.

I again started to worry because it meant more Shawn Marion trade rumors and one more round of those rumors could really destroy any progress the Suns made since the Garnett discussions last summer with regards to the Matrix.

Well, here we are again and this time it’s a done deal.

Let’s get one thing straight before I talk about the value of this trade and give my five reasons why the Suns had to make a deal for Shaq and my five reasons why it could work… Shawn Marion is one the best people and players I have ever had the pleasure of watching and the Miami Heat will find out what working hard for 48 minutes is all about when the Matrix arrives in South Beach. [Read more...]

Suns Slip Past Wizards

But fortunately, Shaq sits a great bench, and the Suns do a very decent plod, thank you very much.

Amare Stoudemire has averaged 30 points and 10 rebounds in the three games after the Shaquille O’Neal trade. (NBAE Photos)

Since the deal went down the Suns have lost in overtime to a very good team (New Orleans), squeaked past a very young team (Seattle), and sneaked past a very injured team (Washington).

That’s pretty fair country plodding no matter how you figure it, and the further good news is that although he has yet to put on a sneaker, Shaq seems to have already fulfilled a promise he made on Trade Day.

Among the many things he pledged to do for the Suns was make Amare better. And apparently it went from his lips to Amare’s ear, because in the three games since The Big Guarantee made that promise Amare has averaged 30 points and 16.5 rebounds, and run his consecutive successful free throw streak to 30.

Last night he had 31 points and 13 rebounds, giving him his first back to back 30 point, 10 rebound game since April 2005. And his two free throws with 8.8 seconds left gave the Suns just enough leeway to survive DeShawn Stevenson’s three-pointer at the buzzer at :00.1.

Amare got some major help from Raja Bell in the third period when he scored 12 of his 21 points to keep the Suns ahead, and Brian Skinner, who delivered 9 of his 10 points off the bench in the second period to help the Suns take a five-point lead at intermission. And although he took only six shots and scored only 10 points, Steve Nash had 12 assists and hit a crucial trey down the stretch.

“We played okay,” said Coach Mike, “but we just couldn’t hit the big shots we needed to put them away. But give the Wizards credit. They played extremely well, as often happens when a team is missing two of its stars.” (That would be Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, who average a combined 43.5 points and 11.2 rebounds between them).

The Suns weren’t at full strength themselves, what with Leandro Barbosa trying to play through an illness that sent him home early in the fourth period and who suffered through a 2-for-12 night and managed only five points.

So what’s it all mean?

Frankly, not very much. We won’t be able to make any kind of definite analysis, or even have much of a clue vis-à-vis the Suns’ championship chances until Shaq suits up and gets into game shape.

“The way we’re playing right now isn’t really great,” said Coach Mike, “but it doesn’t really matter because we’re going to be a totally different team with Shaq, and hopefully a better one. In the meantime we’ll just try to win as many games as we can.”

In case it has escaped your attention, ever since The Trade it’s been pretty much all about Shaq all of the time. And last night he drew a standing ovation as he made his way toward the bench just before the tip-off. (Okay, so technically I’m not sure it qualifies as a “standing” ovation because the fans were already standing as part of the pre-game ritual. But pending a rule from the Committee on Ovations I’m calling it “standing”).

And I have to say that when the TV cameras zeroed in on him, which was early and often, he looked very imposing indeed.

The bottom line: The victory, coupled with a Dallas loss in New Jersey, gave the Suns a game and a half lead in the Western Conference.

A Few Questions for Mr. O'Neal

1. Who was the first Sun to buy you dinner? I’m guessing it was Sean Marks, since he’ll be facing you every day in practice.

2. What will be the best thing about playing with Steve Nash?�

����������������a. His lob passes for easy dunks?�
����������������b. His reliability as a receiver for fast break outlet passes?�
����������������c. His on-court leadership?�
����������������d. “Steve” is a lot easier to spell than “Dwyane?”

3. Who will win this year’s Super Bowl, the Patriots or the Giants? (I may be a little late with this one.)

4. Do you have any of your patented nicknames already picked out for your new teammates? If not, may I suggest the Big Fella (you), Little Big Fella (Amare Stoudemire), Big Little Fella (Steve Nash), Tough Fella (Raja Bell), Duke Fella (Grant Hill), Speedy Fella (Leandro Barbosa) and Fella From France (Boris Diaw)?

5. What was your first thought on learning you’d returned to the Pacific Division? Was it, “Oh God, now I have to go back to Sacramento more than once a year?”

6. Forget all the worries about your free throw percentage. You’re with the Suns now. How’s your three-pointer percentage?

7. Kazaam?

8. Is there any truth to the rumor that you rent out your old sneakers (size 23) as guest homes? If so, do you have any Spanish Hacienda-style high-tops available?

9. Do you know if the Suns have taken out extra Basket Support Insurance with your arrival?

10. Whose shot would you rather block spectacularly into the twelfth row, sending the shooter sprawling all the way back to half-court?�

����������������a. Kobe Bryant?�
����������������b. Tim Duncan?�
����������������c. Yao Ming?�
����������������d. Pat Riley?

11. Please answer honestly: Does this shirt make me look fat?

12. As part of your announced plan to mentor Amare Stoudemire, will the two of you room together on the road? And who will get the top bunk?

13. Are you aware of Sean Marks’ many charitable works in the community, his status as a national hero in the country of his birth, and how everyone who’s ever met him says he’s just swell, you couldn’t find a nicer guy, and nothing bad should ever happen to him? (Question submitted by Sean Marks.)

Take as much time with your answers as you need, Mr. O’Neal. Feel free to respond in between dunks over Andrew Bynum.

Thoughts on the Shaq Trade

When the trade first went down, an ESPN Poll indicated that 71% of the country thought it was a bad trade for Phoenix. At first blush, I must admit I did as well. After watching Shaq during his time in the Valley of the Sun, I have started to change my thinking.

I am convinced that Steve Kerr had to “go for it”. The move gives the Suns a chance to win the title and offsets what the Lakers were able to pull off getting Pau Gasol from Memphis. Having said all that, I can’t quite get my arms around what it is going to look like with the “Diesel” in a Suns Uniform. Shaq brings a magnetic personality, a bigger than life presence to the Suns. Does he have anything left in the tank? The Suns Medical Staff was pleasantly suprised how good his hip looked and feel they can get him rolling.

I’m like the guy who just bought a brand new sports car and can’t wait to drive it. I can’t wait for Shaq to make his debut!!! If you think its surreal now, wait until that night he comes onto the floor with his new teammates. I get chills just thinking about it!

The Shaq Attack: 15 Years Later

  

15 years ago today, Shaq Daddy brought down the basket.  

(NBAE Photos)

Believe it or not, it was 15 years ago Thursday that Shaq Daddy – he hadn’t adopted the Diesel or Big Aristotle nicknames yet – made his first NBA appearance in Phoenix in front of a national television audience.

Like most fans, I was fired up for the Sunday afternoon game, caught up in the marquee magic of the big kid with the bigger smile from LSU. Just a 20-year-old rookie myself at the time (I had just started working at the Suns Team Shop at Metrocenter), I couldn’t wait to see the Blue Chipper go head to head with Sir Charles and Co.

I actually taped the NBC broadcast, and after some extensive digging through my closets around 1 AM last night, I located that old Kodak VHS “High Quality” tape, which also has the 1993 All-Star Game on it, I might add.

[Video: Shaq Attack]

If you saw the game, you know the one I’m referring to. Less than three minutes into the game, Shaq went up for a rebound and dunk and… well, I should probably let the guys who were actually involved tell you the story:

“I was on the court at the time,” says then-Suns center/current Suns VP of Player Programs Mark West. “Anthony Bowie was going to the basket, and I went over to help on defense. Shaq just came from behind me, and he dunks the ball, and all of a sudden the basket just collapsed.”

Suns broadcaster Tom Chambers, an All-Star forward at the time, just laughs when remembering the surprising result of Shaq’s slam.

“It was like this big dinosaur-looking thing going down, just in slow motion,” says TC. “It wasn’t like it happened real quick. We all just stood back and watched this thing go down. It was incredible.”

Suns VP of Facility Management Alvan Adams had been retired for five years at the time, but probably felt as though he was the one who had been dunked on.

“I was at the center of it, because the referees knew that I was involved with the facility,” he says. “I was the sporting event coordinator at the time. I wasn’t in charge of the facility yet, although I was the one who bought the goals. I had inspected them and bought them. [Read more...]

Suns' Search Finally Over

After 40 long years of wandering the desert in search of an all powerful center the Suns have FINALLY found one.

Shaq was brought to Phoenix for one reason: a championship trophy.

(NBAE Photos)

And while Shaquille O’Neal is in the twilight of one of the ten greatest careers in NBA history, he’s still the most dominating physical presence in the game. And the question for me is not whether the Suns should have dealt Shawn Marion (with Marcus Banks thrown in) for him, but how they could possibly have afforded to turn down the deal.

Granted, the price was high. Marion was the team’s most versatile defender. The guy they most often turned to in crunch time to guard whoever was causing them the most grief, whether it be another small forward, a big forward, or even a center or point guard. And offensively he was a perfect fit for Coach Mike’s high speed offense.

And yes, there are those who see the signing of the lumbering O’Neal as a concession by Coach Mike that his system, while wildly popular and highly entertaining, really can’t go all the way.

Addressing the second point first, I’m not persuaded the Big Diesel is all THAT lumbering, nor do I think his presence is going to slow Coach Mike’s system all THAT much. As long as Steve Nash is at the controls you’re never going to see the Suns turn plodding before your very eyes.

Back to the first point, I fully recognize how much Marion has meant to the Suns, and there aren’t more than a half dozen players in the league I would have traded him for at this stage. But Shaq is one of them.

It’s been several years since he was a truly good defender, but The Diesel’s very presence in the low post (not to mention the locker room) should make the Suns stronger in one of their weakest areas.

And speaking of presence, Shaq’s already created the biggest buzz in these parts since Charles Barkley hit town. The press conference confirming this deal drew what had to be a record regular-season crowd. And his image on the Jumbotron drew a sustained standing ovation from the sellout crowd in the US Airways Center. (Shaq, ever the showman, milked the applause by pointing meaningfully at his ring finger.)

And although he probably didn’t, Coach Mike could have greeted The Diesel with the same speech the late Cotton Fitzsimons greeted The Chuckster:

“Chuck’, said Cotton, “let me explain something to you. You weren’t brought here to fill up the building or win a lot of games. We’re already doing that. You were brought here for one reason and one reason only, to win us a title.”

That’s Shaq’s mission, just as was Chuck’s, the only difference being that at his advanced age Shaq won’t be required to do quite as much heavy lifting. In fact, truth be told, he was probably brought here to help the Suns deal with just two or three teams, and maybe even just ONE team.

There are two other similarities between The Diesel and The Chuckster. Like O’Neal, the Suns paid a high price for Barkley (you remember Jeff Hornacek). And like Barkley, O’Neal is one of the all-time great quote machines.

There are understandable concerns about how much Shaq has left in the tank, but let me say this about those concerns:

If you look closely at his long career you will be struck by two things. One, he hasn’t always been motivated to stay in top shape and bring his A game to the arena. And two, whenever he has been so motivated he’s been one of the most unstoppable forces on the planet.

He’s never going to hit those heights again, of course, but he won’t have to in order to help the Suns. And for what it’s worth, I think he will be motivated to give his new team the best of what he’s got left.

In case you haven’t caught my drift, I think this was a great and gutsy move by rookie general manager Steve Kerr. A move, I further think, that underscored his belief the Suns couldn’t advance beyond their present level without some more muscle.

The bottom line: Coach Mike cut to the heart of the chase when he said, “This gives us an even better chance to win the NBA title than we had before.”

To which I can only add, Amen!

Everything Is Going To Be Okay

I imagine many of you are still feeling the same confusion I experienced. But consider this: Steve Kerr, David Griffin, Mike D’ Antoni and Robert Sarver are not crazy, impulsive types who would make a panic move in direct response to the Lakers’ trade for Pau Gasol last week, as is being portrayed throughout the media right now. While I can’t claim to know any of these men personally, I’ve met all of them, and my impression is these guys know basketball, and I think they know their team. Historically, the Suns are not prone to bonehead trades. Sure, there have been a few (DJ for Rick Robey??), but none in a long time. Griffin and D’Antoni have good track records in this regard, and while Kerr is the new kid on the block, my sense of him has always been that he’s got a sharp basketball mind. They wouldn’t make this deal unless they’d really thought about it, and really thought it would help the team.

Is this trade an admission that the Suns’ style of play doesn’t work? No. My hoops-savvy pal Kenji reminded me that the 1972 Lakers, which won the NBA title and set the record for consecutive wins, was very much a running team, and they did it with a center, Wilt, who was not fast. Further, the Showtime Lakers didn’t have a running center either – but rather Kareem. So I think the Suns will still run and score a lot of points.

The Suns’ biggest weaknesses in the Nash era have been defense and rebounding. Specifically, interior defense and offensive rebounding. Night after night, they have trouble handling opposing centers, doesn’t matter who. Andrew Bynum, who is admittedly emerging as a good center, eats the Suns for lunch. Al Jefferson posted consecutive career highs in points and boards against the Suns in two games this season. Even Nick Collison destroys the Suns inside. The Suns actually play pretty good perimeter defense. It’s on the inside where they get killed, by easy dunks out of the half-court set, or by put-backs.

So, the reasonable question is, why didn’t the Suns keep Kurt Thomas, who could address those issues at a fraction of the price? Well, because Kurt’s good, but he doesn’t force a team to plan their offense against him. He’s not a shot blocker, and he lacks, for lack of a better term, presence. Shaq may not be the mega-star he used to be, but when he’s healthy enough to play, there’s three things he can still do better than most centers in the league: defend, rebound and pass. The West is, obviously, loaded with centers, from Yao to Chandler to Duncan (come on, he’s a center) to Bynum to Kaman. The Suns simply haven’t had an answer for those kinds of guys this year, and it’s made it harder than in the past for the Suns to control tempo, and when they haven’t been able to control tempo, they’ve been cooked. Shaq gives them a viable presence in the low post on both defense and offense, something the Suns haven’t had since Danny Schayes (kidding).

Steve Nash is 34. Grant Hill is 36. Amare is 25, but has had three knee surgeries. The Suns aren’t thinking about long-term success here — It’s all or nothing time. Shawn Marion is a fabulous player, and I won’t bash him on his way out of town, but while he offers a lot of superlative skills in a lot of different areas, of the Suns’ old core (Nash, Marion, Stoudemire), his skills were the easiest to replace at reasonably close to the same level. The Suns will miss him most on defense, but Shaq should take up some of the slack there, Diaw is underrated on defense, and Hill has shown commitment to that end of the court. The Suns still have plenty of guys to finish on the break (and now Amare can be one of them, as he won’t be called on to rebound as much), and plenty of three-point shooters.

The key phrase in all of this, of course, is “if Shaq can stay healthy.” Recent history, in all honesty, doesn’t suggest he can. He’s played fourteen seasons, and has played four games since the end of December. Even when he has been “healthy” this year, his numbers have been down across the board, suggesting he may have more little things nagging at him than just a bad hip. But reports are that he’s at as low a weight as he’s been in a while, and aside from the hip, in good condition. He’s not going to play a lot for the Suns right away, and he may not help them win games right away. I predict a lot of impatience and second-guessing around the Suns for the next few weeks.

I think the Suns might be willing to sacrifice the top seed in the Western Conference. Look what it did for Dallas last year, and this season, the West is so tight that the top 8 teams will be practically interchangeable. I think the Suns can easily win enough games, with or without Shaq, to secure a playoff spot on sheer talent alone. I think the team will severely limit Shaq’s minutes in the regular season, resting him often, maybe for several games at a time, in order to let him acclimate and recover as best he can for the playoffs. I think the hope is he’ll play just enough to develop chemistry with his teammates, and them with him, to get to know his role in and become comfortable with the team’s schemes. During the regular season, he’ll play most against the teams with centers the Suns could likely meet in the playoffs, but even then, they’ll limit him to 20-25 minutes. In the playoffs, they’ll hope he’ll be reasonably fresh and can be a factor.

In the meantime, the Suns will slide Amare back to power forward, where he should dominate and run. A lot. Diaw will likely start at the small forward spot, and he’s played much better lately as a starter. He seems to thrive on starter’s minutes – as proved in last night’s game against New Orleans. Grant Hill will come off the bench, which he’s shown he’s more than willing to do. There’s a scenario in which this could all work out. It’s a gamble, but it could work. High risk carries high reward.

Down the line, the Suns will rebuild around Amare, Barbosa and, presumably, Diaw, which is still a better-than-decent core. But this deal was made strictly for this May and June. Not for the years after, and not, I don’t think, for February, March and April. People will be quick to call it a success or failure right away or in a few weeks, but the real results won’t be seen until May and June.

Can you dig it?

Shaq Trade Generating Lots of Exposure Already

Shaquille O’Neal will bring buzz, exposure and basketball frenzy back to the Valley. (NBAE Photos)

Charles took non-NBA fans and turned them into basketball fanatics who couldn’t wait to watch the next Suns game and witness the next unpredictable move by Sir Charles.

I also felt it was a curse because when Barkley left for Houston it was my belief that the Suns would never be able to generate that kind of passion, that kind of exposure, that kind of basketball frenzy ever again.

Well here we are witnessing the Second Coming with Shaq. His press conference and arrival in Phoenix has been met with a Barkley-like Buzz along with the skepticism which will only fuel the drama as this titanic trade plays out. Media outlets locally and nationally carried his press party live. Radio stations phones are lighting-up. The internet blogs are overflowing with “expert” opinions and predictions of whether this gamble by the Suns will pay off.

In my mind, it has already paid off in terms of interest and intrigue world-wide! Shaq flashed his flamboyant personality–displaying his wit, his playfulness, and his overall magnetic appeal. And like one of his vicious power james, he hammered home the message of leading this team to its first NBA title, all the while making the critics “eat their words.” Shaq is resolute about taking Amare to the next level and making Raja Bell an even better shooter. He stopped just short of guaranteeing a championship, but added that guarantee could come after a few practices with his new team.

This is one dynamic player and personality who has taken all 3 of his previous teams to the NBA Finals. Is he the same player he was even two years ago? Maybe not, but he doesn’t have to be when surrounded by Nash, Amare, Grant Hill, Raja, Barbosa and Diaw. Think about opposing coaches game-planning for this double-barreled attack. The Suns can now dismantle opponents with their speed game and new-found power play.

Believe me, I know what Shawn Marion provided. As I’ve said in the past, he covered more real estate than Century 21 and was the quintessential Sun in Mike D’Antoni’s system. But in the end, he wanted out. He asked to be traded. He could have opted-out and walked away after this season leaving the Suns with nothing in return. So the Suns made the bold move, and it’s no disgrace to be dealt for quite possibly the most dominating big man this league has ever seen. Now we will see if this roll of the dice works on the court. It’s NBA theatre at its best featuring the Biggest (and hopefully Baddest) star this league has to offer. Tune in to the Shaq and Awe of Suns basketball. I’m sure you will!!