Right now Alvin Gentry feels like a chef with the recipe for Jumbalaya staring him in the face. A lot of ingredients are sitting on the counter, now he needs to figure out the directions and how to stir them together. He was a master chef last season and hopes to whip together another culinary masterpiece.
You, of course, start with the main ingredient, Steve Nash. Over the past 10 seasons, Steve’s teams have averaged 55.4 wins per season. Only two active players have averaged more: Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki (who, I might add, won many of his games with Nash). So the chance for a successful regular season are obviously high. Nash came into the preseason as fit as ever. He will have to work harder to create points as he now operates without Amar’e Stoudemire. Steve and Robin Lopez have proven that they can be a highly effective pick and roll combo. Still, it is evident so far in the preseason that Nash, who turns 37 this season, will face even more trapping defenses and double-teams without that monster in the middle and potent low-post scorer. Expect his turnovers to be higher early in the season as some of the new players like Hedo Turkoglu and Hakim Warrick figure out their spacing on the floor.
On the wings, Grant Hill and Jason Richardson return as starters. Hill, now 38, will continue to be that reliable mid-range jump shooter , Olympic-style sprinter on the break, and lock-down defender. Richardson is headed for an explosive scoring season. His comfort level and confidence with this team is at an all-time high and #23 knows that he will have to pick-up much of those 23 points that Amare took to New York. JRich was sensational in the playoffs and it has carried over into the preseason. Get ready for some “elevate and levitate” this season with the still high-flying Richardson. He is also in a contract year, which never seems to hurt one’s production.
Robin Lopez has had an up and down preseason, sometimes showing the promise of becoming a dominant force in the paint and other times finding himself in early foul trouble. Remember, he is still only 22 and continues to evolve offensively. Kevin Love of the Timberwolves, a highly intelligent player who was a member of the Gold-medal winning Team USA at The World Championships this past summer, has maintained that Robin will be a better pro than twin brother Brook. And Love has first-hand experience against both having played them when Stanford and his UCLA Bruins squared-off in college.
Then there’s the big enigma: Hedo Turkoglu and how he will fit into this team. He has yet to find a rhythm, but it is still too early to panic. Grant Hill always talks about how long it took him to adjust to this style and pace in Phoenix. Hedo has tremendous skills and will bring a new dynamic to this team when he hits his stride. He has a pure stroke and uncanny playmaking ability for someone 6-10. Hedo is dealing with some new challenges like guarding power forwards and playing off-the-ball while Nash does his thing. He also has dealt with some minor injuries including a back issue early in his Phoenix debut game against the Jazz. The question will be: Is Hedo better off as a starter or possibly coming off the bench with the 2nd unit?
Speaking of the second line Suns, they will once again energize this team. The preseason game against Utah exemplified the pure adrenaline rush that Dragic, Dudley, Childress, Frye and Warrick can bring. This could be an even more effective bench than last season as Childress is an upgrade defensively over Barbosa and Warrick is an upgrade offensively over Lou Amundson. Gentry has this Fun Five pressing full-court and turning-up the heat with their pressurized, in-your-face defense. Childress will join Dudley as a fan favorite with his hustle and then Josh also brings terrific athleticism (insert Dudley’s athletic hands comment here). It’s apparent too that Dragic and “JChill” have instant chemistry on the court. Warrick, meantime, will dominate the highlight reel with his verticality. Hakim told me earlier this week that, at its peak, his vertical jump was 40 inches. Currently it is still 38 to 39 inches off the ground. The guy can fly. Lest we not forget Channing Frye, who will do what he does best….let it fly. Channing also showed increasing toughness and a willingness to mix it up inside during the playoffs last year. Rebounding will be an issue again for this team and Frye along with Lopez will have to box and chase along with the rest of their gang-boarding brethren.
As for my preseason prediction, I would be surprised if the Suns jumped out to the kind of start they had last season winning 14 of their first 17 games. New faces and a daunting early schedule would make that kind of a beginning fairly miraculous. An 8-9 start would not surprise me, followed by a very strong December (going 10-4), which could propel them into another playoff run.
The leadership of Steve and Grant will be critical during the inevitable bumps along the way. The wise one and voice of reason, Hill said it best when, at halftime of the outdoors game in Indian Wells this past weekend, he noted that this team cannot immediately try to live-up to where last year’s team finished. It’s a process. And one we will all enjoy following starting October 26th in Portland.