Like the song says, “You gotta accentuate the positive.” So, as this cockamamie mini-season nears its All-Star break, let’s consider some of the things that have gone very, very right for our beloved Purple Gang in this 2011-12 campaign:
The Hammer’s Really Hurtin’ ‘Em. For my money, Marcin Gortat might be the best-kept secret in the NBA. Since coming to Phoenix in a trade with Orlando last season, the Polish Hammer has quietly improved by leaps and bounds, and flourished. Doubtless, the presence of Steve Nash has played a role in Gortat’s rise, as it has with everyone who’s played with Nash. But in Gortat, the Suns have a center who plays with passion, learns from mistakes, cares about his teammates, and wants to get better.
As I write this, he’s scoring 15 points per game, grabbing 10 rebounds per game and swatting 2 blocks per game. Among true centers currently active, no one is statistically better than Dwight Howard. Andrew Bynum is widely considered the second best center in the NBA – He’s averaging 17 ppg., 12 rpg., and 2 bpg. Then you often hear Marc Gasol of Memphis listed as, at the very least, close to Bynum, if not better, one of the soon-to-be best centers in the league. His averages? 15, 10 and 2, the same as Marcin’s. Gasol is the same age as Gortat (27), earns almost twice as much per season, and gets roughly three times the publicity.
As for how the Hammer compares with past Suns true centers (leaving aside out-of-position forwards like Amar’e Stoudemire and discounting Shaquille O’Neal’s less-than-half-season averages of 13 ppg. and 10.5 rpg. in 2007-08), you have to hop in Doc Brown’s DeLorean and zoom back to 1973-74, when Suns legend Neal Walk set the statistical standard for team pivotmen by scoring 20 ppg. and rebounding at a rate of 12.5 rpg. – in a much slower-paced, and less athletic era.
In short, the Suns have one of the league’s few potentially-dominant players at the toughest position to fill, just coming into his prime, on an affordable contract, who’s hungry to get better, and around whom they can build for the future. If you’re going to be starting over if and when Steve Nash ever departs, beginning with a guy like Marcin Gortat is the best way to do it.
Steve Nash: More Awesome Than Ever. And I mean “awesome” in the literal sense. For what he is doing, statistically, at his age, he is more deserving of our awe than ever. He turned 38 the day I wrote this. His only historical comparison, in terms of position (and Paul Coro in The Arizona Republic makes the same point), is John Stockton, who was still the Jazz’s primary point guard at the same age. For the season thus far, Nash is averaging 15 ppg., 10 apg, 55% FG, 45% 3PFG, and 87% FT. Stockton, at the same age, averaged 11.5 ppg., 8.7 apg., 50% FG, 46% 3PFG, and 82% FT. Nash rules in almost every category, and by considerable amounts. Even if you extend the comparisons out to other all-time greats at the same age, Nash stacks up pretty well. Robert Parish scored 14, pulled down 9 rebounds, shot 53% from the field and 77% from the line. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? 23 ppg., 6 rpg., 56% FG and 77% FT. Karl Malone? 22.4 ppg., 9 rpg., 45% FG, 36% 3PFG, and 80%FT. Michael Jordan? Well, he was back from a four-year retirement and playing with the Wizards when he 38, and his stat line looked like this: 23 ppg., 6 rpg., 5 apg., 41%FG, 19% 3PFG, 80%FT. Nash slots right in with those guys, and those are some of the best, indisputably, ever.
There have been other players who have performed as well as Steve Nash at age 38 in certain categories. But none of them – NONE of them – has performed this well across the board. Much has been made of the fact that NBA players have only averaged 50% FG, 40%3PFG and 90%FT nine times, and of those, only Larry Bird and Steve Nash have accomplished the feat more than once. Bird did it twice. Nash has done it four times, most recently at age 36 (Bird retired at 35). If Steve raises his free throw percentage 3 points (his career average is 90%), he’ll be the ONLY player to go 55/40/90 (heck, he has a chance to go 55/45/90, which is unthinkable for a player any age!)! History is being made every time the Suns play. If that’s not something to cheer about, I don’t know what is.
The Resurrection of Michael Redd. Once one of the deadliest scorers of the era, Redd was dumped on the NBA scrap heap by the Milwaukee Bucks following difficulty coming back from devastating knee injuries in 2009. The Suns, desperate for scoring, picked him up for a song as the 2011-12 season started, and it’s starting to pay dividends. Redd appears to be the latest success story from the miracle workers on the Suns’ training staff, who previously brought back or have maintained the health of Grant Hill, Shaquille O’Neal and Steve Nash. Obviously, two productive games (at this writing) in a row doesn’t count as a “resurrection,” but the fact that Michael Redd is on the floor and contributing is a terrific story – for him, the Suns and their fans.
A Rookie That Can Play. When Phoenix selected Markieff Morris with the 13th pick in last year’s draft, fans and “experts” rolled their eyes. The Suns had selected the wrong Morris, preferring to ‘Kieff’s twin brother Marcus, who was thought to be the better prospect. But Markieff has shown himself to be worthy from day one, settling into a valuable reserve role and giving every indication that his ceiling is higher than most people thought (Marcus, meanwhile, has had injury problems and has yet to make an impact on the NBA). A true power forward without a hesitancy to bang underneath or play defense (a rarity in Suns history), Markieff can rebound and, in the best Suns tradition, stretch defenses with a surprisingly good 3-point shot. Yes, he needs work on his judgment and defense, but what rookie doesn’t? He’s still one of the best of this season’s crop of freshman players, and if he continues to mature, he’ll slide in next to Gortat as the core of a very good front line for years to come.
There are positives aplenty this season, Suns fans. Instead, let’s buy some tickets, make our way downtown, and watch Marcin Gortat continue his progress toward the “elite” level at his position, Michael Redd defy medical odds, Markieff Morris perform better than most expected…and Steve Nash boldly go where no NBA player has gone before.
Even in the toughest of seasons, there are rays of Sunshine.