Frye and Stoudemire should make for a potent frontcourt attack.
(Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)
From the basketball writer that predicted the Y2K hoax and Balloon Boy’s whereabouts, Suns.com’s Stefan Swiat will lay his already shattered reputation on the line to predict with all uncertainty, how the Suns will fare this season. Brace yourselves to see the limb he will not go out on:
Basketball experts are predicting the Suns to finish anywhere between 10th and seventh in the Western Conference. ESPN’s Marc Stein, perhaps in an attempt to receive extra Cold Stone at halftime, wrote that the Suns will be the surprise team of the Western Conference, finishing sixth overall. Thanks Marc!
“I just know that in the past, the core group of this team has been in a situation where they’ve won at least 10 straight games every year that I’ve been here except last year,” Suns Head Coach Alvin Gentry said. “Some kind of way we just have to play good enough basketball to so that we can get into the playoffs. We have to find a way to be better than one of those teams that finished ahead of us last year.”
When people wonder how the Suns are going to do this season, I tell them at as long as they all stay healthy, they are definitely a playoff team. Phoenix missed the playoffs by two games, holding the second-best record of all-time by a team (46-36) not to participate in the postseason.
The Suns would’ve been the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, but has the misfortune of playing in the highly-competitive Western Conference. But the offseason brought with it a few advantages.
First, when you look at the final standings from last season, the Rockets ended up with the No. 5 seed in the playoffs. But they’re missing their top three scorers from last season and it’s going to be tough for them to manage enough firepower to sneak into the playoff hunt.
Also, after the Suns’ ninth-place finish last season, the next closest team to them in the standings were the Warriors, who were 17 games behind them. Everyone is talking about how the Clippers are much-improved – which they may be – but they finished 27 games behind the Suns last year.
The Thunder have been getting billed as a young and exciting team that’s on their way up, but they concluded the season 23 games behind the Suns. That’s a ton of a ground for these teams to make up over an offseason.
“For the style of play that we have and what we’re trying to get done, this is a good team,” Gentry said. “Most of these guys have been here and played in this system so it’s just a matter of executing and getting in great shape so we can play this way for 48 minutes. And if we do that, I’ll be happy.”
So let’s say that the Suns remain the same and finish ahead of everyone they did last year and move ahead of Houston, they’re a lock for the playoffs. That’s just the minimum to expect.
Now what if a star player on one of the other top seven teams get injured? Besides the Lakers and the Spurs, the rest of the teams would have a tough time absorbing an injury to a key player.
Sixth Man of the Year candidates better watch out.
(Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)
Now what about the Suns? Why do I think they’ll be better this season? I’ll give you five quick reasons:
1) Improved chemistry: It wasn’t that Shaquille O’Neal wasn’t a positive locker room influence and a presence in the paint – which he was – but now every single member of the team thrives in an up-tempo offense.
Plus, these guys really get along. There is a clear pecking order in the locker room with Nash and Hill as the team leaders and Amar’e Stoudemire bringing an upbeat attitude every day to practice.
I just spent an inordinate amount of time with them on a road trip and everyone jokes around with each other all the time.
It goes a long way when you enjoy going to work with people that you like.
You don’t want to disappoint each other and it makes it tough to turn against the group when difficult times arise.
2) Channing Frye: With the 6-11 Frye spreading the floor from the perimeter, Stoudemire has the entire paint at his disposal. They’re the perfect complements to each other on the offensive end.
3) Diminished expectations: How many times in sports do people give up on a player or team too early and they come back at them that one last time like a villain in a horror movie? That’s right. Too many times. And I think the Suns could play that Michael Meyers-type role. There’s nothing more dangerous than talented players with nothing to lose. In the words of Cool Hand Luke, “Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”
4) A healthy Amar’e: You have to remember, Stoudemire was the NBA’s fifth leading scorer in 2007-08. He was the team’s leading scorer and would have been 13th overall in the NBA last season if he would have played enough games. He missed 29 games and played only two under Suns Head Coach Alvin Gentry. That’s a lot of production the team was missing. When Gentry was asked about STAT’s ceiling as a player, he responded, “I don’t think he has one.” But Gentry knows that the team has to be patient. “To think that a guy can sit out seven months, play eight games and be back to where he was is really unrealistic,” he said. “I think he’ll get there. Now will it take 10 regular season games, 12 or 15 regular season games? We don’t know that. We just know he’s working to get back towards that.”
As I look into my crystal ball, here are some other predictions I only want you to remember if I’m right:
1) Amar’e Stoudemire will have one of the best statistical seasons of his career. His shooting touch from the outside is as good as it’s ever been and the team is on pace to score a lot of points with him being the first option. With him looking to silence doubters, playing for the biggest contract of his career and him being well-rested, I would have said with utmost confidence he’d be a shoe-in for an MVP-like season… if he would have came back from his injury just a couple months earlier. But since he’s working his way back into shape, I wouldn’t be surprised if he plays well early, but becomes an utter monster after the All-Star break. After missing most of the 2005-06 season, he averaged 9.6 rebounds a game in 2006-07, while after a shortened 2003-04 season, he averaged 26 points a game in 2004-05. STAT is known for coming back strong from injuries.
2) Leandro Barbosa, who for some strange reason isn’t in the preseason discussion for Sixth Man of the Year, will be at the season’s end. Currently, Boston’s Rasheed Wallace, the Lakers’ Lamar Odom and San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili have the inside track. But all of those teams have a ton of threats on offense that will keep those three players from having remarkable numbers. Not to say that the Suns don’t, but they also average a ton of points, so there are more to go around. To keep in perspective how explosive Barbosa can be, he led the team in scoring 13 times last season despite reporting to the team late due to his mother’s death. He’s also coming off a FIBA Americas Championship where he personally dominated the tournament and led his team to a gold medal.
3) Channing Frye will make a run for Most Improved Player. Whenever this guy gets minutes, he produces. As a rookie in New York, he averaged 12.8 points and 5.8 rebounds in 24 minutes a night. That’s over 25 points and nearly 12 rebounds per 48 minutes. Now with the opportunity to make mistakes and not be looking over his shoulder, Frye is going to thrive in Phoenix. Last year, he averaged only 4.2 points and 2.2. rebounds in 11.8 minutes, while this preseason he’s already averaging 12.3 points on 43 percent shooting from downtown. Expect those numbers to rise as he becomes more comfortable too.
4) The bench will be a factor. Remember when two years ago everyone criticized former Suns Head Coach Mike D’Antoni for not resting the starters enough and not developing the young players? Well, Gentry heard that too. When he took over last season, the minutes of Louis Amundson, Jared Dudley and Goran Dragic all skyrocketed. All of those players responded too, playing their basketball at the end of the season. When the starters went to the bench with the lead at the end of last year, the reserves would hold or increase the lead. Expect all of them to pick up where they left off last season.
5) Steve Nash will lead the NBA in assists. He finished third in the league in assists last season, but was tied for first with Utah’s Deron Williams in assists per 48 minutes. Expect increased production from the two-time MVP this season, considering everyone in the organization is on the same page offensively this season. Just that little bump should make all the difference for Nash, who in my mind, looked fresher when he came into camp this year than he did last year. It might just be my imagination, but he looks a little quicker to me this year than last year.
6) Sorry to report, but the Suns won’t break the record for most points a game by a team. That honor belongs to the 1981-82 Nuggets, who averaged 126.5 for the season. Last year, the Suns 117.7 after the All-Star break, and although I think their scoring will rise a little, almost 10 points a game more is a lot to make up. I can’t wait to see them try though. However, they will lead the NBA in points and field goal percentage again though.
Suns broadcaster Tim Kempton told me he thinks this team will win over 50 games. He might be right. I think their best-case scenario is around 55-58 wins, if everyone stays healthy and they pull out all of their nail-biters.
Their worst-case scenario is 45 games, which will be good enough for an eighth seed. I’m guessing the median of the two will be good enough for the sixth or seventh seed, but they’re going to come on strong in the second half of the season and be one of the surprise teams in the league this season.
One thing that’s easy to predict is that no one is going to want to see them in April.