Gortat is Beechen's best reason to remain hopeful.

A lifelong Phoenix Suns fan, not to mention comic book and cartoon writer, Adam Beechen contributes to Suns.com as a regular “super fan” blogger.

I was talking hoops with a friend earlier this week, and he expressed sympathy towards me for the Suns’ 2010-2011 season. “Not much to cheer about,” he said. And, on the surface, he seemed to be right.

It’s no fun to watch your team lose as many games as it wins. Especially when you’re used to seeing your team win so many more, as we are with the Suns in the Second Nash Era.

It’s easy to miss heroes of years past like Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw and Amar’e Stoudemire and play the “what if” game. In the past, the Suns would defeat the teams they were supposed to, and legitimately challenged the best of the best.

Now, the Suns struggle, seemingly, with every team they play. There are no sure wins, no lead is safe, and the Suns are decided underdogs against the league’s elite.

The Suns might still make the playoffs, but would draw a high seed in the first round, any one of a number of powerful old nemeses: the hated Lakers, the immortal Spurs, or the former-Suns-laden Mavericks. At the same time, the Suns aren’t so bad that they’re likely to have good odds to grab a top pick in the lottery.

They appear headed for NBA purgatory, that dreaded in-between space where it’s so hard to improve.

The team’s best players are on the downslope of their careers. No denying this one. Though they continue to perform at an astonishingly high level, Steve Nash and Grant Hill are closer to the end than the beginning, in terms of their careers.

If they were in their primes (and it’s hard to remember just how good Grant Hill was in his first few years in the league), the Suns would be fearsome contenders. But the fact of the matter is: they aren’t.

The Suns are committed long-term to several players who haven’t panned out. At least, not yet, they haven’t. In the off-season, the Suns shelled out big bucks to Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress, with the thinking being that, without Amar’e, the club would use these players to replace STAT’s athleticism and speed, if not his strength. To this point, both players have shown flashes of what the organization wanted, but they’ve been infrequent, at best.

League-wide personnel trends do not favor the Suns. The vogue now is for superstars to concentrate and congregate on certain teams, whether by their own choice, or by organizational design.

There’s been a lot of squawking this year about the audaciousness of Miami’s Dwyane Wade recruiting LeBron James and Chris Bosh on behalf of the Heat, or Carmelo Anthony holding the Nuggets hostage until he could be traded to the team of his choice…and in previous seasons the grumbling has been directed at teams like the Lakers for pulling insanely favorable trades that land them players of Pao Gasol’s caliber for virtually nothing.

Well, get used to it. Teams with the history and pedigree of the Lakers will always have an advantage in trades simply because of who they are and because they maintain savvy management.

Regarding players recruiting other players to their teams, that’s been going on for years. Remember when several Suns tried their best to persuade Antonio McDyess to remain with Phoenix (didn’t work out). As for player-motivated movement, that’s a natural evolution of free-agency, the best and worst thing to ever happen to professional sports.

Best, because it was absolutely wrong to restrict a player’s right to seek the best possible employment situation for himself, and to force him to remain with one organization for his entire career.

The Suns, historically, have benefitted as much as anyone from free agency. Tom Chambers was one of the first big-name, big-money, unrestricted free agents. Steve Nash was a free agent the second time around. Free agency, theoretically, gives any team hope of improving in a big hurry.

And yet, free agency has been the worst thing to happen to professional sports, because it led to astronomical salary increases that hamstring small- and mid-size markets and contributed to rampant player movement that keep a team’s fans from identifying with a club’s players – any player might leave, seemingly, at any time, and if you’re not careful, your team might not get anything in return, so sometimes you’re forced to trade that player for pennies on the dollar before you might need to.

These days, if you want to improve your team and become a perennial contender, you better a) have a ton of cash, already have a superstar, preferably one in his prime, plus a large media market and, preferably, plus good weather and no state tax, in place so you can attract big-name free agents (How many guys are salivating for the opportunity to play in Milwaukee, Indiana or Utah?), or b) luck out in the draft and get a centerpiece to build around (paging Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant…). Of those conditions…the Suns have…good weather.

So, yeah, things can be seen as pretty bleak. But I went home after that conversation, and rallied myself emotionally, determined to find some genuinely positive things to say about these Suns. And, while I didn’t uncover any great truths other basketball-watchers have overlooked, I found a surprising amount to smile about.

Marcin Gortat: He’s probably the best reason to feel hopeful about the Suns’ near future. Hedo Turkoglu was a mystifying bust in Phoenix…He should have been a star in the Suns’ wide-open system, with his ability to create for himself off the dribble, or for others. Instead, he looked consistently tentative, too deferential to Steve Nash. He might have been better as a sixth man, but that would have necessitated changes to the team’s overall system. Given the money the Suns owed him, the team was lucky to be able to trade him to Orlando, along with productive Jason Richardson for a package including Vince Carter (who has played well, but is no longer a franchise player), Mickael Pietrus (a gritty, gutty role player who plays well at both ends of the floor), and especially Gortat, the gem of the deal. He’s the first legitimate, skilled center I can remember the Suns having on the roster in a very long time. Unlike many past players who’ve filled the position, he’s not a converted power forward, but a true 7-footer who plays with his back to the basket, isn’t intimidated by anyone, hustles for rebounds, runs well, has soft hands, a shot-blocker’s instincts and communicates on the court. And he’s not a project. He’s already a player other teams have to game-plan for, an honest threat to record a meaningful double-double every night, and he’s just coming into his prime. In short, he’s everything we all hoped Robin Lopez would be, and who knows, might still become someday, but for whatever reason, hasn’t yet. Marcin Gortat is most definitely someone the Suns can and should build around in a post-Nash era.

Aaron Brooks: He hasn’t had much chance yet to show what he can do in the Suns’ system, and he didn’t shine in his chances to fill in for Steve Nash when he was injured. But this is a guy who has shown the skills to be an effective, if not Nash-ian, point guard in the NBA. Just last season, he averaged nearly twenty points and five assists per game. He’s young, and fast enough to stick with the speediest ballhandlers in the league. Once he establishes a comfort level, he’s another guy who should stick for a while with the Suns.

Jared Dudley: Who would have thought that, of all the bucks the Suns handed out in the off-season, that the ones that went to this guy would be the best spent? Dudley is pure effort in the Majerle mold, who can do a little bit of everything, loves playing for the Suns, and hasn’t let a big raise keep him from working hard to improve his game. Every successful team needs a productive “glue” guy. Any team in this league would love to have Jared Dudley.

The continued professionalism of Nash and Hill: Not only do these superstars not play as you would expect players their ages to play, they don’t act like it, either. These men are not coasting out this uphill battle of a season. They are playing through injuries, and they are giving the fans their absolute best every night. Which the fans deserve.

The unpredictability of the future: Or at least parts of it. We know Nash and Hill won’t play forever. But beyond that, nothing is written in stone. In the long-term, if the Suns do not make the playoffs and wind up in the lottery, yes, their chances of getting a high pick is low. But the chance is there. And yes, this year’s draft doesn’t seem as strong as other years, but who’s to say the Suns won’t uncover the gem of all the picks, someone who can slide in next to Gortat and be the next major piece of what is hopefully a championship puzzle? It’s at least possible. And in the short term, while the Suns might make the playoffs as a low seed, it might be unlikely that they make a run, but it’s not impossible. Teams with mediocre records have made it to the Finals before – stranger things have happened, and it’s not unprecedented. It was a different era, but a 42-40 Suns team made it to the NBA Finals, once upon a time, defeating the best team in the regular season, the league’s defending champs, along the way. They needed some help from the opposition, they needed some veteran leadership and some youthful energy, and they needed some luck. As good as the Suns have been over the last bunch of years, they haven’t had a lot of good luck (a banked three-pointer, a couple suspensions for a critical playoff game, a rebound putback from the worst shooter on the floor). They’ll need some to climb back to the NBA’s elite. The Suns are due. And I’ll keep looking at that ray of hope, not the clouds.

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