With the 202007-08 season officially underway, I wanted to give you an update on the team’s progress as we begin exhibition play this week.
Training camp went extremely well in Tucson, as the players arrived in great shape and good spirits. We had six days of practice, film sessions and bonding, and the team made significant progress during that time. Mike D’Antoni doesn’t believe in long practices, but he does believe in lots of running and conditioning. Our team plays at such a fast pace that it’s imperative for the players to get used to running for long stretches at a time. Early in the week the practices became ragged as players wore down, but by the end we were much sharper and better conditioned. I know that Mike feels like the team is really taking shape quickly.
There were plenty of things to be excited about, but to me what stood out most was the attitude and play of Shawn Marion. You’re all aware of his trade demands a couple of weeks ago, and the concern coming into camp was how Shawn would respond to his teammates and visa versa. Having been a player in this league for 15 years, I understand that there’s a business side to the game and a basketball side. The frustration Shawn felt was based on the business side, and now that the season is beginning, he knows it’s time to play basketball. He’s extremely important to our team – a guy who makes everyone around him better – and I was happy to see him playing like his usual self (He had 30 points and 10 boards in Saturday night’s intrasquad scrimmage). Most importantly, he displayed high energy, great enthusiasm and simply enjoyed being around his teammates. I don’t think there will be any lasting effects from the summer issues, because Shawn is a pro who takes great pride in his daily performance for the team. He’s going to be fine, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t have another All-Star year for us.
Another high point was the play and presence of Grant Hill, who will almost certainly be in our starting lineup on opening night. Grant fits right into our up-tempo style, and he gives us another playmaker and distributor, which takes pressure off of Steve Nash. What is underrated about Grant is his versatility, as he can play multiple positions at both ends of the floor. That is what makes him so good for us, since we like to force teams to match up with us. Grant is healthy, running well and looking very sharp. He had 21 points and 6 assists in our scrimmage, and consistently made his mid-range jump shot. I believe he’ll even become a three-point shooter this season, particularly from the corners, where the line is only 22 feet. But where Grant can really make a difference is with his ability to get to the free-throw line. That’s an area we were weak in a year ago, but Grant will help us get easy points when we need them by drawing fouls.
I was also happy with the play of Boris Diaw and Marcus Banks. Boris arrived to camp in terrific shape and played his usual style of beautiful, unselfish basketball. He’s our best low-post player, and he showed the fire and aggressiveness that was missing at times a year ago. He might have been the best player on the floor Saturday night at the scrimmage, leading his team to the victory. I look for a huge bounce-back year from Boris. Marcus obviously struggled last season and never found his niche, but he has rededicated himself this year and is looking for playing time. We’re playing him more off the ball to take pressure off of him, and that way he can concentrate most on what he does best: playing defense. Marcus showed good maturity all week long in Tucson, shot the ball very well and looks much better than he did a year ago. We’re hoping he can establish himself as a consistent threat off the bench.
Our two rookies were very impressive, as well. It’s always a tough adjustment to go from college to the NBA, but both of our guys – DJ Strawberry and Alando Tucker – played well. They’re tough, they defend and they quietly get their work done every day. In short, they are very professional, especially given how young they are. Whether or not they can crack the lineup remains to be seen, but we feel very good about their overall development.
One guy I didn’t mention was Steve Nash, because his play is pretty much a given. Steve is in tremendous shape following another strenuous offseason conditioning program, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. With Grant and Boris there to provide ball handling and passing help, I think Steve will have less pressure on him to make plays this year, which will help him conserve energy for the playoffs.
Our two shooting guards – Leandro Barbosa and Raja Bell – both looked fit and ready to go. Each one shot the ball extremely well throughout camp, and LB’s defense was better than ever before. He is ready to take the next step and become a more complete player.
The biggest question that I repeatedly received over the past couple of months was, ‘Who is going to replace Kurt Thomas?’ The answer is a tag team of Brian Skinner and Sean Marks. Brian is big, active and can run at our pace. He’s an excellent defender and shot blocker. Marks will surprise some people this year – he can really shoot the ball and may get more of an opportunity to play given our roster makeup. Both will help as the season goes on, depending on matchups and situations.
And finally, I know many of you are concerned with Amare Stoudemire’s health, so I wanted to close with an update on his progress. Amare is already rehabbing following his knee surgery, and he is going to be fine. Our medical staff is happy with his progress and expects him to be back on the floor in about two weeks. Whether or not he is ready for opening night remains to be seen, but if not, he’ll be in the lineup shortly thereafter. We feel once he’s on the floor that we’re going to field our most explosive team yet in the Mike D’Antoni era, and there’s no doubt we’ll be potent. Our goal, of course, is to take the next step and improve to the point that we can compete for an NBA championship.
After one week, anyway, we’re on the right track…..