Well, sports bloggers, that’s who!
So, without further ado, the seeds envelope please.
Well, okay, a little more ado. A year ago at this time the word to the wise for the excited citizenry of Planet Orange was, “Calm down.” This year it’s “Cheer up.”
In other words, last year the expectation level in these parts was off the charts. And even many of the national cognoscenti agreed 2007-08 might well be the season the Suns at long shed the dubious distinction of being the most successful franchise in the history of any professional sport to never win a championship.
This year the expectation bar has been lowered to the point where at least some of those very cognoscenti are suggesting the Suns might not even make the playoffs, let alone shed any dubious distinctions.
This kind of gloom, of course, is even further off the charts. In Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, the Suns still have two of the very best players in the league at what they do, and most of the other pieces of one of the league’s perennially most productive offenses remain intact.
And as a matter of fact, with a coaching change and roster retooling representing a shift in philosophy with an eye toward better defense and depth a case could be made that this year’s Suns fit the NBA championship profile of recent years even better than the highly entertaining run-and-fun
style of the D’Antoni years.
True, in switching from D’Antoni to Terry Porter, adding players like Matt Barnes and rookie Robin Lopez, and committing to deeper rotation the Suns are undergoing a personality transplant. And like all surgical procedures, even then most promising ones, this one is not without risk — the risk being, of course, that in strengthening the team’s perceived weaknesses you might weaken the team’s proven strengths.
I say “perceived” because it could reasonably be argued that untimely injuries and unfortunate suspensions in the playoffs the last three years are as much a reason the team is still sans title as depth and defensive shortcomings, but that’s another column.
It’s not hard to understand the reasons for the downsizing of expectations. After all, Nash, IS 65 in point guard years, and Shaq is not only more elderly but has a history of hip problems and a well-documented tendency to go south when his team starts to go sideways.
And while I think Barnes is an underrated addition who will bring much of what Shawn Marion did to the table, his talent level is a notch or two lower.
Also, while the general impression is the main reason the Suns didn’t win it all was that D’Antoni didn’t preach defense, it could just as easily have been said it was more because Amare didn’t practice it.
But enough negativity already! Let’s look at the reasons I think the Suns will once again have a legitimate shot at shedding that “distinction”:
For one thing, in Porter, Bill Cartwright, Alvin Gentry, Dan Majerle, and Igor Kokoskov, the Suns have one of their most solid coaching staffs ever.
For another, I think Amare IS buying into defense, and the way he has improved his offensive skills is impressive testimony to what he can do when he buys into something. Also, moving to power forward has already made him a much happier camper.
As for Nash, while he did slip a bit late last year, we don’t know how much this had to do with fatigue and changing the team’s offensive philosophy in midstream so to speak with the acquisition of Shaq, and how much with advancing years.
Hopefully, all of the former. And in any case, even if understandably the best of Nash’s is behind him, the pretty good of him is still a huge plus.
As for Shaq, I think he truly believes this team DOES have a decent chance to win it all. And as long as he believes that he will not be taking any of the trips to the DL (disinterested list) for which he is so notorious.
As for the big picture, the Suns did what they had to do in the off-season, and did it as well, on paper, as it reasonably could be. Or, as Amare put it on picture day:
“We’ve had good teams and played a lot of good basketball the last four year, but still no championships. So it was time for a change.”
Amen to that!
Meanwhile, yet another reason for high hopes is the low expectations themselves.
As I have often noted, throughout their history the Suns have always tended to do best when the worst is expected and vice versa.
You could, as they say, look it up.
From their very first trip to the playoffs in Year Two when they took a stunning 3-1 lead over the heavily favored Hall of Fame Lakers only to be overtaken by remorseless reality, to their very last one, when they appeared to have the Spurs on the ropes in Game One last year only to stunningly collapse, it has always been thus.
Who can forget their last trip to the finals, when they were declared DOA in Chicago after losing the first two games to the Bulls in Phoenix, but took two out of three there and were on the brink of taking charge of the series until John Paxson buried that three-pointer in Game Six back in Phoenix?
The bottom line: This seed’s got a better chance to grow than most experts think.