The start of football season means one thing to me (and apparently to the Cardinals) – It’s almost basketball season. While most off-season attention has been directed down Florida way (supposedly, Miami picked up a few players), relatively little attention has been paid to the remaking of the Purple Gang. That’s fine with me…I’d relish the opportunity to see a Suns team once again rise above everyone’s expectations, and I think this squad has the potential to do it. So let us pause, before things really get rolling here, to say some final things about those who are leaving us, and those who have set their bags on our figurative doorsteps:
OUT: STEVE KERR
You know, after the Porter/Shaq debacles, I can’t imagine there’d have been any way I’d be sitting around less than two years later being sorry Steve Kerr was moving on. But I am. For a guy with no prior experience as a GM, he got the hang of it pretty darn quickly (albeit with some great help – We’ll miss you, David Griffin), and learned the best way to put a team around Steve Nash was to concentrate on chemistry, not name recognition. Given Phoenix’s financial constraints, his “retirement” is completely understandable (and lest you think Robert Sarver is a cheapskate, consider this – the offer made to Amar’e was eminently fair, and no cheap owner goes out and brings in Turkoglu, Warrick and Childress. The issue wasn’t money…the issues were length of contract and guaranteed money – both legit concerns with Amar’e, if you ask me. And with labor issues looming and the Suns already in contract hell, the fact they were able to bring in any players, let alone quality ones that will keep the team competitive, without a general manager on board, is pretty much heroic).
IN: LANCE BLANKS
Okay, he’s green. There’s no telling what kind of job he will do as General Manager. He will probably make a mistake or two. But here’s what I like: He learned the trade under the top brass in San Antonio, and over the last ten years, there probably hasn’t been a better front office. He’s young, eager to establish himself. And he’s smart, smart enough to know that as long as Steve Nash is on your team, you build according to what he needs to do what he does best.
OUT: AMAR’E STOUDEMIRE
My prediction is this, and it’s not unique – The Suns will miss Amar’e, but not as much as Amar’e will miss the Suns. Stoudemire is an incredible physical specimen, with strength, speed and explosive burst. He commanded double-teams down low and was a key figure in every opposing team’s scouting report. But the deification of Amar’e as one of the league’s very best players always mystified me (and it seems it mystified a lot of the NBA’s general managers and free agents, as well). Amar’e showed only sporadic, at best, interest in playing defense and, given his size and attributes, should have averaged at least ten rebounds in a year. Twenty/ten every night should have been a given, not a gasp-inducing, rare cause for celebration. You know who puts up twenty/tens every night without playing defense? Zach Randolph and David Lee. Are those guys on the same level as Amar’e? Personally, I don’t think so, but the case can be made, at least statistically. Now, in New York, he’s going to be getting at least three fewer easy baskets (I call them Nashkets) a game, and he won’t benefit from the floor spacing the Suns gave him inside, because the Knicks don’t have nearly the caliber of shooters. And when the Big Apple media gets ahold of STAT when the Knicks get off to a 5-12 start…Oy. That doesn’t mean the Suns are better without him…While our guys made some very good acquisitions, they didn’t exactly add strength in the middle, or even a semi-viable low post threat. Barring Robin Lopez being bitten by a radioactive spider, the Suns will absolutely live and die by the jumper, which hasn’t proven a recipe for championship success. Yet.
IN: HAKIM WARRICK
A phenomenal athlete, about whom the most common refrain has been, “If he can put it all together…” Of course, it’s been a few years now, and there are still pieces scattered about. But he’s still young, and the length, speed and athleticism that caught people’s attention in the first place is still there. His ceiling is in the Shawn Marion range…a long-limbed defender, excellent garbage rebounder, lightning-quick wing-filler, and weird jump-shot shooter. The trick will be to keep his motor running consistently, which might be tough on a team where minutes will be pretty evenly spread. But everyone improves when they play alongside Number Thirteen (look it up), and the resulting spike in Hakim’s stats might put a smile on his face that translates into his best season so far.
OUT: LEANDRO BARBOSA
Yeah, it’s sad to say farewell to the Brazilian Blur. Who didn’t love LB? “Fast, Nice and Good at Basketball,” is how he was described in The Macrophenomenal Basketball Almanac, and all three characterizations are apt. He worked hard, improved much, and did it all with a smile. But it’s time to face facts. He’d maxed out. Barbosa wasn’t going to mature into a dependable point guard. He wasn’t going to grow three more inches and become a viable shooting guard. He was tending to spend increasing amounts of time on the injured reserve. And, with his freakish reach and blinding speed, he somehow never became an elite (or even above-average) defender. And so, it was “on to the next.” Fans in Toronto will embrace him for several years, then wonder, as we all did, “How come he’s not better than he is?”
IN: HEDO TURKOGLU
In Turkoglu, the Suns landed a matchup nightmare that falls somewhere between Rashard Lewis and Lamar Odom. Turkoglu shoots well, but not as well as Lewis, and he handles the ball as well as Odom, but doesn’t rebound as well. He does enough of everything, however, that opponents will have a devil of a time finding someone to guard him. Best of all, he gives the Suns a player they can trust with the ball in his hands, on the same level they already trust Steve Nash and Grant Hill. Hedo should be devastating on the pick and roll with Nash, bringing back memories of Tom Chambers. He’s a smart player with great improvisational skills and court vision. Steve Nash should love him. And if Hedo only averages six rebounds, then hey, that’s only three less than Amar’e, right?
OUT: LOUIS AMUNDSON
Yup, he was definitely one of those fan-favorite, off-the-bench, high-energy “glue guys,” who’d dive into the stands, face up to the other team’s most intimidating player, throw an elbow, take a punch, and do whatever was necessary. And he’ll be missed. But you know what? Sweet Lou’s skills aren’t exactly irreplaceable in the NBA. His greatest strength is his hunger, and though the NBA has its share of overpaid underworkers, there’s also a ton of fine athletes with high-revving engines like Lou’s, salivating for the chance to play five minutes and take three charges. It takes some looking, sure, but those guys can be found. Lou will be much loved in Golden State and wherever else he might travel, and deservedly so, just as he was loved in Phoenix. But Phoenix loved Bo Outlaw, too. Remember him?
IN: JOSH CHILDRESS
“What?” you cry, “Another six-foot-seven athletic swingman?” Well, yes. And what, exactly, is so bad about that? With precious little in the way of space-eating musclemen available in free agency (whose value in a Nash-led offense would have been questionable anyway), the Suns opted to address their other glaring weakness – athletic length – and came away with Warrick and Childress. JC is a genuinely strong defender with great instincts, and an unstoppable slasher to the basket. He might be an even better comparison to Marion than Warrick. And like Warrick, his numbers and effectiveness will only increase with Canada’s greatest export playing by his side.
With their new acquisitions, the Suns can now play the league’s biggest small ball, or the smallest big ball, depending on how you look at it. They are going to make opponents work on the defensive end. The pressure to rebound will fall squarely on Robin Lopez’s young shoulders (pray they hold up for a full season), and the Suns still won’t be the best defensive team in the league, but even with Amar’e, they weren’t in that category. If you look at the player turnover as essentially Stoudemire-Barbosa-Amundson for Turkoglu-Warrick-Childress, the Suns get the edge in every aspect except maybe scoring. Add to that a Goran Dragic that we know has taken tremendous strides, a Robin Lopez who now knows he belongs in this league, a Gani Lawal that everyone is excited about, and a hopefully ready-to-contribute Earl Clark, and you’re looking, once more, at a playoff team. One capable of winning a championship? Everyone will tell you no, but then again, everyone told you last season the Suns didn’t have a chance of reaching the Conference Finals.