Ah, when the Valley temperature cools to the low 200s, the Cardinals are driving everyone crazy with their inconsistency, and the Suns head back to training camp…Is there any better time of year?

I’ve named my fantasy basketball team this season “Team Microfracture,” in the hopes that putting that unsavory word out there will ward off injury and keep my team in the thick of it. It’s a risky “if” to put my faith in, but isn’t that all any NBA team can hope for, really? That a few of its major “ifs” come through for a given season?

Like every pro squad (okay, except maybe Memphis), the Suns are starting the preseason with a heaping helping of optimism. They feel they’ve had a great offseason, that they’re being either underestimated or overlooked by the prognosticators (or maybe both), and that there’s real hope that they might surprise some people in the contender-loaded West. No one’s saying championship, not even the Suns themselves, but we are hearing a lot of words like, “hungry,” “excited,” and “fun,” which would seem to bode well. I’m stoked to see the Suns in the position of underdog for the first time in a long time, and anxious to see what they can do. Which will, of course, be dependent on a bunch of “ifs.”

If Amare can stay healthy…That’s the biggest one, of course. He’s the Suns best, most proven big man and, with the departure of Shaq (definitely a case of addition by subtraction), once more the focal point of the offense. He’s more motivated than the Obamas at an Olympic Committee meeting, and wants to prove to everyone (whether it’s the Suns or a potential taker in a trade) that he still has what it takes to be a monster in the middle and that his ceiling is still a few floors up. But how are the knees? How are the goggles? Can Amare be as aggressive as he once was, and play without fear of injury? Maybe more importantly, how’s the defense and rebounding? Is this the year we finally see him reach his potential in both areas? Nothing has prevented Amare from being an elite defender and shot-blocker…except Amare himself. If he brings the same focus to those aspects of his game that he has to improving his mid-range jumper…and if he stays healthy…there’s no one in the league who would be in his league.

If J-Rich returns to J-Rich’s original form…It’s hard to remember now, but when Jason Richardson was in Golden State, he was a top-five scoring guard who could slash, get his own shot, and rebound like very few twos his size. Perhaps unmotivated in Charlotte, and a bit confused in his transition last season to the different style of the Suns (not to mention more than a bit uncertain on the Valley roads), Richardson never really got his shwerve on in the purple-and-orange. But those skills don’t just vanish. Dude is the kind of wing player every team craves when he’s focused and on his game. If he can reclaim that, he’ll absolutely thrive in the Suns system and be a key factor in keeping teams from doubling and tripling Amare.

If the Suns really let LB run free…And I mean really run free. Leandro Barbosa is at his best when things are chaotic on the floor – and at his absolute finest when he’s causing the chaos. No one is faster or sneakier. Put him with a second unit where the other four guys commit to defense and rebounding and let LB go all Iverson on everybody. We know he can score 24 off the bench. The Suns need to let him do what he does best. In doing so, his confidence will build, and his success will compound daily, with interest. This should be the Brazilian Blur’s best year.

If Steve Nash and Grant Hill can maintain their time share at the Fountain of Youth…What am I saying? Of course they will. By the way, you know how everyone talks about how old the Suns are? Well, outside of Nash and Hill, who’s really achieved emeritus status on the squad? Right, nobody. The Suns are a young team. Amare, LB and J-Rich are in their absolute prime, and the rest of the kids are…kids. And can you think of two veterans you’d rather have in your clubhouse than Steve Nash and Grant Hill, two better examples for young players? I can’t.

If Robin Lopez has made a substantial leap forward…Okay, fouling out of a no-foul-limit summer league game isn’t necessarily a great indicator, but the fact that Robin has remained aggressive and hasn’t let last year’s stumbles get in his head is very encouraging. Toward the end of last season, people forget the kind of improvement he showed. Now he consistency in the coaching staff, a half-season of the running system under his belt, and no Big Cactus in his way, physically or psychically. The Suns don’t need Robin to be an all-pro center. Nor do they want him just for his six fouls. Lopez West just needs to focus on pick and roll defense, staying between big men and the basket, and cleaning the boards. That’s it. If he can do that, his hair will no longer be the first thing people comment upon.

If I’m as right about Channing Frye as I was wrong about Matt Barnes…Boy, was I excited about the Suns signing Matt Barnes. I envisioned double-digit rebounding, endless hustle and smart defense, the kind of “glue guy” every team covets (see Ariza, Trevor). Somehow, it didn’t work out that way. Maybe it was the unsettled nature of the coaching staff and the playing system. It sure affected other players. But Matt just never really got it going in his Suns uniform. And you know who turned out to be the “glue guys” the Suns had been looking for? Sweet Lou Amundson and Jared Dudley, of all people, and they’re back for another go-round. I like Channing Frye, though. Okay, he got lost in a sea of big men in Portland last season, and okay, he couldn’t beat out Joel Pryzbilla for playing time, but before that, he was a pretty good player for a really lousy Knicks team. Ran the floor, rebounded well, played decent defense, and showed a nice, soft touch around the hoop and out to mid-range. His mobility makes him a better courtmate for Amare than the Big…oh, I’m too tired to come up with a funny nickname for a guy who’s long gone, and I want to close the book on Shaq as a Sun anyway. The important thing is, if Channing Frye fits in well on the court and in the clubhouse, as I suspect he will, the team will be better for it.

If all the Suns’ talk about “better chemistry” isn’t just lip service…The fun-and-gun Suns were at their best when they really, truly, liked each other. Things only came apart when the grumbling started, whether it was Shawn Marion wishing he could find a spotlight somewhere else (how’s that going, Matrix?), or Boris Diaw mumbling about…Actually, I’m not sure what he was unhappy about, because I don’t understand French. But all indicators are that this year’s edition of the Purple Gang practically sit around the campfire every night, through their arms around each other’s shoulders, and sing “Kum-By-Yah.” I’d take a slightly less-talented group of individuals who really get along over a bunch of superstars operating on different pages. Harmony on the court is a beautiful thing…and it makes fast breaks easier to run.

And so, when all is said and done, I think these Suns can be a fifty-win team, even in a division and conference as tough as the one they’re in. They’ve got something to prove and nothing to lose. Who’s to say that, with a couple breaks here and there, a couple misfires from other contenders, they couldn’t really surprise everyone? That’s why they play the games, someone once said. I think it was Charles Barkley.
If the Suns don’t whiff on their “ifs,” we could be in for a fun season.

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