Amare Stoudemire and the Suns are working towards the championship in June, not in January. (NBAE Photos)

Well, as the bartender asked the horses in his pub, why all the long faces?

It seems the Suns are winning, but not by enough, not by as much as they used to. They’re winning, but not always easily, not as easily as they used to. Clearly, there must be something deeply, desperately, horribly, painfully wrong, for a team to have fallen this far.

Is it the defense? Well, the Suns are never going to remind anyone of the great shut-down clubs of all time, and their interior defense is very much a work in progress, but they’re scoring five points more than their opponents, so that means, by definition, they’re playing better defense than the guys they’re playing against, right? Suns opponents have lower field goal, free throw and three-point percentages than Phoenix, and the Suns dish out a whopping seven assists more than the teams they play.

No, say all the experts on all the websites and all the networks who’ve watched the Suns play on television a few times, the problem is chemistry. Player X thinks Player Y is a meanie. Player Z thinks no one loves him and is going to sulk in the corner. All this is a recipe for doom, proof that the system doesn’t work, that the window of opportunity has slammed, and that major, major changes are needed.

Well, for the record, I think there are chemistry problems around the Suns. But I think it’s the fans and critics that have them.

I think, because of the Suns’ spectacular, revolutionary success these past few years, people have come to expect certain things from the Suns. They expect high-flying, belief-defying runs of offensive brilliance, triple-digit victory margins, wins, wins, wins, and steady forward progress towards the franchise’s first NBA championship. And not all of that is unreasonable. With several years of Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system in place, the Suns should have it pretty much perfected, and they should continue to improve. With the Suns’ essential core (Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Steve Nash) having played together for several years, they should be moving further towards ultimate success.

But I also think that, having seen the miracles the Suns have accomplished in the desert now for those several years, other teams have either adopted much of the Suns’ system, or learned how better to defense it. In short, the rest of the league has caught up a little bit to the Suns…who nevertheless still have the best record in their conference.

Winning breeds expectations and impatience to see those expectations fulfilled. But it’s made us, the fans, a little chemically imbalanced. Let’s temper those expectations with a little bit of reality. The NBA season, as the saying goes, is a marathon, not a sprint. The Suns happen to be very good sprinters, however, and we sure like watching them blaze by opponents. But no NBA championship was ever won in January. Teams grow, develop and find themselves over the course of a season. The Suns remain a team that lost a starter in the off-season (Kurt Thomas) and gained another who plays a very different style (Grant Hill). These Suns are still growing an learning.

Let’s look, for a second, at a Suns team that should have had, by all rights, zero chemistry. They started the season with an underaged rookie center at a time when the position held more talent that at any time in the league’s history. Their forwards were a journeyman who’d been unceremoniously dumped by a championship team, and a skinny shooter past his prime. Their guards were a newcomer who’d never started before, and another creaky vet starting to break down physically. They got off to a decent start, then completely fell apart. Picked to finish dead last in the division, they appeared ready to fulfill everyone’s expectations. At the All-Star break, they traded the highest-profile player they’d ever drafted, who was just coming into his own, for another undistinguished journeyman rebounder. Then, the most reliable player in the franchise’s history, the backcourt veteran, broke his wrist, forcing the team to start yet another rookie and place in him the primary ballhandling responsibilities and charging him with guarding the opponents’ best scorer.

They barely knew each other to begin with, traded guys who’d been in the locker room for a couple years, and jumbled their starting lineup twice during the regular season. It’s a wonder these guys even knew each other’s names. So what happened?

They finished in a rush of success, made the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, won two playoff series in which they did not have the home court advantage, one against the defending world champions and everyone’s pick to win it again, then made in into the NBA Finals against the league’s most historic franchise, against whom they played the greatest game in basketball history before finally succumbing in six hard-fought games. The year was 1976. Alvan Adams was the rookie center, Paul Westphal the newcomer guard, Curtis Perry and Gar Heard the unheralded forwards, and Ricky Sobers the midseason replacement at point guard.

My point is, talent didn’t get them to the Finals. Chemistry did. And that chemistry wasn’t there from the start of the season. It developed over 82 games. That’s the thing about chemicals – It can take time for them to react properly. The good scientists allow it to happen in its own time. They don’t hover over the Petri dish and worry…or boo the chemicals.

Come off the ledge, Suns fans. Take solace in the fact that the Suns are where they are, and they haven’t played their best basketball yet. It’s how you finish, not where you stand with less than half the season played.

P.S. After thirty-seven games in 1975-76, the Suns were 16-21.

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