Josh Greene / Suns.com Photos

 

When last season ended with that loss to San Antonio, and Mike D’Antoni departed for Gotham, it was hard to be optimistic.

All the talk was about the Suns’ aging core, the “failure” of the trade for Shaquille O’Neal, and the futility of the run-and-gun system in the playoffs. Sourpusses (like me) predicted a downturn in fortune and some years of rebuilding. After all, how much could the team change?

Well.

Step One, hire Terry Porter as Head Coach. A pro’s pro as a player, he’s got the respect of everyone on the team. Heck, after all the times he tortured the Suns in the playoffs as a member of the Portland Trailblazers, I certainly respect him. He knows defense, he knows offense. He can teach. And he’s committed to playing a deep rotation.

Step Two, retain Alvin Gentry and bring in Dan Majerle, Bill Cartwright and Igor Kokoskov as assistant coaches. Gentry knows the Suns’ holdovers well, and is a fixture in the organization. Majerle is a tie to the Suns’ proud history, and can give seminars in toughness, hustle and defense. Cartwright is the big man instructor the Suns have searched for since Marc Iavaroni left for Memphis, and will join Shaq in “Project Amare,” as well as the new “Project Lopez.” Kokoskov is a Porter confidant from their days in Detroit, and an expert in the ever-more-important international game.

Step Three, draft Robin Lopez. Of the Suns’ most pressing needs after last season was quality depth up front. Shaq stayed remarkably healthy in his partial season with the team, but while he remains one of the more effective centers in the league, even he isn’t able to turn back the hands of time. When he goes to the bench, the Suns have to be able to count on the man coming in to defend the rim, body up the opponents’ strongest inside threat, and even keep them honest on the offensive end. I knew Lopez could do the first two, but after watching a few Summer League games, and seeing Lopez toss in a few of those awkward-but-effective hook shots across the lane, I felt a lot better about the third. Plus, he’s a dynamo who never takes a play off. He’ll be a glue guy who actually contributes.

Step Four, commit to Alando Tucker and DJ Strawberry. With Coach Porter’s stated mission to give playing time to more players, these guys are ticketed for bigger roles. And after watching them in the Summer League, I’m ready to see them take those roles on. Tucker can flat fill it up, reminding me of his fellow Wisconsin alum, Michael Finley. And Starwberry can punish smaller defenders.

Step Five, bring in an athletic wing. And here’s where the Suns really surprised me, landing one of my favorite unsung players in the league, Matt Barnes from Golden State. He never got a lot of ink (except all over his body – check those tats!), but it seemed like every time I checked a box score and Barnes got meaningful playing time, he was racking up a double-double. He’s pure energy in high-tops, delighting in crashing the boards, buckling down and playing defense, and surprising you with his shooting touch. He’s got elements in his game that remind me of a couple former Suns, Cedric Ceballos and Shawn Marion.

With a veteran backup point guard likely to be added (I, for one, am rooting for the Suns to give Shaun Livingston a shot, if he doesn’t get a better offer somewhere else), the Suns are looking at the following lineup as of today: O’Neal, Stoudemire, Hill, Bell and Nash. Not the most spry of starting fives, but smart and talented, and they’ll be undeniably effective. And now, check out the bench: a seasoned Strawberry and Tucker, hyperactive Barnes, even more hyperactive Lopez…oh yeah, and a couple of guys named Barbosa and Diaw, who happen to be pretty good.

I can’t remember the Suns being this deep in a long, long time. So, here’s my new outlook and prediction: The Suns’ veterans, dismayed at how they went out last season, use their experience and pride to rally to a 2008-2009 better than anyone forecasted, actually playing defense along the way and, buttressed by their young, versatile bench, run far deeper into the postseason than anyone expected. Health permitting, I could really see it happening. And the best part of it all is that the Suns actually seem to have been building for the future while assembling this team – STAT, Barbosa, Diaw, Tucker, Strawberry and Barnes are all relatively young and could be around for a while.

My turnaround from post-playoff depression is complete. When does training camp start?