Eyes on Phoenix
Eyes around the NBA are focused on Phoenix. It used to be because the Suns would be in the top 2-3 teams in the Western Conference heading into the All Star break. Now the Suns are hosting the game. Instead of showcasing the city and franchise, it's a distraction from what's wrong with the Suns. Let's investigate a bit:
1. Terry Porter
No coach in the league has a tougher job. Unfortunately for Porter, the degree of difficulty doesn't reduce the accountability for the team's performance. The system he's implemented hasn't worked. Players have complained publicly, malcontents were traded, every NBA analyst has an opinion and most importantly in this business- fans aren't happy. The teams hasn't won more than three consecutive games at any point this season. The scoring is down, the games are slower and the team is struggling against good teams and middle of the road teams. The team is fighting for the eight spot when the bottom of the West is plagued with injuries and any spot up to four can be had with a winning streak. Translation: Porter is compromising what he wants to do with a roster that was built for a different coach and tweaked by his general manager.
2. Emphasis on defense
Suns junkies remember all the hype after the Porter hire about the team focusing more on defense. We all remember how Dallas tweaked a few things, changed coaches, made a couple of smart minor moves and got to the Finals. It seemed that way in training camp, when Porter stopped the scrimmages because there was too much scoring and saying "That's not our identity." Porter's Suns are one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA. Shaq doesn't even extend to shooters on the pick n' roll. Amare still doesn't fully understand help principles. Their best individual defender at this point is Grant Hill, who's 36. The team may give up slightly fewer points per game but they play at a slower pace and the point differential is much smaller. Translation: I wouldn't trust this team to guard a swimming pool.
3. New offensive offense
This one rubs a lot of people the wrong way. All one has to do is watch the game Sunday versus Detroit and tonight versus Philadelphia. Fact: Steve Nash is the common link between 6 of the last 7 top scoring offenses (last year, missed it by .9). So the new coach decides to make a healthy Shaquille O'Neal the focal point of the offense. The Nash and Amare pick n' roll has made token early appearances but mainly only showed up late in games. The fast breaking after makes disappeared. This team doesn't force any turnovers to speak of so the break dried up. Best offensive point guard of the decade, 2-time MVP relegated to feed the post on a team full of players built to run. So against Detroit, the team pushed at every opportunity, Nash picked the Pistons apart en route to 21 assists. Tonight, the Suns were run off the floor by the Sixers fueled by 18 turnovers. Shaq had no lift and Porter threw in the towel in third quarter down 14 points. The pick n' roll with Amare is still rarely used. Amare is often handed the ball at the elbow and asked to make a play. LB once again is being asked to run the 2nd unit and his inability to create for others is still a glaring weakness. Translation: the team can run half-court sets but making that the primary focus on a team with Steve Nash is dumb.
4. Trade rumors
Because of the places I've lived, I've mostly had to watch on League Pass over the last few years. I saw the Nash/D'Antoni version of the Suns play for the first in person 12/23/04. Joe Johnson had an awful night, Stoudemire ( who was practicing nothing but midrange jumpers before the game) had a great night, Nash had 17 and 14, D'Antoni barely used his bench and the Suns beat the Grizzlies to go to 23-3. The next game I saw in person was 4/19/08. Game 1 of the Spurs series last season. Best game I've attended in any sport and it broke my heart. D'Antoni's team left it on the floor but once again he was outcoached, far too familiar of a refrain during his tenure. Long lead-in for my point but think about all the changes between those two games. Nash wins two MVPs, Amare is All NBA after microfracture, Joe Johnson traded for Boris Diaw, LB goes from scrub to sixth man of the year, Steven Hunter leaves in free agency, Q Rich traded for Kurt Thomas, Kurt Thomas and draft picks given away, Casey Jacobsen traded for Jim Jackson, Jim Jackson traded for nothing, Shawn Marion traded for Shaquille O'Neal plus the selling of James Jones and the draft picks that turned into Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez, Luol Deng and Rajon Rondo. Now Amare is on the block. Two thoughts here. 1. How many times did the roster reshuffle around Stockton and Malone before they reached the NBA Finals? They were the only constant between the teams that made the Conference Finals in 91-92 and the Finals for the second time in 97-98. 2. With all the change within this organization just in the last 5 years (ownership, general manager, coach), what are the Suns going to build around? What is their plan?
Trading Amare or Shaq is a salary dump, plain and simple. The team clearly doesn't expect to compete for a championship at this point. Unless sliding into the 8 spot to stop the Laker juggernaut is what the team is aiming for. Kerr may be trying to back track to use Amare to make up for mistakes he and his predecessors have made. However getting All Star players requires luck and skill and Amare is the only one the Suns have been right about that's still on their roster. Translation: The road to hell is paved with good intentions, apparently so is the path to mediocrity.
I got a message from a friend who's a season ticket holder. Apparently fans have starting skipping games and the USAC is partially full for weekend games. For an ownership group so reluctant to lose money, rebuilding is not a pleasant prospect. Getting out of luxury tax territory is a goal for Sarver et al but losing playoff money will hurt especially if season ticket renewals go down or the Suns can't increase ticket prices. The word in the past is teams get about $1 million per playoff game, but that's inaccurate because the league takes a cut and visitors get a cut during long series. But the extra ticket revenue from making the playoffs helps with critical extra income. It convinces fans it is worthwhile to support a team. Watching the league pass games, I see a lot of empty seats at NBA arenas. Fans getting priced out of games is not a new story but in this tight economy, I think good teams are going to be a lot more reluctant to lose, unless of course it's cheap. Even though the Lakers sucked after trading Shaq, they only missed the playoffs once and Kobe missed a ton of games to injury. The Knicks are unlike any other franchise in the league, so they manage. The Suns need to keep a competitive team on the floor. Translation: Robert Sarver's efforts to save money cost this team a title and will ultimately cost him more money as this franchise loses value.
It sucks we're on the verge of seeing this team completely blown up but sports can break your heart. A lot of sports talk is just a long discussion about 'almost.' You know the Sun Devils almost won the national title with Jake the Snake. The Suns almost won a title with Seven Seconds or Less. The Cardinals almost won the Superbowl. The Patriots almost went 19-0. It's just a matter of if we want to keep watching... and paying.