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Monday, March 16, 2009

Sunset in Phoenix

Less than one year ago, the Phoenix Suns led the San Antonio Spurs by 16 points in game one of their first round playoff series in San Antonio. The Suns were on the verge of swiping home court advantage from the reigning NBA champions. Then Tim Duncan--who had not made a three pointer all season--drained a huge trey to force a second overtime, the Spurs eventually prevailed and they went on to wipe out the Suns in five games. Fast forward to this year and it is Groundhog Day in San Antonio--the Spurs are on pace for yet another 55-plus win season--but the Suns are careening toward the Draft Lottery.

Here is a look at the sudden demise of what was once one of the NBA's elite teams:


The dramatic decline of the Phoenix Suns has not received the attention nor analysis that it deserves. The Suns won at least 54 games in each season between 2005 and 2008, advancing to the Western Conference Finals twice (2006 and 2007). Last season, the Suns acquired Shaquille O'Neal to match up with San Antonio's Tim Duncan and they went 15-5 down the stretch, including two wins against the Spurs, their hated rivals.

The Suns faced San Antonio in the first round and led by as many as 16 points in Game One but Duncan -- who shot 0-4 from three-point range during the regular season -- drilled a trey to tie the score at 104 to force a second overtime. The Spurs eventually won the game and then took the series in five.

The Suns had shown that they had enough talent to go toe to toe with the defending NBA champions -- yet just one year later the Spurs are on pace for yet another 55-plus win season while the Suns are headed for the draft lottery. How did the Suns descend in less than 12 months from being on the brink of seizing home-court advantage from the reigning NBA champions to being an also-ran?

General Manager Steve Kerr will probably be the scapegoat for the Suns' demise. Kerr certainly should be held accountable for his decisions but the real problem in Phoenix is that it is hard to figure out owner Robert Sarver's master plan, assuming that he has one.

Sarver repeatedly dealt away first round picks -- including Luol Deng, Rajon Rondo and Nate Robinson -- to save money, got rid of quality veteran big man Kurt Thomas -- the team's best post defender -- to cut costs and then after those economizing actions he reversed field and picked up the high-priced Shaquille O'Neal. The Suns have neither committed fully to doing everything necessary to win a title nor have they committed fully to tearing the team down and rebuilding.

They discarded coach Mike D'Antoni's "seven seconds or less" philosophy in favor of Terry Porter's defensive-minded approach but then they canned Porter barely halfway into this season. Interim Coach Alvin Gentry has employed the so-called "seven seconds or Shaq" game plan, a modified version of "seven seconds or less." The Suns scored at least 140 points in each of their first three games under Gentry, rolling to wins over the lowly Clippers (twice) and Thunder, but they have only gone 4-8 since then.

The Suns have made so many personnel changes in the past year that it is difficult to determine the exact impact of any one particular move. They traded Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks for O'Neal last year and this season they swapped Raja Bell, Boris Diaw and Sean Singletary for Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley. However, three things have been consistently true of all of the various iterations of this team:

* The Suns have a lot of individual talent.

* The Suns have never been committed to playing good defense on a consistent basis.

* As a group, the Suns have not demonstrated mental toughness.

It is embarrassing for a team with as much talent as Phoenix has to miss the playoffs. Two-time MVP (2005-06) Steve Nash is still productive, 2000 MVP -- and 2009 All-Star Game co-MVP -- Shaquille O'Neal seemingly has been drinking from the Fountain of Youth, Jason Richardson averaged at least 21.7 ppg in three of the previous four seasons, and 2007 Sixth Man Award winner Leandro Barbosa provides scoring punch off of the bench. Also, seven-time All-Star Grant Hill is still a solid player who is good enough defensively that he often defends point guards while Nash is assigned to slower-footed players. An eye injury has sidelined four-time All-Star Amare Stoudemire for the rest of the season but the Suns were hardly tearing up the league in the 53 games he played before he got hurt.

During ABC's telecast of Boston's 128-108 win in Phoenix, Jeff Van Gundy hammered home points two and three, declaring that Nash, Hill and Stoudemire's refusal to buy into Porter's defensive-oriented approach and give their new coach a reasonable chance to succeed will forever be a "blight" on their resumes. You can add O'Neal's name to that "blight" list, too, if you believe the report by ESPN's Marc Stein that when Porter was talking to the team, the Big Cactus gloated that things will be a lot different once Gentry takes Porter's job.

Stein also said that one of O'Neal's Miami teammates insists that when former Heat Coach Stan Van Gundy would instruct the team O'Neal would hold three fingers up, apparently referring to the fact that O'Neal then owned three championship rings compared to none for Van Gundy.

The idea that O'Neal respects authority and listens to his coaches is a crock and it is not a coincidence that bad locker room chemistry has been a defining characteristic of O'Neal's teams in Orlando, L.A., Miami and now Phoenix.

Van Gundy contrasted the Suns with their nemesis, the Spurs, by declaring that the Spurs are a "more balanced team" that "takes offense seriously, takes defense seriously and takes rebounding seriously -- and they would never run a coup on their coach." Later in the game, Van Gundy noted, "The Suns are basically complaining on every call right now and that mental weakness has been one of the reasons that they have struggled in big games."

The teams that have made it to the Finals in recent years are all significantly better than Phoenix defensively. Some of that undoubtedly has to do with coaching but the players have to be held accountable, too. Hall of Fame Coaches John Wooden and John Thompson have both said that the same basic athletic skills are required to be a good offensive player and to be a good defensive player, so the reason that some players are only proficient at the offensive end of the court has more to do with desire than anything else. That lack of desire and mental toughness are the defining characteristics of this era of Suns basketball.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:41 AM

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