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Friday, March 20, 2009

Pro Basketball Teams of the Decade

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the November 2001 issue of Basketball Digest.

Each decade immediately conjures up specific images for basketball fans: Mikan's Lakers of the '50s, Chamberlain vs. Russell in the '60s, Kareem's skyhook and Dr. J.'s skywalking in the '70s, Bird vs. Magic in the '80s and Air Jordan soaring above everyone in the '90s. In most cases these stars played for the signature teams of each decade. The raw numbers (wins, championships, Finals appearances) confirm the status of these teams, but those numbers also bring to light some fine teams that should not be forgotten.

In 1949-50, the Basketball Association of America (BAA) and National Basketball League (NBL) merged to form the NBA. That season the league consisted of 17 teams in three divisions. Logistical problems led to an unbalanced schedule in which most teams played 68 games, while others played only 64 or 62. The NBA went through many changes in the '50s, one of the most notable being the introduction of the 24 second shot clock in the 1954-55 season. By the end of the decade the league had eight teams in two divisions and all teams played a 72 game schedule. The unstoppable George Mikan and his Minneapolis Lakers (the franchise relocated to Los Angeles before the 1960-61 season) were the main drawing card during the NBA's struggling formative years. Mikan partnered with three Hall of Fame teammates (Vern Mikkelson, Jim Pollard and Slater Martin) and a Hall of Fame coach (John Kundla) to lead the Lakers to four championships in the early '50s. The Lakers declined dramatically after Mikan retired and then made it back to the Finals in 1959 behind the stellar play of rookie Elgin Baylor.

While the Lakers claimed the most titles and most Finals appearances in the '50s, they did not win the most games, finishing the decade with 388. The Celtics won 408 games, although they did not became a championship team until after Bill Russell arrived, winning two titles toward the end of the '50s. Amazingly, the Celtics did not have a single losing season from the hiring of Red Auerbach as coach in 1950-51 until 1969-70, the first season after Russell retired as player-coach. Dolph Schayes' Syracuse Nationals (the franchise which became the Philadelphia 76ers in 1963-64) won 404 games and appeared in three Finals, winning the championship in 1954-55. The Knicks won 388 games and made it to three straight Finals (1951-53) behind bruising rebounders Harry Gallatin and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and star guards Carl Braun and Dick McGuire.

The NBA began the '60s with eight teams in two divisions playing a 75 game schedule but by 1969 the league had expanded to 14 teams and employed the current 82 game schedule. The rival American Basketball Association was founded in 1967-68 with 11 teams in two divisions. The new league featured a 78 game schedule (later expanded to 84) and a free-wheeling style of play highlighted by the three point shot (first used in the short lived ABL in 1961-62), 30 second shot clock and red, white and blue ball. The Celtics dominated the NBA in the '60s, winning nine championships and 571 games. Celtics Hall of Famers from those teams include Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Frank Ramsey and John Havlicek. The next closest team, the Nats/76ers, won 486 games and one championship. It is worth noting that the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers team that prevented the Celtics from making a clean sweep of the decade won a then-record 68 games and is still considered one of the best single-season squads in league history; that 76ers roster boasted Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, and Billy Cunningham. The Elgin Baylor-Jerry West Lakers posted the third best record in the '60s, winning 447 games and losing to the Celtics in the Finals six times.

In the '70s the rivalry between the NBA and ABA led to a salary explosion as the two leagues battled fiercely for the services of star players such as Cunningham and Rick Barry. The ABA opened a new front in the war by signing players before their college classes had graduated, a practice which was contested in court when Spencer Haywood jumped from the ABA after one season and signed with the Seattle Supersonics. This landmark case eventually went to the Supreme Court and Haywood's victory led to the institution of a "hardship" rule whereby an underclassman could declare financial hardship and turn pro before his college class had graduated. This paved the way for the early entry of such players as Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and current stars Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, to name just a few.

The movement of players between teams and leagues and the influx of young talent into the sport made it much more difficult for teams to maintain elite status. No NBA team won repeat championships from 1969 until 1988 (the Indiana Pacers captured consecutive titles in '72 and '73 in the ABA). Eight franchises won NBA titles in the '70s, the most in any decade in NBA history, while four teams claimed championships in the seven ABA seasons during the decade. The New York Knicks and Boston Celtics each won two NBA titles, while the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, Washington Bullets and Seattle Supersonics captured one apiece; the Pacers led the ABA with three championships, followed by the New York Nets (two), Utah Stars (one) and Kentucky Colonels (one). While the NFL and AFL champions squared off in four Super Bowls before the leagues merged, the NBA and ABA never staged an ultimate championship series, leaving basketball fans to wonder if ABA stars Roger Brown, Artis Gilmore or Dr. J could have played the role of AFL legend Joe Namath.

During the '70s, the Milwaukee Bucks won the most games (492), followed by the Los Angeles Lakers (485), Baltimore/Washington Bullets (483), Boston Celtics (477) and New York Knicks (458). In 1976, the ABA's Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs joined the NBA, while the players from the remaining ABA teams went into a dispersal draft. Of the four ABA teams that survived the decade, the Nuggets won the most games (469; the Nuggets played in seven 84 game ABA seasons and three 82 game NBA seasons, so their actual winning percentage is virtually identical with the Knicks).

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird arrived in the NBA for the 1979-80 season and their teams dominated the league for the next decade. Magic's Lakers appeared in eight Finals, won five championships and totaled 591 wins, while Bird's Celtics made it to five Finals, winning three titles and 592 games. Philadelphia finished third in wins (535), while notching three trips to the Finals and one championship in 1983. The '83 championship team sent four players to the All-Star Game (Maurice Cheeks, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney) and set a record by going 12-1 in the postseason. Isiah Thomas' Detroit Pistons won the '89 championship by sweeping the Lakers. The Houston Rockets are the only other team to appear in the Finals in the decade, losing to Boston in '81 and '86. The Milwaukee Bucks won 522 games but found the path to the Finals blocked by Boston and Philadelphia. By 1989, the NBA had 25 teams in four divisions. During the '80s the NBA added ABA flavor to All-Star Weekend by bringing back the three point field goal and the Slam Dunk Contest.

Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Coach Phil Jackson were the three constants on the Chicago Bulls teams that won six titles in the '90s. Not surprisingly, the Bulls won the most games in the decade (558), followed by the Utah Jazz (542), Seattle Supersonics (511), Phoenix Suns (503), San Antonio Spurs (496) and Portland Trail Blazers (495). Before the Bulls' title run, the Pistons won the '90 championship against the Trail Blazers. Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets captured the two championships sandwiched between the Chicago "three-peats." After a lockout limited the '99 season to 50 games, the Spurs romped through the '99 playoffs with a 15-2 record to claim the last championship of the decade.

The Lakers and Spurs are tied with three championships each in the '00s, so the upcoming playoffs could prove to be the tiebreaker to determine the team of this decade.

Pro Basketball Teams of the Decade


1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s






Wins Celtics-408 Celtics-571 Bucks-492 Celtics-592 Bulls-558






Titles Lakers--4 Celtics--9 Pacers--3 Lakers--5 Bulls--6






Finals Lakers--5 Celtics--9 Bullets/ Pacers--4 Lakers--8 Bulls--6
App.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:10 AM

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

NBA Leaderboard, Part VII

This season, the Lakers went 2-0 versus the Celtics, 2-0 versus the Cavaliers and 2-1 versus the Spurs but they still may not attain their preseason goal of clinching homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers--a deeper and more talented team than is generally acknowledged--have used their three pronged formula of defense, rebounding and the brilliance of LeBron James to overcome injuries to several key rotation players and move past the Lakers in the standings.

Best Five Records
-------------------

1) Cleveland Cavaliers, 54-13
2) L.A. Lakers, 53-14
3) Boston Celtics, 51-18
4) Orlando Magic, 50-18
5) San Antonio Spurs, 45-22

In the wake of losing to the Celtics in the Finals last year, the Lakers vowed to be on a mission this season to earn homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. They pledged to be grittier on the boards, to work harder on defense and to maintain focus for 48 minutes regardless of the score or who they are playing. The Lakers had some sporadic lapses in some of those areas during this season but still managed to stay ahead of the rest of the pack--until Tuesday night, when the 76ers beat the Lakers in the Staples Center thanks to a last second three pointer by Andre Iguodala. That loss showcased the Lakers at their worst: they blew a 14 point lead at home against an inferior team, demonstrating a lack of focus not only by giving up 32 fourth quarter points but by failing to utilize their foul to give on the last possession and thus succumbing to one of the few ways to lose a game when leading by two points in the waning seconds: giving up a rhythm three point jumper.

I don't believe in putting too much stock in one game but it has to be said that this game could be a turning point in NBA history. If the MVP race between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant is close--and it certainly should be--then which team ends up with the best record could be the deciding factor. The Lakers' loss coupled with the Cavs' impressive home win versus Orlando vaulted the Cavs into the number one spot. The Cavs are 30-1 at home and play 10 of their final 15 games at the friendly confines of Quicken Loans Arena, so there is a good chance that the Lakers will not catch the Cavs. That means that if these teams meet in the Finals--which I expect to happen--then the Cavs will have the first two games at home, plus the last two games at home (if necessary). If this turns out to be the season in which LeBron James wins his first MVP and his first championship, the tipping point may have been when Iguodala's high arcing shot nestled the nets just as time expired.

I don't mean to sound melodramatic. The Cavs and Lakers each have 15 games remaining, so the issue of homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs is far from settled. Bryant and James each have the opportunity to author individual and collective performances good enough to sway the MVP voters and position their teams to make a championship run (and Dwyane Wade's "third party" MVP candidacy is sure to garner support as well if he is able to get back on the court and continue to perform at his post-All-Star Game level). Still, Bryant believes in Tex Winter's mantra that "everything turns on a trifle" and I can't help but think that a lot of things may have turned on that "trifling" play at the end of the Lakers-76ers game.

In addition to the race for the top seed that may very well determine this year's MVP and this year's NBA champion, there is also a great race for playoff positioning in the West. Four teams have 25 losses, with a 26 loss team and a 27 loss team just behind them. The Spurs only have 22 losses but with Manu Ginobili out it is possible that they could drop to third or even fourth place.

Things are a little bit more defined in the East. The Cavs enjoy a four game lead over Boston and a four and a half game lead over Orlando, meaning that they have all but clinched the top seed in the conference. Only Boston and Orlando are in contention for the next two spots. The Atlanta Hawks are three and a half games ahead of Miami and thus have the inside track for the fourth seed. Miami, Philadelphia and Detroit are only separated by three losses and will most likely fill the 5-7 spots. The Bulls are currently leading the musical chairs battle for the eighth and final spot but four teams are within three games of them in the loss column; the fading Pacers are four games back but seem to have run out of gas.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
------------------

1) Dwyane Wade, MIA 29.9 ppg
2) LeBron James, CLE 28.7 ppg
3) Kobe Bryant, LAL 27.8 ppg
4) Kevin Durant, OKC 25.9 ppg
5) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 25.5 ppg
6) Danny Granger, IND 24.9 ppg
7) Brandon Roy, POR 23.0 ppg
8) Chris Bosh, TOR 22.6 ppg
9) Devin Harris, NJN 22.6 ppg
10) Chris Paul, NOR 22.0 ppg

16) Dwight Howard, ORL 21.0 ppg
17) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.6 ppg

21) Tim Duncan, SAS 19.9 ppg

27) Pau Gasol, LAL 18.7 ppg
28) O.J. Mayo, MEM 18.7 ppg

31) Ray Allen, BOS 18.4 ppg

Dwyane Wade has forced his way into the MVP conversation with his scoring, passing and defensive exploits since the All-Star Game. Assuming that Wade's scoring average does not drop, LeBron James will need to average about 33 ppg in the last 15 games to pass him; Wade has obviously not clinched the crown just yet, but he is in pretty good shape unless he closes out the season with 10 or 15 point outings. Kobe Bryant has been averaging more than 31 ppg since Andrew Bynum got hurt but he only had 11 points in the Lakers' loss to the 76ers and it does not look like he is poised to score the 33-34 ppg he would need to score down the stretch to pass Wade, particularly since Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson has spoken openly of possibly resting Bryant and Pau Gasol in anticipation of a long playoff run.

Wade set a goal of playing in all 82 games this season after his injury riddled 2008 campaign but he will fall short of that mark as multiple nagging injuries forced him to sit out Miami's overtime loss in Boston on Wednesday. Does Miami's competitiveness in that game sans Wade prove that Wade has a better supporting cast than people think, that the Celtics really, really miss Kevin Garnett, that Stephon Marbury can bring any team down, all of the above, none of the above or some combination? I ask that multi-part rhetorical question somewhat tongue in cheek but I must say that the cupboard is not quite as bare in Miami as some people would have you believe. Jermaine O'Neal is a six-time All-Star who finished third in the 2004 MVP voting. He is obviously not an MVP caliber player now but he is only 30 years old and when he is healthy he is still a potent low post player at both ends of the court. Udonis Haslem started for a championship team in Miami just three years ago. Michael Beasley, Mario Chalmers and Daequan Cook are young, talented players. Jamario Moon is a good energy guy.

Wade does not have a championship caliber team like Bryant and James do--but the Heat don't have a championship caliber record, either. I fully expected the Heat to be a playoff team this year, though I did not think that they would have the fifth best record in the East. People make too much of the fact that the Heat only won 15 games last season--Wade missed 31 games but even without him there is no way that a team that was two years removed from a championship should have started out 1-8. Wade is healthy this year and the roster has been almost completely turned over, so it does not make much sense to act as if Wade has singlehandedly taken a team that truly was only capable of winning 15 games and turned it into a playoff team; the Heat clearly should have won more than 15 games last year, so it would be more accurate to say that they underachieved in 2008 than to say that they are overachieving now. Wade is having an MVP caliber season but the Heat are only a little better this season than what should have been reasonably expected of them. In my Eastern Conference Preview, I said of the Heat, "On paper, they will probably be the 'most improved' team this season because they figure to win at least 40 games." It will be funny if Wade wins the MVP not so much because of how well he has played but because all these media guys who vote on the award woefully underestimated what kind of record the Heat would have and therefore are convinced that he has worked some kind of miracle in south Florida. Again, I'm not disrespecting Wade in the least: he is having an MVP caliber season--but the other Heat players are not the Bad News Bears outfit that everyone acts like they are.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
----------------------

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.0 rpg
2) David Lee, NYK 12.0 rpg
3) Troy Murphy, IND 11.9 rpg
4) Andris Biedrins, GSW 11.5 rpg
5) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.7 rpg
6) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.3 rpg
7) Yao Ming, HOU 9.7 rpg
8) Chris Bosh, TOR 9.5 rpg
9) Pau Gasol, LAL 9.3 rpg
10) Antawn Jamison, WAS 9.1 rpg

12) Kevin Love, MIN 9.0 rpg

15) Shaquille O'Neal, PHX 8.6 rpg

19) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.3 rpg

21) Lamar Odom, LAL 8.0 rpg

26) Rasheed Wallace, DET 7.5 rpg
27) LeBron James, CLE 7.5 rpg

44) Jason Kidd, DAL 6.2 rpg

Dwight Howard has all but wrapped up his second consecutive rebounding title. Other than Al Jefferson dropping off of the list due to not playing in enough games, this list has remained fairly stable. David Lee has turned into a real double-double machine. Most years there are seven to 10 players who average at least 10 rpg, so with only six 10 rpg players the rebounding race is not quite as competitive this year as it usually is.

Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo were traded for each other on Draft night, so they will naturally be compared throughout their careers. Mayo had a great start this season as a scorer but he has cooled off a lot since then, shooting less than .420 from the field in January, February and March. Love has had his ups and downs but he has been averaging a double double since January, including 14.6 ppg and 10.0 rpg in nine games in March.

Top Ten Playmakers
----------------------

1) Chris Paul, NOH 11.0 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 10.5 apg
3) Steve Nash, PHX 9.7 apg
4) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.6 apg
5) Rajon Rondo, BOS 8.5 apg
6) Jason Kidd, DAL 8.4 apg
7) Baron Davis, LAC 8.1 apg
8) Dwyane Wade, MIA 7.6 apg
9) Chris Duhon, NYK 7.6 apg
10) LeBron James, CLE 7.2 apg

Chris Paul is cruising to his second consecutive assists crown. Deron Williams has overcome his injuries to claim the second spot for the second time in three years. The rest of the top 10 has pretty much stayed the same for most of the season, with Duhon moving down a bit and Nash moving up as the Suns resumed their running ways.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:13 AM

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

G2 Everyday Athlete Campaign Ad Featuring Kevin Garnett

The "G2 Everyday Athlete Campaign" features advertisements pairing elite athletes like Eli Manning, Candace Parker and Kerri Walsh with regular people who share the same first names and have turned to sports to help them overcome various forms of adversity. Kevin Garnett stars in the debut ad, which recently aired for the first time:



You can learn more about Kevin Crowe and the other regular people who are featured in these ads by clicking here.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:52 PM

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Celtics Sinking in Wake of Marbury Signing

It is early in the Stephon Marbury experiment for the Celtics but, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, it is getting late early in Boston--at least in terms of trying to obtain the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics have gone 4-4 since signing Marbury and are currently 3.5 games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs have won five straight games and nine of their last 10; if they maintain their .803 winning percentage the rest of the way then the Celtics would have to go undefeated in their 15 remaining games to have a chance to catch them. Barely a week ago, some commentators overreacted to Boston's home win versus Cleveland and proclaimed that the Celtics would capture the top seed in the East. I saw things differently, declaring, "I think that the Cavs unofficially clinched the best record in the East as soon as the ink dried on Marbury's Boston contract." At this point, the Celtics not only have little realistic chance to pass the Cavs but they are in a dog fight with the Orlando Magic, who have creeped to within a half game of seizing the second seed.

Obviously, Boston's decline is not entirely Marbury's fault. Kevin Garnett has been out of the lineup for 11 games due to injury, Rajon Rondo missed two games because of a sprained ankle and some other rotation players are also banged up. However, people who thought that signing Marbury was a good move for Boston asserted two things: his talent would enable him to make a positive contribution and there was no downside for Boston because if Marbury caused any kind of problem the Celtics would just cut him loose. The Celtics went 17-4 in their first 21 games sans Garnett last season and this season, meaning that they have lost as many games without Garnett during the brief "Marbury era" as they did over the previous year and a half.

Marbury has been amazingly unproductive, averaging 3.4 ppg, 2.9 apg and 1.9 tpg while shooting just .317 from the field. Marbury has attempted just one free throw and only has three steals. He has been a defensive sieve who opposing teams target as soon as he enters the game and he has twice posted game-worst plus/minus numbers, indicating that the Celtics collectively perform worse when he is on the court than when he is on the bench: Marbury had a game-worst -11 plus/minus number in Boston's March 15 loss to Milwaukee and a game-worst -14 plus/minus number in Boston's March 8 loss to Orlando; those are staggering numbers for someone who played just 17 and 21 minutes respectively in those games. In Boston's March 1 loss to Detroit, Marbury had a +6 plus/minus number but that was mainly because he was an innocent bystander as the team made a second half charge that ultimately fell short; during Marbury's first stint in that game he had his pocket picked twice in the backcourt by the seldom-used Will Bynum, so when Marbury reentered the game Eddie House relieved Marbury of ballhandling responsibilities: Marbury was literally standing around watching as the Celtics rallied behind some timely shotmaking by House and Paul Pierce.

The Celtics obtained some luxury tax relief by trading Sam Cassell to the Sacramento Kings but Cassell is a proven winner who made several clutch plays in the playoffs during last year's championship run. Cassell has not appeared in a regular season game this season but he is healthy and it is hard to believe that he would be as unproductive as Marbury has been. I don't know what other options the Celtics had prior to signing Marbury but considering that Marbury's previous team banished him--paying him big dollars not to show up at games or even practices--and that every team he leaves gets better and every team he joins becomes worse I never saw an upside to bringing him into the fold. Marbury has not been the entire problem during Boston's downturn but he certainly has not been much of a solution, either.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:01 AM

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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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