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Setting Suns

Setting Suns
Nov 22, 2006, 04:00 am
As the engine of the Suns scoring machine, all things start and end with Nash, and his recent back problems are serious cause for concern. Of course, ‘recent’ is a bit misleading when discussing Nash’s back problems. ‘Chronic,’ ‘debilitating,’ and ‘horrific,’ are all far better adjectives to describe the troubles Nash has. His spinal column isn’t so much a column as a sloppy, damaged collection of slipped discs, strained muscles, and inflamed nerves, so painful that he is forced to lie on his back when he goes to the bench because sitting upright in a chair is too painful. Though he has garnered deserved accolades for his play over the past few years, Nash’s Iverson-like ability to play through pain is often overlooked, and because of this, one could argue that he remains underrated despite his collection of honors.

For all the savvy, imagination, skill, and toughness Nash brings to the Suns, he has never brought his team any defensive presence, a shortcoming which rears its ugly head time and time again in the postseason. Nash’s inability to defend takes on additional significance in the context of Mike D’Antoni’s offense-is-the-best-defense coaching philosophy. Between the leadership on the court and the bench, there isn’t a single voice that demands defensive effort for 48 minutes. Supporting players follow the leaders, and despite the individual defensive abilities of players like Raja Bell, Shawn Marion, and Kurt Thomas, the Suns will never be able to stop opponents as a team.

Be that as it may, outscoring opponents has worked for two years straight, so why, all of a sudden, has the magic run out? First off, Nash’s back problems, and his defense, are getting worse. We should consider him day-to-day for the rest of this year, regardless of whether he shows up on the Suns’ injury report. Second, the Western Conference is getting better. Don Nelson has brought his trademark freewheeling style of ball out to the Bay, and one could argue that Golden State’s youth and athleticism makes them the best fit team to run-and-gun, not Phoenix. The Warriors are on the way up, and they share the elevator with the Los Angeles Kobes and Los Angeles Brands, both of whom boast a potent mix of hardened veterans and hungry youth. The Suns aren’t used to this type of competition in the division, and they haven’t shown themselves to be mentally tough enough to deal with San Antonio or Dallas. Throw the Jazz, Rockets, and Hornets into the mix, and the probability of Suns rising higher than a 7 seed takes a serious hit.

And then there is Amare Stoudamire. As a fan of the NBA, you couldn’t ask for anything more than pre-injury Amare. He was a force of nature, too quick for the bigs and too strong for the littles. Once he developed his 15-17 jumper his confidence skyrocketed and he started abusing the abusers. Legends like Shaq and Duncan were visibly afraid to guard him, not simply because he would score, but because Amare routinely embarrassed anyone foolish enough to challenge him near the basket. Then a bothersome pain in his knee revealed itself to be a microfracture, and the sky fell.

This season has been a mixed bag, for Stoudamire. Flashes of brilliance have accompanied the squeaks of rust, but on the whole, he seems to be trending up. We’re all rooting for Stat, still a kid at 24, to fully regain his old form. Unfortunately, every Chris Webber low-light we watch on Sportscenter reminds us just how tough it is to recover from this particular type of surgery, regardless of the athletic gifts one was blessed with. If he can’t make it back to what he was, or if the knee injury reemerges or leads to another, the Suns will have no inside presence, and no chance to beat the best of the West.

The rest of the team is like a hot pretzel. If that’s all they’ve got at the concession stand, you’ll eat it, but you’d rather spend your snack money on something with a bit more personality. Thomas is tough on defense, but injury prone and temperamentally challenged. Jalen Rose hasn’t taken basketball seriously since he left Indiana. The two Joneses barely amount to one player, and Marcus “Upside” Banks still hasn’t learned to play within himself. Barbosa, Marion, Bell, and Diaw are all relatively useful, young, and spry, and Phoenix can keep all three for the long haul if they choose (Barbosa’s $5m/year contract is already proving to be a stroke of genius). Still, Nash is the only player you can trust with the ball in his hands down the stretch.

Though the championship window is pretty much shut at this point, the Suns have the talent to make the playoffs as long as the MVP stays relatively healthy (70+ games). The post-Nash future is less clear. Marion’s deal is up after the 2008-2009 season, the same year that Steve can opt out of his deal. Stoudamire, Bell, Banks, Diaw, and Barbosa are each inked through 2009-2010, but without a playmaking genius in the prime of his career to move the ball around, the quickness and versatility these players bring starts looking more and more like finesse and passivity. The bottom line: this is a team philosophically and financially committed to an aging icon with a balky back, and an explosive phenom attempting to come back from an injury that no one has fully recovered from. There are some blazing hot nights yet to be had in America West Arena, but a cold front fueled by the physical deterioration of core players and a staunch refusal to play defense is blowing its way towards Phoenix.

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