October 22, 2008
SI.com's NBA Enemy Lines
Phoenix Suns
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Suns

This is an old team with Steve Nash, Grant Hill and Shaquille O'Neal all 34 or older, and even Raja Bell is an old player as a 32-year-old shooting guard. It's going to be hard to change their style of play, but they already started down that road by trading for Shaq last year -- which I thought was a total mistake. Give them credit for having the guts to make that move, but it didn't make sense. Why bring in Shaq to play an up-tempo style? Especially when you owe him $40 million for this season and the next.

There's going to be a lot of talk about improving their defense with coach Terry Porter, but what does he have to work with? Bell is a good defender. Hill is a smart defender, but he's on his last legs. Amaré Stoudemire is a horrific defender, and when you look at somebody so athletically skilled as he is, you have to wonder if it's a matter of effort. Leandro Barbosa is not a good defender even though he gets a lot of deflections and steals. We all know that Shaq doesn't like to go out and cover the pick-and-roll. As good as Nash is overall, he's got to turn the hips against some of the fastest guys in the league, and with every year he must be getting a little bit slower.

If the emphasis is going to be on the defensive end, then you can forget all about their score-in-seven-seconds rule. If I'm in Porter's shoes, I'm going to take a hard look at what Mike D'Antoni was running last year and I'm going to steal anything and everything that worked. But the bottom line is that you can emphasize only one thing in training camp. You cannot be a running team and a defensive team, you just can't. When you defend all-out, you are extending the shot clock and creating fewer possessions and fewer points. You defend hard for 20 seconds -- do you have the energy to bust out the other way? Especially with an older team?

Slowing down their style takes something away from Nash. He's going to be remembered for a long time as the guy in the lane with his corners filled by shooters, a big man trailing and another big on the block drawing attention in the paint, giving Nash all kinds of options on the fly. If they're not running as much in transition, then you'll see a lot of set plays and pick-and-roll. Last year, when they tried to go into Shaq in the post, it slowed everything down -- which is natural. We'll see more of that this year.

Shaq really was done in Miami. He got his feelings hurt there, and when he went to Phoenix he was showered with love, with the result that he did the best he could. As big as he is, he still has the makings of a dominant force. But there's no future to him. He has two years left, and he's in decline. He has been out of shape for so many years that he doesn't have much lift anymore. He's not as active as he once was, and he's not as accurate scoring around the basket. He could very easily come out this year and get off to a good start, but it's going to be hard for him to maintain that throughout the year. I can imagine the Big Diesel slowing down in January.

His backup, rookie center Robin Lopez, is going to be pretty good. He's bigger and surlier and a better defender than his twin brother, [the Nets'] Brook, and I think you'll see Robin developing as a scorer now that he doesn't have to defer in that way to his brother.

Stoudemire is past the age where you talk about his potential. Will he be a winner? The reason he fell to No. 9 in the 2002 draft was because teams were scared of him as an inconsistent personality. He is an exceptional talent, but one thing he has never done is defend. He just doesn't do it. So I don't know how much of a building block he can be as they move forward hoping to create more of a defensive-mindedness.

Barbosa is another guy who is best suited to the open floor, so how will he adapt if the game slows down? His ball handling and decision-making are not that great, though he is an improved shooter.

This is going to be a tough transition for Porter, coming in to replace a coach who had so much success while playing such an entertaining style. The Suns were the darlings of the league. Now if you see lower scores and a less exciting style, it's going to take some time to work that out. I'm guessing two things: It will take the players awhile to adapt to the new style, even if they're successful with it; but in the end, they won't be great at anything. They used to beat you because they were so good at their style and they scared you. They were the best at running in the open floor and nobody could compete with them on those terms. But right now, you don't know who they're going to be.

Every year there are at least one or two surprise teams, but usually they're up-and-comers with a lot of energy. I don't see this team surprising us this year.


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