October 21, 2009
SI.com's NBA Enemy Lines
Phoenix Suns
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Suns

I still think they have enough talent to make the playoffs, but they took a painful way to get here. Basically, they spent the last two years doing a flip-flop. They got rid of Mike D'Antoni and they said they wanted to play slower-paced basketball with Shaquille O'Neal. And then they realized they didn't like it because it negated two of their most valuable assets in Steve Nash and Leandro Barbosa. It's an example of one of those things you don't appreciate until you don't have it anymore. Teams work hard to be good, and not every good team can win the championship. Phoenix tried to change the system instead of enjoying the success it had earned and knocking on the door every year, and I think now they would give anything to get back to the success they used to have. They wouldn't have been good enough to win the championship, but that doesn't mean they would not have been really good.

Part of the issue was that they have a meddlesome owner who wanted to dictate their moves. But they also had a rookie general manager in Steve Kerr, who, in coming as he did from the Bulls and the Spurs, realized the importance of defense and that there was no example of a fast team winning the championship. But at the same time, you have to know how hard it is to contend for the Western finals every year, and sometimes you need to just ride that thing out because who knows what can happen with injuries. Look at how Orlando wound up sneaking into the Finals last year.

So now, after all of these moves, they're paying a heavy luxury tax, they have no bench and it's just a really weird team. They have old guys like Nash and Grant Hill, they have a bunch of young guys who have no star potential, and they may lose Amar'e Stoudemire as a free agent this summer. Instead of trying to go old like Boston or trying to go young like Portland, it looks like they've taken the middle ground. But I would argue that it has left them nowhere. It's easy for me to say, but if they were going to tinker with the formula, they probably should have done a major overhaul and traded Nash and all of their assets for some young guys who could turn into something. Right now, I look at them and I don't see that this franchise has any kind of future.

I've looked at Nash's stats, and his scoring has dropped every years since 2005-06, and his assists have dropped every year since '06-07. It's the natural decline of an aging player [he'll be 36 in February]. Even so, I still think he is one of the most fun guys to play with and watch, the way he drives it into the paint and holds on to the dribble and brings it back out again. He is maybe the best in the league at not picking up his dribble. There is no question he is showing signs of age and that they have to protect him, but at the same time, his backup, Goran Dragic, looks like he is not good enough yet to get enough minutes.

Nash still plays fast, but it isn't really based on speed. Going north-south, I don't know that he's that quick, but he takes these quick little steps and he's more efficient than just about anybody out there. Because his decision-making is so good, his numbers could continue to decline and he could still be efficient overall. It wouldn't surprise me if we saw him in the NBA for four more years, including this year. His basketball IQ and serious approach to training allow him to get more done than most guys. At 37 or 38, he could be in better shape than a lot of the guys trying to guard him. Defensively, I don't rate Nash very well at all. But that said, I don't rate Chris Paul highly on defense either, and he is one of the best in the league in terms of steals. When a guy like Nash is giving you such a large amount of points and assists, and then you figure how much usage you're getting from him and how many minutes the ball in his hands while he's making all of the decisions -- I'm just saying you can't expect everything.

Nash might have suffered more than anyone while playing with Shaq and then when Terry Porter was coaching. His game and his freedom to be creative suffered and he voiced it more than you've ever heard from him. Now that they're back to playing his style, I think he's going to show a lot of leadership. That means he'll be playing a lot of pick-and-roll and spreading the floor and hitting ahead, because he has got to get Stoudemire going this year. Their only chance at any success is to have Stoudemire on board and getting big numbers from him.

Stoudemire has seen the entire pendulum turn a couple of times for him. When he was entering the draft, so many teams were scared off by his background and family issues. And then when he was successful right away, everyone was saying they blew it not drafting him. Then he had his injuries and there were complaints about not playing hard and being a matador defensively. We get so high and so low on some of these players.

I think you'll see some early success from Stoudemire and the team in general because they're all happy about going back to the up-tempo style. But will they be able to keep it going? If Stoudemire starts having some more dings and nicks on the body, I could see him go south pretty quickly because he is a front-runner. He's good when things are going well, but when those things are going badly, you have to wonder if he has the grit to pull himself and the team back on track.

What hurts Stoudemire most now is that he hasn't developed the skilled go-to moves he needs as he moves into the latter half of his career. There's no question that his original spring and bounce haven't been there the last couple of years following his knee injuries. He plays a fickle game with a lot of drives and spin-backs and fadeaway jumpers. It's like he's always trying something new, he's exploring. With his aggressiveness, he could be a dangerous scorer inside. The problem for him is that it's really hard to go inside when you've never developed the moves, and it's even harder when you don't want to take the banging because you're already banged up. On top of that, he gets criticized for not rebounding for big numbers, but a lot of times that's because he is so far away from the basket shooting jumpers. My impression is that the whole organization has been frustrated with him, mainly because he has not always taken his game and his role on the team seriously. You don't see him getting better and more mature as he gets older.

Hill has completely changed his game since he came to Phoenix. He has attempted 180 three-pointers over the last two years, which is more than he attempted over the previous nine years. Here's a guy who could be working as a TV commentator, or he could be running his own businesses; the fact that he's still playing shows how much he loves the game and loves to play. Maybe he feels like he was cheated by all of his injuries, but he never asked anybody to pity him. He shows up every night and he's 100 percent professional. hat blows me away is that a guy so late in his career would do the hard work in the gym to extend his shooting range so that he could play for this team.

Jason Richardson has never been an All-Star, and I don't think he ever will be. He's a guy who seems to get you a lot of points when it doesn't matter, in the first quarter or against the bad teams. He's not a go-to guy, in part because his shot selection and decision-making are among his weaker points. He began his career as a slasher-runner-transition guy, but now he's become a pretty big jump shooter. He still gets a lot from transition, but he's fallen in love with the jumper. He's been a freakish athlete, but he has never been able to pull it all together and develop a complete game.

Channing Frye is a soft guy who likes to shoot perimeter jumpers, so this is not a bad team for him. The only way he can play center is in this up-and-down style, which keeps him from having to go in the trenches on every play.

Robin Lopez [who will miss the start of the season with a broken foot] is their best inside defender. Lopez should be a backup and Frye should be a backup. Louis Amundson is their energy-hustle guy up front. The only player they have on the front line who can be viewed as starting-caliber is Stoudemire.

Barbosa tended to be out of control and wild earlier in his career, but he has calmed down dramatically. He's still a speed demon north and south, a sixth man who gives them points while attacking, especially in transition. He is also the only truly reliable guy on their bench. Who's to know what rookie Earl Clark will be? Jared Dudley is a nice role player who provides some energy. They have high hopes for Dragic, but it's still undetermined what he is going to be.

They don't have enough talent to win big, and they don't have young players who are going to turn into anything big. If they're not willing to trade Nash and Stoudemire, I can't see where they are headed.


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