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Don’t Start Believing in the Suns…

May 12, 2010 Leave a comment

At what point do you start believing? After so many years of having your heart torn out in such spectacular fashion, when does the seed of hope, the idea that maybe this year is something different, when is that borne out in your brain?

On January 27th I wrote the Suns off as dead. Sure, they were still sitting in 8th place, but they were perched there about as securely as a hippo standing on an egg. Even if they held off Memphis and Houston, they seemed certain first round fodder for the defending champion Lakers. Over their previous 30 games they were a putrid 12-18. They’d squandered all the goodwill bought by a 14-3 start and had reminded everyone of their 9th place finish the year before. To make matters worse, it seemed like a matter of when, not if, Amare Stoudemire would be sold in one of those classic Suns’ trades where all the talent goes one way and all the savings go to Robert Sarver’s pocket.

From that point, from the day I wrote them off for dead, the Suns won five straight. Then after a loss in Dallas, they won another five. A 3-3 stretch followed, before they really exploded, running their way to ten straight wins. Finally they finished the season with a 4-2 streak that landed them the Western Conference’s third seed. Add that all up and after that my idiotic article, the Suns went 27-5 to finish the season. Look, I’m not saying that I inspired them to greatness, but…

So, when they survived a tough six game series with Portland to draw the (hated) San Antonio Spurs, I wondered whether this could be their year. Steve Nash can say all he wants that these Suns and these Spurs are different than the versions that saw the Spurs rip out Phoenix’s heart in 2005, 2007, and 2008. He can pay lip service all day long, telling everyone that beating the Spurs really wasn’t slaying the dragon, but the Spurs still had Duncan, they still had Ginobili, they still had Parker, and they still had Popovich. Beating the Spurs was not just another series, this was something special. Especially after Duncan’s elbow made Nash’s eye look like Tiger Woods the morning after. So, is it now that you start to believe? That you unwrap the protective layer of disbelief that you’d cello-taped around your heart for safe handling?

Of course, next on the card is the defending Champion Lakers. Most pundits I think will be picking the Lakers, but mostly that’s because they are the defending champs and they are the Lakers. It becomes easy to pick the champs, but really winning last year actually doesn’t help the Lakers one iota on the court. It creates an aura, a myth that they now ‘know how to win,’ but ‘knowing how to win’ and $4.50 will get you a really frothy, whip cream covered drink from Starbucks.

What matters far more to a champion than winning last year, is how they are playing this year. The Lakers started out like the defending Champions they are, going 37-11 through the first three months of the season, but then they showed some subtle deficiencies. Their point guard rotation is pathetic. Kobe’s played 44,000 minutes and those start to make the legs heavy and the nagging injury bug buzz. Their greatest advantage, their length and size inside, seems to be their greatest source of strife, as getting touches for their bigs cause Kobe’s brain to twitch. Ron “I rub baby oil on myself three times a Day” Artest thinks he’s a three point shooter, but he’s not. Other than Lamar Odom, who in big moments is a little like a sheep, their bench is made up of Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, and Sasha Vujacic. Those are all little things, certainly things which the Lakers can overcome, but then LA did finish the season 20-14. Certainly not abhorrent, but not championship level great either.

In the last two weeks of the season, when the West was jockeying for playoff positioning, I wanted the Spurs to finish 8th, because I felt like they had the best chance to knock off the Lakers in the first round. I still think that they certainly had a solid punchers chance. I love the Zombie Sonics, but they were just too young, too doe eyed, and Scottie “Great, I won coach of the year, that means I’m going to be fired in 16 months, couldn’t we have given this thing to Sloan, he’s had that job forever?” Brooks was too green to coach past the Zen master.

The Spurs would not have had those problems. I felt then, and I feel now, that the longer the Lakers stayed in the playoffs, the tougher they would become. Now, they’ve won six straight and swept aside the Utah Jazz. That the Jazz were missing two starters matters not. When you sweep aside a Jerry Sloan coached team, you can feel good about your accomplishment. That late season swoon is a distant memory now. The Lakers have that proverbial swagger back.

What isn’t a distant memory is the Suns’ equally impressive sweep of the Spurs. So, how do these two teams break down? Are the Suns just lambs walking toward the slaughter here, or do they have a legitimate chance to knock off the Lakers and advance to the NBA Finals. As I said above, I expect that most pundits will be picking the Lakers in a solid five, maybe six game victory. I’m not so sure.

The Lakers’ biggest strength in this – and really any – series, is their front line. Pau Gasol, Andrew Bogut, and Lamar Odom are all 6’10 to 7’1, and they all have arms that stretch from the Hollywood Hills to somewhere East of Iowa. This will be particularly poignant if the Suns are still without Robin “Sideshow Bob” Lopez. Of course, what the Suns do really well is box out and attack rebounds from a variety of different points. Amare led the team with a paltry 8.9 boards per game, but all of their wings chipped in to the cause. Grant Hill had 5.5, Jason Richardson grabbed 5.1, Channing Frye 5.3, Robin Lopez 4.9, and the great and mythical Louis Amundson 4.4. Despite having nobody who could match the prodigious rebounding talents of Tim Duncan or Dejaun Blair against the Spurs, the Suns were +29 in rebounding through the four games.

Yes, the Lakers can pound the ball inside and nobody on the Suns can stop them, but on the reverse side of the ball, neither Gasol nor Bynum can keep up with Stoudemire and Bynum’s abilities in the paint will be somewhat neutralized by Channing Frye drawing him out to guard threes. The Lakers do have Kobe and he’s still the Black Mamba, but… his fangs are a little longer in the tooth than they once were. Not drastically longer, but perhaps, maybe, just enough. The Suns will throw Grant Hill and Jared Dudley at him. They will make him work for everything. They will try and irritate him into wanting to take over the game, thereby neutralizing that size advantage.

Offensively, the Suns will do what they do… space the floor, throw shooters from every angle, run the pick and roll. Who on the Lakers is going to stop Steve Nash? Who’s going to make Steve exert energy on defense? Yes, the Suns will give up some easy put backs to Pau “I’m not soft, I’m more Squelchy” Gasol, but they will also destroy the Lakers when the second units are on the floor. And if they can dictate the tempo? If they can get Bynum out of the game and get Lamar “Wait, I married that Kardashian? I thought I married the hot one, how many Quaaludes was I on?” Odom performing his usual big game disappearing act, well… I don’t know? I want to tell you that I think the Suns will win in six. I do. I really want to believe that, but I’m afraid. I’m afraid that if I start believing in the Suns, well, that it will end in some ignominious fashion. With Nash’s front teeth knocked out, with Amare having surgery, with Grant Hill crying in the middle of the court…

I just don’t know. If I wrote them off for dead in January and they started playing the best ball, maybe of the entire Nash-era, well, what happens if I start believing? Ah F*** it… it’s on b**ches, Suns in six.

Los Suns Owner Robert Sarver is Los Cool…

May 4, 2010 2 comments

I’ve made a fairly conscientious decision not to talk about the Suns thus far in the playoffs. In part that’s because the opportunity just hasn’t really presented itself, in part it’s because the last time I wrote about them – like the utter and total moron that I am – I pronounced them dead, but mostly it’s because you just don’t talk to the pitcher during a no hitter…

But, this, well, this is a good reason to talk about the Suns. Robert Sarver, whom if I’ve ever spoken of him, I’ve spoken of him poorly (I seem to have some distant memories of the word cheap being uttered once or twice…), has done something remarkable. Sarver has taken a stand. Other than Mark Cuban, who blogs loudly and incessantly about anything and everything, I cannot remember an owner ever taking a public stance on anything other than schilling for public stadium funds.

Sarver however has taken a very public political stance against Arizona’s recently passed state law that makes it a misdemeanor for immigrants to be in Arizona without proper documents. On Wednesday night, when Phoenix tips off against the Spurs in game two of their Western Conference series, the Suns will be wearing their “Los Suns” jerseys. The purpose of the gesture is to raise attention to the recently passed law, while paying homage to the Latin community on Cinco de Mayo. To me, this is nothing short of remarkable.

So often we criticize our public figures for not taking a stance on political issues. Of course, what we are really criticizing them for is not taking the stance we want on political issues. However, in any debate there is at best two sides, which means that a public figure risks offending large swaths of his viewing public by taking a public position. While the Arizona bill has been roundly criticized outside of Arizona, it surely has large pockets of support within the state (it was, after all, signed off on by the governor – who presumably worries about the pulse of the electorate). So, by publicly taking a stance against the law, Sarver risks ostracizing season ticket holders. He also risks dividing his crowd during his team’s most important series of the season.

What he gains however, is showing the rest of his fans that he is a man of principle. The law allows police officers to request proof of status if there is a “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in the country illegally. It is of course that nebulous term, “reasonable suspicion” that is at the crux of Sarver and other’s concern. As that wise sage, the South African born, Canadian citizen, current US resident Steve Nash said,

“I think the law is very misguided. I think it’s, unfortunately, to the detriment of our society and our civil liberties. I think it’s very important for us to stand up for things we believe in. As a team and as an organization, we have a lot of love and support for all of our fans. The league is very multicultural. We have players from all over the world, and our Latino community here is very strong and important to us.”

Sarver surely has the governor’s phone number. He could have just placed a phone call to voice his discontent, but instead he brought this issue to the most public forum at his disposal. Phoenix GM Steve Kerr simply stated,

“We just felt like it was important,” Kerr said. “We’re in the public eye and this is obviously a huge issue. We acknowledge there are two sides to the issue and there are a lot of dynamics. It’s a difficult thing to sift through and there are going to be differing opinions. But what we’re focusing on is we want to celebrate the diversity that exists in our state and the diversity that exists in the NBA, make sure that people understand that we know what’s going on and we don’t agree with the law itself.”

Even his opponent tomorrow night is supporting him,

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said his team was interested in taking part but couldn’t get new “Los Spurs” road jerseys in time for the game.

“It’s a wonderful idea,” Popovich said. “because it kind of shows what we all should be about. Sure there needs to be a lot of work done, obviously. A lot of administrations have done nothing about the immigration deal and now everybody’s paying the price, especially a lot of people in Arizona. That’s a bad thing, but the reaction is important, too, and this reaction [the Arizona law], I believe with Mr. Sarver, is inappropriate.”

So, please Mr Sarver, take a bow. This is a proud moment for you and your franchise. Look, Sports on the Brain isn’t a political blog and I had no real intention of taking a stance on a political issue 2,500 kilometers from my stomping ground, but Sarver has taken a stand and for that I think we should applaud him. Of course, maybe I just think that because he took a political stand that I support…

Moving Amare…

February 2, 2010 Leave a comment

The conventional wisdom for the last year has been that the Suns were looking to move Amare Stoudemire, lest they lose him for nothing next summer. However, what if the reality is actually the opposite? What if the Suns are looking at moving Amare for fear that in June he decides to stay?

Yes, this summer there will be a litany of teams who strike out on the LeBron-Wade-Bosh troika and hastily rush to spend their money elsewhere, settling instead for the “Joe Dumars special”. And yes, until the market crashed Amare was seen as a max contract player, but… The NBA is different now.

Teams are legitimately more concerned with their bottom line than with their talent. Franchises are really struggling, not just to make money, but to avoid hemorrhaging money. Plus, there are also serious fears over what the next labor negotiations will do to the financial landscape in general and the cap specifically.* Amare, with his injury history, his questionable attitude and practice habits, and his severe allergy to rebounding and defense, is not the stud he once was.

*(For an excellent recap of the fears GMs have over what will happen to the salary cap after the current collective bargaining agreement expires, check out Ian Thomsen’s article on the pending labor negotiations.)

If teams start pinching pennies, Stoudemire might have real difficulty getting a max deal. Assume that Stern succeeds in implementing a hard cap (doubtful) or reducing the current cap (basically a guarantee) and simultaneously reduces the maximum contract dollar and length (both probable). All of the contracts signed this summer will be grandfathered in, but if the max number is going to significantly drop, then you’d better be sure you signed the right guy to be your grandfathered contract. I think there is a strong possibility that a GM will seriously rue having committed six years and a 130 million to a diminishing Amare.

Now, five years ago there was Isaiah Thomas, Kevin McHale, Rob Babcock, Billy Knight, and Wes Unsled who all would have ignored the signs and dropped a buck fifty on Amare, but now…? I don’t know. Maybe Chicago doesn’t get one of the big three and, wary of the PR hit of not using their cap space, dumps the truck in Amare’s yard. Yet, after the public lambasting that Dumars has taken for doing something similar last summer, GMs seem to understand better than ever the implication of cementing your cap space on the Charlie Villanueva’s of the world.

So, if Amare isn’t set up for a big pay day, might he take a one year deal and try to improve his stock for 2011? Because here’s the thing, Amare has a player option with the Suns for 16 million next season. Phoenix, the George Costanza of NBA teams, is well known for cutting costs at every corner, so what if the Suns are assessing the NBA landscape, seeing that the offers that Amare’s expecting might not exist, and fearing him picking up that option?

The Suns might be legitimately looking at moving Amare from a talent standpoint, but… I’m just saying that if you see Stoudemire traded before the deadline for Brad Miller and Jerome James, well…

Lament of the Phoenix Part Two…

January 27, 2010 2 comments

(I got a bit wordsy and had to split my last post in two. If you haven’t read part one, you can find it here, or you could just scroll down, down again, just a little further, a touch more, you’re almost there…)

All of which brings us to the Big Kahuna. For Garnett, Minnesota’s former GM Kevin McHale took a package of Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Sebation Telfair, the expiring deals of Theo Ratliff and Grant Green, and two draft picks. Would a package of Rajon Rondo, Leandro Barbosa, Shawn Marion, the Rudy Fernandez pick and a future number one have been a more enticing offer for McHale? I’d have to think so. The talent in the latter package is a lot better.

Remember that we are talking about things back in 2007, when Barbosa was still thought of as a potential game changing sixth man, and Marion’s (Nashless) offensive shortcomings had yet to be made clear. It would not have offered the immediate cap relief, but Minnesota isn’t a free agent destination, so the cap space is less important than the talent.

I don’t know if McHale takes that deal… I mean, it’s Kevin “I think trading Sam Cassell for Marko Jaric is a good deal, but I’d better sweeten the offer with a draft pick” McHale, who the heck knows what he does. Predicting that is like trying to predict whether Ron Artest is going to be wearing pants today. It’s possible that he would have done the deal without Fernandez, but who knows. So, lets just assume that they do it as is. Why? well, it just makes the rest of my post easier.

Had Suns management utilised those draft picks, they could have still given Raja Bell the midlevel exception, they could have re-signed Eddie House, Grant Hill would still have signed for the veteran minimum. Obviously we aren’t going near Marcus Banks, the Gordan Giricek trade isn’t particularly likely, and the Big Cactus would never have sprouted, but if Phoenix had walked this path, here’s what their roster would have looked like for the 2007/08 season, versus what it looked like when the 2008 playoffs began:

Starters                         Starters
PG – S. Nash              PG – S. Nash
SG – R. Bell                 SG – R. Bell
SF – J. Johnson        SF – G. Hill
PF – K. Garnett          PF – A. Stoudemire
C – A. Stoudemire      C – S. O’Neal
Bench                            Bench
G – E. House               G – L. Barbosa
G – S. Rodriguez        S – D.J. Strawberry
S – G. Hill                    S – G. Giricek
S – J. Jones                 S – L. Johnnson
B – B. Skinner             B – B. Skinner
B – B. Diaw                  B – B. Diaw
B – M. Gortat               B – S. Marks

Is that a championship difference? I think so, the starting five is awesome. Bell, Johnson, and Garnett are all plus defenders who could help cover for Nash and Amare’s shortcomings. In 2007, Garnett over Shaq is a massive upgrade. The Diesel was running like an ’82 Volvo, while KG was at the height of his powers that season. His commanding presence and defensive energy were the biggest factors in Boston’s revival. Would he have had the same effect on the Suns? It think he would have. He basically does everything Marion did for the Suns, but better. Well, he doesn’t shoot threes quite as well, but then he doesn’t really shoot them and since Marion never shot threes quite as well as he thought, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

Johnson replacing Hill in the starting lineup, and thus Giricek overall, is also obviously a massive upgrade. Johnson is the perfect basketball player for the D’Antoni system. He’s a strong defender, he passes almost as well as a point guard, and, most importantly, he shoots the rock.

The bench is also stronger. Mike D’Antoni only ever goes three deep on his bench and House did yeoman’s work off the bench for the Celtics that year. So, a Hill, House, Diaw bench would have offered a change of pace guy, a savvy and smart swingman, and a guy who likes French food. What? Sure Diaw has spent most of his career a little on the soft side, but I’m the last guy who’s going to criticize a Frenchman for knowing the importance of butter…

If the team needed to bang, then they could have thrown Gortat out there, if they needed a shooter off the bench they’d have had Jones, if they’d needed an overwhelmed rookie to buy donuts, they’d have had Rodriguez. Really, they had everything they needed. I honestly think that that squad wins the title that year and quite possibly another last year.

Instead, only two years latter, as the Suns look to move Amare Stoudemire for ten cents on the dollar, we are left singing,

Great God! is this our certain doom?
And are we still secure?
Still walking downward to our tomb,
And yet prepare no more?

The Suns are doomed and the right move probably is trading Amare, so let us mourn the death of the Suns… but what are the chances of the franchise writing that “eulogy” and moving Nash somewhere better?

Lament of the Phoenix Part One…

January 27, 2010 Leave a comment

The Suns lost another road game last night. It was their sixth loss in their last eight games and it dropped their road record to 9-15. The loss means the Suns currently sit in seventh place, with Memphis half a game behind, and another three teams a single game out of that final playoff spot. Granted, the Suns are also just a game away from being in fourth place in the conference, such is the nature of the Western Cofnerence this year, but they’re moving in the wrong direction.

After the outlandish expectations that accompanied the Suns’ 14-3 start, it would appear that the playoffs are a rapidly fading dream. Worse, the prospect that the Suns will miss the playoffs, or at best be a first round patsy, and then lose Amare Stoudemire this summer is making the team antsy to move their mercurial forward.

We all know that the “seven seconds or less” era is dead. The Suns still play open, offensive basketball, only they don’t race up court the way that they used to, and the championship potential they had from 2004-2007 is gone, but… moving Stoudemire would be like the signing of “Hark! From The Tombs A Doleful Sound,” with only the eulogy (Steve Nash’s departure) left in the Suns’ funeral.

It’s popular to blame Suns owner Robert Sarver for the demise of the Suns and frankly, it’s also accurate. Sarver’s cheapness boggles my mind. I mean, why own a franchise, if you’re just going to let the most exciting team since the late eighties shrivel and die by selling draft picks and watching costs closer than Victoria Beckham watches calories.

Still, Sarver isn’t the only one to blame in this tragic demise. There’s also the men who make the actual basketball decisions. Sure, Sarver was strict in his demand to keep the payroll around 65 million, but that doesn’t excuse the signing of Marcus Banks, and it doesn’t excuse allowing Eddie House to leave after a season in which he averaged 9.8 points in only 17 minutes of action. Worst of all, it doesn’t excuse Brian Colangelo and his successor, Steve Kerr, from selling all of those draft picks.

Yes, the owner wanted to save money, but young players are cost effective and the job of the GM is to explain to an irrational owner why keeping Luol Deng, Rajon Rondo, and Rudy Fernandez made fiscal sense. For instance, in the summer that the Suns drafted Rondo and Sergio Rodriguez, they sold both, to Boston and Portland respectively, for approximately five million and then used those savings to sign Marcus Banks to an absurd 5 year 21.3 million contract. A year later, when he was playing a paltry ten minutes a game, they couldn’t get give Banks away and eventually used him as salary filler in the Shawn Marion-Shaq trade.

This is a full list of the draft picks that the Suns traded away during the last five seasons:

Luol Deng (7th), 2004 to the Bulls for a future draft pick (21st pick the following season).

Nate Robinson (21st), 2005 to the Knicks as a throw in of the Quentin Richardson – Kurt Thomas deal.

Marcin Gortat (57th), 2005 to the Magic for future considerations (or, in other words, nothing).

Rajon Rondo (21st), 2006 to the Celtics along with Brian Grant’s contract for cash considerations and Cleveland’s future 1st rounder.

Sergio Rodriguez (27th), 2006 to Portland for cash considerations.

Rudy Fernandez (24th), 2007 to Portland along with James Jones for… wait for it… cash considerations.

Serge Ibaka ((24th), 2008 to The Zombie Sonics for Kurt Thomas.

Unknown (?), 2010 to The Zombie Sonics for Kurt Thomas.

Now, those seven players aren’t winning you a championship (and the 2010 pick is probably not going to be John Wall), but Rondo’s a budding allstar, Deng’s a solid starter, Fernandez is a preeminent sixth man, and the others are solid to decent bench pieces. And, more importantly, each is an asset that could have been used during Phoenix’s protracted attempts to acquire Kevin Garnett.

Before we get too far, it should be made clear that many of those picks were the Suns’, because they’d previously traded a pick, so they couldn’t have had all of those guys, but with a few simple moves they could have done this:

Don’t trade Deng, well at least not for the Chicago pick. Not trading Deng would have meant the Suns wouldn’t have had the cap space to sign Quentin Richardson, which means they never trade Richardson and the Bulls’ pick to New York for Kurt Thomas (although I think Thomas was a worthy warrior, just not a 9 million a year warrior). Thus, they never have to trade two picks to the Seattle Zombie Sonics for taking Thomas off their payroll.

Now, after Deng’s rookie year, his stock was high. He looked like a superstar. After that year, if the Suns had committed to Joe Johnson, as they should have, they could have moved Deng to Atlanta for Boris Diaw and the Lakers’ pick, which Atlanta owned from a previous deal, they might have even been able to get more, but for the sake of argument we’ll just go with that deal. That pick became the 21st in the 2006 draft, which the Suns used on Rajon Rondo. Now, trading Rondo to Boston was perhaps the worst move the Suns made during this entire process, so we just aren’t going to do that.

Instead, because the Suns don’t trade Rondo to Boston, they wouldn’t have had the 24th pick in the 2007 draft, but they could have swapped their 29th choice for the 24th, a second rounder, and some other small piece (cash, future picks, whatever). Why would we do this? Because the 24th pick was Rudy Fernandez and the 29th was Alando Tucker. Just saying…

(This post was really frickin’ long, so I broke it in two…)

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