Last year's run should have made it all so much better. The Suns, basically left for dead after missing out on the 2009 Playoffs, rallied in 2010 and pushed their way through to the Western Conference Finals before finally being taken down by the Lakers in a shockingly competitive series. The run should have stood for a heart-warming farewell to one of the defining teams of the last decade.
That's not the way it feels, though.
The Suns were SO close last year it wasn't funny. They were two wins away from their first trip to the Finals since Barkley led them there in 1993. Two wins. That's as close as they've ever been (tied with the Amar'e-less 2006 iteration) and it nearly paved the way for a continuance on the execution of one of history's most enjoyable team. The Knicks, though, desperate to come away from this summer with a free agent of some notoriety, trumped Phoenix's contract offer to Stoudemire by guaranteeing their whole five-year, $100-million salary (Phoenix would only agree to incentive-based guarantees tied to games played), forcing Phoenix officially dismantle the last of their beloved old guard.
In the wake of losing Amar'e, the Suns shipped Leandro Barbosa to Toronto in exchange for Hedo Turkoglu and left Steve Nash as the sole remaining member of those highlight reel clubs of the 2000's. Sure Nash may have been the engine that made them go, but with Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw, Barbosa and Mike D'Antoni all earning cheques elsewhere, the end of an era has officially come to pass.
All of which makes getting excited for this season of Suns ball a little difficult. While the team actually resembles the initial '04-'05 iteration of D'Antoni-ball, in that they are a collection of wings sandwiched between one point guard (Nash) and one center (Robin Lopez), the collective whole doesn't inspire hopes of a repeat of last year's unexpected success. In fact, it might be asking too much for this team to even be able to hold off Houston or New Orleans for the final Playoff spot in the ever competitive Western Conference. It isn't that they don' have any talent, it just looks like too haphazard a collection to really make any noise this season.
The first issue is their size. When Amar'e and Marion lined up as the team's two bigs in '04, you had two All-Star caliber players manning the post, even if both were small for their respective positions. Amar'e was an offensive powerhouse and Marion was one of the most versatile defensive players of his generation. Remember, Marion averaged 19.4 ppg and 11.3 rpg while corralling two steals and a block-and-a-half a night. If you didn't know that he was a converted small forward, you'd have never guessed it from the output he managed in that system. Turkoglu, this year's starting power forward and another converted small forward, has no chance at matching those numbers. He's five years older than Marion was back then, he possesses 1/10 of his athleticism and he's never averaged more than 5.7 rebounds in his career. We're not even going to get into whether or not he can guard the Duncan's, Gasol's and Jefferson's of the Conference because insinuating that he'd be anything but fodder for them would be an insult to the intelligence of basketball fans everywhere. Suffice it to say that, through no fault of his own, Turkoglu is no Shawn Marion, and Robin Lopez has little-to-no chance to even sniff at Amar'e like numbers after averaging 11-and-6 last year as a starter. This team may have superficial similarities to the old Suns, but let me tell you, this ain't the old Suns.
They made a go of it this summer, though, attempting to re-tool on the fly without taking devastating their cap in the process. With Jason Richardson and Grant Hill coming off of the books after the season, they'll actually be below the cap despite taking on Turkoglu's mega-deal and overpaying Channing Frye this July. All hope is not lost in Phoenix, it just feels that way as we lay to rest one of the most out-of-left-field success stories in the league's long history.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG - STEVE NASH
Steve Nash is a freak of nature. At 36-years-old he's still running circles around the entire point guard profession in the NBA. Understand that he was second in the league at his position last year in PER, just behind Chris Paul (who only played half of the season), and put up the best True Shooting Percentage of any player in the game. When he first returned to Phoenix in 2004, the Suns were derided because Nash had a balky back and was seen as a sure thing to break down before his contract even expired. Only a fool would predict that going into a season anymore. When it happens, it happens, but until then just keep marveling at what he does on a nightly basis while he's still able to do it.
SG - JASON RICHARDSON
Lost amid the Steve Nash bounce-back year and Amar'e's impending free agency last year was the career-year posted by Jason Richardson. Sure, some might say that he was statistically superior in '07-'08 with Charlotte, but when you're posting numbers on a 32-win team, they don't mean a heck of a lot. Last year Richardson went for 15.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg, .474 FG% and .393 3P%, and then he upped all those numbers in the Suns improbable Playoff run. Without Stoudemire around, Richardson is probably going to be leaned on to be the Suns primary scorer, and if he can maintain last year's efficiency while doing that the Suns may actually be able to squeeze one more Playoff berth out of this squad before diving headfirst into rebuilding.
SF - GRANT HILL
Unlike Richardson, Hill had probably his most unimpressive year as a pro statistically last season. Despite playing 81-games (still astounding after years missed with knee and ankle injuries), his minutes were tightly monitored and kept at 30-per-game, and Hill was used primarily as a do-it-all role player – including playing just about every position on the floor – a role befitting his 37-year-old body. With Turkoglu and Josh Childress joining Jared Dudley in the rotation, Hill's minutes will probably take another hit this season, but just the fact that's been allowed to ease into retirement playing high-level basketball and not hobbling out of the league as an injured charity case is a victory unto itself. He'll serve as a tremendous mentor to the litany of wings this team employs now and if even a couple of them can appreciate the gift they have of having him around the Suns should be very thankful indeed.
PF - HEDO TURKOGLU
Last year, a significant off-year for Turkoglu, being forced to play the role of traditional wing and not as a point forward like he played in Orlando wrecked havoc with his ability to positively impact the game. As a point forward, Turkoglu can use his unique combination of size and playmaking skills to punish defenders unaccustomed to guarding players of that ilk. Without the ball in his hands, though, he's an entirely unexceptional player. In Phoenix, anyone that takes the ball out of Nash's hands, even a capable playmaker like Turkoglu, is a negative. Combine that with his inability to consistently guard bigger power forwards and his petulant attitude when things don't go his way and it's hard to see how this move pays off for Phoenix. That said, Nash has turned around the careers of players before, so counting Hedo out in this situation is probably a bit premature, it's just hard to see exactly how he'll right his ship playing this far out of position and out of his comfort zone as the years continue to pile up on his body.
C - ROBIN LOPEZ
It's time for Lopez to take the next step. This is the point in his career where he has to become Joakim Noah or Andris Biedrins or Tyson Chandler or any other center that uses incredible length and energy to put up monster statistical numbers and be a disruptive defensive force. Lopez has shown flashes of having that capability, but now he's got to do it every night. He can no longer rank 38th in rebound rate, as this team is going to need him to be a double-digit rebounder every night to avoid getting killed on the glass. He's going to have to anchor the team's post offense, not by dominating the ball but by finishing on lobs, tip-ins and put-backs. He's one of the few committed bets the Suns have placed on their future, and this is the year he has to begin to pay-out so the team can get a sense of how high they can reasonably expect him to fly.