So this is what a star looks like before it collapses on itself and in turn explodes into a blazing surge of vehemence and heat. The Phoenix Suns were at one point in time the most exciting and feared team in the Association, able to routinely cross the triple-digit threshold while playing laughable defense. All of their prolific play responsible largely due to the pairing of Mike D’Antoni and Steve Nash that immediately turned the Suns from an apathetic team with individually exciting players into an immediate championship contending juggernaut who laid teams to waste when they crossed paths.
Last offseason the Suns would forego the nonchalant attitude towards defense and allowed D’Antoni to walk away to the welcoming arms of the New York Knicks. His replacement, the infamous Terry Porter, would bring a no nonsense attitude to the Suns, effectively cramping their style and changing the Suns from a relentless fast break into a lumbering half court offense. The style proved ineffective for the Suns personnel who were still itching to break loose of their harnesses and run up and down the court. A midseason trade with the Charlotte Bobcats would bring in former Slam Dunk contest champion Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley for the talented Frenchman Boris Diaw and their main enforcer Raja Bell.
Steve Kerr, in a desperate attempt to save face and recapture some of the magic that was the Suns, fired Porter and replaced him with D’Antoni disciple Alvin Gentry. The ingenious plan nearly worked, the Suns, playing without injured luminary Amar’e Stoudemire, made a feverish run for the eighth spot in the fierce Western Conference. Unfortunately, their attempts were futile, losing out to New Orleans and Utah, respectively.
Bringing more change to Phoenix, Steve Kerr worked his unique form of magic and switched up the gist of the Suns yet again. After breathless speculation surrounding possible trade destinations Shaquille O’Neal, Kerr finally officially gave up, perhaps temporarily, on switching the tempo of the Suns up and shipped away the anchor to the Suns speedboat. His landing destination was the Cleveland Cavaliers, and in return the Suns would receive aging former defensive dynamo Ben Wallace and the indeterminate Sasha Pavlovic. Unsold on the ultimate worth of those two role players, the Suns waived Wallace and have kept Pavlovic in limbo after announcing their intention to release Sasha.
More dishevelment would follow, rumors leaked of a possible deal between them and the Hornets consisting of a swapping of salaries with Ben Wallace and Tyson Chandler. The deal fell through and the Hornets found a more suitable deal, instead swapping with Charlotte for Emeka Okafor. Then Kerr zeroed in on the expiring deal of Steve Nash before he could leave for greener pastures. Nash inked a two-year deal beyond the 2009-10 season, effectively meaning that, barring a desperate trade, his playing days will end in the desert.
With the offseason wrapping up and the signings and releases nearly over, the Suns are looking forward to a new season wrought with redemption. They have decided to stick with Gentry and the high scoring act that made the Suns famous a few seasons before, foregoing their more recent attempts to turn into a horrid team.
They have some tank in the gas still, able to be competitive and exciting in the callous Western Conference patrolled by traditionally superior teams with a more standard style of play. The Lakers and Spurs specifically have given the Suns migraines that have impeded their manifest destiny to win a championship in their halcyon days (the hip-check incident) with a more monotonous method. Despite all of their successes, the Suns could never reach the summit of the Association, always falling just short due to a freak or inopportune injury, a slight overreaction, or superior steadiness by Tim Duncan.
They are not all winners on this team. The team is vastly different from the young, athletic, fit teams of the 2004-07 seasons who could run opponents out of the gym with young guns like Amar’e, Marion, Joe Johnson, and Quentin Richardson each seeing some of the spotlight. This team is comprised of grizzled veterans and more conscientious players who focus on other aspects of the game besides the fast break. Grant Hill is having a mild midlife crisis, stuck between his desires to still run the length of the court and realizing he is long in the tooth. His recent injury free seasons could be interpreted as a miracle or karma saving face for mistreating such a stand up man. But he individually is not a winner, never a participant in a championship season besides his college days, and hardly staying healthy enough to witness the playoffs anywhere besides his couch.
Amar’e, like Grant, has been hindered with injuries throughout his shimmering career. He is a raw monster filled with ennui towards his opponents, knowing he will inevitably defeat them with his intimidating amalgamation of athleticism and power. Is he a winner? He is undoubtedly successful, which to some makes him a winner. Multiple accolades have already come his way for his performance, and he has been on some of the most successful Suns teams in recent memory. Amar’e is a winner because he simply cannot be a loser with all of his determination and desire.
Jason Richardson is not a true winner. He hasn’t been involved in anything that could be confused with a contending team (although he was critical to the jubilant Warriors’ success against Dallas in the ’07 playoffs). Richardson is more like a WWE champion, all the glitz and glamour without any true substance that wholly comprises a winner. His inadequacy isn’t predicated on his talent or ability, because Jason Richardson has the ability to shoot and dunk the ball with some of the best in the league. He is the replacement of Raja Bell, who had too much heart and loyalty for his own good, supporting his teammates with words and shoves. Compared with Raj, Richardson is the tin man, a shiny façade but hollow on the inside.
Robin Lopez is the apparent starting center, unless Amar’e assumes the roll and newcomer Channing Frye steps in as the starting 4. Robin is not a winner either and doesn’t have any game altering abilities of note. Lopez is like a younger, less refined version of Anderson Varejao, if that is possible. He routinely lives in his twin brother Brook’s shadow. Brook is more offensively oriented, the evident center of the future for the New Jersey Nets, who is deemed more skilled than Robin. Robin makes his living off of hustle and defense, and plays with an underrated knowledge of offense around the basket.
Steve Nash is a notable winner despite the fact that he has never advanced further than the Conference Finals with either the Suns or Mavericks. In fact, his winner status may be caused by his failures. He is a winner because of his never-say-die spirit and not his actual win/loss total. Everyone remembers his gruesome bleeding nose: Nash showed more grit and determination there than the entire league since Iverson’s incredulous play in the early part of the decade. A veritable gusher, Nash’s nose refused to stop bleeding, delaying the game and making him sit out much to his dismay.
Steve wills his team to victories throughout the entire season and through the playoffs. It is not a coincidence that the Suns were lackluster before Nash arrived in the desert, and as soon as Nash arrived Phoenix lit up like the 4th of July and improved their record to over 60 victories. His rogue passing and leadership is tops in the league for a point guard for anyone not named Chris Paul. In Terry Porter’s system, Nash was a wild mustang forced to endure a domestic lifestyle, required to give two-minute pony rides to spoiled 8-year-old girls at a shady carnival. Now, in the Gentry revival, Nash has broken free of the reigns and Shaq-les of the half-court offense and sprinted into the prolific high scoring system. Under Gentry, the Suns averaged more points per game than at any point of time in the D’Antoni system, so a famine of points needn’t be a worry for Suns fans.
This is probably the last chance for the Suns to contend in the West, as they are currently constituted. Nash, while he has resisted the effects of aging thus far, is not immortal and is on the older side of the league. Amar’e is not a guarantee to stick around in Phoenix, with whom he has had numerous disagreements and discrepancies concerning the coach (Porter) and his contract. The rest of the team is not exactly out of the crib either, which means that Kerr will have to make some major moves to remain contenders in the West.
They likely have one last bullet in the chamber, one last legitimate shot to contend with the big boys before slowly withering away. Their style of play was ephemeral to the fullest, and they failed to capitalize on their uniqueness. Instead, they have inspired some in the league to follow suit and sacrifice any defensive ethics and instead focus entirely on entertaining the masses with dazzling theatrics that people are willing to pay hard earned currency for. They are the originators; the innovators who amazed and inspired the rest of the league while forcing others to wake up and take notice and head their presence. They nearly erased any notion that only teams that play strict defense can win in the Association.