The Phoenix Suns will have Marcin Gortat, Channing Frye and Alex Len all vying for playing time at the center position. Here’s my HoopsHabit article on how Jeff Hornacek should manage his big men for the 2013-14 season
I grew up in the 90’s as a Chicago Bulls fan. How could you watch basketball as a kid and not love Michael Jordan and everything he represented? MJ, Pippen, Rodman, Harper, Kerr, Kukoc, Longley, the fans, the dark arena before tipoff, the atmosphere. It was all undeniably the best of what the NBA had to offer. But once MJ left the Bulls for good in ’98, I lost interest. And I curse my disloyal seven-year-old self for it. I abandoned a now-successful franchise just because of a few dark years, looking for the next big thing to cheer for. But I was such a depressed little seven-year-old that I made it easy and decided to support the team closest to my state of New Mexico: the Phoenix Suns.
Ever since making that decision I’ve slightly regretted it. Not that I don’t support the Suns or that I will ever switch back to being a Bulls fan (Chicago is now my second-favorite). Don’t get me wrong, I love the Suns. Three of my favorite players of all time have played for Phoenix (Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, Penny Hardaway). I now live in Phoenix and have the pleasure of watching them play. And who could forget how awesome their jerseys in the 90s were? But unfortunately, being a Phoenix Suns fan for the past few years has been a difficult experience.
I’ve already written about the Suns’ plagued history over the past few years, but there’s more to it than blowing draft picks and letting quality players go for next to nothing. The recurring theme of Suns basketball even before Amare left was a team that was good enough to compete and make the playoffs, but not quite elite enough to win championships. So Suns fans are stuck supporting the ever-aging Steve Nash and Grant Hill. They are forced to watch their Suns start each season on a rough note that leaves little promise for the year. Then they regain hope as the team picks things up, either to make an improbable run to the playoffs (which means a first-round exit) or to come up just short, simultaneously disappointing fans and ruining the Suns’ chances at higher draft picks that could turn the franchise around for the future.
And once again, the Suns find themselves in a similar situation: After starting the year at 12-19, Phoenix found its groove and rallied. In fact, before two losses to the Heat and the Magic earlier this week, the Suns were the hottest team in the NBA, winning 11 of their previous 14 games. What followed was much of the same buzz that we Suns fans are used to: talks of how veterans Steve Nash and Grant Hill have found the fountain of youth; how Jared Dudley is developing into a great shooter; how Marcin Gortat is a great big man for Nash to work with; how the bench (Shannon Brown, Michael Redd) has finally stepped up and started contributing; even how Channing Frye doesn’t stink as much as he usually does. But unfortunately, all this means is that the Suns have once again cleverly seduced me and the rest of their fanbase into believing that maybe this team could make the playoffs. Maybe they could get lucky and upset somebody if they climb high enough and hit their rhythm at the right time.
I say “unfortunately” because it’s hard to believe in the Suns. When your two oldest players are two of your best/most consistent three, you’re bound to have problems. And while I accept that Suns basketball isn’t going to win a championship this season, damn it all if I’m not going to support my mediocre team to the end and cheer for those old guys to have enough in the tank for (possibly) one last improbable playoff run. I know that the Suns are winning themselves right out of better draft picks. I know that they’re still a few games out of the eight seed in the West. And I know that it would be better for the franchise if Phoenix tanked and start rebuilding for the future. But again, DAMN IT ALL if I don’t support my team and hope that Grant Hill and Steve Nash get the chance to win one more playoff series. I’ve never supported tanking and it does get hard to cheer for such an old and sometimes laughable squad, but there’s something about being fans of the Phoenix Suns, or any basketball team in general, that makes me want to believe again.
Before you say, “Everything!”, laugh, and leave the page, let me remind you of something. Just two years ago, the Phoenix Suns finished with a 54-28 record and were legitimate contenders in the Western Conference Finals. Two years ago, Alvin Gentry was putting an emphasis on defense that was actually effective when matched up with D’Antoni’s offensive run-and-gun style that was embedded in the team’s DNA. Two years ago, the Suns had a great starting lineup (Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, a younger Grant Hill, an athletic Jason Richardson and the up-and-coming Robin Lopez) and one of the best benches in the league in Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, Lou Amundson and Leandro Barbosa. What happened? As an avid Suns fan through thick and thin, I have to put a little blame on Ron Artest (or Metta World Peace, now) and a lot of blame on poor management.
Let’s cover Artest first. Despite being undersized throughout the series against the Lakers’ big men, the Suns were one good box-out (nice going, J-Rich) and one Artest buzzer-beater away from taking a commanding 3-2 lead in the Western Conference Finals. Barring that miraculous shot from heaven (or hell, if you resent Artest as much as I do), the Suns had a chance at making the NBA Finals. They had a chance at keeping Amare interested in staying in Phoenix. But maybe most important of all, they had a chance to seize the moment and win a championship before old age started to take its toll.
Most Suns fans know what happened from there: poor management. Keep in mind that this is the same organization that gave up Joe Johnson to Atlanta for Boris Diaw. This is the organization that notoriously traded draft picks year after year for cash considerations and future draft picks. What type of players, you ask? Oh, just players like Luol Deng (2004), Nate Robinson (2005), Rajon Rondo (2006) and Rudy Fernandez (2007). But after all of that, the Suns couldn’t possibly let Amare go without getting anything good in return, right?
Wrong. Amare leaves for New York. Grant Hill’s age starts to catch up with him and he can only kick in about 10 points a game while being the defensive stopper. Amundson is gone. Robin Lopez fails to develop into the quality center he showed signs of in the playoffs. But worst of all, Suns management makes a series of questionable moves to try and generate some excitement after losing Amare, rather than trying to find a replacement big man. So in comes Hakim Warrick. Josh Childress. Hedo Turkoglu. A trade soon after with Orlando that exchanged Turkoglu and one dunker past his prime (J-Rich) for another dunker WAY past his prime (Vince Carter, who admittedly is doing well with Dallas now), along with Michael Pietrus and Marcin Gortat. Then Dragic gets shipped off to Houston for Aaron Brooks.
Looking at that list, you might think, “Well that’s not so bad. Turkoglu does just fine in Orlando, Gortat is a great center now, Aaron Brooks is solid, and Vince Carter is making highlights again!” But unfortunately, these acquisitions did little for the Suns during their stay in Phoenix. Gortat saw limited time behind a weak Channing Frye and a disappointing Lopez, Turkoglu’s game was hit-or-miss before he was shipped off, Brooks wasn’t the elite backup to Nash he showed promise of being (leaving for China doesn’t help) and Vince Carter just looked downright bad at times. The team didn’t gel, and Alvin Gentry found that his team could no longer put up big points OR play defense.
Fast forward to this year, after the Suns miss the playoffs and talks of trading Nash and Hill are at their strongest. Grant Hill is my personal favorite player of all time (other than MJ) and Nash has done so much for the franchise, so I blow these talks off as ridiculous. But now it seems those dissenting fans and analysts were right. Management’s version of making quality moves to improve the Suns’ weak areas included signing Shannon Brown to a team already overstocked on forwards along with has-been Sebastian Telfair. And while Markieff Morris was a good draft pick (finally), the Suns still find themselves as incompetent as ever. You can chalk it up to old age, inconsistent play from role players, and Gentry’s insufferable habit of changing of the lineup because of the inconsistency, but no matter what, the result is another year of weak Suns basketball.
Childress, Warrick, Telfair, Brown, Lopez and Michael Redd were all poor decisions involving players that either never lived up to their full potential or are past their prime. Channing Frye gets big minutes every game and continues to do little as a big man or as a shooter. Gortat is developing into quite the player and Dudley and Morris may be great in a few years, but by that time, Nash and Hill will be gone. As a Suns fan, I was extremely pleased not only with Nash and Hill’s tenure in Phoenix for so long, but also with their affirmations of their love for the city and the team. But at this point, I almost wish Hill had signed with the Bulls and that the Suns could get something good for Nash while he still has value. Because when Nash and Hill retire (and it will most likely be in Phoenix), Suns fans are in for some dark rebuilding years.