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I'm having a great deal of difficulty in accepting this season as a potential title run. Why? I think the two stunning losses at the hands of MIN (coupled with the two losses the LAL) are an indicator that things are not as they were last season. However, I'm not yet to the point where I will concede defeat for my team and throw in the towel. That said, let me address each reason why I feel the Suns are at a crossroads of sorts...
The Suns easily possess one of the best teams in the NBA with three All-Star level players in their starting line up and a previous All-Star in Grant Hill. The Suns also have great bench depth this year. Their two primary players, Boris Diaw and Leandro Barbosa, are both NBA award winners as the Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year respectively. It is, arguably, the deepest bench they have had in quite some time. Their only weakness is a lack of a low post defender, although Brian Skinner has performed well as a replacement for the traded away Kurt Thomas.
The Suns consistently play their starters and do so at a higher rate than any other team in the league. Steve Nash's best play has come at the expense of his longevity. He's certainly no spring chicken and is getting older by the day despite his continually excellent play at the point. Shawn Marion voiced his displeasure with his role as a "third fiddle" and desires to be a more focal point in the offense. He rejected a potential trade to MIN that would have given him the status he desired and what would have brought PHX Kevin Garnett. Despite the lingering issue, he has shelved his contract issue for now and focused on basketball. Amare Stoudemire has been abused repeatedly by low post scorers (Jefferson and Bynum specifically) who should not have as much success against him as they do. Boris Diaw has been tentative with his shot and appears lost in the shuffle at times. He has not brought much of what made him the NBA's MIP back from his offseason break. At least he was in somewhat better shape this time.
The Suns are both contenders and pretenders to the NBA throne and will continue in both roles until they have enough desire to close out games against meager teams and the regular juggernauts. Their starting five is one of the best in the league and easily makes them a sure fire contender, but they're humbled by D'Antoni's system and his propensity for not using the depth of his bench. They are contenders based on their style of play and their conditioning to run at a break neck pace for the entire game and simply outhustle or out shoot their opponent; conversely, they are also pretenders for the same reason that they are successful, and that's their pace. Sometimes the game needs to be slowed and stronger defense needs to be played, but until they get consistentcy from their principal players from a defensive standpoint (especially in the post), they're going to continue to get abused. Lastly, they're contenders due to their outstanding coach, but it's that same coach that makes them a pretender. When will D'Antoni realize that defense is more relevant than a high powered offense? Until he sees the error of his ways and re-evaluates his strategy, his coaching will continue to come into question by fans and other coaches.
Clearly the Suns are a great team, but they have become a victim of their own success. Many teams have emulated their fast break, run-like-hell style and had success with it. The differences with the other teams is their players in the low post and their players' ability to play solid defense once the tempo is inevitably slowed. The Suns need to be able to emulate other teams' ability to switch gears from offense to defense as dictated by the flow of the game. I think the Suns have a chance to win, but they need to make some changes in strategy or personnel. The bench also needs to get more play. What good is having them if they just sit there? As far as movement, I wouldn't mind seeing Diaw go, but who out there is going to be able to contribute as he does? P.J. Brown was not the answer nor is Webber, but there's talent out there. The Suns have always been great at finding a "diamond in the rough", and now would be a great time for that to happen.
I hope for the best, but I'm starting to waver.. Can they actually pull it out this year or next? I certainly hope so.
What say you, the fan?