ABSOLUTELY! Mark my words, the Suns will surprise the NBA this year. The core group of Amare, Nash, Bell, Barbosa, and Diaw have 3 solid years of experience with one another and now, Grant Hill (2nd season) and Shaquille O'neal will have even more time and experience with the team, including a full training camp. With a new coach, every player is having to start from square one on both offense and defense. Everyone will be on the same page from the start. Having to go through training camp, literally building your offense and defense from the ground up, will also aid the new members in adjusting more quickly, learning the basics at the same time as Nash and Amare. Rookies Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez will be able to add toughness and defense to the point guard and center positions off the bench along with free agent signing Matt Barnes. Most experts are picking the Suns to finish anywhere from fifth to nineth, which I think is a joke. Regardless of what other teams in the West have done, the Suns are still one of, if not the most talented team in the league. I'd take the Suns top 8 against any teams. And once the season starts and we see more of the rookies, I may expand that to top 10.
The big change and my reason for believing they can indeed come out on top in the loaded Western Conference is their new found passion for defense. No more allowing uncontested layups time after time. No more allowing the other team to score just so you can get the ball back. No more taking the quick shot at the end of a quarter or game and allowing the other team time to score again. It's spoken any time a Suns' player is interviewed or anytime management makes a comment. The players are genuinely excited about the possibilities of adding a tenacious defense to their already incredible offense. They like that there is a coach that will hold his players accountable for their actions and take appropriate action if the game plan is not being followed. Stoudemire specifically, long known to desire being the best big man in the game, has too devoted him self to being a better defensive player and focusing on rebounding. He even went as far as to say that he wanted "to be the man no body wants guarding them", mentioning a likeness to Ron Artest( in intimidation factor). If this team performs as I think it will, Stoudemire will have fofilled his promises and will be in contension, if not winning his first MVP trophy.
The main item that many pundits have brought up as a concern is the departure of Mike D'Antoni and the effect it will have on the team's offense. I strongly disagree. The Suns are not going to slow down much at all. Sure, they will be more diligent in their half court sets and have a better plan of attack but on missed shots or turnovers, they will still score with 22 left on the clock as they have done so often in recent years. But now, unlike the teams of the past, this Suns team can now choose how it wants to score; pound the ball inside against the smaller teams, or push the tempo against the big and slow. They can even change speeds mid game, at the drop of a hat. Not many teams can match that. Although Mike D'Antoni certainly emphisized running, Steve is really the catalyst. He was doing it in Dallas in the years prior to coming back to Phoenix. This is a team that shot over 50% from the field as last year and has flirted with that number each of the past 4 years. I think the team will be even more efficient now as they work the ball inside a little more often and take the quick 20 footer a little less. They will still be a high scoring team as long as Steve Nash is there to push the ball, there are shooters on the wings, and Amare is dominating the paint and beyond. Coach Porter would be a fool to think he would be coming on board to have the them score 80 or 90 a night, and I don't think he's a fool. Instead, he'll be focused on making sure the defensive effort is there nightly and hold players accountable when it's not. He'll also have his hands full developing some of the promising young talent that the Suns now have. Once the ball goes up, the offense will be in the capable hands of Steve Nash.
Speaking of young talent, for the first time since Leandro Barbosa came on board, the Suns have some young talent to get excited about. Both rookies, Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez, have been impressive at times during the Summer League and in preseason play and look to make valuable contributions to the team this year. Lopez has shown that he can be an effective rebounder and an elite shot blocker at this level and has even shown a nice touch around the basket and up to 10-12 feet. He'll need to work on staying out of foul trouble to some degree but, as Steve Kerr pointed out, he's not going to be counted on for 30 min a night so, if he fouls out in 20 minutes but gives you great production and activity in that time then, so be it. He, along with Shaq (and at times, Amare), will be more than capable of holding down the middle. Dragic has really been impressive to me thus far. He's not put up huge numbers but has flirted with a triple double twice in preseason (getting 11 pts 9 asst and 7 reb in one game) but most of all, it's the fact that he runs the offense extremely well. One of the biggest problems for the Suns in the Nash era has been their propensity to shut down when Nash leaves the floor. Dragic is a guy that gets into the paint very well and has shown a knack for getting the ball to teamates through tight spaces. He'll undoubtedy have struggles at times(his jump shot has been AWOL thus far) but if he can come in, run the offense, keep the ball moving, and not turn the ball over too much, this helps the Suns in so many ways. He has also shown that he is a willing and able defender, staying in front of his man relitively well and collecting 2 or more steals in 4 separate preseason games. His experience playing in Europe should put him ahead of the typical rookie point guard curve, in terms of handling the pressure of running an offense and looking to set up teamates. He's never been a guy that had to carry his team with his scoring. I hope he proves why the Suns's management had him ranked as the #2 point guard going into the draft, behind only #1 pick, Derek Rose.
Being counted out has brought out the best of the Suns in the past. The last time, Amare went down in preseason and all said the Suns wouldn't make the playoffs. Boy were they wrong as the team went all the way to the Western Conference Finals. This year is much of the same just with a different tune. It's doom and gloom; the Suns are too old, too injured, too thin, too thick, or will miss Coach D too much. It's all non sense. Overall, I believe this is a much more complete and balanced team from top to bottom. They can play fast or slow, big or small, and most of all offense AND defense. The Suns always seem to respond when they're doubted. This is why the Suns will win the West.
Just for the heluvit, I am going to give my 08-09 preseason picks for the Eastern and Western Conference. This is how I feel things will shake down, of course a major injury to any of the teams' main cogs could change any team's fortunes in a hearbeat as well as major trades. I will stand by these pick throughout the year, eating crow if need be and taking credit when and where due. I'll be giving my take on some of my other Western Conference picks down below. Honestly, I don't care enough about any of the Eastern Conference teams to comment on them and don't think and Eastern team will be holding the trophy come June. I look forward to reading your comments. Enjoy!
1 Boston 1 Phoenix
2 Cleveland 2 San Antonio
3 Detroit 3 New Orleans
4 Philidelphia 4 Lakers
5 Toronto 5 Utah
6 Orlando 6 Dallas
7 Milwaukee 7 Houston
8 Atlanta 8 Clippers
9 Indiana 9 Portland
10 Miami 10 Denver
11 Washington 11 Golden State
12 Charlotte 12 Memphis
13 Chicago 13 Sacramento
14 New York 14 Minnesota
15 New Jersey 15 Oklahoma City
San Antonio 2nd?
Yes, I believe the Spurs, in their quest for another odd year championship, will muster the energy and focus nessesary to ensure home court in at least the first two rounds of the playoffs. Tim Duncan will be fully healthy and Tony Parker had a Summer off for the first time in ages. Once Manu comes back, look for them to be as strong as ever. I look for Ime Udoka and Kurt Thomas to be more of a factor this year, and for Roger Mason to be a bit of a surprise as well. Their one glaring weakness is that they are light in players that can consistantly shoot from the outside.
New Orleans #3
These guys will be right in the thick of things as well assuming health permits. Teams will have a ton of tape in which to study ways of slowing Paul, or at least making things more difficult on him and it'll be interesting to see how he responds. The loss of Jenero Pargo and lack of a solid replacement will hurt them more than some think. The impact of adding Posey will not be felt much until the playoffs. He'll definately contribute but, during the season, a lot of times a team will figure the opposing star will score on them but will attempt to limit the other guys. It's during a playoff series that teams truly key in and try to take stars out of games as there is much more time to practice and prepare for that certain team or player.
Yes, I have the Lakers as #4. As much as Laker fans don't want to hear it, there are going to be some growing pains along the way and overall, the team may not be as effective as a whole. When a team explodes onto the scene as the Lakers did after "the heist", they often cannot sustain that same level of success the following season. As mentioned above regarding Chris Paul, teams will have better defensive game plans to work against them. I can see Lamar Odom fading away with Bynum and Gasol crowding the front court. His unselfishness will become a hinderence to the team. If they can trade him for a better fitting piece or pieces, they too, could be right back in the mix. As of now, I say there will be no return to the NBA finals this year.
Utah # 5
They will most likely start a bit slow with Deron Wlliams being down and then will take a little time to gel. With more than half the team looking at free agency next year, I see a team that may be in for a little turmoil as the season wares on and players start thinking about $'s rather than w's. But don't get me wrong, they are still a team to be reckoned with come playoff time and are as talented as any team in the league.
Like Phoenix, this team is being written off as too old to be dangerous. I strongly disagree here as well. Jason Kidd will be better than most of the "experts" are saying. He's never been much of a scorer and he is still in the top 3 in pure passing skills. Dirk Nowitzki is still the best shooting 7 footer ever and he thrives in an up tempo system. The Mavs also have a number of finishers in Howard and Stackhouse among other and Jason Terry will be better playing off the ball along side Kidd (or rather better without the ball in his hands all the time, thus making less mental mistakes). I look for them to struggle a bit at the start as the team gets over the hangover left from a Summer of mishaps. I would not be surprised to see them put togther a few impressive win streaks come December and January. The fact they now have no pressure on them as favorites will also be a welcome change for them.
7th? How could it be? Call me crasy but, I'm just not buying it. I don't believe Tracy McGrady, already questioning his own health, will be able to stay healthy enough for this team to dominate as the "experts" predict. Same goes for Yao Ming. He had a major injury last year, rushed back and played well before he should have in order play for China in the Olympics. He's had significant injuries almost every year. And, I don't belive Ron Artest will be able to keep his mind in check. I've heard he's already talking about a contract extension. Yao has already shown he's not afraid to say something about Artest, positive or not, and I don't see that relationship panning out. They have some really nice role players but their lack of a true point guard, curtail their effectiveness to some degree. Look for an up and down, turbulent season and another first round ouster.
I am going out on a limb just a bit here. If health permits, they have two of the best defensive players at their postions ( Camby and B Davis when he chooses to play D) and a coach that preaches defense first. They also have a plethora or scoring options with Baron Davis leading the pack. Also, look for Al Thornton to have a great year scoring the ball. Top to bottom, I think this team has more talent than the Warriors of the last two years and will be able to squeek into the post season.
Sorry Blazer fans, you'll have to wait one more year for your pups to be ready for the big stage. They'll make strides, many mistakes, and many new fans. But too much youth will be their undoing. If they make a move to counter this weakness, they could jump in the standings substantially. But, with all the talent they have now and having to be cognizant of keeping salary available for those youngsters, I don't foresee them persuing a big move this year.