Be careful if you want to use second place in the Pacific Division as some kind of measuring stick in the NBA.
Two years ago the Phoenix Suns finished as the runner-ups to the mighty Lakers in the Pacific and amassed 54 regular season wins before bowing out to Kobe and Company in the Western Conference finals. A year ago, the Suns found themselves in the familiar No. 2 spot behind LA in the division but this time they managed just 40 wins and missed the postseason.
The real big change was losing star power forward Amare Stoudemire to the bright lights of the big city in New York. Without the All-Star, coach Alvin Gentry cobbled together a solid, albeit far less spectacular offensive club but fell off badly at the defensive end.
The aging Steve Nash and Grant Hill are still around and both possess the kind of smarts to make sure things remain humming on the offensive end again. However, the lack of speed, lateral movement and athleticism among the veterans on the roster really shows up at the other end of the floor.
Phoenix addressed some of that with the 13th pick in the draft by selecting Markieff Morris, the bigger, more defensive-minded of the Philadelphia Morris twins. They also got more athletic on the perimeter with the signing of ex- Laker guard Shannon Brown.
Whether Morris can bring the type of intimidation factor that the Suns need next to Marcin Gortat and Robin Lopez up front should go a long way in deciding what type of "second place" club the Suns hope to be in what figures to be a much improved Pacific Division.
2010-11 Results: 40-42, second in Pacific; Missed playoffs.
ADDITIONS: G Shannon Brown, F Markieff Morris, G Sebastian Telfair, G Ronnie Price.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
FRONTCOURT: The Suns are really deep in the pivot with both Gortat and Lopez. Gortat broke out after being acquired from Orlando, averaging nearly 13 points and just over nine rebounds. The Polish pivot proved to be a daily double- double threat in the desert and excelled late last season when he was put in the starting lineup. He may be able to handle the bench better than Lopez, however, and that could figure into Gentry's thinking.
Lopez may not be his brother offensively but he is much better on defense when he is in the middle. A natural center, Lopez, if healthy, is raw offensively but offers size and shot-blocking ability.
Channing Frye gives a different look at power forward, the ability to step out and drain the three. His passing also makes him a solid inside/out option when he is on the low post.
Hill flirted with joining Stoudemire in New York but returned when Phoenix anted up $6.5 million for another year. The classy Hill may be just a shadow of what he once was during his All-Star days in Detroit but the former Duke star is still very effective thanks to his high basketball IQ.
BACKCOURT: Nash is no longer the best point guard in the world but he hasn't slipped much at least as a playmaker. A superlative ball-handler with an innate sense of the floor, Nash has an uncanny ability to take over games. When his teammates are struggling he can take over offensively. When they have a hot hand, Nash inevitably gets them the ball in the right spot. That said, defense has never been his strong point and he now deals with a balky back.
Jared Dudley brings size, power and the ability to hit the three occasionally from the two spot. The former Boston College star is never going to be the pure scorer you look for opposite Nash but he is the Suns' best option right now.
BENCH: Depth is where Gentry figures the Suns will win games. Obviously Phoenix will have one of the best backup centers in the game but they also will throw a ton of bodies at you that can contribute, including Morris, ex- Laker guard Brown, swingman Mickael Pietrus, forwards Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress as well as backup point guards Sebastian Telfair and Ronnie Price.
Morris is a muscular 6-foot-10 player with an NBA-ready body that figures to help right way on the boards and in the post on defense as well as provide a pick-and-roll presence for Nash. Asked how he could contribute to Phoenix, Morris sounded confident:
"You know, just being able to score the ball whenever they give it to me," he said. "Being able to be effective on the pick-and-roll with Steve [Nash}, and definitely being able to bring my defensive presence."
Childress returned from Olympiakos in Greece as a lesser player but he does add great athleticism to a team that needs both. Warrick, meanwhile, is a true power forward, although far less-skilled than his original pedigree would indicate.
In the backcourt Brown brings energy and a defensive-minded presence from LA. He doesn't have the jumper you look for from a natural No. 2 but can really get out and run in the open floor. Pietrus, meanwhile, can swing back and forth on the wing although he probably no longer fits. Back in early December the Suns tried to trade Pietrus and $1 Million to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for a conditional second round draft pick but the Raptors changed their minds due to his balky right knee.
Telfair has far more physical skills than Price but he's never lived up to his billing as a New York high school legend and Price may be the safer option for Gentry as the backup point guard.
"We're excited, we have a little more depth this year," Nash said at the team's media day. "I think for every team depth is going to be a huge part of a team trying to get into the playoffs or trying to exceed expectations, trying to make it through this schedule."
COACHING: Gentry has sat under Larry Brown, Pat Riley and Mike D'Antoni so he has learned a number of different styles and has the ability to coach them all. Whether he can find a rotation that helps Nash and Hill navigate through what figures to be a torturous 66-game schedule this season will probably be his biggest test.
OUTLOOK: While the Lakers have taken a step back in the Pacific, the Clippers figure to take a giant leap forward thanks to the addition of Chris Paul and Golden State, under new head coach Mark Jackson, figures to be much improved.
Phoenix, as always, will be one of the most exciting teams to watch thanks to Nash, who now has a host of athletic wings to run the floor with. Depth and defense will be the final judge when it comes to the Suns' fate.
"One thing that we've done around here is we've always tried to play nine, 10 guys," Gentry said. "I think it's going to be very important this year that you have a deep bench because there are going to be certain situations where you play five games in seven nights or six games in nine nights where it's going to be really important to have depth so you're not burning guys out."