Chasing Down The Latest NBA News
When you look at the Phoenix Suns’ off-season, the first thing you notice is that they lost Amare Stoudemire to the New York Knicks. Obviously, losing a player like that means a complete overhaul of the Suns’ offense. Stoudemire ran countless pick and rolls with Steve Nash last season and was the only guy Alvin Gentry could call an isolation set for.
Losing Amare is huge, no doubt about it. But with Stoudemire heading West and a fellow Western Conference power forward in Carlos Boozer going to the Bulls, multiple pundits started to believe that the power was shifting from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference.
Its an easy statement to make but the fact is, despite all the hubbub in Miami (which retained its own player and brought in two fellow Eastern Conference players), the movement of two power forwards does not shift the power from one conference to another. And, more specifically, the departure of Amare has dropped Phoenix out of contention, at least if you listen to those who believe the East went from Least to Beast because of Boozer and Stoudemire.
But when you really look at what Phoenix has done this off-season, they’ve done a manageable job replacing what they had with Amare. Of course, it’d be really hard to find a better combo than the one Nash and Amare formed during their tenure in Phoenix, but as much as you can replace a player like that, Robert Sarver and his vacant GM spot have done a nice job doing so.
The player the Suns have brought in to take on most of the responsibilities that Amare had is Hedo Turkoglu. I know, I know, he’s a small forward, he was horrible last season and he parties too much.
All of those are valid counterarguments for adding Hedo, including the partying part, but if there has ever been a team that has revitalized careers, it’s the Suns. Whether its the magical medical staff or the joy of playing aside the game’s top distributor in Steve Nash, Phoenix has brought many a career back from the grave and there is no reason to believe that Hedo will not have a resurgence next season with the Suns. Plus, I hear the nightlife in Phoenix is rather somber.
Grant Hill is the latest player to have another three or so years added to the their playing career, and Shaq got the same treatment before him. Unlike those guys, Hedo does not have any serious lingering medical issues and most of his problems last season arose because he was uninterested in playing for a non contender in Toronto with some pretty poor teammates and an undefined role.
Flashing back to his time with the Magic, preferably his last two seasons there, Turkoglu thrived as the crunch time ball handler and one of the snipers Stan Van Gundy placed around Dwight Howard. In Phoenix, he won’t have to do as much ball handling, but Alvin Gentry as indicated that he would like Hedo to take some of the pressure of Steve by initiating the offense and allowing Nash to play off the ball and as a spot up shooter. Not a bad plan, considering Hedo is one of the better passing forwards you will find and Nash is the best pure shooter in the entire league.
When you flip that around, you have Nash, the game’s top passer, and Hedo, a career 38% three-point shooter, on the floor at the same time with multiple options. Whether Hedo is playing some four, which seems possible at this point, or is spotting up in the corner, Turkoglu figures to get a lot of open looks because of Nash’s playmaking abilities. And the last time Hedo got open looks (both of his final two seasons with Orlando, when Dwight kicked it out to him on the double team), we saw him score around 18 points a game while shooting close to 40% from deep.
Again, he’s not going to be Amare and there will really never be that good of a fit for that system as he was, but when a guy who has proven himself as a crunch time scorer and as a consistent three-point shooter and is willing to take half the money to come to your town, that’s a deal you can’t pass up. Especially when you have a magical medical staff to clean up all lingering issues and another magician in Steve Nash that will get the best out of everybody he plays with. Giving up Leandro Barbosa is tough but he hasn’t been the same over the past two seasons and the emergence of Goran Dragic and Jared Dudley made him expendable.
The player that will be filling Amare’s shoes only because he plays the same position is Hakim Warrick, whom the Suns also acquired this off-season. Warrick will never be mentioned in the same tier as Stoudemire when you’re ranking the game’s best power forwards. Not close. But when you consider what Amare brought to the team on the offensive end, there is actually a chance that Warrick could produce a fraction of what he did despite being not nearly as talented or experienced.
Warrick is six-foot-nine and is a monster athlete. He’s not as physically imposing as Stoudemire upon first glance but his ability to finish at the rim in undeniable, which makes him a solid candidate for the Nash pick and roll. The ability to pick and pop as frequently as Amare did may be out of the question, but Hakim has somewhat of a jumpshot and has the ability to go on a hotstreak or hit 40% of him long two point jumpers for a season. On the roll, Warrick put up 1.14 points per possession in Milwaukee last season, good enough for 35th in league. He did not have a lot of attempts in the P&R, but he did produce when he was in the game.
At the very least Warrick is an athlete and that alone is good enough for Steve Nash to work with. As long as he can set a good screen, there is little reason to believe Nash won’t get him the ball in places he can succeed from.
The Suns bench also received an a nice addition. Six-foot-eight shooting guard Josh Childress was acquired in a sign and trade with the Atlanta Hawks for a 2012 second round pick. For a former sixth overall pick, that’s not a hefty price tag. Of course, Childress didn’t play in the NBA for the past two seasons and it doesn’t sound like his time in Europe went all that well. It will take some time for him to adjust to the NBA game again but if there was ever a place to get acclimated to fast paced action, why not go to the Suns?
As with Hedo and Warrick, playing with Nash will be an obvious plus for Josh as he tries to get his feel for the game back.
Before going to Europe, Childress averaged 11.1 points per game in four seasons while shooting 52% from the field. Not bad numbers. They aren’t those of a former sixth overall pick but they aren’t bad for a player signed to play a back-up role. With Dudley, Dragic, and Channing Frye (who was re-signed this 0ff-season as well), handling the three-point barrage and keeping the Suns’ MO in tact, Childress (who is a career 36% three-point shooter) can spend his time attacking the basket and trying to draw fouls. He will obviously get some open looks from the outside but he will be best served as an attacker. At six-foot-eight, the Suns will now have another guy to throw at Kobe, which is never a bad thing.
With Warrick and Turkoglu both coming in to fill the forward spots, that likely means Grant Hill will be headed to the bench. That gives the Suns a 10-man rotation that includes these five coming off the bench: Dragic, Childress, Dudley, Hill, and Frye. That’s pretty darn good, and when you consider how good each of them fits the system there’s are better benches in the league. With Nash, Jason Richardson, Turkoglu, Warrick and Robin Lopez lighting it up with a variety of scoring options, the bench will always be there to rain in three’s when they need to spark a comeback (see: almost every game from the Western Conference Finals).
The Suns may have lost Amare but the patch-up job the Suns’ management has done with this team is admirable. They took a couple of gambles but in the end, I think they’ll pay off. To be true title contenders, at least in the Western Conference, you have to match-up well with the Los Angeles Lakers, and that’s not something I would say about the Suns. In the Western Conference Finals this past season, size was their biggest disadvantage and when you lose Amare, you can’t really say you’ve helped in that regard. That being said, if the Suns get to avoid the Lakers somehow, their ability to dominate a game offensively will put them in a good position out West.The Phoenix Suns are a team filled with valuable role players that do what they are asked to and not much more, which makes choosing a breakout player a little difficult. Nonetheless, with Amare gone and a lot of pick and rolls left to be run, 22-year old Robin Lopez gets my vote.
As they entered the 2008 NBA Draft, the Lopez brothers were both expected to be first round picks. Both coming out of the University of Stanford, though neither looked like Ivy League material. Two seven footers, one with an afro, both with the look of a caveman perplexed by a multi-colored rock? They don’t even look like high school kids, really.
Brook was the more coveted prospect. He was much more polished offensively. He had a variety of hook shots that he would throw at you with either hand, he was strong and athletic, allowing him to succeed in pick and roll situations, he had soft hands, making it easy for him to receive an entry pass, and, perhaps his greatest ability came in the form of a beautiful little 15 foot jump shot. On defense, he was good, not great. He was strong on the boards and was a decent shot blocker, which isn’t bad for a rookie.
Robin didn’t have nearly as pretty of a scouting report, which is a reflection of his game. He didn’t have a go-to move in the post like his brother, heck, he didn’t have much of a move at all in college. Lopez picked up the majority of his points on hustle plays that led him to easy baskets around the rim. Putbacks on misses, scrums from loose balls, a tipped pass, Robin would convert whenever he got the opportunity but those opportunities never came in the form of a post-up. Essentially, his brother was an all-around offensive talent while he was an energetic and athletic rebounder that wouldn’t quit.
Brook and Robin both fell down the draft boards, at least farther than I expected them to. Brook went to the Nets at 10 and his brother followed five picks later when the Suns drafted him.
After one season, the pre-draft assertion that Brook was the better half of the Lopez twins was justified. Brook enjoyed a stellar rookie campaign, averaging 13 points, eight rebounds and two blocks a game in 21 minutes a contest. Brook was a candidate for rookie of the year most of the season and ended up with the starting center spot on the NBA All-Rookie First Team.
On the other hand, Robin struggled. Not only did he struggle to produce on the floor but Lopez had trouble getting off of the bench. In 60 games, Robin averaged just 10.2 minutes, three points and two rebounds per contest. With Shaquille O’Neal hogging up the minutes, Lopez was scarcely used even though his play style could have helped the Suns more than Shaq did.
When I attended the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas this summer, I saw Brook sitting with his mom, dad, and little sister, watching and cheering for their son/brother as he shined in an expanded role (five second clip of that here). In five games, Lopez averaged 12 points, seven rebounds, and two blocks while shooting 51% from the field. He played the most minutes of any Sun’s Summer Leaguer with 126 and shared his length was effective on the defensive end and on offense in the pick and roll (then with Dragic).
This season, Brook continued to get better. He has gone from great rookie to legitimate contender for the top offensive center in the league. His offensive game expanded and he was more sound defensively. If there was a bright spot on the 12-60 Nets, it was Lopez and his all-star caliber play. Despite having pitiful teammates, Lopez finished with averages of 19 points, nine rebounds and two blocks a game.
The other Lopez brother? Well, with Shaq gone, there were minutes available for Robin. However, the Suns opted against giving Lopez the full responsibility of manning the center position when they signed Channing Frye, further complicating their situation in the post. Because Frye morphed into Rashard Lewis -lite during the regular season, knocking down 172 threes (the fourth most in the NBA) Lopez still did not find himself with a consistent role in the offense.
But if you watched Robin for an extended period of time, you were sure to be impressed. No longer was he just a seven footer, he was seven footer with an increasing knowledge of the game, which was dangerous for any team facing off against the Suns.
Though clearly less versatile offensively than Amare Stoudemire, it was Lopez that possessed the Suns best offensive rating, scoring 123 points per 100 possessions. Robin averaged nine more minutes a game this season, leading to increases in all of his major statistics. He went from three points a game to eight, two rebounds a game to five, and from .7 blocks per game to one. Lopez even increased his shooting percentage to 59% with a 62% true shooting percentage. Lopez finished with a PER slightly above 17, putting him ahead of Rudy Gay, Joakim Noah, Tony Parker, Antawn Jamison and Paul Pierce.
Hustle plays and now, thanks to Steve Nash, quite a bit of pick and roll success at the rim led to his increased production. In fact, according to Synergy Sports Technology, Lopez was the ninth best roll man in the league. 21% of his offense came in pick and roll sets (he was involved in the P&R 85 times) and he averaged a stellar 1.31 points per possession. Additionally, Lopez was the fifth best offensive rebounder in the league when it came to getting a bucket after securing an O-board. After 96 offensive rebounds, Robin averaged 1.42 points per possession, accounting for 24% of his overall offense. If there was ever a way to measure hustle and desire through statistics, that number may do the trick.
Despite those terrific and efficient numbers, Lopez’s biggest contribution to the Suns has been his defense. Robin is very, very quick with his feet, waves his long arms to take away passes around him or over him, is a great athlete around the rim, making him a decent shot blocker. Lopez, however unlikely, developed into the Suns’ first solid defensive big man in recent memory, staying active and doing everything he could in order to get a stop. If Amare had the same determination to play defense that Lopez showed this season, there’s no telling how great he’d be.
If Lopez can continue to get consistent playing time, the Suns have a chance to make this a series, especially with Frye struggling and Robin coming off of the best game of his career. Lopez brings grit and determination to the court and, as evident by the Oklahoma City series from this year and the Houston Rockets’ series from last season, the Lakers often struggle to match the opposition’s intensity level if they get hit in the mouth early.
With Amare gone, Lopez will be the starting center and possibly the most used big man on the roster. And with 36 minutes a game and Nash running the show, Lopez could be brilliant.
It felt like last season was going to be the year for Steve Nash. Everything was going his way. After multiple pundits predicted the Suns would miss out on the playoffs this season (I picked them to finish eighth), the Suns fought back in a rather Suns like style to prove those experts wrong. They made the playoffs, convincingly, and played some of the best offensive basketball that the world has ever seen during the regular season.
Phoenix finished the regular season with a 54-28 record, good enough for third place in one of the most competitive conferences ever. In the first round of the playoffs, they struggled with a Portland team that could not have a more contrasting play style, but ended up putting them away in six. In the Western Conference Semi-Finals, the Suns were matched up against the team that own them for the past four years, ending their playoff runs time and time again. During this series is when everybody started to realize the Suns were for real. They handled, I mean completely dominated, their rivals by sweeping them in four games. They shoved the ball down the throats of the Spurs, effectively putting an end to the Tim Duncan era and the Spurs dynasty thanks to a heroic one-eyed performance in the closeout game for Nash.
They could have been contempt with the win over San Antonio. Having such a one-sided victory over your most hated opponent is an accomplishment and they could have accepted that as their prize for a fantastic season. But instead, they kept fighting, even if the defending NBA Champions were in their way, they weren’t going to go down without a fight.
They protected home court with lights out shooting fueled by their tremendous home crowd and were oh so close to stealing that advantage in Game 5. A couple of Nash free throws in the first half go down and the Suns have the lead in this series heading home to close it out. But, after coming back from 18 down, the Suns were rewarded with a crushing loss at the buzzer with the most unlikely of heroes hitting the shot. And in Game 6, again this Suns’ squad fought back from a 17-point deficit but this time, the heroic daggers would come from the one who is expected to hit those shots. With two fading jumpshots from the right wing that could not have been defended any better by Grant Hill or Channing Frye, Kobe Bryant put a dagger into the heart of the Suns, killing not only their season but also Steve Nash’s last legitimate shot at an NBA title.
After the game, Nash was in tears as he hugged his coach. Everything he had worked for, all of the obstacles he had to overcome (race, coaching changes, nagging back injuries), gone in an instant thanks to Bryant. After spending 13 years perfecting his fadeaway rainbow jump shot and after creating Amare Stoudemire’s resume and after turning a bunch of nobodies like Channing Frye and Jared Dudley into three-point specialists and after having Shaq steal his reality TV show idea, Nash will likely remain the NBA’s longest tenured player never to play in the NBA Finals.
And none of the blame can be placed on him. He did whatever he was asked to do in this series. He adjusted to whatever the defense was throwing at him and made them pay for giving him the chance to use one of his abundant abilities. When the Lakers took away his scoring, he facilitated like no other. 13 assists in game, 15 in game 2, 15 in game 3, and eight in game 4. When the Lakers switched on the pick and roll and shadowed Amare back from the high post into the paint, Nash took over with his scoring. He drove to the basket and made impossible fadeaways from mid-range with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum all getting a hand up, helplessly, mind you. Shots so tough that they are almost on par with the crazy stuff Kobe does, and to be even be considered with that man is an honor. 29 points on 12-of-20 shooting in game 5 and 21 points on eight-of-11 shooting in game 6.
Maybe Nash could have done more in the closeout game, but he didn’t have any control over that. He did everything he could during his 30 minutes. During the fourth quarter, Nash sat on the bench while a semi-hot Goran Dragic ran the offense (he wasn’t hitting from three, he just blew by his defender twice in the first two minutes). He should have gone in sooner but he didn’t, thus he couldn’t orchestrate the comeback with eight minutes to go. He checked in with three minutes left, which, unfortunately for Nash, is when Kobe is at his best.
Its hard to stomach for Nash. Again, this was his best shot at reaching the Finals and his team, though far inferior to the Lakers talent wise, almost scrapped their way to a title. But now, Nash himself is aging, Amare may leave, Channing Frye may return to normal next season, and 37-year old Grant Hill may not be able to play like 27-year old Grant Hill anymore. This was the first and only real shot that Nash had a chance at making the Finals as the number one option on a title team and he came up short. He’s not to blame and neither are his teammates. Their camaraderie is something to envy. Just credit the Lakers for taking care of business.
And spare the idea that Amare was the #1 option on this team. Though a tremendous talent, which is something I will address soon, Nash created him. That pick and roll made Stoudemire into what he is today. If he leaves Nash for a team without a playmaker even half as good as Steve, don’t be shocked if Amare turns out to be a little overrated.
Nash could still play second fiddle on another team at some point in order to reach the Finals. It wouldn’t matter to him if he was the leader or not, so long as he got there. So long as he reached what he’s been working towards for over a decade. But his recent contract extension makes that situation unlikely. He’s 36-years old right now and he’s signed until the 2012 off-season. Unless Steve Kerr did him a favor by trading him (something I can’t see Nash asking for or Kerr granting him) or buying him out, that’s not likely.
With Amare gone, the Suns aren’t likely to reach the Western Conference Finals again any time soon. But hey, they’ve been doubted before, and we know how they responded to that. Third place in the the toughest conference maybe ever, gritty win over Portland, shellacking of the hated Spurs, and, unfortunately, a date with the Lakers, which they made seem much more like dinner and a movie rather than just a walk in the park. So there’s a chance they get there again.
But for me, this was their best shot. This was his best shot. And the reality that none of us will see a fadeaway 18-footer with a seven footer contesting the shot, or a scoop lay-up as he drives by two defenders, or the combing of his hair each time he back trots down the floor, or a picture perfect pocket pass to the roll man on the pick and roll from Nash in a Finals setting has got me kind of sad.
- Steve Nash will deliver his 5th straight 50-40-90 season while taking a career high in three’s.
- Robin Lopez will dominant his brother during their two match-ups with 15 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks per game.
- Jared Dudley will 46% from three-point range again this season.
- Alvin Gentry will garner strong consideration for Coach of the Year.