NBA Handicapping: Can Suns Make a Playoff Surge?
by Trevor Whenham - 03/06/2009
It hasn't been a good year for the Phoenix Suns, but it has been an exceptionally entertaining year to be an outside observer. Many people had the opinion coming into this season that Phoenix was a team destined to fail, but few would have guessed the number of ways they would find to do so. This is what happens when bad luck meets bad planning, bad coaching, and bad attitudes. Despite it all, the Suns aren't irreversibly removed from the playoff picture. They are 2.5 games out of eighth place, but they have only played 61 games, so there is lots of time left to turn things around. But can they? Probably not, given the struggles, challenges, and deficits faced by this team. Here's a look:
Management - I have to give Steve Kerr a pass on one thing. He made the right move in keeping Amare Stoudemire. He couldn't have predicted the bizarre injury that happened, but he got more value out of keeping the player even if he was disgruntled than they would have gotten in a trade. That's where the kudos stop, though. Kerr mishandled the Mike D'Antoni situation last year, did a terrible job of hiring a replacement, has added players and changed strategies without real regard for the long-term future of the team or a vision of how they can win, and has managed to make virtually every player on the team disenchanted and frustrated. Kerr had a sweet jump shot and an affinity for winning championships as a player, but he is downright lousy as a GM.
Coaching - Given what the team has gone through on the coaching front this year it's a miracle that they are above .500 at all. Terry Porter was determined to institute wholesale changes in philosophy when he took over for Mike D'Antoni. There were just two problems - he didn't have the personnel to match his vision, and he insisted on ruling with an iron fist to try to get his vision across. It was a disaster, and a case study for how not to succeed as a coach in the NBA. Alvin Gentry hasn't been a whole lot better. He's more popular, and he has allowed the team to open up and play to their offensive strengths. His big problem, though, is that he has let the team totally and utterly ignore defense. Since the all-star break the Suns have scored 10 more points per game than any other team in the league. That should be a recipe for success, yet they are only 6-4 over that stretch. Their game on Wednesday at Miami is a perfect example. It should be impossible to score 129 points in regulation and lose, yet the Suns found a way, and they did it by six points. Gentry is like the step-dad who wants to be the kid's best friend so he never disciplines him and always gives him whatever he wants. All you get from that is a spoiled kid.
Defense - It's obviously not working. More concerning than that, though, is the panic they are showing. Good teams will switch into a zone defense from time to time to change the pace and throw the opponents off guard. Over the last few games the Suns have been desperately relying on a zone defense almost all the time because nothing else is working. It's not a sustainable game plan, and it doesn't make a guy particularly confident about their chances of making the playoffs.
Stoudemire - This is a major blow. Obviously. Stoudemire's numbers were down from last year, and he wasn't happy, but he's still a Top 20 player in the league. He's also a significant matchup problem on a team full of matchup problems. The loss of Stoudemire for the season, and now for the playoffs as well, forces the team to adjust their offensive approach, and makes it easier for opposing defenses. With Stoudemire in the lineup this is a playoff team. Without him I'm not convinced.
Shaq - Shaq is Shaq, but I think the team would have been much better off sending him elsewhere at the deadline. He has had some great games since the deadline, but he's not at all consistent these days. The team relies on him too much, and suffers when he isn't playing well. More significantly, he's a disruptive force for a team that really doesn't need one right now. His latest pissing contest in the media with coach Van Gundy was pointless and distracting. Shaq doesn't have the game at this point to lift the team into the playoffs by himself, but he has the presence and personality to keep them out if he chooses to.
Swift - The Suns added Stromile Swift to the roster for the stretch drive on Wednesday. It won't make much difference, and I don't really have a point. Mostly, I just wanted to take the opportunity to mention Swift so I could point out that few guys in league history have ever wasted as much talent and potential as Swift has. I have no idea how the guy has managed to stay in the league as long as he has. He's just good enough to remind people of how good he should be.
Schedule - It would be easiest for this team to make the playoffs if they had a schedule conducive to a winning streak. They certainly don't. Ten of their 21 remaining games are against Western Conference playoff teams. They also face Cleveland. There are softer spots, of course, and the last four games are very winnable if they are in a race at that point, but there are a lot of places between now and then for a fragile team to decide that they would rather just quit.