Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Life After Nash - Phoenix Suns Preview

Starting Five: PG Goran Dragic, SG Wesley Johnson, SF Michael Beasley, PF Luis Scola, C Marcin Gortat

Key Bench Players: PG Kendall Marshall, SG Shannon Brown, SF Jared Dudley, F Markieff Morris, F/C Channing Frye, C Jermaine O'Neal

Key Additions: PG Kendall Marshall (13th overall pick), SG Wesley Johnson, SF Michael Beasley, PF Luis Scola, C Jermaine O'Neal

Key Departures: PG Steve Nash, SG Michael Redd, SF Grant Hill, G/F Josh Childress, F Hakim Warrick, C Robin Lopez

On June 26, 1996, an upstart young point guard out of Santa Clara was drafted 15th overall by the Phoenix Suns. Syracuse's John Wallace had just finished a stellar collegiate career by making a national television appearance in the NCAA title game, and was still on the board. Suns fans largely booed the decision to draft Nash, and Wallace was drafted by YOUR New York Knickerbockers. (And just how everything else turns out for a tortured fan base, Nash, the two-time MVP, is prime to make the most serious championship run of his career, and Wallace averaged less than 6 points a game during his two stints with the Bockers.)

Nash never flourished in his first couple years as professional point guard, playing behind the likes of Kevin Johnson, Sam Cassell, and Jason Kidd. So Phoenix traded him to Dallas in 1998 for this incredible pile of dog crap:

Bubba Wells
Pat Garrity
Martin Muursepp
a first round pick

Good get. Nash blossomed as Dallas' starting floor general, breaking out in the 2000-01 campaign with 15.6 points and 7.3 assists per game. He was directly responsible for Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley's maturation, and the Mavericks played postseason basketball for the first time in a decade. But when it came time for Nash to get paid, owner Mark Cuban chose to build around the young Nowitzki, leaving Nash to come back to Phoenix.

The fans would treat him far better the second time around.

Nash's accolades in Phoenix from 2004 speak for themselves:

  • Two MVP awards (and also becoming just the third point guard to win that trophy)
  • Career high in points (18.8) and rebounds (a whopping 4.2) in 2006
  • Winning the assists title in FIVE different seasons, including a career high (11.6) in 2007, not to be outdone by an absolutely absurd 13.3 assists per game in the '07 playoffs
  • Recording a field goal percentage above 50% in EVERY season except one, when he slacked off and shot a lackadaisical 49.2%

When the game allowed point guards to flourish by calling fouls on overly aggressive perimeter defenders, Nash was surely the game's biggest benefactor. In an older game, his less-than-elite lateral quickness might not have allowed him to develop passing lanes for his teammates. But Canada's best athlete without a hockey stick was responsible for Mike D'Antoni's huge Knicks contract, Amar'e Stoudemire's huge Knicks contract, and oh crap I need to stop writing.

When the Suns fell out of the NBA contender pool, Nash never demanded a trade like Carmelo Anthony. He never sulked to the point of stealing his owner's money like Vince Carter. He continued to play at an extremely high level, showing no mercy for Father Time or for his own ring-less fingers. The fans appreciated this. Nash became the face of Phoenix without getting to the Finals like Charles Barkley did, and without a signature iconic moment that Kevin Johnson had:

Nash made everybody around him better. He made his teammates so good that "making everybody around him better" has become such a cliche when talking about Nash. We talk about it so much that we criticize Russell Westbrook for being the most athletic basketball player in the world. Nash made his teammates so good that he's directly responsible for Shawn Marion thinking he could carry a team, for Quentin Richardson nabbing Brandy, and for showing Jared Dudley how good Dudley could have been at Boston College if he had a proper diet. Only one of those things is false. Nash is that good. He should get commission on Joe Johnson's maximum contract. He should benefit from any income-producing asset owned by Robert Sarver.

And...he's gone.

Life after Nash.

The Phoenix Suns will just be another failing basketball team. They are a team of role players now, their talents forced to regress to the mean without their captain to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Taking Nash's place will be up-and-coming point guard Goran Dragic, who played for the Houston Moreys last year. Dragic is actually one of my picks to have a breakout season, but that's only 30% due to his talent, and 70% due to the fact that the Suns will have very few alternatives on offense.

And that's where the fans come in. They've been treated to such greatness that they won't get mad when this year's edition misses the playoffs, when San Antonio comes into town on the tail end of a back to back and destroys them while Tim Duncan rests, or when Marcin Gortat attempts to execute a post move. They don't troll community message boards like Portland fans, they won't be fake like Miami fans, and they're not as depressed as Sacramento fans. If Nash helps Kobe Bryant get #6, they will cheer, cry, and wonder what could have been if D'Antoni ever preached defense.

They've learned. You know how you can see it? Because they didn't jeer the first round draft selection of North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall when the team still had hopes of re-signing its current quarterback. When we said that Nash made those around him better, we didn't realize that his impact extended to the Phoenix faithful. They're a better base because Stephen John Nash spent some time in the Arizona desert. You can't ask for more than that.

Best-case scenario: The upstart young suns find that life post-Nash isn't that bad after all. Goran Dragic takes one of the last All-Star spots by showing that he's not just a dynamic scorer, but a facilitator as well. The rest of Phoenix's discarded pieces--Scola, Beasley and Johnson chief amongst them--finds the chips on their shoulders as the best motivation for playing at near career-best levels. As usual, the Suns aren't playing any defense (nor should they, seeing as they don't have the right pieces to do so), but they're lighting it up with nearly 115 points a night behind the tandem of Dragic and the ROY candidate Marshall. They surprise everyone with a fifth seed in the Western Conference's postseason bracket. It's the first year of rebuilding for the Suns and damn, does it look like a solid foundation. 

Absolute Apocalypse: Dragic is still a great penetrator and scorer, but not the leader this team needs. Without a facilitator on offense, Scola, Beasley and Johnson showed why their previous squads let them go, some more happily than others. The Suns try to cobble together a team defense that fails night after night, to the detriment of their offense and the fan's attention span. The young Suns can't score and they can't defend. They're one of the worst teams in the league but worst of all, it seems like Morris, Gortat and Marshall aren't the right pieces to begin a full-scale rebuild. This all happens as the Lakers win title #17, saddling the Suns with draft picks in the late 20's and a bucketful of tears. 

Expected Finish: 4th in the Pacific Division, 13th in the Western Conference


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