We have not seen enough of this from Hakim this season. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

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We have not seen enough of this from Hakim this season. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

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Underperforming really mucks. They may not be "best laid" plans, but they were plans nonetheless. And each one of them has been mucked up.

For the purpose of this article, let's not question the reasoning behind these plans anymore. That's been done to death. Let's just focus on how they got mucked up by circumstance and injury and simple underperformance, and how the Suns' front office has reacted to that.

Coming into the season, Phoenix Suns fans, coaches, players and management expected/hoped for (among others) four big things to happen:

  1. Robin Lopez would play at near all-star level (per Dudley)
  2. Josh Childress would provide defense on the wing
  3. Hedo Turkoglu would provide a quality secondary playmaker to Nash
  4. Hakim Warrick would provide more than half the lost Amare production (ie. more than 10 and 4), with no cost on the defensive end. 

Robin Lopez was supposed to provide a strong presence in the paint. In offseason rankings posts, Lopez regularly made it into the top 20 of any list of NBA centers. When healthy, he showed last season that he can score on offense in a variety of ways while providing strong post presence and deterrant to dribble-penetrating guards. Jared Dudley even went so far as to say the Suns needed Lopez to play at "near all-star level". He would never have said that if he didn't think it was possible.

Josh Childress was supposed to reprise his defensive and all-everything reputation from his Atlanta days, coupled with wisdom and BBall IQ from playing on a top-level Euro team (Olympiakos) the last two years. He was supposed to be a candidate for best offseason signing.

Neither of those two things happened. And, not surprisingly, the Suns struggled. In fact, they have struggled so much that the Suns front office could wait no longer for those necessary ingredients and acquired their replacements in December.

Strong inside presence? Enter Marcin Gortat.

Pesky wing defender who can make 3s? Enter Mikael Pietrus.

But it's not that easy, is it? To get these guys, the Suns had to give up a recent fan fave in SG Jason Richardson. Logically speaking, they traded Richardson for Carter + 3 mil (roughly equal contracts), then Hedo for Gortat and Pietrus, and Clark for nothing.

I love the trade. Gortat is healthy, and provides a great 1-2 punch with a healthy Lopez at C. Pietrus and Childress are different (maybe complementary?) players offensively, while potentially providing solid defense in tandem on the wing.

But if Lopez and Childress had lived up to their expectations, this trade would never have happened.

Lopez was clearly not producing and seems to be anchored to the floor indefinitely. Even worse, he seems mentally affected by his lack of athleticism and isn't even maxing out what he can currently offer.

Childress broke the tip of his right, middle finger on a dunk attempt in the last preseason game. This was really, really, really unfortunate because his entire game is predicated on dunks, putbacks, rebounds and steals. All things that require hands. Strong, unbroken hands. As a result, his dunks have been soft and tenuous, and he's tried and failed to develop left-handed hooks and layups.

To top it off, Childress' feet (on defense) have been much heavier than advertised or expected. In the first two months, he got regularly beat on dribble-drives, completely confounding Gentry and teammates.

It may be that Lopez and Childress, when they physically recover 100%, their "game" will recover as well. In that case, those are two great assets to have on any team.

But in the meantime, the Suns couldn't wait around.

Enter Gortat and Pietrus. So far, not so good in the W-L column. The Suns are 1-4 with these two guys getting about 50-55 minutes a night, primarily at the expense of Lopez, Childress and Hakim Warrick's time.

These two have definitely produced, but not enough to offset the reduced effectiveness of the starting SG (Carter, for Richardson) and the inexplicably poor play by many of the remaining Suns players since the trade. Grant's shot has disappeared, probably due to the banging he's enduring at the PF spot. Frye's shot has disappeared too, though his shot attempts haven't changed a whole lot.

A third hope/expectation coming out of the offseason was that Hedo Turkoglu and Steve Nash could effectively co-exist in the same lineup. We all know that flamed out. It's not because Hedo is a poor player (he's proven that in Orlando since the trade) or that Nash is prickly and selfish (of COURSE that's not true), it's just that this wasn't a marriage made in heaven.

A fourth hope/expectation coming out of the offseason was that Hakim Warrick could provide more than half of what Amare provided on offense and rebounding, and be at least comparable on defense. Warrick did the first part, but was gawdawful at the latter (defense) to the point where he stood out as the worst defensive player on the league's worst defensive squad. Ugh.

On top of that, Warrick failed to replace Amare in two other areas that had not been uttered as necessary. 

Where Amare was consistent - providing the same 21 and 8 nearly every night - Hakim Warrick is the model of inconsistency. One night, he'll get 10 points in 20 minutes. The next, 2 points in the same minutes. The net result matches his careeer average, but that's just not good enough.

The only area in which Warrick is fairly consistent? Passivity. Where Amare was aggressive and often set the tone on offense, Warrick is passive and requires an open lane to the basket in order to effectively reprise the pick-n-roll game. Otherwise, he disappears.

 

In summary

In summary, there are 4 areas where the Suns expected/hoped for a certain outcome this season to offset the losses of Lou, Amare and LB, only to watch none of them come to fruition in the first 8 weeks of the season. The first two were mostly injury-related, but still. Complete failure.

The Suns' front office, to their credit, hit the reset button. They acquired 2 pieces to effectively fill the gaps of expectations/hopes #1 and #2, while jettisoning expectation/hope #3 entirely. The cost? A marginally less effective (yet much more hated) starting SG. Not bad, really.

So, guess what's next on the Suns' front office agenda?

Likely to find someone to fill expectation/hope #4. We all know they are floundering at PF. Maybe Warrick gets another shot someday. The Suns would certainly prefer not to make another trade if they could avoid it. Warrick has the tools to be effective enough, and in the right scheme can be downright good. But if he wants another shot, and he wants to stick in the lineup, he's gonna have to be consistent night in, night out. And he needs to be aggressive night in, night out.

Or, maybe the front office hits the reset button again. The Suns cannot afford to ride out the season without a new answer at the PF position, and they've already shown a willingness to find answers.


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PHOENIX — Early Tuesday morning fellow Valley of the Suns contributor Mike Schmitz listed out his reasons for Phoenix’s lack of success in game-deciding scenarios. One point made was that...

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The Suns faced a similar decision around this time last season with Amare Stoudemire. The team went 14-18 over a 32-game stretch from December to January before turning things around. Had they not started playing well in early February, it's highly likely that Stoudemire would have been traded at the deadline.

The same is probably true of Nash now.


Alvin Gentry was either unsure or being coy (or perhaps both) when he was asked today about playing a bigger lineup against the Monsters of the La-La Land when the Phoenix Suns invite the traveling circus / Phil Jackson - Kobe Bryant Show / Los Angeles Lakers into town tomorrow. Perhaps fittingly, the USAC hosted a WWE event last night so the arena is totally prepared for the Lakers song and dance on Wednesday.

"I do think there's a possibility we could go with a bigger lineup," Gentry allowed, but...there's always a but...

Asked specifically about playing Gortat and Lopez together and how they would clog things up, Gentry said there would be a lot of screeners out there.

I guess you could see those guys running a "Horns High" set with both Gortat and Lopez stationed at either side of the free throw line giving the ball handler the option of using either screen. The Suns ran that set with Amare and Robin a lot last year but of course back then if Nash used the Lopez screen and Amare's man helped off to protect the roll, Amare could float out and get an open 17 footer. Can Lopez or Gortat hit an open 17 footer? Right, I don't know either.

The point is that while Lopez and Gortat would be a nice rebounding pair (or at least the best rebounding pair the Suns can put on the court), you can only sacrifice so much offense.

"We want to get better rebounding, we want to get better defensively but the bottom line is that I've not seen a team yet win zero-zero. So you're going to have to put the ball in the basket at some stage and we need to be able to spread the floor in order to be able to do that."

See, there it is again. Spreading the floor which is why Channing Frye is still the most important Suns player right now outside of Nash. Comforting, huh.

On the Vince Carter front, I was curious to see how he thought about the end of game break downs against the Kings. Here's the full exchange:

Me: It's a little bit of old news, but yesterday Coach talked about the final five minutes of the Sacramento game and the defensive break downs. 

Vince: Yeah, that's old news, man. Let's not talk about old news. (chuckles all around)

Me: Any thoughts, anything you take away from that, anything you'd do differently next time?

VC: First and foremost of course, you get a few rebounds, you limit them a few offensive rebounds, we hit a few shots, I think that helps. Because of the shots we missed, regardless if they hit 12 of 14, scored 12 of 14 possessions, if we're scoring as well, we still have a lead. You see what I'm saying?

It was a little bit of both. I think we lost our composure, lost our defensive edge, and they just took advantage of it. A team like that, particularly a young team, if you give them confidence and they believe, in the fourth quarter, they're like, 'hey, we're right there,' anything can happen. I think that's what happened. We were trying our best, we were still fighting but you can see it in the way they were playing in that last stretch, in particular the last two minutes. They were just scrapping, fighting for loose balls, hitting and-1 shots falling down, I mean it was all going against us after awhile.

Me: Is this a team that culturally when you sit down and watch that film, are guys getting called out by name?

VC: No. My opinion you don't accomplish anything like that. It's like, 'what we didn't do.' It's not one play or anything like that.

For myself, I kick my self, I was a step or two off of Casspi on that three. Yeah, he shot it from a couple feet behind (the line) but if I'm a little closer then maybe he doesn't shoot that shot and if he did, maybe he doesn't make it because of my hand is a little closer in his face or what not. 

We had defensive break downs but all in all we still have to defend, we still have to rebound, and I think the offensive rebounds more than anything is what killed us because they were getting second opportunities if they did miss on top of us going down there and not making any shots. I think we scored two points in the last five minutes if I'm not mistaken.  So there again, a 17-2 run, not that I'm a coach and know these things, but 17-2 in the last five minutes you're not going to win many games unless you're up 25, which we weren't.

That's the full discussion on that. Make you own judgment. 

Vince is a confident guy. No questioning that. He's not afraid to fail as he said when asked about being a "go-to" guy in response to Gentry's comment's yesterday

"I'm not afraid to fail. I think that's the biggest thing being in that position when a coach has the confidence in you and the team has confidence in you. You can't be afraid to fail. You can't be afraid to take the shot," Carter said.

There's a lot more talk from Vince about staying positive and the overall attitude of the Suns staying positive even after the tough loss. He kind of went on a little mini-motivator speech about the power of positivity. 

Here's the full audio. It's kind of long with the motivation speech part coming in the final few minutes.

Audio: Vince Carter practice 010411


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