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You dunk that ball, Earl! Yeah! (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
After what many considered to be one of the worst stretches of defensive basketball ever played by the Phoenix Suns, Alvin Gentry had had enough. He was "pissed off" at the team's lack of effort and concentration on defense, and it was time for a change. The team held consecutive practices for the first time in around three weeks, and there were two words were tossed around more than a Magikarp card at a Pokémon convention in 1997. These two words were, of course, defense and rebounding.
With the first game back from their duo of grueling practices, the Suns faced a team that would challenge both of those areas: the Golden State Warriors. With Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis being two capable dribble pentration slashers and Andris Biedrins and David Lee known for their rebounding prowess, the Suns had quite the progress test ahead of them. What did the Suns do? They went and outrebounded the Warriors en route to a much needed victory. On the road. Monta Ellis still went off, but the defensive pressure was there.
The very next night, the Suns returned home and faced a Pacers team with multiple quality wins in the early season. The Suns went on to fight their tired legs and put away the Pacers in a fourth quarter push that put them on top. Oh, and they held Danny Granger to 2-13 shooting and held Granger and Roy Hibbert to a combined 16 points. Not bad, considering where they had come from.
Tonight, the Suns will face yet another challenge, this time in the form of a potential Rookie of the Year candidate: John Wall.
John Wall. Two words that have been on everyone's tongues for years. Wall has been one of the most highly touted prospects entering the draft since LeBron James, and for good reason. The dougie-dancing player has already put up some incredible highlights in his young NBA career. Fortunately for the Suns, Wall is just shaking the rust off a couple injuries that kept him sidelined for 6 of the past 10 games.
Wall started and played 40 minutes in a win over the Blazers a few nights ago, but shot only 3-13 from the field with 4 rebounds and a season-low 2 assists. While the 40 minutes were an encouraging sign for the Wizards, the Suns need to look to take advantage of the possibly-ailing youngster. The Wizards are another team like Golden State. John Wall can drive and dish (or finish) better than most. Nick Young, while inconsistent, is an explosive athlete who can go off for 20 on any given night...or give you a complete dud. Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee are athletic rebounders with a hard nose for the ball - the type of players that usually give the Suns fits.
However, with the Suns needing to shake off their early season struggles and the Wizards wanting to try and forget about last year's drama, these are both teams that will be hungry for a win. Hold on to your seats, folks; we could be in for a wild ride.
Starting Lineups and Matchups
PG: Steve Nash / John Wall
PF: Earl Barron / Andray Blatche
C: Channing Frye / JaVale McGee
The matchups I'm looking forward to most are between the big men. Channing Frye is hot off his highest scoring output of the season against the Pacers, and Earl Barron is making the case for himself with his hustle, rebounding and overall aggressive play. Meanwhile, on the Washington side of things, Andray Blatche is coming off one of his better performances of the season and JaVale McGee is battling a back injury.
Neither of the Suns players are really going to punish the Wizards bigs on offense. Channing might get hot with the semi-hobbled (but still productive) McGee covering him, but what I'm looking at is playing big on the defensive end. Frye has been quietly solid on the defensive/rebounding side of things and Barron, well, that's the whole reason he's in the starting lineup. Both McGee and Blatche have the possibility of exploding if left unguarded, so it will be up to the Suns big men to stay out of foul trouble and do work defensively.
What To Expect
Overall, I'm looking for the Suns to continue their solid defensive effort. If the trend can continue, the Suns should be able to continue winning. The Wizards, though they have talent, are still a sub-.500 team that should be beaten by a veteran team like the Suns. Then again, we've seen what taking a slumping team not seriously can do. Anyone remember the Bobcats game?
Phoenix Suns Welcome John Wall's Washington Wizards , 6:00 P.M. AZT - SB Nation Arizona
The Suns could opt to play Goran Dragic more in tandem with Steve Nash to counter the Wizards two-point guard line up when Arenas and Wall are on the floor together, but Gentry didn't seem inclined to do that
Phoenix Suns 12-Man Rotation Testing The Limits Of Gentry's Creativity - Desert Dirt - SB Nation Arizona
In the NBA it is normal for most teams to play with an eight-man rotation. Some teams play with nine or ten but it is very unusual to see a situation like the Phoenix Suns have with 11 or even 12 guys who the coach feels like he can and should be playing on a regular basis. This was a potential challenge for the Suns going into the season but has only gotten more confusing with the addition of Earl Barron to the starting lineup.
Even as the Suns struggle to begin this season, we should be encouraged by the notion that the their success last year is attributable to team chemistry, more so than individual success. The potential to redevelop and improve that chemistry is more available than a superstar player. Obviously, both chemistry and star players are needed in order to succeed in the NBA (and chemistry creates stars just as stars create chemistry), but it is rare that a contender leans more on cohesiveness and synergy than on the play of big name players as the suns did last year. As the maxim goes, the NBA is a superstar’s league.
On the court, teams need superstars as their go-to in pressure situations; off the court, teams and the league need superstars, for while winning may make a team popular in their home city, fans overseas buy jerseys for the name on the back, and it is hard to sell shoes with team chemistry. These needs combine to create a feedback loop which perpetuates the trend toward superstarism, resulting in the “big three” paradigm which is so en vogue.
However, teams that adopt the superstarism cannon as a blueprint for success expose themselves to a high risk of backfire, as demonstrated by Miami’s early season struggles and New Jersey’s disappointing summer. In the case of Miami, the problem lies in a lack of accountability. Accountability is essential to developing a team concept; Miami’s players and brass are too immature to immediately replicate the success of Boston or San Antonio big threes. There is no lack of accountability on those teams, neither within their roster nor their management.
This summer, we joked that Miami wasn’t the only team to get a big three. The Suns added Babby and Blanks to Gentry, forming a big three that made the losses of Steve Kerr and Amar’e Stoudemire that much easier to bear, right? (Yeah, right) But personally, while a piece of me died when we Amar’e departed, and losing Kerr was as baffling as it was unnerving, I was intrigued by Sarver’s initiative to develop a new management structure, and mildly impressed by the roster moves he made. However, as the day of a potential mid-season roster move approaches, I worry that the FO big three will suffer from the same issue of accountability facing Miami, but with less talent on the floor to compensate for it.
For fans, it is understandably easy to scapegoat Sarver for any FO move that is made this season. His reputation as a basketball layperson will forever stick, and, in the offseason he decided to try and fix a team that wasn’t actually broken. He made the roster moves and signings he made, and there is nobody else to hold accountable for that (though Babby seemed to be a silent partner). But Sarver owns the team, and is not going anywhere. He still wields the veto power, but he will rely on Babby, Blanks, and to some degree Gentry to develop a strategy to improve this team. The FO have to work with what they inherited: decent personnel and contracts. They have the flexibility to make a move if one is called for.
But who will take the lead, and upon whom will the blame fall if a bad move is made? With this management structure, there is much less accountability and transparency than when Kerr was the guy. From the day he accepted the job, Steve was under tremendous pressure, unfairly because he was tethered to Sarver’s short leash. He took risks, made mistakes, learned from them, and improved. Kerr kept honest and open relationships with the players and the coaching staff with whom he collaborated, and he was usually accessible to the fans media. Trust is essential to the team chemistry the Suns had last year. Chemistry was essential to their late season surge and Western Conference Playoff Berth. And it all starts from the top.
Now, the only person in the Suns hired brass that I believe has the trust of the players is Gentry. The other two heads of state have been lurking beneath the surface of this team all season. Babby resembles a shrewd politician. His answers to the few questions he’s been asked are polite, tactful, and predictable. He has been a powerful figure in Washington. He’s defended attacks on former presidents. He is under the thumb of a banker. “Team President” really is the appropriate title for this guy.
Blanks, him I don’t know much about except that he is coming in from one of the more dysfunctional front offices in the league. I can’t help but wonder if he has the title of GM only to give this team some semblance of the normal front office structure. Blanks is a specialist in talent scouting and communicating with players, we are told. Babby is a CBA expert and has been on the other side of the negotiations for much of his career. We are told that together, they will be able to have more of an impact than one GM, as they can draw from their expertise.
I hope that this experiment works, and that the Suns will emerge with a competitive advantage after the new CBA, given that is a reason for the change in FO structure. But because the Suns are a team without the superstar talent it takes to compete at a high level in the absence of the type of cohesion they had last year, it is all the more essential that this FO can hold themselves accountable. If they aren’t, the players, coaches, and fans will lost trust in them, and it is in those instances that teams panic and mistakes are made.
It will be interesting to see what this rookie front office does within the next few months. Of course, it could be said about any period since Shawn Marion’s contract year, but this season is a pivotal juncture for this franchise. They aren’t yet rebuilding, but they are thinking about the long-duree more than in recent years. If the Suns remain a middling team, the fans will demand a superstar. Their immediate needs are interior defense and and rebounding, but above all that the Suns need improved chemistry, which without a superstar available is their brightest prospect for becoming a great team.
What I’m most worried about is this front office feeling that they need to adopt the superstarism mentality in order to win and sell tickets. Remember, they weren’t in place when Sarver let Amar’e walk; had they been, maybe Amar’e would still be donning orange. The free agent market is stagnant, which will inflate the value of players at its top. The Suns have dispensable pieces, but those are not the pieces that other teams will want in exchange for a star big man. To improve this team, the obvious (but wrong) answer is to obtain a superstar player as fast as possible. That player will have to have a bigger impact than Amar’e, which is NOT realistic.
What is realistic, though, is that the Suns use their greatest asset- chemistry- to improve and become high seed playoff team, maybe with a non-blockbuster move that improves the team in the areas they need. The front office will be responsible for valuing this asset as high as I think the fans and coaches do, and as much as Kerr did last year. This is indeed a superstar’s league, and the superstar is as much a creation of the fan’s imagine as it is the creation of those in the board rooms. Chemistry is the creation of the team alone, not marketing execs, and it cannot be achieved without the dedication of every significant party in the organization. I don’t really know who these front office guys are, but I hope they individually hold themselves accountable for what happens this season. If they don’t, Babby’s underlings (Blanks, Gentry, or the players) could become fall guys for President Babby’s rookie mistakes.