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The Suns were unconventional, and it worked. It could hardly have worked any better, in fact, taking them from 29 wins to 62 in a year and stamping them as annual contenders for the title. In the two seasons that Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion played together, Phoenix won over 60 games and lost to the eventual champion in the playoffs; in each case a key player missed time in the playoff series. The other season of the Mike D'Antoni era, the Suns were missing Stoudemire and still made the conference finals.
W-L: 55-27 (Pythagorean W-L: 56-26)
Offensive Efficiency: 111.2 (1st)
Defensive Efficiency: 104.9 (16th)
Pace Factor: 99.0 (4th)
Highest PER: Amare Stoudemire (27.61)
But the Suns fell short of the championship that would have stamped their approach as a total and unqualified success. And because of that, many people came to a different conclusion, including the ones who ran the Suns. Somehow, a narrative developed that D'Antoni's stuff doesn't work in the postseason -- never mind the injuries and suspensions and whatnot -- and that Phoenix couldn't win unless it became more like the other guys.
What a shame.
The Suns won precisely because they weren't like the other guys, and for nearly two-thirds of the 2007-08 season they kept proving it. Phoenix's system blistered the NBA with its pace and precision, just as it had done for the previous three. With D'Antoni loosely directing things, Nash improvising and Stoudemire and Marion finishing, the Suns were a monster.
Maybe they weren't quite as imposing as they'd been at times in previous seasons, and maybe it wasn't as fun now that the novelty had worn off. But the fact was they were leading the league in offensive efficiency for a fourth year in a row -- at the All-Star break they were nearly two full points ahead of second-place Utah. They also were in first place in the West, at 34-15.
But in the front office, the Suns had been pushing for change ever since Steve Kerr took over as team president from Bryan Colangelo. Kerr had itched to remake the team in the more conventional image of his former club, San Antonio, and that itch probably grew only stronger when the Spurs beat his club in six tough games in the 2007 playoffs.
The embodiment of that desire came in the form of a midseason trade for Shaquille O'Neal, one that sent out Marion and Marcus Banks. With Shaq struggling in Miami and having two years and $40 million remaining on his contract after the 2007-08 season, it seemed inconceivable that the Suns would offer an All-Star forward and not require any additional considerations in the form of draft picks or prospects.
But that's just what they did, in a swap that seemed more an act of faith than a rational approach to improving the team. It was one of several disturbing episodes involving Kerr in his new position, dating back to a preseason trade that sent Kurt Thomas and two unprotected draft picks to Seattle -- an awfully heavy price just to get the team under the luxury tax.
The Shaq trade didn't quite ruin Phoenix's season, but it wasn't helpful. After the All-Star break a slower, more predictable Suns team went 18-11 and bowed out in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Despite an insanely good second half from Stoudemire, overall the Suns declined to fourth in offensive efficiency after the break.
Shaq's impact wasn't all negative -- he improved the Suns' rebounding and likely helped Stoudemire to blow up the way he did down the stretch. But the loss of an All-Star small forward was simply too great to overcome on the court, regardless of how the Suns might have felt about Marion's issues in the locker room.
For the year, the Suns' offensive numbers were still insanely good. Phoenix led the league in 2-point percentage, 3-point percentage, overall field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, an impressive quadruple crown (see chart). The Suns led in offensive efficiency too, as you might have guessed -- they've done it every year since Nash and D'Antoni joined forces.
|Offensive Efficiency Leaders, 2007-08|
|TEAM||2-PT %||3-PT %||TS%||OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY|
At the defensive end, Phoenix didn't beat itself -- the Suns rarely fouled and didn't give up many 3-pointers. But they didn't beat the other guys either, as they were the easiest team in the league to get shots up against. Phoenix ranked 29th in defensive rebounding, which was one reason it dealt for Shaq, and forced turnovers on only 13.4 percent of opponent possessions, placing them 28th. As a result, the Suns were the only team to allow at least one shot per possession (see chart).
|Most Shots Allowed Per Possession, 2007-08|
|TEAM||DEF. REBOUND RATE||OPP. TURNOVER RATE||OPP. SHOTS* PER POSSESSION|
|* -- Shots = FGA + (FTA * 0.44)|
So after the season, Kerr led the Suns on another hard turn toward the conventional by changing coaches. The Suns didn't exactly fire D'Antoni but they gave him permission to look for other jobs, and didn't stand in his way when the Knicks offered him a big-money deal.
This was another mistake, unfortunately. New coach Terry Porter will be asked to focus on defense, play more station-to-station basketball, and generally make more mediocre what had been one of the most amazing things to happen in basketball in the past three decades. But because that system didn't fit the preconceived notion of what good teams do, and because it didn't produce a championship (which somehow becomes the standard of success for this type of thing, as though winning 60 every season is chopped liver), the Suns trashed it anyway.
Instead, they'll win fewer games with a more ordinary style. But at least they won't get criticized.
|What roster moves did the Suns make over the summer? Were they the right moves? John Hollinger breaks it down. Insider|
He has two fantastic shooters alternating at shooting guard in Raja Bell and Leandro Barbosa. Bell hit 40.1 percent from downtown last season; Barbosa "only" 38.9 percent, a big drop from his 43.4 percent a season earlier. Barnes had an off year in Golden State himself but shot 36.6 percent on 3s in 2006-07.
Joining them in the mix are Stoudemire and Hill, who aren't 3-point shooters but are still outside threats. Stoudemire in particular has evolved into one of the best midrange shooters in the league, while Hill is also solid from that distance.
Two factors make the age issue particularly worrisome. The first is a lack of depth. Phoenix is already counting on two rookies to play significant minutes, and that presumes everyone is healthy; if the Suns have to dig much deeper the drop-off will be severe.
Second is the concentration of the age problems in the backcourt. Barbosa and Dragic are the Suns' only young perimeter players; even newly acquired Barnes is no spring chicken. If you look at teams that have collapsed suddenly, age in the backcourt has often been a main reason -- when guards lose it, they don't have a size advantage to fall back on, so the descent can be breathtakingly fast. That's a potentially major pitfall for Phoenix.
Unfortunately, major cracks are appearing elsewhere in the foundation. The age problems on the wings are a concern, especially if Hill breaks down, while the dependence on rookies Lopez and Dragic is worrisome given their limited production in their last stops.
Additionally, there's the great unknown of how much D'Antoni's system was part of the Suns' success, and to what extent deviating from that toward a more traditional style will impact the team.
All told, this is a team that could stay among the West's upper crust if everyone stays healthy and nobody loses much to age. More likely, however, is that at least one of the veterans will slip badly, and that injuries to the likes of O'Neal and Hill will rear their heads at inopportune times. In the end this looks like a playoff team, but not one I'd expect to be playing beyond April.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.