TexSun must already regret giving me the keys to this soapbox.
Instead of going with the traditional ranking/grading system for the mid-season report card I am going all business school up in here. I am pulling out an old tried and true acronym - the SWOT.
I am sucker for a good acronym. Maybe it's a holdover from eight years in the Army where it's a violation of the UCMJ to string three words together more then two times per year and not create an acronym. Think IED, POW and MASH.
As a business planning tool I find this one immature and generally uninspired which makes it a great fit for the NBA as pointed out daily by our friends at my two favorite sarcastic blogs: Basketbawful and Hardwood Paroxysm.
In watching the team this year what I see is an offense much better suited for the playoffs. In past years the Suns had to run and hit three's to be successful which became very difficult to sustain come playoff time. This year, the Suns half court sets in my eyes are much improved.
The Suns have destroyed teams from the outside when they try and pack it in and have also shown the ability to drive and score in the paint if the opponent decides to stay home on the Suns shooters. Remember when the Suns were the worst team in the league in free throw attempts? Now the Suns with Hill, LB and Amare are getting to the line and even more importantly are able to draw fouls late in close games.
Here's two strong examples of this improved half court offense:
Nash playing off the ball. The Suns often run the offense through Diaw or Hill with Nash on the floor playing off the ball. I think this is designed to counter what the Spurs did in limiting Nash with Bowen. If teams put their best defender (usually a tall SG or SF) on Nash he can just camp outside and space the floor while Grant or Boris (often covered by a smaller guard) runs the pick and roll with Amare or otherwise creates a good look. And if the D collapses you now have the MVP wide open for a three point shot. Witness the recent Bucks and Cavs games.
The three-man game. They don't run it often but when the Suns really need a hoop they have added in the three man game with either Diaw getting open and then dishing to Amare for the finish (see second to last play from last night's Cavs game) or with Marion near the rim to finish on his own. This is all designed to counter how teams have adjusted to the Nash/Amare pick and roll and provides a higher percentage option then kicking it out for an open J. Watch for it. It's a thing of beauty if you like precision basketball. I suspect the Suns are saving this one for the playoffs so teams can't scout it too heavily. Oops. I hope I didn't give anything away!
Add in Grant Hill and his mid-range and slashing game and this is a Suns team that is a nightmare to defend.
I'm not going to run through the roster here but clearly the standouts are the addition of Grant Hill, Nash's continued MVP caliber play (stats are up, minutes are down), and the continued development of Amare's game. Barbosa has shown improvement in his offensive game and is much more under control then in past years and Bell is returning to form. As we have seen this year, on any given night the Suns have at least 5 guys that can score over 25 and can carry the team for stretches. Say what you will about the lack of size, rebounding and defense - this is the most balanced and potent offensive team I have seen since Showtime Lakers and much better then the past two years despite being a tad bit slower (ranked 5th in pace vs. 1st in 05-06 and 3rd last year).
No surprise here. Defense and rebounding continue to be the Suns weakness. I think I am just going to paraphrase Coach D and say that with the Suns smaller line ups they have to play harder on D and work more on the glass to keep up. When they do, they have shown the ability to get stops and if not control the glass at least for stretches of a game they can keep things even enough for the offense to take over.
The biggest defensive lapses seem to be around communication. Guys aren't on the same page on who's switching, if they are going under or over a screen or how they are going to defend a pick and roll. It's definitely frustrating to watch the stupid mistakes that are still being made.
The Suns are never going to lock teams up for 48 minutes but this year they have proven that they have the ability with the right level of effort to get stops at key moments. If they can bring that effort consistently at least early and late in games the numbers will improve.
Amare's defense and rebounding gets a lot of flack and often from me. He has improved his weak side help and his blocks are way up. I also think his on the ball post defense is improving as the year progresses. He is doing better about working his man before the pass and forcing him out and denying the ball. There's obviously still room to improve. The biggest hole in Amare's defense though in on the pick and roll. Too many times he's caught in between trapping the ball hard enough to deny the pass or staying with the rolling big man. The result is a lot of wide open lobs and dunks. I have seen Amare do well at times but he clearly needs more work. A big test of this comes on Feb 6th against the Hornets.
Barbosa has simply not developed into a passing point guard. He's probably only the 6th best passer on the team behind even Bell and Marion. But when he's playing off the ball and finishing shots that Nash, Diaw or Hill create for him he's great. When he's trying to be AI or Kobe then the team suffers. LB should not have the most attempts for this team and he still does although the gap is closing over the past few weeks.
Diaw is by far the most frustrating Suns player. He does so much for the team but can disappear faster then a French pastry at frat house brunch. I have no idea what makes this guy tick but if he plays it's a huge lift to the team. If he disappears the Suns can really struggle. I do think he's improved since late December and despite a few MIA performances is generally headed in the right direction. Fingers crossed that we get the Full French at least in a few key playoff games.
OPPORTUNITIES and THREATS
These two areas typically are external while the S and W are internal. So, in the interest of keeping this smaller then a Tolstoy novel, I am combining the two.
On the threat side we have the rise of the Blazers, Hornets, Lakers and Warriors. All teams who have played very well so far this year. The Mav and Spurs will be right there as well despite some possible signs of drop off.
Here's the good news about those new comers. They are new comers.
Aside from the Lakers anyway who seem to be hitting their mid season injury point right on schedule. Maybe they need more yoga? At this point they are teetering on the edge with a tough schedule and the wonderful choice of starting either Mbenga or Kwame. I don't think they will be able to challenge for the Pacific but if they get healthy and back on track this is a seriously dangerous playoff team.
I think the Blazers will hit the wall and end up with a 7th or 8th seed at best and not make it out of the first round. Too young. The Hornets are a solid team with two decent bigs, good shooting and CP3. They are very thin though and I don't think would pose a playoff problem for the Suns.
You never know with the Warriors and for them they should be hoping for the Suns in the first round. Or Dallas. Their defense is worse then the Suns and they are even smaller then we are. All of our weaknesses are magnified in GSW. I just don't see them winning without a dominate big man like we have in Amare.
Here's my shocker pick of the year. I think that the Spurs might just be slowing down. The other night against the Lakers they started Berry, Finley, Bowen and Parker next to TD. That's not exactly the twin towers. They won that game but had to come from behind and the Laker's never play well in SA and they were without Bynum and Ariza to guard Manu. We will see the Spurs at home on the 31st and hopefully this time they will be at full strength.
My gut says that they don't make it to the WCF this year. I think its going to be the Suns and Mavs. Right now with the way the Mavs are playing (not playing) D I like our chances. Both teams still have some time to improve though.