The Phoenix Suns under new (old) coach Alvin Gentry literally pulled out the 06-07 playbook and have gone back to their running and gunning ways. I have argued in these pages that this Suns squad is not constructed to maximize that system and there are flaws that will be exposed in the final weeks of the season.
This begs the question, can a run and gun team win the Larry O'Brien trophy and what would it take to get there? I believe it is possible to win playing this way but like any winning system it takes time to assemble the right pieces and that takes an unwavering commitment from the top.
The Suns over the past year have not shown that consistency of vision and as a result have ended up in no-man's-land. It is yet to be seen if a return to the old style will, in fact, rejuvenate the team as indicated by the three 140-point blowout victories, or if the 20-point loss to the Celtics is more indicative of what's to come.
One thing is certain: this off-season, the Suns will have a decision to make about what direction they are going and hopefully will stick with it for longer than 51 games.
History points us in the direction of winning teams and, while most have played a traditional style on the court, all have been consistent and patient in building their teams over time.
Know who you are and who you want to be
No team is perfectly built for the system they want to run and the good teams adapt their systems for their best players. All the great teams though have a philosophy and they know what their vision of perfection is and every roster move they make is driven by that. They may never reach roster nirvana but they are not distracted from their course and they avoid long-term and/or very large contracts for players that don't fit.
Some notable examples are Cleveland, San Antonio and the LA Lakers. All of these successful teams had a clear vision and a single-minded determination to build their team to reach it. They were also patient, something the Suns have not been over the past 5 years.
Jim Collins, one of my favorite strategy gurus, calls it the BHAG, which stands for Big Hairy Audacious Goal (and who said strategy gurus don't have a sense of humor).
The basic idea, like most great ideas, is very simple. Define your version of perfection and always be driving towards it. You may not reach it any time soon. You might zig and zag a little bit but if you understand what your white whale in the distance looks like, you won't get distracted by huge balls of yarn along the way.
The perfect run and gun roster
After this season, the Suns leadership has a big decision to make. They must finally decide what kind of team they want to be. The run and gun can win and is certainly the most fan-friendly style of basketball. But like all the other great teams, it takes commitment and consistency.
For example, if the Suns in this past off-season were committed to playing the way they have been since Terry Porter's dismissal, they should have drafted Mario Chalmers or Marreese Speights and not Robin Lopez.
I don't know if going "all in" on the run and gun is the right move. I have my doubts, given Steve Nash's age and contract. If the Suns do choose this direction this is what would their BHAG might look like:
Point Guard - It all starts with the point guard and we've been fortunate to have one of the best ever in this system. A running team must have a great point guard to keep the offense flowing and push the ball. Speed, passing, shooting. All of it.
Given that this is the most important position in an up tempo style, you must also have a very good backup -- someone like a Beno Udrih, who has struggled as a starter but would have been a very good back-up in Phoenix.
The dependence on the point guard to run the attack and wreck havoc on the defense is both a key component and a vulnerability of this system. When the PG goes down, the system grinds to a halt.
The Suns are at a critical juncture with this position. Steve Nash has a player option for next season which he is likely to exercise, but the ball is in his court. He could decide to move on as a free agent or he could opt out and re-sign in Phoenix for less money, giving the team more flexibility to bring in a back-up.
If he chooses the likely route and stays on his current contract, the Suns will have to seriously consider moving team and fan favorite Leandro Barbosa in order to cut salary. Leandro is a great player, but not a great point guard. Rookie Goran Dragic might surprise us and prove ready for the role next season but there's been little evidence of that so far.
I like that he's finally getting consistent minutes under Gentry so he can gain the experience he needs and the team can learn more about what they have.
Wings - At the NBA level, this is the easiest position to fill and create depth. Unless you are fortunate enough to have a top player at this position like Kobe, Melo or D-Wade, I do not like seeing teams allocate max salaries to shooting guards and small forwards.
In the run and gun, these are the positions where you need solid perimeter defenders who can hit a spot-up three. A mix of guys like Mickael Pietrus, Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon and Rudy Fernandez make for great depth and, if possible, you also look for a pure scoring guard like Leandro Barbosa or Jerryd Bayless who can run like the wind and be that extra spark in the open court.
You only need one "star" caliber player, such as a Joe Johnson or Richard Jefferson on your roster on the wing. A perfect pairing would have one lock-down defender in the starting rotation with a great scorer who can create his own shot in isolation. Too many shooters and you lose your defensive effort.
Barbosa and Richardson are both under contract for several more years and Grant Hill has signaled his intent to return (although I would suspect that he might not if Shaq gets moved). As we've discussed, there is simply not enough money to go around for Nash, Amare, Shaq, Barbosa and Richardson. Those 5 guys alone combine for $70m which is about where the luxury tax line is expected to be, which leaves nothing for the other 8 players the team will need to sign and stay under the tax line.
One of those five will be not be a Sun next season and Barbosa's contract is by far the most tradable and, since he and Richardson play the same position, it is safe to assume one of those two won't be back -- if the Suns keep Amare, Shaq and Nash, that is.
Power Forward / Center - In your big men, you need a combination of guys that can all run the floor and finish but also some that can step out and shoot and some that can rebound, block shots and give you some low post offense.
The key again is a mix of a defensive and offensive players together at the PF / C position. One should be a great rebounder that can score on put backs like Andris Biedrins, while the other is a big that can spread the floor a bit like LaMarcus Aldridge.
It goes without saying that Shaq is not a good fit in this system. There is an attempt to spin this otherwise but he simply will not be able to maintain an effective level of play at the pace the Suns are currently running. I suspect we will be hearing from him soon enough on this topic.
Obviously, the decision to extend and build the front court around Amare or trade him to the highest bidder is going to be the number one topic of conversation this summer. I don't see this decision as much about the system as about Amare himself. I won't rehash all the arguments here, but Amare is a guy that is a proven fit in the up tempo system. If you could extend him for a reasonable salary so that you have enough cap space for other great players, then you do it. If he demands the max (as he likely will), you really are left with a dilemma.
If the Suns end up keeping Amare for the long term, then the next big man decision is key. There is still hope that Robin Lopez can grow into that guy. He has good size, defensive quickness, a great nose for shot blocking and he can score in the paint. He is young and raw and needs floor time.
Unlike Dragic, the Suns aren't giving Lopez the minutes now he needs to develop his game. Given how important this position is going to be for the future of the Suns, he should be getting more of the minutes that are going to Barnes, Dudley and Amundson.
Depth and Defense - The run and gun is designed to put up big numbers and tire the opponent into taking poor shots. It will work in the play-offs when the game slows but only if there is enough balance, depth and size on the roster to keep up the pace and if guys are able and willing to play defense.
Offense is the best defense is fine but offense can't be the only defense.
Superstars - All championship teams have superstars but there are only so many of those to go around. The Suns were fortunate to have both Nash and Amare, and surrounded them with a lot of talent.
The Suns biggest shortcomings were the lack of a back-up PG and a mobile defensive center. As close as the Suns came to winning it all, those few pieces would have pushed them over the hump.
Moving forward, who is that next superstar going to be? After 2010 when Nash and Shaq are projected to be gone, that remains a very open question.
The Suns' next moves - The specifics of the individual moves are less important than the big decision this team must make. One would hope that soon after the season, the "head shed' will meet around the pool and make a long term commitment to what direction they are going. Every move from that point forward should come from that.
This is an important off-season for the Suns and, while you don't want to give up on the current season while only a few games out of the money, it is not too soon to be thinking about what comes next. Great leaders are always looking over the horizon and using what they see and the direction they want to go to guide the day-to-day decisions.
[Note by Phoenix Stan, 02/23/09 2:49 PM MST ]
Correction: In this post I incorrectly stated that Steve Nash has a player option for next year. He in fact has a team option for the 2009/2010 season.