- Marcin Gortat, C - It's only fitting that the most consistent and reliable big man last season for the Suns gets first mention in the analysis. Gortat was traded to the Suns just prior to mid season last year, and so far he has exceeded even the loftiest expectations in his short time on the team. He averaged 13pts, 9.3rbs, 1.3blks in 29.7min played...and shot an efficient 56% from the field while also making 73% of his free throws. The Suns will depend on not only the defensive and rebounding prowess of Gortat, but also the offensive skill set he brings if the Suns hope to compete for a playoff spot this season.
He has proven to be the most effective pick and roll partner for Nash and can also consistently sink a mid-range shot if the defense plays off of him. Not only that, but Gortat has shown the kind of drive and work ethic to continue to get better. He spent the off-season staying in shape and working on his game; and also spent time learning from arguably the most skilled center to ever play the game, Hakeem Olajuwon. His hard work and stellar play last season has some fans expecting him to push for an All-Star appearance this year...and while that's certainly not out of the question, it's more than likely that he will improve even more this season to become recognized one of the premier big men in the NBA.
- Robin Lopez, C - Before Gortat was the man in Phoenix, Lopez was regarded as a young, up-and-coming big man with a very bright future. At 7'1" (even without the hair) 260 lbs, Lopez has the rare combination of both true center size and athletic ability as well. Heading into last season the expectations were extremely high for Robin, who had a breakout season in 2009 before suffering a herniated disc that caused him to miss the end of the regular season and most of the post season as well. The herniated disc pinched the sciatic nerve going down his right leg causing inflammation, pain, and weakness. After rehabilitating his back and body during the 2010 off-season and being cleared to return to the court, the organization, the players, and the fans alike were hopeful that Robin would pick up where he left off and be the dominant, young big-man he had shown the promise of becoming. However, that never happened. Robin seemed to have lost the explosiveness, quickness, and bounce that once set him apart from other big men that size. Robin also suffered a foot and a knee injury as well...When he returned he looked clumsy and slow on the court, and the physical setback also seemed to take a toll on his psyche as well...He lost his self-confidence and seemed withdrawn mentally and emotionally. Gortat replaced Robin in the starting line-up and Lopez continued his descent as his minutes declined. it seemed that the front office had given up on him and the likelihood of a trade became an almost certainty.
If there is any bright-side to the NBA lockout and the shortened season this year, Robin Lopez might have found it. During the eight month hiatus from the NBA, Robin had time to let his body fully heal and continue strengthening his body. He stayed in shape and practiced regularly and also paid his way to Houston to train with Hakeem Olajuwon. By all reports, the rest and rehabilitation combined with his off-season training have seem to pay off in a big way. Lopez has drawn praise from the coaching staff and the players alike who have been very impressed with his progress so far in training camp. Everyone seems to notice that his explosiveness and athleticism is back. Not only that but his mood and emotional state seems much improved as well...and for Robin, that may be just as important to a successful season as anything.
- Channing Frye, PF/C - Frye's unique skill set as a big man fit's the Suns' style of offense to a T. Frye is a terrific three-point shooter who is also versatile enough to play the center position as well. He hardly ever scores off a pick-and-roll, but instead uses the pick-and-pop for the majority of his points...and he's been very effective at doing so. He's a match-up nightmare that forces the opposing big men to guard all the way out to the perimeter or risk leaving him open for an uncontested three that he won't hesitate to shoot. It's a classic case of pick your poison...leave Frye uncontested and live with the three that he's scored over 40% since he's been in Phoenix, or guard the three point line and leave the defense vulnerable near the rim where Gortat, Lopez, or even a slashing wing can take advantage of the void.
The problem usually arises on the other side of the court. Frye is by no means a great rebounder or defender, and he has earned a repetition for being a finesse player instead of a guy who can bang around inside. While Frye will probably never be considered a legit inside scorer/defender, he has been working on that part of his game as well to become a more complete player. At times Frye played some fairly effective defense in the post last season, and if he can do that more consistently this season it could really pay dividends for the Suns. Not only that, but if he can continue to improve his offensive game to make the other team pay when they run at him...with a simple head fake and a drive to the rim...Frye could become even more difficult to guard and become a greater threat to score in the paint as well. Frye has already evolved his game and improved since he first came to Phoenix, and if that trend continues this season and the Suns also get consistent production from the center position, Frye and Gortat/Lopez on the floor together could be a thing of beauty.
- Markieff Morris, PF - Markieff was drafted by the Suns this year with the #13th pick overall in the first round. Considered one of the most NBA ready big men in the 2011 draft class, Markieff was the second leading scorer for the University of Kansas (behind his twin brother Marcus) averaging 13.6 ppg in 24.4 minutes a game. Markieff also led the Big 12 conference in rebounding and field goal percentage, averaging 8.3 and 58.9% a game, respectively. Although his brother Marcus Morris was considered the bigger star in college, the Suns drafted Markieff before his brother because he plays more like a true power forward unlike Marcus who is more of a small forward. Markieff is also highly touted for his defense in the paint to go along with his scoring and rebounding...areas that the Suns are looking to get better at. However, Markieff also has a little Channing Frye in him; showing the versatility to be a very effective shooter and can also step out beyond the arc where he shot an impressive 42% last year.
The Suns really seem to like what Markieff brings to the court, not only in skills but in attitude as well. If the Suns are looking for more swagger from their big men, Markieff definitely fits the bill. Before he was drafted, Morris made headlines for going after Derrick Williams from the University of Arizona saying that he's, "not as good as advertised". He didn't stop there either...referring to how Williams was rumored to be a top three draft pick, Morris said, "It’s still surprises me. What he did to Duke, he wouldn’t do that to me or my brother. I’m dead serious. He wouldn’t. At all. He’s good. But if we was to work out, I would go at him and I would be able to stop him more than people would expect, you know what I mean." Since being drafted by the Suns, Morris hasn't been shy about tooting his own horn a little either. He certainly doesn't lack for confidence, and as long as he can back it up on the court then I don't think we'll hear too many complaints. Markieff brings a toughness that the Suns are looking for from their bigs, and he definitely has all the physical attributes and the talent necessary to compete at this level. He comes ready to play, and could quite possibly become a major contributor to the team right off the bat.
- Hakim Warrick, PF (SF)? - Hakim had a few really productive games for the Suns last season, and he also had a few really bad ones. Everyone knows what Warrick does well...Dunk! He was a pretty decent pick and roll option for the second unit and his offensive output wasn't bad, but his rebounding was only average and his defense was downright disappointing. Last season, Hakim began working on his jumper more so that he could become more than a one-dimensional offensive player. He had mixed results shooting the ball last season, but in the scrimmage last week, Warrick's shot looked much smoother and more natural and he was hitting his shots with confidence. Hakim worked on his shot during the long off-season, and it seems to have paid off. This may be important for him to find his way into the rotation, because with the addition of Morris along with Frye, Hakim could find himself the odd man out at the PF spot before long.
Warrick could compete for a spot in the rotation as a hybrid PF/SF though if he has truly added a reliable jump shot to his game. He will also need to prove that he can be quick enough to guard opposing SF's, but if he can manage to do so he would create a nice match-up problem for the other team. He is tall but extremely skinny and therefore finds it difficult to guard other PF's, but he could fare much better against smaller opponents and could possibly take advantage of his size in that role. His rebounding as a PF per 36min wasn't bad at 7.6 on average, but as a SF his rebounding would be an added bonus and his length could give us an advantage. Ultimately, there's no way to know how Gentry will use Warrick this season. But it's a safe bet to expect him to see some minutes at the PF spot, especially early on. However, Hakim may have to find a way to contribute at both the PF and SF positions if he wants to remain a part of the rotation.
- Garret Siler, C - Siler came into training camp last season at 6'11" and 330 lbs. He had limited experience playing basketball; beginning in his senior year of high school before attending Augusta State University. Siler was a big, strong player, but also very raw. The Suns must have seen something they liked in him though because they signed him to a two-year non guaranteed contract and began working on refining his skills, and also his weight. Throughout last season, Siler held up his end of the bargain by working hard both on the court and with the training staff and even saw a few minutes in games during the regular season.
He took care of himself during the long off-season and entered training camp in the best shape of his professional career weighing only 290 lbs, which is 10lbs under the 300 lb weight clause the Suns have placed in his contract. He worked out in Houston with Olajuwon during the off-season, along with Gortat, and he has also worked to improve his perimeter defense and rebounding. Still, Siler is looking to crack the rotation at the center position currently occupied by Gortat and Lopez...and that will be hard to do. He probably won't dress out for many games, and if he does, his playing time will likely be limited mostly to garbage time, or in case of foul trouble or injuries. However, Siler appears ready to take on the challenge and is eager to show what he can do. He could be a surprisingly effective option as a third string center this season, and he gives the Suns added size and depth should they need it.
Summary: The front court of the Suns has improved since the start of last season. Not only will Gortat continue to be a force in the middle, he should be even more effective after playing in the offense and working on his game over the off-season. And if Lopez can return to form, this will give the Suns a very solid core in both the first and second units that will help them on both ends of the court. It probably isn't an exaggeration to say that once again, Lopez could mean the difference between making the playoffs and missing them. A healthy and efficient Lopez could make a world of difference for the Suns, and when paired with Gortat, that could be one of the most dominant center tandems in the NBA.
Channing Frye will continue to be a big part of the Suns offense as well, and if he has improved his rebounding and defense over the off-season, he could be a more complete player for us at the PF position. Add to that the addition of Markieff Morris, who is as close to being NBA ready as a rookie can be, and our PF position suddenly has size, strength, and shooting ability.
Morris should be ready to contribute right away, but Gentry will likely ease him into the game a few minutes at a time to get him comfortable playing and to see how he does at first. Until he's ready to contribute on a more consistent basis, look for Warrick to get the majority of minutes at the PF spot in the second unit. Hakim will also have to prove that he can be a positive contributor to the team if he wants to stay in the rotation...especially with the young, hungry, and talented rookie breathing down his neck.
All in all, expect the 2011/12 Suns' bigs to have a productive year. Assuming Lopez stays healthy and effective, this unit should match up well against any other in the Western Conference, including the Lakers who lost some size after the trade of Lamar Odom. It's still entirely too early to know for sure, but this unit has the makings to surprise a lot of people this season if everything goes as planned.