With five games to go and the Suns sitting in eighth place by virtue of a tiebreaker edge over the Rockets, every game left is hugely important. Wednesday's clash at home with one of the Western Conference favorites, the Oklahoma City Thunder, will go a long way towards determining whether the Suns will make it to the postseason.
Zorgon, the "proprietor and manager" of Thunder blog Welcome to Loud City, took some time to participate in a chat with me on a break from his studies in Austria as he was in Skopje, Macedonia, hoping to score tickets to their domestic league games. No, seriously, that is where he was and what he was doing. He asked questions of me about the Suns and I asked questions of him about the Thunder. We did not, however, discuss any Macedonian NBA prospects. Sorry to disappoint.
Jump it to learn more about the Suns next opponent before Wednesday's critical game.
We start with a question of Zorgon to me:
Zorgon: A lot has been made recently of Steve Nash's rumored departure to Miami after his contract with the Suns is up this season. With the future of the team in mind, would you like to see him go so the team can start a rebuild/retool, or would you like to see him stay because you believe the team still has a shot of going deep with him one or two years from now?
Ray: First of all, the Nash to Heat rumor is a fairly flimsy one. He was asked if he'd consider going there and simply didn't rule it out. The question of whether Nash should be allowed to walk has been haunting our blog for most of the past year, and I've been a proponent of keeping him, and seeing what the team can do with its cap space this coming offseason.
Zorgon: Ideally, who would you be eying with that potential cap space for a run with Nash?
Ray: Eric Gordon is a name that has been mentioned, but "ideally" is the key term because he's a restricted free agent and you'd have to guess the Hornets want to keep him. A premier power forward is what the team really needs, perhaps Josh Smith? But I don't like to speculate too much on specific players on other teams.
Ray: The conventional wisdom is that young teams who haven't yet proven their championship mettle find home court advantage more valuable in the playoffs than veteran teams do. How important is it that the Thunder beat out the Spurs for the No. 1 seed in the West?
Zorgon: I'd say extremely important. Some of the Thunder's worst losses have come away from home, and, as anybody whose been to a Thunder playoff game will tell you, the support in there is fantastic. I wouldn't really chalk it up to them being young, because most of the "immature" moments I see from them come from how they play during crunch time, and things like stupid technicals come from players you'd expect it to come from, like Perkins and Westbrook. And those mistakes have come both at home and away.
Zorgon: Robin Lopez has seen decreasing minutes and production since the 09-10 season. Would you say picking him ahead of guys like Roy Hibbert and J.J. Hickson was a total flop, or have we not seen the last of this guy?
Ray: Lopez has had an up and down career so far, but he's actually playing fairly well in a backup role this year. He'll be a restricted free agent this off-season and I'm sure he'll get offered a nice contract by someone, given the dearth of centers around the league. There are players the Suns could have picked otherwise, for sure. Wasn't Ibaka picked after him? And Hibbert, as you mentioned. Hickson has yet to make a contribution to a winning team and was cut by the Kings so the jury is still out on him. In summary, I think Lopez can be a capable, middling starting center in the league, just not sure it will be in Phoenix.
Zorgon: Ibaka and McGee were picked after him as well, yeah.
Ray: Not a McGee fan either. Amazingly low basketball IQ.
Zorgon: So, correct me if I'm wrong, are you insinuating that you'd rather have Lopez than JaVale McGee?
Ray: Haven't given this any thought until now, but I think yes. McGee will be in many more highlights, no doubt. Lopez is a big strong post defender who can run the floor. And make his FTs!
Zorgon: Oh, but the potential! The potential! Yeah, I understand.
Ray: I don't go for the sizzle as much as many fans do. DeAndre Jordan doesn't impress me as much for the same reason.
Zorgon: Nah, having seen him four times this year, I get the impression that he's the guy who benefits from all of the pressure put on Blake Griffin.
Ray: Over the last 10 games, the Thunder are only 5-5. While the losses have been to quality opponents (Clippers twice, Pacers, Heat and Grizzlies), are there any weaknesses they've exposed among the Thunder that particularly concern you?
Zorgon: Yes, there has been a lot of concern. Thunder fans are (or should be) noted as eternal optimists, always seeing the silver lining in every cloud. But with these recent losses, I've seen the same guys who were really excited about our 23 win season start having musings about our ability to finish well in the playoffs. The main problem I see is perfectly highlighted by what happened against the Clippers last night. Over the last couple of years, our offense has regressed to a 2-4 man game. Guys like Collison, Sefolosha, and Perkins don't even have plays drawn up for them anymore.
Recently we've been relying so much on Westbrook and Durant to score that our offense becomes predictable, and it's easy to put pressure on them and totally destroy the Thunder. There's minor concerns too, like Fisher throwing up too many threes, Cook getting no playing time, Harden looking malaised, but those are nothing compared to how predictable our offense has become.
Ray: Harden looking malaised? Can you elaborate?
Zorgon: Two games ago he was out with a "sore knee". The Thunder faced an outmatched Kings team that night, so it seemed like it was mainly precautionary. But when he returned the night after, he went 1-11 from the floor. Last night, he completely disappeared after the first half. It's a relatively recent problem, so I'm not making too much of it yet, but he hasn't broken 20 since March.
Ray: Wow, hadn't realized that. Harden has great support among many Phoenix fans who remember him from his time at Arizona St.
Zorgon: The Suns have a lot of players who used to be the talk of the town, but have dropped off of the NBA map. Sebastian Telfair, Michael Redd, Josh Childress, Hakim Warrick ... Are there any of these guys that have surprised you in their stints this year or shown flashes of their former ability?
Ray: Both Telfair and Redd have been primary reasons for the Suns improved bench play and that improved bench play is a key reason for the team's second half resurgence. Redd had the health concerns but the Suns training staff is known as the best in the league for good reason, and he's continued to improve as instant offense off the bench.
Telfair, meanwhile, started the season terribly. He dominated the ball when in the game and took forever to get the offense going. Plus, he couldn't make a shot. Now he looks much more comfortable and confident playing with his teammates, hitting shots and playing intense defense. He might be worth keeping around as Nash's backup after this season.
Zorgon: Who would you rather have, him or Brooks? Or both?
Ray: All things being equal, I'd rather have Brooks but Telfair is making a measly $1.5M. Brooks might command a big salary this offseason.
Zorgon: So, would you pay Brooks and risk losing a big fish in the off-season, or go cheap with Telfair and aim high?
Ray: Currently, the Thunder have major contributors James Harden and Serge Ibaka on rookie contracts, so not paid at market value, while Durant, Westbrook and Perkins are making large salaries. It appears it will be difficult to hold onto them all long-term given salary cap constraints. What do you see as the pecking order of players the team would like to keep long-term?
Zorgon: Obviously, Durant and Westbrook are at the top of the heap. Perkins seems the likely candidate for the bottom, given that his production looks terrible on paper, and he hasn't produced offensively. But in the middle, Harden and Ibaka is a toughie. Harden still has the potential to be one of the league's greatest scorers, but Ibaka has done worlds to improve over the past few seasons.
I'd go with Ibaka as 3rd, just because it's a lot easier to find a poor man's Harden than it is a poor man's Ibaka, and I don't ever see his defense getting to the point where having him and Durant on the floor together consistently would be feasible.
Ray: Well then, you can add James Harden to the list of players the Suns would like to spend their cap space on!
Zorgon: Hahahaha, don't count your chickens before they hatch. We have our ways ... (sobs quietly in a corner)
Zorgon: Can the Suns be the next coming of Z-Bo's Grizzlies or the We Believe Warriors? In what scenario (if any) could you see the Suns pushing the Spurs, Thunder, Lakers, or even Clippers to 7 games or a victory?
Ray: It will take a total team contribution for the Suns to do that: Nash and Hill at full health, Channing Frye hitting his 3s, Shannon Brown continuing his recent scoring, Telfair, Redd and the bench providing not just relief but extending the leads. Frankly, it's not likely but the Suns have gone 20-10 since starting 12-19. If they make the playoffs, it won't be like they're backing in.
Did I scare you with that? You shaking in your boots over the thought of playing the Suns?
Zorgon: Hahahaha, I'm sorry to say that I'm not afraid of the Suns. I do have many memories of Steve Nash spoiling parties in the Ford Center's past though, so I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the Suns steal two from us in the first round. If the Suns take it to seven, then my eyes start opening.
Ray: Beyond the obvious choice of Steve Nash, are there any Suns players who have particularly impressed or surprised you this season?
Zorgon: Aside from the comeback performances of Redd and Telfair, everyone on the Suns has their card pretty well marked. I'll go with the cop out answer and say Marcin Gortat. I was a big Adonal Foyle fan, so I winced when I saw Gortat replace him at backup center for the Magic. But ever since then, I've enjoyed watching his game grow and evolve from a guy who's game wasn't much better than Foyle's to being the third best PPG center in the league. I'd take him over Perkins any day.
Ray: A big Adonal Foyle fan? I didn't realize there was such a thing!
Zorgon: Oh, it's a long story. Long story short, he was one of the most charitable players of all time. But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't an "adventure" every time he touched the ball. Really fun to watch though.
Ray: One last from me: what's gonna happen Wednesday night?
Zorgon: Once again, the Thunder will see their stagnant offense rise from the ashes, and Westbrook and Durant will both score at least 25, if it's not a total blowout. Should be fun for at least three quarters before the Suns fire a few too many threes and bury themselves on a hole. Final score 109-98.
Ray: I see there being points, lots and lots of points. And it will come down to late-game execution, where the Suns have struggled at times. But not in this game. Clutch shots go down and Suns win 115-111.
My sincere thanks to Zorgon for his time and expertise. If you have any questions you'd like to ask him, he says he might pop into the comment thread and field some from you.