This is part two of a five part series previewing the Phoenix Suns' 08-09 season. Part 1 can be found here.
Since the dawn of the Sarver era, Suns fans have been treated to some of the weakest offseasons since the days of television before reality TV, when re-runs spelled primetime boredom for couch potatoes countrywide. The Suns off-seasons were similarly predictable. They could be counted on to make one "splash" free agent signing (Raja Bell, Grant Hill, Marcus Banks) and then to sell their draft picks like trading cards (Sarver's seller rating on eBay is AWESOME).
The knock on Sarver has been that he's a cheap@$$ who only cares about the bottom line. Not so, as the Suns roster has been among the most expensive -- and winningest -- since he assumed ownership of the team. More accurate is that he's penny wise (selling draft picks, which is arguable the cheapest way to acquire and develop talent) and pound foolish ($45 mil to Boris Diaw, $25 mil to Marcus Banks, $40 mil to the Shaquille O'Neal Restraining Order Defense Fund).
This offseason, though, with the aid of new consigliere Steve Kerr, the Suns sought value, value and more value. Lacking money to throw at their problems, the Suns hit the draft and the NBA's bargain bin alike to rejuvenate their aging bench and replace Coach D'Antoni. Let's take a look at what they found.
Terry Porter - The Suns first and biggest move of their premature off-season was to make Mike D'Antoni as unwelcome as possible. It should be noted that Sarver and Kerr never actually fired Coach D. They just told him that he couldn't coach the way he wanted to anymore after delivering the best winning percentage of any Suns coach ever over the course of the last 4 and a half seasons. Whether or not this was a good decision has been beaten to death. The end result is that now the Suns have the relatively unproven commodity of Terry Porter working the sidelines.
Porter is supposed to contribute 3 things to the Suns that D'Antoni did not... defense, half-court offense, and bench development. Porter's in a good spot. He inherits a team that, while sporting at least 4 hall-of-famers on its roster, is not a favorite to either win a championship or finish in the top 4 of its conference. If he wins, he's solved a riddle that eluded D'Antoni. If he loses, he's simply meeting a the low expectations of a roster whose best opportunity to win it all is behind them. Given the options available to the Suns at the time of Porter's hiring, he, like so many of their other off-season acquistions is a cheap gamble with considerable upside.
Robin Lopez - With the highest 1st round pick the Suns have kept since drafting Amare Stoudemire, Kerr and company drafted Robin Lopez to bring some hustle and defense to a team that appeared to be lacking in both since the departure of Shawn Marion. Pundits pooh-poohed the pick. How could a player who averaged 6 rebounds per game in college be considered an impact rebounder in the NBA? And how about his abysmal offensive numbers compared to his identical freakin' twin? While we won't know the answer to these questions until the whistle blows on the season, Lopez performed impressively in Summer League play and was named to the US Olympic Select scrimmage team, quieting some of his nay-sayers. At 7 feet tall and with a blue collar work ethic, Lopez gives the Suns much needed size and depth in an area where they had none.
Malik Hairston Goran Dragic - In the second round, the Suns drafted Malik Hairston and then promptly traded him to the Spurs for the rights to a little-known Slovenian point guard named Goran Dragic. We'll come back to Dragic in a moment.
Matt Barnes - Perhaps the Suns best bargain of the off-season. Sure, his gaudy numbers from the magical Warriors campaign of 2006-7 dipped last year. Barnes admitted he was unfocused last season, due in large part to the death of his mother. A new season with a new team could be just what the psychologist ordered for the athletic wingman. He won't be the Matrix Revisted, but if he can provide quality minutes off the bench and an offensive spark, he won't need to be.
Louis Admundson - I'd never heard of Amundson prior to him joining the Suns. My guess is that he doesn't make it too far off the bench a la Sean Marks. And I'll take a 26-year old pinerider over 33-yearold pinerider any day of the week.
Sean Singletary - We were all rooting for DJ Strawberry in the desert. He showed energy; he showed heart. Maybe it was the speculation surrounding Dragic, or maybe he just doesn't have the game for the Association. Whatever the case, he cracked like an egg during the Summer League and it was only a matter of time before the Suns unloaded him. Enter rookie Sean Singletary. This is a bit of a puzzling pick-up since it means Steve Nash is now backed up by not one but TWO rookie point guards (Tyronne Lue must really like cheese curds). He'll spend most of the pre-season vying with Goran Dragic for Nash's back-up minutes, but given the Suns investment in Dragic, I think he's going to become very familiar with their new D-League affiliate in Iowa.
Goran Dragic, Part 2 - All of which brings us to Goran Dragic, perhaps the most lustfully pursued 2nd round pick in the history of the franchise. The Suns see in Dragic something that no one else in the basketball world does: the future of a franchise. As Suns fans, we are in the dark about Dragic. Aside from a couple of YouTube clips, some inconclusive Hollinger analysis and a brief work-out video, we don't know what the kid's got besides a pretty good contract for a guy who was a back-up even in Europe. But Kerr and company have tabbed him as the Man once Steve Nash calls it quits. It's a huge risk, but Kerr's tenure as GM has demostrated he is nothing if not a gambler.
These newbies replaced a little-used bench comprised of Eric Piatkowski, Sean Marks, Linton Johnson III, Gordan Giricek and Brian Skinner's goatee.
Brian Skinner - B-Skins was a serviceable back-up at both the 4 and 5 providing some shot-blocking and rebounding, though you'd be hard-pressed to find highlights of him scoring. If everything pans out, Suns' fans' memories of Skinner's facial hair will be obliterated by Robin's Lo-Fro.
Gordan Giricek - A late-season acquistion, he only played 20 games for the Suns in 07-08. Another serviceable back-up who should be ably replaced by the far more potential-laden Matt Barnes.
Linton Johnson III - A defensive specialist signed at first to a 10-day contract and then added to the permanent roster at the end of the season, LJ was a non-factor in his roughly 52 minutes of play.
Sean Marks and Eric Piatkowski - The old, old veteran presence at the end of the bench, Piatkowski and Marks combined for 35 games and approximately 255 minutes of garbage time over the course of the entire season. They must be amazing guys to practice against because they certainly never saw any meaningful playing time. Given the Suns emphasis on youth this off-season, it's no surprise this pair of gray hairs was shown the door.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Sarver and Kerr clearly had one eye on the present, one eye on the future, and both eyes on the bank account this off-season. Their transactions were much more “Design on a Dime,” than “Extreme Makeover.” The question remaining for them is whether or not they got enough bang for their buck. The answer now lies with their first-year head coach, because this is a tale of two teams: the 7 rotation players that comprised 98% of the D’Antoni Era’s minutes and the 6 (counting second-year forward Alando Tucker) relatively unproven youngsters conscripted to give them a break. Porter’s biggest challenge won’t be teaching this squad how to defend against the pick-and-roll. It will be integrating these two disparate groups into a cohesive unit capable of playing well at either end of the court.
Editor's note: BSoS Contributer Mike Lisboa is a Phoenix native now living in the belly of the beast (Los Angeles) where he works in the entertainment business as his TV and other pop culture allusions might indicate.