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The bright side of summer...

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On the first day of my high school English class my teacher, Mrs. Petersen, handed out a list of "fatal errors"...should even one of these flaws show up on a paper and the highest you could score was a 'c' (which meant a lot because my high school did not have 'D's - grading went A, B, C, F). Fortunately, I had enough experience to be able to avoid making these fatal errors. I was able to build on the writing fundamentals I had learned up to that point and find the writing style that works for me. Just as in writing - and in all walks of life - in basketball, you have to build on a steady foundation of fundamentals. You can't walk before you crawl type of thing. The greatest to ever lace them up once said "You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise."

Around these parts I have become known as somewhat of a pessimist due in large part to my stance (apparently it's quite controversial) on Goran Dragic (if you're new to the site you can see what I say about him here or in my original blog at cutgorandragic.blogspot.com). People tend to forget the positive things I've said about Gentry (here), Hill (here), JRich (here) or even that I have defended Amare when others were ready to burn him at the stake (here). So for those of you that say I'm not an optimist - and that's fine, everybody is entitled to their own opinion - how's this for optimism...the Phoenix Suns will make the playoffs this season! I truly believe that this team as presently constituted (players/coach) is a playoff team that can even make a run at the NBA Finals - obviously A LOT would have to go right but hey, every championship team needs a few lucky breaks (or the assistance of David Stern) to take home the hardware. However, in the spirit of taking things one step at a time, let me start with the playoffs. Lets face it, last year's team was a mess. You had the big twit and his ego clogging up the lane, Terry Porter completely ignoring the strengths of his players and trying to turn the team into something it clearly couldn't be (for the record, I don't just blame Porter for this...I believe this was influenced by a higher authority or two), and you had a rookie backup PG who probably should've still been in Europe developing trying to play an important role on a should've been playoff team. This year, with one philosophy being preached from beginning to end and without Shaq (while some didn't like the Shaq trade because it was just about money...I loved it and believe that this is a case of addition by subtraction) these Suns will make a run at the playoffs and should be a lot more fun to watch than everything we saw last season.

Now, again taking this one step at a time, there are things that each player on the roster should be working on this summer in order to make the playoffs possible. Below is a list of each player on the known roster - Nash, Hill, JRich, Amare, Clark, Barbosa, Dragic, Lopez, Frye, Sweet Lou, Dudley and Tucker (no I'm not including Taylor Griffin as he shouldn't make the team - hell he shouldn't have even been drafted but we all know how the Suns can't resist the lesser brother of a future superstar). I am going to go through what I think each needs to be working on and some specific things that some should be doing to improve the weaknesses in their game. Now, given my (as Mike so tenderly put it) "proclivity for pointing out Goran's shortcomings" I could write this whole post just on what he needs to work on. That being said, expect his to be the longest as he is going to be the player with the highest ratio of things asked of him on the court to things he needs to improve on. Lets get to it.

Steve Nash/Grant Hill: At this point in their careers we pretty much know what we're getting with these two. The only thing they need to be doing is whatever Aaron Nelson and the Suns medical staff tell them they need to be doing. Grant just played all 82 games of the regular season for the first time in his whole career and Nash continues to age (as everyone who talks about the Phoenix Suns ever will remind you). Whatever the Suns staff does apparently works and these old men just need to continue to drink from Nelson's fountain of youth.

Jason Richardson: I believe a lot of the Suns success this coming season is going to hinge on JRich. JRich and Barbosa are the two players the Suns have that can spread the floor and kill you if you leave to help by hitting the 3 or blow by you on a hard closeout and get to the rim. JRich also has the ability to exploit mismatches by posting up against smaller guards. I would have JRich putting up 1,000+ shots/day from all different angles on the court. Have him watching video of Nash on the pre-Shaq teams and see where he likes to get to and where he likes to kick to. I would also have him work on reaction drills where he gets the ball and is forced to recognize different speeds/angles of a defender's closeout. If they are coming too hard give a good fake and either take one escape dribble for the shot or take it to the hole. If they are closing out too slow put up the quick shot. Finally, I would have him working on being more decisive in the post. Get the ball, feel your defender and react quickly. Last season when he would post he would give the defense to much time to prepare for what he was going to do. With his athletic ability he should be able to make a move quickly/efficiently and catch defenses off guard.

Earl Clark: Clark should be a starter this year. Yes, he's a rookie who will make a lot of mistakes but if there is anyone who can make a rookie wing like Clark look good it's Nash. Plus, starting Clark takes us back to the days of Amare/Marion and I believe gives us the best chance of exploiting other teams and just outrunning/scoring teams on a nightly basis. Of course, being a rookie he will have a lot to work on...the thing I think he needs to work on most? Conditioning. If he can get into the best shape of his life so that he is able to race up and down the floor for 25 minutes a night he will be effective and may even challenge for rookie of the year...Nash has that effect on people. I would also have him in the video sessions with JRich learning the offense as well as the ins and outs of playing with Nash.

For the record, I HATED that the Suns took Clark with so many quality PGs on the board, but I have officially talked myself into the kid in this system.

Amare Stoudemire: Number 1 for Amare, get healthy. He needs to make sure that his eye is on point and ready to go. Obviously he needs to work on pick and roll defense as well as his being strong when defending the post. I would recommend that he spend a lot of time watching video of Perkins and Garnett in Boston. Perkins knows how to use his strength to make opposing post players VERY uncomfortable and Garnett moves very well when defending the P&R. Amare needs to watch for the little things that make these guys successful on D. After seeing he needs to head straight to the gym (preferably he'd have the video up in the gym for reference sake) and try and incorporate those little things into his defense. I am very high on Amare this season. A) Shaq is gone and out of the lane, B) Amare wants to get paid and in order to do so he has to prove that he's healthy this season and that he is willing to play D (or just an unstoppable beast on the offensive end - preferably both). I fully expect Amare to make either first or second team All NBA this season. If he can learn what makes the Celtics so successful and impliment it even to a far lesser scale, it'll be that much easier for him.

Leandro Barbosa: LB will be involved with running the offense on the second team. He has improved every year in his ability to do so and I fully expect this improvement to continue. I would have him learn the offense from the standpoint of every other position on the floor. He already plays the 2 a lot so he has that down but he should know what the 3, 4 and 5 players are going to be doing in every scenario on every possession. This will help him see the floor that much better. I would also have him learn the art of keeping his dribble. Many times he'll start driving, get into the lane and just take off without having a clear shot or knowing where his teammates are. Nash, in this same situation will keep his dribble alive and wrap around to the near corner. If Barbosa can learn to recognize better in these situations he will cut down his turnovers and be much more effective running the offense. I would set up some reaction drills for him to practice recognizing what is happening around him and also have him watching footage of what Nash does in similar situations.

Goran Dragic: Going back to Jordan's quote on fundamentals, Jordan goes on to say that a lot of players fail in the L because they get there without ever learning the proper fundamentals. They have no foundation. For example, we have seen no shortage of promising 7'ers make it to the L only to fail because their whole lives they got by by being taller than everyone and never really developing the fundamental games to help them strive when everyone is as big or as strong as them. The biggest (most fundamental) problem with Goran is his handle. Going back to his days of making a name for himself in the Adriatic League, Goran's scouting reports said that he had good size and was able to get to the rim and had a good drive and kick game but that he had an average handle - meaning he was average even for an Adriatic League PG. Going back and watching a lot of tape to prepare myself for this post, I recognized three main flaws with Goran's handle. 1) His dribble is too high, 2) he dribbles the ball in a defensive position (I'll explain in a bit) and 3) he has a tendency to stare at the floor as he starts any aggressive move with the ball. First, the high dribble makes it so that he is slower when changing directions and more likely to get swiped by stray hands. This forces him to rely on his quick first step to drive and also forces him to dribble the ball defensively. What I mean by this is he doesn't have the ball ready to attack. Because of his high dribble he is forced to use himself as a shield. He keeps the ball back slightly ready to step between his defender and the ball at any point. Some of you may remember being taught to dribble this way and it is an effective tool - however, when you are a PG and the whole offense hinges on you being able to get to your spot you have to be ready to attack at all times. One of the reasons Dowdell was more effective at running the offense in Summer League is he keeps the ball low and in front of him and is able to push forward to get to his spots, Dragic, on the other hand, keeps it a little behind and therefore has trouble pushing through when a defender gets in his path forcing him to just back it out. This takes precious clock time and stalls the offense. So, when you hear me refer to him handling the ball like a PF, this is what I mean. PFs are told to dribble this way to protect the ball. PGs need to be able to keep it low and protect it in traffic while at the same time being able to get to their spots to start the offense. Some have argued before that Magic Johnson had a high dribble...well, Magic Johnson also had the swagger of an American street baller - something Goran does not nor will he ever possess. He has to learn how to be a fundamentally sound PG ball handler to be effective. Finally, something I noticed is that Goran's eyes immediately drop to the floor whenever he starts any aggressive move. Meaning that until he looks up towards the end of his move he has very little sense of what's going on on the rest of the floor.

Goran needs to improve his handle. He needs to be constantly doing drills that force him to handle the ball with both hands in tight spaces and keeping his head up even when he's being aggressive. He needs to be in the film sessions with LB learning the offense from every position on the floor. I would also have him watching hours of film on Tony Parker. Have him learn how to control the game while playing to your strengths. I would also have him doing reaction drills similar to JRich and Clark. Recognizing what to do with different looks that defenders will give. Finally, I would have him practice getting to his spots. He needs to be able to do what the offense requires regardless of the defense. To do this he needs to recognize how the defense is playing and if they're overplaying than he needs to punish them going back the other way. While playing in Europe Goran needs to focus on these things and try to impliment them into his game there. Test the waters, get the practice he needs because again, if you're just practicing bad habits...all you ever learn are the bad habits you had in he first place.

Robin Lopez/Channing Frye (I'm lumping them together even though most of my advice would be for Fropez): First and foremost these two need to learn the offense. They need to learn to be effective by rebounding and hitting the midrange jumper. They also need to learn to be effective in the post. I would have each of them shooting 1,000+ 15-18 footers every day. Make them shoot it faster than they would in a normal game so that they'll be able hit them at real game speed. I would also work with them on limiting the number of dribbles that they use. In Vegas, Fropez got the ball 3' from the basket in the post. He turned to face up (again from 3') took 3 dribbles towards the baseline to go up and under on the opposite side of the hoop. Were this a real NBA game he would have gotten swatted or swiped. They need to be effective using one dribble. Know what you want to do and do it. I would work with both of them at having a very effective post move/countermove and a pump fake from midrange where they could use 1 dribble either to attack or escape. Neither one of them should be (or need to be) handling the ball much more than that. I would also work with them on recognizing shot angles - as each will be probably around 8 - 15 feet out on shots - and attacking aggressively without fouling.

Lou Amundson: Look, Lou is what he is. He knows his role and what pays the bills. I would continue to have him work on free throws, midrange shots and shot angles for rebounding. Other than that, he just needs to get into the best shape of his life so that he'll be able to provide the same energy while running a lot faster and more in the high octane offense.

Jared Dudley: Dudley, like Lou, is what he is. He needs to get into the best shape of his life and I would have him in the gym shooting 1,000+ shots a day from all over the floor. I would also have him working on quickness drills that should help his lateral movement. Also, in this offense he is spread to the 3 point line a lot so I would have him running the same reaction drills as JRich as well as working on attacking angles for rebounding.

Alando Tucker: I'm not going to lie to you, Tucker was probably the hardest for me to evaluate given his lack of playing time and the fact that he only played in one summer league game. I think there is a spot for Tucker not only here but in the league. I would have him shooting the 1,000+ shots a day and running the same reaction drills as JRich and the others. But I think I would also work with him on moving without the ball and using screens effectively away from the play. Alando has the tools to be a Rip Hamilton type player and I would like to see him play that role a little bit. I would also like to see him attacking the rim more. Don't try the fancy up and unders but attack right at the defender. Work with him on absorbing contact without changing his shot midair. If he could become the Rip Hamilton type as a 3 he'll have a spot. Goran, LB and he could run an attacking backcourt for a few minutes a night that might catch some teams off guard.

You can probably tell by a lot of my suggestions that I fully expect this team to go back to the 7SoL system. I think we have the personnel to make it work and be successful. I think that we can surprise the NBA this year and establish ourselves as playoff contenders...of course, this should surprise nobody as I am, after all, an optimist.