The End of an Era
We were all there. We saw it coming from a mile away yet we could do nothing about it. It seemed like nearly a full minute had elapsed since Tim Duncan had received the ball. He stood, alone, sizing up the rim from way beyond his normal range . We watched in disbelief, there was no way this guy could down a three pointer, not with all the pressure, the clock running down, and too much time to think about the shot-but it was over. That moment, that shot, that game, and well, the Suns as we knew them. The lovable, bandwagon fan friendly, fast moving, high octane, Mike D'Antoni led Phoenix Suns.
The 2008 off season was long and tedious. Defeat to San Antonio lingers like a paper cut, or that ex who won't stop texting you. Mike D'Antoni was not quite fired, but he didn't really quit either. Steve Kerr demanded changes, D'Antoni balked. Then a coaching search was undertaken, which in my humble opinion, was not really a search, just a little due diligence before the inevitable hiring of Terry Porter. 2008-2009 was to be a year of transition for the Suns and their fans.
Of Porter, Steve Kerr stated: "He's got a great combination of leadership skills...He's a great communicator. And his coaching experience, two years as a head coach, is important to me. The fact that he's sat in that chair, that was a key factor. He's very tough-minded." Amare Stoudemie weighed in: "I couldn't be more ecstatic about the decision...He's very organized. He knows what it takes to win. He wants to be the champion. That falls into the category of the Stoudemire brand and also the Phoenix Suns brand. We want to be champions, whatever it takes to do it."
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."
The Suns set off into 2008 optimistically, or at least with some things to look forward to:
- A hard nosed, defensive minded coach
- A svelte, healthy Shaquille O'Neal
- A pain free, defensively focused Amare Stoudemire: "I want to be Ron Artest...I want to be that guy you fear when you see him guarding you."
- Some new depth on the pine in Robin Lopez, Matt Barnes, and Goran Dragic.
The Suns started the 2008 season with an impressive, nationally televised win against the San Antonio Spurs. If that victory didn't excite you, then you were dead or secretly a Warrior fan. Yes, things had changed. We had a healthy Shaq now to battle with Timmy D and a new defensive philosophy. We were ready to win the right way. Unfortunately, the next night, the Suns faced the Hornets and couldn't muster enough strength in the second half to come up with a W. The emotional roller coaster ride was on. One night joy and confidence, the next disappointment: the sign of things to come. This Suns team was in search of identity. It proved difficult with Shaq and Porter on the same page and virtually everyone else attempting to alter their games to fit the Porter mold. The result were unbalanced efforts like the following:
- A hard fought win against the up and coming Portland squad was followed by a nail biter against the lowly OKC Thunder.
- A solid win against Indiana was followed by an 83 point performance against Chicago.
- A 48 point drubbing of the Kings was followed by a pathetic first period defensive performance against theWarriors (43 points) en route to a 12 point loss.
- Shot 36% against the Bobcats, losing 98-76
Teams that should have been put away early were toyed with. When their feet were firmly planted on an opponent's throat, too often the Suns managed to let up, allow the dying back to life. Every team in the NBA understood that the game was never over when you were playing the Suns-that is, even if you were getting scorched in the first period, there was always time to get back in the game and steal a victory.
"This is about being better, you can't be shy. Let's try to break through and really make a push here."
Steve Kerr's plan, to mold his team to play a more traditional, defensive oriented system, like the Spurs, simply wasn't working. Not for the fans, not for the players. There were rumors that many Suns players were frustrated by the changes Terry Porter and Company had implemented. Gone was the run and gun as was the first option of Nash to Stoudamire pick 'n roll. In it's place was "toss the ball into the big guy." The resurgent Shaquille O'Neal bolstered the Suns front court. He was rebounding, he was scoring, he was playing two games in a row!There was no doubt that many players were miffed. Shaquille O'Neal appeared in Phoenix raving about Amare Stoudemire, saying all the right things as to not create waves in the locker room or upset the Suns established offensive player. But once Shaq realized he could dominate inside, once he felt like a younger version of his 37 year old self, the tune changed. Out was the "I'm just trying to h elp out the team Shaq" and in was the "feed the beast" talk. Meanwhile Amare spoke his typical confusing public chatter-a mix between saying what he thought he should say and speaking his mind. We fans waited for that run of 10 dominating wins in a row, the fun Suns, anything to establish some momentum, anything that would make us feel at ease. Instead of a run of wins, the Suns ended November with a four game stretch that only established the fact that the team could not heal itself. 4 losses, to Miami, New Jersey, New Orleans, and Dallas featured the following:
- November 28, 2008-Dwayne Wade scores 43, the Heat win 107-92
- November 30, 2008-Devin Harris scores 47, Vince Carter 28, Nets win 117-109
- December 3, 2008-Chris Paul scores 24, dishes 15, David West scores 23, grabs 14 rebounds, Peja Stojakovic scores 24, shoots 5 of 9 threes, Hornets win 104-91.
- December 4, 2008-Dirk Nowitzki scores 39, Mavs win 112-97
So much for defense.
It wasn't working. Tossing it in to Shaq wasn't working, loosening the reigns wasn't working, the DEFENSE wasn't working. Were you all calling for Porter's head yet? Were you caressing the panic button? Regardless, the player's frustration had reached new levels and after another up and down string of games, on December 10, 2008, Steve Kerr pulled the trigger on a trade that puzzled many-giving up fan favorite and the best defender on the team in RajaBell along with Boris Diaw, and Sean Singletary to the Bobcats for notorious non-defender Jason Richardson, a second round draft pick in 2010, and a throw in that many of us hadn't heard of before-Jared Dudley. After 22 games in the season, the Suns were 13-9, second of course to the Lakers, who at that point were 17-3. We can all argue as to what was wrong with the Suns at that point and what could have been done to improve the team. Clearly, the Suns had identity issues. Built to run and shoot, the team had been morphed into a kind of hybrid. Porter had begun to let the team do what it did best over the past several years. Against inferior competition, it worked. The Suns still had the fire power to run certain teams out of the gym. Yet stacked up against the elite of the league, the Suns shrank, giving up points at will and allowing embarrassing individual performances.
- Of the trade, Raja Bell said: "The team was underachieving...They needed to make some changes. I guess they think it's their best chance to win, and I've got to respect that."
- Said Boris Diaw: "It definitely wasn't as fun,...It wasn't as exciting for the fans. It's not as fun for everybody (on the team). I' ll always remember Phoenix with Mike (D'Antoni). We went from a winning team that was the most exciting team in the league to a half-winning team that wasn't exciting at all."
Of course Buddha the blowhard, AKA Phil Jackson smugly even weighed in: "They saw that, with this personnel, things weren't flowing really well... (Richardson) has reached his maturity. He's 27 years of age, and the next three, four years are going to be his best years." Yet the most telling quote came from two-time MVP and arguably the one man most responsible for the resurgent juggernaut that was the 7SOL Phoenix Suns, Steve Nash:
"I feel like I've been traded."
Still, there was some optimism left. Maybe Bell was getting older, maybe he was becoming too much of an injury risk, maybe he was losing his defensive prowess. Maybe Diaw was satisfied being great one night and mediocre the next. Maybe he loved crepes too much to keep himself in optimal physical condition. And while the locker room may have needed Prozac and most of the knowledgeable fans and pundits simply smirked at the deal, there was some serious kool-aid drinking going around:
- Terry Porter (of Richardson): "I think it was an opportunity for us to get better, a guy who can get 20 points a night, adds athleticism for us."
- Steve Kerr: "We felt like we needed to shake things up a little bit...We wanted to add a great scorer in the backcourt to give us better balance to take some of the pressure off of Steve [Nash]."
Still, the Suns trudged into the All-Star break after losing two in a row to Philadelphia and Cleveland. It was clear to many that something had to give. After finishing the first half of the season with a 28-23 record at the All-Star break, the Suns finally cut the cord with Terry Porter. It was awkward for the city of Phoenix. We were hosting the All Star game, Shaq was featured in the pre-game, dancing like a, well, a man who enjoys the spotlight. The focus was to be on the players, the the game, the NBA. Yet the media knew better. While David Stern most likely had a brief and to the point conversation with Sarver and Kerr about NOT canning Porter during All-Star weekend, everyone else knew better. Porter was dead in the water, and so were the Phoenix Spurs.
Rising From the Ashes, or Burrowing Beneath Them?
"What seems to us as bitter trials are often blessings in disguise"
Alvin Gentry took over Porter's spot as interim coach. His mantra was simple-do what you know how to do. The team was built to run and score, and Gentry was bent on letting his team loose. The players wanted it, the fans wanted it, and he had nothing to lose. If Porter urged restraint and text book play, Gentry was his polar opposite. It was clear most if not all of the players really didn't like Porter by the time he was fired. Having Gentry take over was like escaping a morning school zone and entering the autobahn. In the first three games of Gentry's tenure, the Suns scored 140, 142 and 140 points respectively against the Clippers and the Thunder. Sure it wasn't the same as trouncing the Lakers or Celtics, but the team needed momentum, and they were beginning to find it. That is, until, the basketball gods decided to give the suns another punch to the stomach. On February 18, 2009, Amare Stoudemire was en route to a monster 42 point 11 rebound performance. That was until an errant Al Thornton finger managed to reach the perfect spot on the un-goggled eye of Stoudemire, thus displacing his retina and ending his season, and possibly his career. It is an understatement to call that a turning point in the Suns season.
At 30-23 in the Pacific Division, the Suns had no chance to catch the Lakers. And with Denver, Houston, San Antonio and the rest of the Western juggernaut all in line for playoff spots, the Suns were on the outside looking in. The Suns were chasing the Mavericks for the 8th spot on April 3, looking at an important head to head match up two days later. After an easy destruction of the Kings 139-111, Grant Hill, putting the Suns playoff chances into soccer terms, quipped: "We're Italy going to France playing on their home court for the World Cup, so no excuses." Nash chose against using an analogy and spoke in realistic, albeit vague terms: "If we can cut it to two and really put some pressure on them and see what happens down the stretch, it could be fun." But any hope of overtaking the Mavericks and sneaking into the playoffs through the back door were slammed shut two days later as the Mavericks dominated the Suns 140-116. The Suns were through. Although there were more games to play, the end of the tumultuous 2008-09 was finally here.
It is difficult to look back on the season which much optimism. The Suns began the year with question marks and ended it with even more. The bottom line was that the team did not make the playoffs. Our cornerstone was injured, Hill was to enter free agency, Kerr faced the moron meter, and Sarver spoke-too much, about economics, and less about his commitment to maintaining a winner in Phoenix. Still there was a bright side to look at:
- Shaq played great for a 37 year old Center with a lot of miles on him.
- Nash finished with a record 50/90/50
- Grant Hill played 82 games and was arguably the most consistent Sun on both ends of the floor.
- Jared Dudley got minutes and showed genuine promise as a young dirt worker with a nice outside jump shot
- Pony Boy Amundson established himself as a solid role player, capable of picking up loose balls, treating Nene like the b$%#@ that he is, and showing some surprising athleticism for a guy with a pony tail
- Robin Lopez and Goran Dragic put some decent performances at the end of the year that were cause for some mild encouragement
- Alvin Gentry finished the year with a record of 18-13 thereby earning the title of Coach of the Suns for 2009.
- Matt Barnes' contract expired!
The Suns record of 46-36 was respectable considering all the team endured during the season. After going 18-13 under Alvin Gentry, there was room for a little optimism. Still, Amare was seriously injured, Grant Hill was a free agent, Steve Nash was approaching the last year in his contract, and most of us knew the Shaq era was over. If that wasn't enough to squash optimism, the heir apparrant to Nash, Goran Dragic, had not inspired a whole lot of trust from either the front office or fans alike. Robin Lopez had his moments, but like Dragic, needed time to improve at the NBA level. Further, Jason Richardson seemed like a bust, another move like the Marion trade that kept us all wondering whether Steve Kerr and Co. had what it took to competently run the team. Kerr had a lot to think about, and us fans faced a long, hot Summer without the slightest idea as what the future held in store for our beloved franchise.
Ed Note: This is the first of our annual five-part season preview series. Next up, The Off-Season.