ESPN Western Conference predictions breakdown

With a healthy Nash and Amare, the Suns may exceed expectations and surprise some people this season.

With a healthy Amare and Nash, the Suns may exceed expectations and even surprise some people this season.

The expectations for the 2009-2010 Phoenix Suns are about as big as Jared Dudley’s vertical leap, and if you saw his recent dunk in practice, you know what I’m talking about.

About everything that could have gone wrong for the 2008-09 Phoenix Suns went wrong. You all know the story: the Terry Porter experiment, the Amare injury, the Raja/Boris trade, the midseason coaching change, etc.  Despite the turmoil, the Suns managed to come away with 46 wins but missed the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.

The majority of analysts have the Suns “on the outside looking in” next season. ESPN’s recent “Summer Forecast: West standings” piece takes a similar stance, slotting the Suns in the eighth spot.

Here is why ESPN’s predicted 42-40 and 8th place finish may not be too far off:

Lets face it, the Suns are going to be atrocious defensively — it’s not like that is a new development.  We all know about Amare’s defense (or lack thereof), Channing Frye and defense should rarely be used in the same sentence, and Robin Lopez’s game is still nowhere near it needs to be in order for him to be a defensive force.

While the interior defense (aside from Lou Amundson) is bad, the perimeter defense is atrocious. Jason Richardson is far from the defensive stopper that Kerr thought he would be when he traded for him. When you think a 27-year-old is all of the sudden going to be good at defense because he was a good defender in college, you need a reality check. In addition to Richardson, Nash is the worst defensive point guard in the NBA. Leandro Barbosa has shown that he has the physical skills to be a good defender, but he has not used them often enough during his NBA career.

I do not think that this prediction is a product of the Suns being that bad as much as it is a result of the Western Conference being that good. If you were to ask me if the Suns are better on paper than the Lakers, Spurs, Mavericks, Blazers, Nuggets, Jazz, and Hornets, I would struggle to say yes. Aside from maybe Utah and New Orleans, all of those teams are superior to the Suns.

The Lakers are as good if not better than last year, the Spurs may be the most talented team in the NBA, and the Mavs improve considerably with Shawn Marion filling a defensive void.  Needless to say, the Suns will have their collective hands full next season.

In addition to the lack of defense and strength of schedule, the thin bench and depleted front line will also add to the Suns’ problems.

The Suns have some nice young players on the bench, but they are still a few years away from making a considerable impact in the NBA. You know what you get out of LB, Lou and Dudley, but Goran Dragic, Robin Lopez and Earl Clark are still huge question marks. A potential 10-man rotation is deeper than recent Suns teams, but how many of those 10 will actually be a factor?

The bench is the X-factor. If those guys play to their potential, the Suns will have a solid second unit. But Lopez and Dragic still look to be a year or two away from being trustworthy, and Earl Clark is still too raw to play 20-plus minutes a game.

The final downfall for the Suns next season is their thin front line. Most agree that Shaq’s locker room presence will be missed, but he was no slouch on the court either. I ripped his pick-and-roll defense and basketball IQ at times last season, but it is hard to replace a seven-foot, 325-pound center, especially when your options are Robin Lopez and Channing Frye.

This is why the collection of ESPN writers is misjudging the Suns:

All of the Suns’ flaws I mentioned above definitely exist, but there are a ton of redeeming qualities that outweigh those deficiencies. The Suns clearly are not the most balanced team in the West, but they are really, really, really, really good at one thing … offense.

With Shaq in Cleveland the Suns are now free to take off the training wheels and run, run and run some more. Enter Amare Stoudemire and Steve Nash.

I have harped on this before, but under Alvin Gentry last season the Suns’ offense was up there with the best in NBA history in terms of offensive efficiency, and that was without STAT. The Nash-Stoudemire pick and roll is still the best in the NBA, and Amare is still one of the top offensive power forwards in the game.

Granted his eye injury is a little concerning, but Amare is entering what is basically a contract year, and he is as motivated as ever to reclaim his status as a dominant force. If he can stay healthy, STAT will have a MONSTER year this season, mark my words. Something in the neighborhood of 26 and 10 seems about right.

A popular knock on the Suns is that they are too old. Get your facts straight, haters. The Suns have three players older than 26 on their roster, and they just happen to be guys that you wouldn’t mind having some quality experience; Nash, Hill and J-Rich (28).

Nash still has a couple of great years left, while Hill’s actual wear and tear is much less than his age suggests. The Suns’ five best players — Nash, J-Rich, HIll, STAT, and LB — are as talented as any team aside from the Lakers and Spurs in the West.

This team can score, and score in bunches, the perfect formula for the regular season. I certainly don’t believe that the Suns will make it deep into the playoffs, but they have the talent and chemistry to play their way into a five or six seed.

Who knows, maybe Channing Frye is indeed the perfect complement to Amare as coach Gentry so often claims. Maybe the young guys like Dragic, Lopez and Clark really are poised to come in and play big minutes.

Even if those things don’t happen, the Suns have a pretty solid safety blanket in Amare, Nash, Hill, J-Rich and LB.

My prediction: 6th seed in the West.

Tags: Amar'e Stoudemire

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