New Year's resolutions, Phoenix Suns edition

The 2009 portion of the NBA season is in the books and the Phoenix Suns currently sit in third place in the Western Conference at 21-12. After starting off December with a 5-9 record, the Suns bounced back by capturing a pair of convincing wins against the league-best Los Angeles Lakers and the injury-riddled Boston Celtics.

In the 31 games prior to the victories over the 2008 and 2009 NBA champions, the Suns showcased everything from dramatic victories to embarrassing losses. Phoenix has shown the good, the bad and the ugly thus far, proving that its grasp on the Western Conference’s No. 3 spot is far from a sure thing.

With 2010 upon us, there is no better time than now to discuss the keys to Phoenix staying amongst the West’s upper echelon and playing like the team that started off 14-3 rather than the squad that went 5-9 through December’s first 14 games.

Like the average person with an urge to put down the nicotine or start hitting the gym, the Suns too need some goals for the upcoming year. With that said, here are the Suns’ top five New Year’s resolutions:

Unleashing the road warrior

The Suns started the season 8-3 on the road and coincidentally enough sat atop the NBA after 17 games (14-3). December brought a few more games away from US Airways Center, but this time around the Suns were unable to rise to the occasion. Thirty-one days and seven straight road losses later and the Suns are officially another telling home/road split statistic.

With their continued dominance at home — 13-2 home record, tied for best in the NBA — the Suns don’t need to be flawless away from USAC by any means, but if they can reach road mediocrity, their chances at staying near the top half of the Western Conference dramatically increase.

As of now, the Suns are a below-average team on the road, but 2010 brings a chance to unleash the purple and orange road warriors that were on display to start the season.

Making back-to-back struggles a thing of the past

Back-to-backs have been a league-wide problem this season, and the Suns have been no exception, going 1-6 in the tail end of back-to-back games. They clearly lose a step with the limited rest, averaging 103.6 points per game playing with zero days rest (and that includes the 127-point explosion at Golden State), compared to their season average of 110.0 points per game.

The Suns have faced some tough competition on the road in the second half of back-to-back games — the Lakers, Cavs, Magic and Nuggets — but regardless of the opponent, the lack of rest has proved to be a major problem, physically and mentally. There are 13 back-to-back situations remaining on the schedule. Phoenix needs a solution for the tired legs and exhausted minds or the team will struggle to maintain a top seed in the West.

Taking care of business against the bottom feeders

For years the Phoenix Suns have been the type of team that can beat any given team on any given night and lose to any team on any given night. If the Suns can only remove the “lose to any team on any given night” part, they will be in a great spot come playoff time.

The problem with this Suns team certainly isn’t talent or potential (see Lakers win), but rather maintaining that talent and fulfilling that potential on a nightly basis. For every big Celtics, Lakers or Magic win, the Suns get outplayed by the Warriors, the Knicks or the Thunder.

This team can clearly compete with the NBA’s best, but it means nothing if the squad neutralizes that win with a loss to a sub-.500 team. The Suns need to take care of business against the NBA’s bottom feeders and continue to steal a few from the league’s top dogs.

Dudley/Hill swap

Energy is huge for the Suns. When they come out with a chip on their shoulder and take control from the opening tip, they are nearly impossible to beat. But oftentimes they lack that energy and look like a team who has no one to turn to when shots aren’t dropping.

The solution: move Jared Dudley to the starting lineup.

Grant Hill’s production has severely tailed off of late, as he’s averaging only 7.1 points during his last seven contests. Dudley, on the other hand, is averaging 9.1 points per game during that stretch, including a career-high-tying 19 points along with an 18-point effort.

With LB back and Goran Dragic playing well, the second unit will still thrive without JD, especially with Hill as an added ball handler and playmaker. Dudley should fit well with the first unit, as he would figure to be a main benefactor of Steve Nash’s dimes with his three-point prowess — not to mention he is used to closing games anyways.

Dudley gives the starting lineup energy, toughness, defense and shooting. Other than loyalties to a veteran as highly respected in the organization as Hill, there is no reason not to make the switch.

Creating a consistent role for Robin Lopez, finding minutes for Earl Clark

Robin Lopez showed in the Lakers’ win — eight points and five rebounds in 21 minutes — the impact he can have on the game when he is right.

The 7-footer brings a big body with the potential to defend and clear the glass. He can serve as a serious defensive presence, but his minutes are so inconsistent that he may never be able to get comfortable this season, further stunting his growth as a player. The Suns and Lopez need to change that in 2010.

Talk about stunting growth, Earl Clark is still sitting with a load of potential waiting to be tapped, but Gentry and company haven’t been able to find him minutes, and rightfully so considering their record. But there are still a few minutes here and there where Clark could take the court and not only contribute but also learn on the job.

His defense, athleticism and length could be a huge service to the team down the road, but he needs minutes and he needs experience, and neither of those will come from the sidelines.

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