When the NBA lockout finally comes to an end (be it tomorrow, Christmas Day, or June 30, 2012) every team with playoff hopes will have to ask itself, “What is our team identity?”
For the Suns, identity has long been defined by their “Seven Seconds or Less” mentality. Put simply, “we will score so quickly, and so often, that you cannot hope to beat us.” This identity was not only incredibly entertaining to watch, but also massively successful. Since Steve Nash came back to Phoenix in 2004, the Suns have made five playoff appearances, played in three Western Conference Finals, and have only missed the playoffs twice. Both misses came on the heels of a big trade that sent a player essential to the team’s identity out of town.
During the ’08-09 season, the Suns’ fast-paced offense was still being weighed down by Shaq, and the team was still attempting to patch the hole left by Shawn Marion. They rebounded quite admirably the following season by trading away the Diesel and fully incorporating Jason Richardson into the team as they became “Seven Seconds or Less” 2.0.
Phoenix missed the playoffs again last season after Amar’e Stoudemire left as a free agent and a handful of players that have yet to find their place in the squad were acquired. Whenever the Suns do take the floor again, they will have to find a way to pick themselves up once again. The path to their redemption begins with finding a new identity. To help them in this quest, let’s analyze all eight Western Conference playoff teams from last season, and see if there are any pieces the Suns could use to help build a winning identity.
Despite being the 8th seed, Memphis was the team nobody wanted to face in the first round because of the Grizzlies’ style of play. They harassed opposing guards on the perimeter with Tony Allen and Shane Battier, and their aggressive defense helped Memphis lead the league in steals and turnovers forced. The combo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol dominated the paint on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. And they did all this without arguably their best player, Rudy Gay.
Identity: The Grizzlies were an old school team based around strong defense, skilled big men, and hard-working role players.
New Orleans Hornets
Although the Hornets’ current identity is a big “For Sale” sign, they were strong enough last season to earn the 7th seed. Most of their success can be attributed to their superstar point guard Chris Paul, but his play doesn’t tell the whole story. New Orleans was tops in the Western Conference in opponents’ points per game. They were also near the top in fewest free throw attempts allowed. This strong defense started with Chris Paul, who led the league in steals. Trevor Ariza was also in the top 10 in that category. Emeka Okafor and David West (before he was injured and lost for the remainder of the season) protected the paint and the rim well. Even without West, the Hornets still took two games from the Lakers in the first round.
Identity: They were a stout defensive team with a superstar at the helm.
Portland Trail Blazers
Last season, the Trail Blazers were a team who just would not die. Despite injuries to Greg Oden (shocker!), Brandon Roy, and Marcus Camby, Portland overcame and grabbed the 6th seed in the Western Conference. Much like Memphis, they were near the top of the league in steals and turnovers forced. Their staunch defense was complemented by breakout seasons from LaMarcus Aldridge and Nic Batum as well as the midseason acquisition of Gerald Wallace. These three players contributed both in the paint and on the perimeter making Portland one of the hardest matchups one through five in the league.
Identity: Portland was the most energetic team on the floor night in and night out, forcing the other team into turnovers on defense and giving opponents headaches with difficult matchups on offense.
The Nuggets are a tough team to assess from an identity standpoint because of the blockbuster midseason trade of Carmelo Anthony. The trade brought four new players to Denver to replace the five (including Anthony) who were shipped out. The fact that the team had to completely reinvent itself in February and was still the 5th seed in April is nothing short of incredible. The new look Nuggets were an offensive juggernaut. They led or were near the very top of the league in points per game, FG%, and 3PT%. In addition they were in or near the top 10 in rebounding and assists.
Identity: The Nuggets were the best scoring team in the league, but their lack of a firm identity and a strong leader is what eventually undid them in the postseason.
Join us after Thanksgiving for Part II where we’ll break down seeds 1-4 and get to the bottom of the Suns’ identity crisis.