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On the Phoenix Suns' expectations

In our Midseason Checkup ValleyoftheSuns Live webcast, Michael Schwartz, Mike Schmitz and I went 50 minutes wondering the same things we did in the preseason.

How will this team without a go-to scorer start winning games?  Is there any chance of a playoff push? And how will the franchise handle Steve Nash’s contract year?

Schwartz covered that last topic extensively in a recent post after the last 10 or so minutes left us wondering aloud why Nash would even want to re-sign here were he not traded. But the other questions? We’re still looking for answers.

The 14-20 Suns have a favorable schedule of nine games of their next 11 being played in US Airways Center, though that’s not to say the opponents are cupcakes. The Suns are rejuvenated after some R&R, and on Tuesday went through a full practice — about an hour of film and two of what a lockout-less season might deem a full practice — not to mention a player-led team meeting.

“To be honest with you, they did a lot of that themselves today,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “We’ll see where that takes us.”

At Tuesday’s practice, the first after the All-Star break, Steve Nash and Gentry answered many of the questions we’d asked.

Why is this Phoenix Suns team so inconsistent?

Gentry’s take: “I just think that our emphasis has got to be on consistent play. We keep talking about that. We as coaches have to keep talking about adjustments.”

This might be the hardest problem to definitively have a solution toward, and coaches and players might not have a better answer than to avoid pointing at a roster dry of talent. The Suns lack a third scorer behind Nash and Marcin Gortat, and it’s a toss-up whether it’ll be Channing Frye, Jared Dudley or Grant Hill stepping up on a given night, if anyone at all.

At times, Phoenix shows drastic ups and downs within games. It was never more glaring than in the last game before the All-Star break, when Phoenix fell behind the Golden State Warrios 39-22 in the first quarter, then came back to tie it before losing on a game-winning shot by Monta Ellis.

Perhaps the highs and lows we’ve witnessed this year is simply evidence of a team truly playing with 120 percent effort for stretches but lacking the energy to sustain themselves against flat-out better teams.

And that leads us to …

How and what can Phoenix improve upon?

Nash’s take: “Well I mean, a lot. Obviously, rebounding is the big thing, but we have to improve at everything we do if we want to get better at both ends of the floor; be a bit more cohesive and find a way to win some of these close games, these home games.”

On Tuesday, Nash was twice asked what the team was focusing on following its extended practice time. Twice, he did little to pinpoint a specific problem for he and his teammates.

“We talked about everything,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff to work on.”

When talent isn’t at a premium, it’s hard to point at anything other than that.

Statistically, the Suns are in the bottom third of the league in all major rebounding categories — they are 25th in the NBA in rebound rate. Offensively, they’re a middle-of-the-road squad (17th in Hollinger’s offensive efficiency and 18th according to’s offensive rating) and despite a strong start on defense, have dropped off to the bottom third of the league (22nd in Hollinger’s defensive efficiency and 21st in’s defensive rating).

How much hope is there that this talent-lacking squad can make the playoffs at this point?

Gentry’s take: “You got to think that at some stage — we’ve always done that here — where if you can win five, six, seven games in a row, and if you do that then you’re back at .500, then I think all of a sudden you are in the mix. Until we’re mathematically eliminated, I think there’s always a way to make the playoffs. I’m going to be optimistic, and I’m going to think we’ve got a chance all the way up until the time when they put an X by our name that says ‘Eliminated from playoffs.'”

Theoretically speaking, the Suns aren’t that deep in the hole as far as the playoff race is concerned. At six games under .500, a run definitely puts them in the conversation (the current 8th seed in the Western Conference, Denver, is only 19-17), as a season that’s been straining on many teams has meant more parity, more average teams and more average records that could hop into the playoff conversation.

However, that’s assuming Phoenix can find itself. Considering there’s not one thing that this team could fix that would make it X times better — or maybe there are way too many holes to be practical in reaching said improvements — the hope for a solid run doesn’t have much to lean upon. Through a remaining schedule where the Suns play only five games against teams that currently have worse records than themselves, such a run would be quite optimistic.

Is the rotation we saw most recently becoming more solidified?

Gentry’s take: “Yeah I think so, but I would not rule anybody out. I think at some stage, everybody, you have to stick them in there and give them a chance if something’s not going well. I like the rotation we had. I thought we were playing really good. Like I said, the Golden State game was really disappointing because I think it would’ve been a real high going into the break. Somewhere along the line we’ll have to make it up.”

As was the case last year, players like Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress had their flashes of effectiveness, but eventually fell out of favor. Leading into the halfway point of the year, Gentry went with a 10-man rotation and a bench unit of Robin Lopez, Markieff Morris, Michael Redd, Shannon Brown and Sebastian Telfair.

Still, the bench has been a big Achilles’ heel for the Suns.

While you don’t know what you will get out of Lopez and Brown, Morris has been a constant in the energy department and Redd has begun scoring with consistency. Meanwhile, Telfair, though a feisty defender, has had trouble keeping offensive production up.

“Well, I like his defense, I like his intensity,” Gentry said of Telfair, “we still need to have a little more ball movement when he’s in the game, but I think he’s trying like crazy to do all the right things. It’s not all on him, but the second unit in general, I think we need to get some more offensive flow out there.”

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