As the Phoenix Suns prepare to enter a new era, questions abound about where this organization is headed. The ValleyoftheSuns team takes aim at sorting out some of the crucial issues of the season in our annual season preview post before making a prediction for the campaign and looking back at what went down this offseason.
Who will be the team’s MVP?
Michael Schwartz: The Dragon, Goran Dragic. The Suns have always run a point guard-centric offense, and with Nash moving on to Tinseltown this is his team now. Jared Dudley for one has raved about how different Dragic looks in comparison to his first Suns tenure, as he’s so much more poised and in control out on the court. After exploding for 18.0 points and 8.4 assists in 28 starts last season, Dragic will take the reins as the Suns’ most important player.
Kevin Zimmerman: Goran Dragic is going to have a big year, I think. But who else am I going to choose? Michael Beasley still has a lot to prove, and you can’t overlook his talent. Combine that with the opportunity being given to him already by Gentry and the staff, and he’s going to be the most valuable player to the Suns. I don’t expect this will happen overnight, but even if he is 75 percent of what Phoenix hopes he’ll be, he will be the best player on the team.
Ryan Weisert: Goran Dragic. Of all the Suns’ offseason acquisitions, Dragic is the one with the most clearcut path to success. Goran is basically a younger, quicker, left-handed Steve Nash. He may not have the out-of-this-world passing ability or 50-40-90 shooting accuracy, but Dragic will be an elite assists per game player as well as a better penetrator and scorer than Nash was the last few years. Dragic will be the engine that makes this team go and thus he’ll be the most valuable guy on the roster.
Dave Dulberg: Goran Dragic may not be the 18 and 8 guy he was over the final month in Houston, but having him back in town will a pleasure to watch for Suns fans. If Phoenix exceeds expectations, it will likely be because of the Slovenian. He will never be Steve Nash, but in 2012-13 he will surprisingly show why that might not be such a bad thing moving forward.
____ is the new Sun who will make the most surprising impact.
Michael Schwartz: Wesley Johnson. It’s hard to know what to expect out of Wes, the former No. 4 overall pick who was absolutely brutal for two years in Minnesota. But all those expectations are gone, and now Johnson can carve out his own niche off the bench for a coach in Alvin Gentry who will truly support him. The Suns could really use a three-point shooting wing who can defend off the bench, and I see Johnson becoming a productive player in that role in what will likely be a contract year.
Kevin Zimmerman: Jermaine O’Neal. Maybe he was one of the last additions in the 2012 offseason, but O’Neal could very well turn into an important piece in Phoenix. Although worn down in his knees, the center was a starter for the Boston Celtics last year when he was healthy. If the Suns’ training staff keeps him healthy, O’Neal is a bargain of a backup player who can be an effective shot blocker off the bench. He’s a veteran locker room presence who has the respect to corral a team that’s full of youngsters. He might not put up eyebrow-raising numbers, but his defensive presence is something Phoenix dearly needs.
Ryan Weisert: Markieff Morris. The narrative of the Suns’ offseason definitely focused on their free agent acquisitions, but I think Morris, heading into his sophomore season, could be the player with the surprise impact. He proved last season he can score inside, shoot from range, rebound, and be physical. In the Vegas Summer League, he stepped up as both a leader and a scorer. This season, I think his physicality and diverse skill set will earn him big minutes, and allow him to become a major part of the Suns’ game plan on both ends of the floor.
Dave Dulberg: I am an unabashed Wes Johnson fan, so for me the choice is obviously the former No. 4 overall pick. He hasn’t lived up to the hype coming out of Syracuse and was just traded as a salary dump, but if the Suns’ bench is anywhere near what it was in 2009-10, Johnson is going to have to be the guy. Whether it’s a big three, a crucial steal or a much-needed rebound, the subs will rely on the former Big East Player of the Year to be the unit’s main playmaker.
The Suns’ Achilles’ heel is ___?
Michael Schwartz: I’ll give you two for the price of one: rebounding and preventing dribble penetration. Those are Gentry’s two biggest worries entering the season for good reason. Offensive rebounds have killed the Suns defensively for years, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue to be the case. With Goran Dragic defending at the point of attack, they should do a better job of preventing dribble penetration, but Gentry still was not pleased on that count in the preseason.
Kevin Zimmerman: Shot blocking, which is why I chose O’Neal as the most surprising impact signing of the offseason. Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola have defensive capabilities that leave much to be desired, but even if they surprise, neither brings a nasty shot-altering presence to the defensive end of the floor. That, I believe, is one of the most important pieces to a playoff-worthy NBA team, and it’s the reason Alvin Gentry sometimes went with heavy doses of Robin Lopez last season.
Ryan Weisert: Defending elite players. Consider the following three facts: 1) The Suns haven’t been in the top 10 in points allowed since 2000-01. 2) They’ve been in the bottom 10 every season since 2003-04. 3) The Suns lost their best 1-on-1 defender, Grant Hill, in the offseason. Even with the influx of young bodies into the rotation, this team is going to be atrocious defensively. There doesn’t appear to be anyone on the roster capable of defending an opponent’s best perimeter scorer. Don’t be surprised if several players have career scoring nights against the Suns this season.
Dave Dulberg: Phoenix added a physical-minded forward in Luis Scola, but they also lost some bulk on the boards with the trade of Robin Lopez and the unfortunate news surrounding Channing Frye. That can’t be replaced. The Suns’ defense improved under Elston Turner, but the unit will never turn the page if it doesn’t limit teams to one look per possession. Marcin Gortat can’t just lead in that charge, he needs to take it upon himself to dominate, as 18 to 20 offensive rebounds allowed per night just won’t get it done.
How will the Suns finish?
Michael Schwartz: 36-46, 12th in the West. I really would not be surprised one bit by either a surprise playoff run or a collapse to the bottom of the conference, so I’ll split the difference and project them to finish 10 below .500. There’s plenty of talent, particularly in the starting lineup, but who exactly in the West is this team better than? I feel like Beasley is the key. If he finally gets it and plays like he did in the preseason finale, this team will outperform my prediction. If he plays like he has throughout his career, they very well may finish worse. Kind of a scary guy to be forced to rely on.
Kevin Zimmerman: I count only eight teams in the Western Conference that I believe are better off than Phoenix, and the Minnesota Timberwolves are a ninth if they can recover from no Ricky Rubio and no Kevin Love to start the year. In terms of on-paper talent, the Suns are arguably better off than last season, when reaching .500 seemed more incredible and due to a fantastic season from Steve Nash than anything. This season’s team, I swear, has more potential. I see them winning 40 games, which probably won’t be enough to make the playoffs, but it’s no 14th-place finish in the West.
Ryan Weisert: 38-44. The Suns’ early schedule is very favorable. Barring injury, Phoenix could easily be .500 or better at Christmas. But the West is incredibly deep this season. I expect several teams who were looking up at Phoenix in the standings last year (Golden State, Minnesota, and New Orleans) to round into form by New Year’s and start playing good basketball. I expect the Suns to win about 40 percent of their games from that point on and end up somewhere around 11th or 12th in the West.
Dave Dulberg: The Suns will finish 14 games below .500 at 34-48. Portland is clearly worse, as is Sacramento. After that, it’s pretty muddled with the likes of New Orleans, Golden State and Houston. Minnesota is probably more of a threat to finish No. 8 or No. 9 when Kevin Love returns, and Houston’s acquisition of James Harden makes the Rockets instantly better on paper when the season opens. So I think the Suns finish either 11th or 12th in the conference.
Bonus Question: What did the Suns accomplish this offseason?
Michael Schwartz: Plenty. As PBO Lon Babby said, they turned over the hour glass. No longer are they clinging to the final remnants of the SSOL era, they have officially turned the page with plenty of future flexibility to boot. Nash and Hill are gone, and in their place are talented young players like Dragic and Beasley. Along the way they made a savvy pickup of Scola and turned Robin Lopez and Hakim Warrick into Wes Johnson and a first. Now comes the hard part, and that’s finding a star or two to transform Phoenix into a contender, and it’s anybody’s guess at this point where that kind of player might come from.
Kevin Zimmerman: They finally moved on from the Steve Nash era. While there wasn’t really a good way to go about it — trading Nash a season ago arguably was the best way — they didn’t screw around too much in attempting to bring Nash back or make it feel like they would. Accepting that it was time to move on was a divorce that was much like a, uh, divorce. Often times, it’s best to just get the hard part over with and move on.
Ryan Weisert: Hit the reset button. Remember playing Super Nintendo? Whenever things went completely pear-shaped in Super Mario, Donkey Kong, or even Battle Toads, you could always hit the reset button. That’s exactly what Phoenix did this offseason. With Nash, Hill, Warrick, Childress, and Lopez all gone, the Suns reloaded with youth and potential. Yes, they’re longshots for the postseason, but they successfully revamped the roster on the fly without dumping an awful team on their fan base. Phoenix also stayed in the running for a max-contract guy by converting its cap space into assets that should retain their value.
Dave Dulberg: They did two things really well: got younger and more athletic. And rid themselves of Robin Lopez, which came as a surprise to me. This is year one of what I think will be a three-year transition process, so I’m not expecting this past offseason to lead to instant results. They have a lot of unproven talent on the active roster, so it’s hard to speculate how much they really accomplished. If Beasley, Johnson or Marshall ever become the players most projected them to be coming out of college, the 2012 offseason will be looked at fondly in the years to come.