I'm still picking the Suns to win the title in 2008. This is in spite of Amare Stoudemire's knee issues, and in spite of Shawn Marion's petulance. It is also in spite of Steve Nash's advancing age, and the team's lack of bigs. The NBA is a league of patience, perseverance, and luck. The Suns have paid their dues, and now I see them finally being rewarded. Of course it was easy to say this about the Kings five years ago, and then Chris Webber blew out his knee, and that was that. It very well could be the Suns fate as well - a great team that never put it all together at the right time (and was never aided by officiating.)
But Phoenix does have the making of a great team. Before the suspensions they were toeing the line with San Antonio like never before. It appears the Suns have failed enough that they are no longer scared of losing. They look like winners; and even if this team does not seem as glamorous as a few years back, they are much more battle-tested. Hell, if Manning and the Colts can do it, then Nash and the Suns can do it.
Many people saw Phoenix as the favorite before the Marion and Amare incidents. Now maybe not so much. Marion's perpetual bitchiness is of less importance than Amare's knees. Amare (and Nash) should be babied during the regular season; there's no need to go overboard just to win sixty games. The Marion situation is touchy, but should pass over, and truth be told, he is only their third best player.
Marion's ranking on the totem pole has been most apparent come playoff time. Nash and Amare have had the essence of their games grow magnificently in the playoffs, while Marion's has generally faded away. You can blame Marion for this, but I don't feel like doing that right now. Instead I'd like to relate Marion's playoff difficulties to what fascinates me most about Phoenix. The Suns are a transition team nonpareil, but they have had no choice but to play a lot of halfcourt basketball in the playoffs. What compels me is that Phoenix is capable of doing this very well. Their success in halfcourt has to do with the greatness of Nash, and the low post flourishing of Amare. Marion then plays his vital role, along with Raja, Barbosa, Diaw and now Hill. What I mean to say is that despite their revolutionary style, Phoenix is a traditional team. And traditional teams win because they have the best players.
Phoenix's true identity was revealed more than ever during last year's Spurs series. Style and coaching methodologies clashed to make it so that both the Suns and Spurs were forced into a corner. The Spurs were cornered because they were playing a team with more talent than any other foe, and had no choice but to try to be both mentally and physically stronger than Phoenix. The Suns were put into an even more astounding and uncomfortable situation: their style was stripped away from them, and they could no longer rely on their transition offense. It was enthralling, as we had to look at the Suns from the inside out; this was the true litmus test: to see if they could succeed without using their system. And it turns out they could. Nash has never looked so determined to win at all costs than during that Spurs series. And everyone followed suit. Then the suspensions happened and the bucket was tripped over.
I'm fascinated about the essential elements of the stripped down Suns. They're just really good; Nash and Amare got something historically beautiful going on. Marion, Barbosa, Bell and Diaw are brilliantly unique players. The maturation from '04-'05 has been documented many a time. But it goes without saying that this team is ready to win now, and I don't know if we could say that in 2005. D'Antoni is swearing Phoenix will run and play smaller than ever before. I have a tendency to believe him. And there is a decent shot that playoff matchups might make it so that the Suns can continue to run wild even in the postseason. They could become the smallest team ever to win a championship. But this team has gone beyond style. Indisputably it can be said that there is now extreme substance to any way the Suns play. This should scare the rest of the league.
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