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As I write this post the Phoenix Suns have just dropped their first game of the year, 122-100 at defending Eastern Conference champion Orlando. Despite last night’s lopsided road loss to a quality opponent, there are numerous reasons to believe that these Suns (4-1) are not only more entertaining than last year’s 46-win version, but far better equipped to compete for a mid-range playoff seed in the highly competitive Western Conference.
*University of Arizona product Channing Frye gives the team a low-post shot-blocker who can run the floor and shoot threes (he’s made an astonishing 15-of-22 from behind the arc to lead the team in both attempts and makes).
*Goran Dragic appears capable of providing 15-20 solid minutes a game at point guard in relief of Steve Nash. Last season, the team couldn’t afford to let Nash and his perpetually bad back rest for any extended minutes and the All-Star point guard’s fourth-quarter performance suffered.
*The Suns’ best offseason addition was one by subtraction. Dealing Shaquille O’Neal to Cleveland rid the team of some star appeal, sure, but it also allowed the Suns to return to their run-and-gun roots. With O’Neal clogging up the middle, the Suns’ offense sputtered without the benefit of improved defense, which was why President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Steve Kerr sent Shawn Marion to Miami in exchange for O’Neal in the first place. I miss Shaq’s goofball antics and clever sound bites, but I don’t miss his inability to guard a pick-and-roll.
*Amare Stoudemire wants to get paid. It’s no secret that the Suns’ star forward wants a contract extension, and the Suns played their cards with the precision of poker star Phil Ivey in making Stoudemire prove his worth, attitude and commitment before rewarding him.
*Alvin Gentry isn’t Mike D’Antoni, and that’s not a bad thing. Advanced as D’Antoni’s offensive schemes were, he was incurably stubborn when it came to extending his bench. Whereas D’Antoni routinely played 6-7 players the entire game, Gentry has 7 guys averaging 20-plus minutes a game with Louis Amundson playing 18, Dragic getting 15, and rookie Earl Clark’s minutes expected to grow as the season progresses. And Gentry deserves credit for extending the bench without sacrificing offense. The Suns are still averaging 111 points per game, which is second only to Denver and six points better than D’Antoni’s Knicks.
Although it’s only early November, it’s safe to say we’ll know more about the strength and character of this team once it completes this brutal East Coast road trip (which includes dates at Boston, Washington and Philadelphia) and returns to US Airways Center Nov. 11 to play New Orleans. It’s not delusional to project that the Suns will carry a 7-2 record, not to mention a pronounced swagger, into Los Angeles on Nov. 12 to take on the arch-nemesis Lakers.
By then, you can bet that Downtown Phoenix will have taken on a noticeable orange tint.