On the Rise?
Will the Suns high-powered offense, led by Steve Nash, lead them to the Finals? Only time will tell
The Phoenix Suns finished with 62 wins last year, and had high hopes of winning their first NBA Championship. The Suns were only the 34th team in NBA history to win that many games in one season, and 17 of them went on to win the NBA Finals.
If the Suns went into the 2005 postseason with a 50 percent chance of winning the Finals, what chance do they have entering the 2006 postseason?
First of all, the Suns won 62 games last year, but everything broke right for them. Their top three players (Amarť Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Steve Nash) missed a combined total of nine games.
Phoenix won many close games in 2005, finishing the regular season 7-2 in games decided by three points or less.
In 2006, the Suns were counting on two players to provide scoring, rebounding and inside toughness -- Stoudemire and Kurt Thomas. Stoudemire (knee surgery) and Thomas (right foot stress fracture) missed a combined 108 games. Without those two, they probably donít have a leg to stand on.
The law of averages caught up with Phoenix, as well. They finished 0-7 this season in games decided by three points or less. Often, that is an indicator that they are better than their record.
Still, itís hard to win an NBA championship following a season of less than 55 victories. Itís even harder when the franchise didnít exactly end the season on a steamrolling finish.
Beginning in 1980, the only NBA teams to win a championship with less than 55 wins were the 1995 Houston Rockets (47-35) and the 2004 Detroit Pistons (54-28). There are two similarities between those teams. The 1995 Rockets became a championship team only after a midseason trade brought them Clyde Drexler. And the 2004 Pistons became a championship team only after acquiring Rasheed Wallace. Both teams would have won more regular season games had they had the service of Drexler and Wallace for all 82 games. And both of those teams defeated Shaquille OíNeal in the Finals, essentially cutting off Shaqís teammates, while he performed outstandingly.
The Suns did pick up Tim Thomas on March 1, who cleared waivers and signed with the Suns on March 3. In 23 games with the Suns, heís averaged about 11 points and five rebounds. Those numbers -- compiled on the highest scoring team in the NBA -- will probably make the difference that Drexler or Rasheed made with their clubs.
Phoenix was 42-17 when they awoke on the morning of March 7. Thatís a pace of over 58 wins. Considering the team got out of the gate slowly -- not surprising, with so many new faces -- they were in a great position as they rounded the three-quarter pole of the season.
Since then, the Suns have stumbled to the finish line. They blew double-digit leads to Portland (10 points), Utah (15 points) and Detroit (17 points); they lost by 38 points to the Nets one night, and, the following night, lost by 22 points to the Bucks.
If you had to bet, they looked closer to a team that would be eliminated in the first round than one that would reach the NBA Finals.
Last year, the Suns retooled their team, realizing that their record-setting season of 3-pointers (796) didnít fare well in postseason play. They traded starter Quentin Richardson (team-leading 226 3-pointers) to the Knicks for Kurt Thomas. Thomas was the teamís top post defender and lived up to all expectations Ė before his injury. Even with Stoudemire out, the Suns had a 36-17 record through 53 games with Thomas in the lineup. Through that point, the Suns were allowing 100 points per game, and being outrebounded by only three on a nightly basis. Without Thomas, the Suns have allowed more than 109 points per game, and have been outrebounded by six per game.
Phoenix went back to the drawing board and went back to last yearís model of 3-point shots. This year, they broke the record they set a year ago, hitting nearly 10 three-pointers a game.
I was wrong about Steve Nash. Last year, I thought he stole the MVP from Shaquille OíNeal. I didnít give proper respect to the 33-game improvement that the Suns made, in large part due to their point guard. I didnít realize that the career seasons of Amarť Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson were all the work of Nash.
Steve Nash is having a better year this year than last. The Suns have played all season without Stoudemire, whose 26 points per game average was fifth in the league last year, but the Suns didnít fall off the map.
The Suns were the highest scoring team in the NBA last year, averaging over 110 points per game. But this year, Nash is operating without Stoudemire (2,080 points last year), Joe Johnson (1,400 points last year) and Quentin Richardson (1,176 points). In their place is Raja Bell (who averaged 12.3 points per game a year ago with the Jazz), Boris Diaw (who averaged 4.8 points in only 18 minutes per game with the Hawks last year), and (until he got hurt) Kurt Thomas (11.5 points per game for the Knicks last year).
Bell is having a career year in his sixth season, averaging nearly 15 points a game, identical to Richardsonís numbers from a year ago. He signed as a free agent before the season started and has hit nearly 200 3-pointers. And while Joe Johnson has produced numbers in Atlanta, Diaw has been off-the-charts impressive for the Suns (13.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists). The point is, you could put David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Neil Young on the court with the MVP point guard, and that version of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young would probably win 55 games.
Phoenix again led the league in scoring. Their point differential (+5.4 points per game) is fourth in the NBA, trailing only Detroit, San Antonio and Dallas. The Suns lead the league in 3-point percentage and assists per game.
Nash is having a much better season than he had a year ago. His scoring has jumped from 15.5 points to 19.0 points. His rebounding is also up nearly 25 percent (from 3.3 per game to 4.2). His field goal shooting is up. He makes over 92 percent of his free throws. He leads the league in assists and free throw shooting, and is among the leaders in 3-point shooting. Heís a basketball genius on the court, seemingly always making the right decisions as the Suns space the court accordingly.
I was dead wrong about Nash a year ago, and although he has had a better season in 2005-06, the MVP race is as wide open as its ever been.
The NBA's top team -- the Detroit Pistons -- has a pretty valuable point guard of their own: Chauncey Billups.
Billups outplayed Nash in a game on April 2. The Pistons defeated the Suns twice. They have a better record. If not Billups, there are other candidates. You probably canít give it to Dwayne Wade because of Shaq's help and influence. LeBron and Kobe are serious candidates, as well. And donít forget Dirk Nowitzki (26.6 points, 9.0 rebounds). All are viable candidates who play an important role in their teams' success.
But Nowitzki, like Billups, has plenty of help on a deep and talented Mavericks roster.
Nash is often compared to former Jazz great John Stockton. The reality, however, is that the great John Stockton never had a year like Nash is having.
The most Stockton ever scored in a season was 17.3 points per game.
The Suns score six points more per game than the next closest team. In 1991, there were 20 teams that were running a fever of 102 per night. In Stocktonís best years, the Jazz were never in the top half of the NBA in scoring.
Nash led the Suns to 62 victories last year. Stockton only once led the Jazz to a better mark (1997, when Utah finished 64-18). And in 1997, remember, Stockton wasnít even the MVP of his own team (Karl Malone won the award, as he did in 1999).
This will be the second straight season that Nash will (likely) be 1st Team All-NBA. Stockton was named to the 1st team only twice in his career (1994 and 1995) -- both years, not so coincidentally, when Michael Jordan was out of the picture.
This year, Billups, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade will fight it out with Nash for the two guard spots on the All-NBA team. Nash deserves it.
All of the previous NBA MVPís -- with the exceptions of Kevin Garnett and Steve Nash -- have at least reached the NBA Finals. If Nash is to reach the Finals this year, it will cap a year in which the Suns had to overcome Stoudemireís knee surgery and Kurt Thomasí stress fracture and the trade of starters Johnson and Richardson from a year ago.
Mike DíAntoni has his ace in the hole with Nash. He is the glue that holds everything together. DíAntoni has been able to keep Nashís minutes down, as well. He hasnít played as many as 40 minutes in a game since February 8. He hasnít played more than 40 since January 22 versus the Sonics. He hasnít played more than 36 in a game since March 12. Nash, who is averaging 14.1 assists per 48 minutes, would have even bigger numbers if he played as many minutes as Iverson (43.1), LeBron (42.7) and Kobe (41.2). In fact, Nashís 35.6 minutes per game rank only 52nd most in the NBA.
The fact that Nash will be rested will benefit the Suns. Again, they are the highest scoring team in the league. Not that thatís new for Mr. Nash.
Steve Nash has been on the NBAís highest scoring team for five years in a row (Dallas, 2002-2004, and Phoenix, 2005-2006).
You would think that would translate to a lot of success in the playoffs. You would be wrong. In the last four years, Nash's record in the playoffs is just 24-24.
You can't put this all on Nash, though. Even before 2002, the highest scoring team in the NBA did not fare well in the postseason.
Beginning with the 1986-87 season, the last 19 NBA scoring champions have gone 112-90 in the postseason. Of course, take away Michael Jordanís Bulls in 1996 and 1997, and the other 17 teams have gone 82-83.
Furthermore, the last eight teams to finish No. 1 in scoring in the NBA have gone 38-41 in the postseason.
The Suns have won only two of seven games this season against the league's three elite teams (the Spurs, Pistons and Mavericks). After last season, they wanted to assemble a more defensively minded team. But then Thomas and Stoudemire went down, and the Suns relied even more on 3-point shooting and Nashís wizardry.
The Suns have come close to the championship, losing in the NBA Finals in 1976 and 1993. They have a chance this year, but once again, as the statistics show, these Suns will most likely be eclipsed early.
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