Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Phoenix Suns -- What's next?

Last year I wrote a story for MSNBC that analyzed style of play in the NBA, particularly the continuing shift toward a faster game. Given Phoenix's multi-year success and Golden State's upset of Dallas ... quicker tempo was the 'in' thing.

In 2008 the league-wide pace factor — an estimate of a team's number of possessions per game, or roughly how fast it plays — increased again to 92.4, the highest mark since 2000. And yet, for all of his success, Mike D'Antoni, the NBA's biggest proponent of fastbreak basketball and a savior of the game to many fans, likely will not return as coach of the Suns. In D'Antoni's four full seasons, the Suns won 62, 54, 51, and 55 games. They were eliminated in the playoffs three times by the Spurs, but also reached the Western Conference finals twice.

There was no history of success to support D'Antoni's approach, but he ignored it. The Suns ran and ran some more. They entertained. They won -- not a championship, but not too far off. To fire a coach with four consecutive 50-win seasons simply because he failed to reach the ultimate prize? That's one tough standard meet. Every team wants to win every year, but only one does. I'd like to think enjoying the journey would be better rewarded.

Legendary coach Chuck Daly, who won titles with the Pistons in 1989 and 1990 with a defense-tilted approach, told me the following during an interview for my story:

"Everybody wants to play like Phoenix, but you know what, there’s only one Steve Nash, and they built that team around him with all of those guys who can streak and shoot."

Read the second half of that quote carefully. "They built that team around him with all of those guys who can streak and shoot."

The Suns thought they could fit in Shaq, just one large piece to that puzzle, without upsetting the rest of it. And it didn't work. Because of Shaq, and the accompanying shift in mind-set to a post offense, those guys who could streak and shoot — Bell, Stoudemire, Barbosa, Marion (traded in the Shaq deal) — turned into guys who could (and did) stand and watch.

Nash, meanwhile, the motor, the trigger of everything that the Suns were about, was reduced to a post-feeder. And for all of Diaw's success on the block in Game 5, his Barkley-like pounding of the ball for 6, 7, 8 seconds time and time again, clearly and completely proved just how far the Suns had transformed. Who were these guys?

Phoenix now faces some tough decisions in the off-season. They have a roster full of players built to play the speed game, and one guy, who all by himself, brought those speed players to a halt. Shaq is 36 years old and has more than 37,000 minutes on his NBA body-clock. He also makes $20 million per year and has two years left on his contract, which means he is nearly impossible to trade.

Do the Suns build around Shaq and reshape the rest of the roster? If so, D'Antoni is probably not the right coach to oversee that.

Or do they release Shaq, absorb the $40 million as an ill-fated attempt at a title, and tinker the roster slightly to give the speed game another run? If this case, D'Antoni obviously is the guy.