How many times have teams said they are one player away from contending? Far too many times, that’s for sure. Yet, in two recent losses for the Phoenix Suns versus San Antonio and Utah, it is clear that the Suns truly are “one player” away from being contenders.
Of course contending in the West means fighting for second place behind the Los Angeles Lakers. Nevertheless, it is not a bad position to be in.
In the salad days from 2004 to 2008 when the Suns averaged 58 wins per season, the team had a secondary ball handling option which represented a distributing and scoring threat that opposing defenses were forced to deal with. In the 2004-05, that player was Joe Johnson. From 2005 through 2008 that player was Boris Diaw.
Although these two players’ games differ dramatically, both share the ability to score 1-on-1 or set up scoring opportunities for teammates. Mixed in with Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, the Suns were formidable during crunch time as revealed by their winning percentage during this time period.
Following the mid-season trade in 2008 that sent Diaw and Raja Bell to Charlotte for Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley, the Suns all but lost their reliable secondary primetime ball handler to supplement Nash. In their failed playoff run last year as well as recent losses this season, opposing teams were able to shut down the Suns offense in close games by crowding and trapping Nash.
This season the Suns have evolved into a better fundamental team by defending, rebounding, and running their half court offense rather than taking boatload of perimeter shots in early offense. Yet, the biggest vulnerability remains the rest of the team’s ability to get good shots when Nash is neutralized by defenses.
We have seen on occasion Grant Hill step up and dominate in the final minutes, and there have been games where the defense comes up with key stops or turnovers. However, against the more disciplined teams, such as the Spurs or Jazz, the Suns were clearly fighting uphill in the crucial stages.
The impending return of Leandro Barbosa to the lineup could fill the need for a 1-on-1 scoring threat but his abilities as a floor leader have always been questionable. Goran Dragic has had a great season but he has yet to become a consistent threat anywhere approaching the level that Johnson and Diaw had provided in past seasons. Earl Clark has shown the instincts to fill this multi-faceted role, but he is still very raw and is at least a season away from even earning consistent minutes, let alone crucial time during close games.
Hopefully, the Suns will bounce back from another disappointing loss to the Jazz after giving up a double-digit lead and continue to be one of the hottest teams in the league. A playoff spot appears pretty secure at this point and the final 19 games will determine their seeding. However, the thought of another tumultuous offseason full of trade rumors and rebuilding theories is still a reality.
If the management staff instead views this team as a reformulated unit on the rise, then they are one free agent signing or rapid player development away from making a huge impact in the Western Conference. Let’s hope Robert Sarver and Steve Kerr see it this way.