Enemy: Phoenix Suns
Coach: Alvin Gentry
Potential Starting 5: Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, Michael Beasley, Luis Scola, Marcin Gortat
Other Key Players: Shannon Brown, Kendall Marshall, Markieff Morris, Channing Frye, Sebastian Telfair
Threats: Surprise factor, Depth, Energy guys, Outside shooting
Grizzlies 2011-12 Record vs.: 1-2
The times, they are a’ changin’ in Phoenix. And that may not be a bad thing. I’ll sing to the tune of declaring my stance that the Suns will be a pesky team to play. Not quite a scary team to face, but pesky to put away. Unlike what seems to be many when gauging the reaction to the Suns’ offseason, I actually like what they have done. Steve Nash is gone, but that was a foregone conclusion for the past year or so… a 38-year-old probable future hall of famer that has somehow still not quite entered the twilight of his career was clearly not expected to spend the rest of it toiling in mediocrity in Phoenix. So the Suns did what they could and made the best out of the situation. Getting themselves out of limbo, they may even be better for it. Instead of straight up losing him by way of free agency, the Suns managed to squeeze practically every draft pick that the Lakers can legally give them out of it. Although to be fair, they were in a great position of leverage since the large market teams that wanted him lacked the cap space to sign him outright. Enough on the loss of Nash, though, the Suns also made significant strides towards fielding a competitive unit going forward. Formerly the heir to the Phoenix point guard throne, Goran Dragic was brought back to the organization that once gave up on him in favor of Aaron Brooks. Dragic added a phenomenal stretch to his NBA resume last year, and offers the Suns plenty of hope at the position. If that’s not enough, they net best pure point in the draft, Kendall Marshall out of UNC. The Suns were not shy about bolstering the roster with more overall talent, either. Despite failed efforts to bring Eric Gordon aboard, they were successful at the very least in yielding credible NBA talent from the market. Similarly to Minnesota two years ago, they brought in skilled-but-frustrating Michael Beasley at a discounted rate. Likewise, they snagged stabilizing vet, Luis Scola, off amnesty waivers. From the looks of things, the long term prospects for Phoenix are turning around with the moves they made, and they could begin to see improvements on the court as soon as this year, depending on how well Alvin Gentry can integrate this fresh group into his gameplan.
I’m a firm believer that oftentimes, a team’s identity can be traced back to a single player or member of the coaching staff. We saw it here in Memphis when Tony Allen invigorated the group with his contagious grind-it-out approach to the game. I stated earlier that the Suns will be a pesky team, and I base that somewhat off my impressions of Goran Dragic. He’s not exactly a world-beating talent, but he’s what you would call a sneaky good player. Sleep on him, and he’ll kill you slowly with his playmaking ability before you realize that he’s gone off for 25 and 9 (points and assists). He’s definitely not Steve Nash, but he doesn’t have to be. Towards the end, the Suns weren’t winning with him anyway. Dragic can play at various speeds and offers a better product than Nash did on the defensive side of the ball. Behind him is rookie Andre Miller clone, Kendall Marshall, who figures to get a fair shake of minutes, and Sebastian Telfair, who wanted the chance to start, but will now probably play third fiddle at the position. The wings of the bunch are varied from the uber-athlete Shannon Brown, the steady defender, Jared Dudley, the offensively oriented Michael Beasley, and the disappointing, but still hopeful Wes Johnson. Beasley yet again has the chance to take the stage and drop 20 a night, while the others should fill it out nicely around him. While there is nothing other-worldly about this bunch, they are formidable enough, and should be able to compete admirably with the wings that the rest of the league has to offer. In the post is where things get interesting for Phoenix. Marcin Gortat has been on the cusp of breaking out for years now, and with the talent around him, he should be in a good position to do so going into this season. Luis Scola was not the Scola of old last season, but if he could at the very least offer above average rebounding and offensive ability coupled with his trademark grimy play, he should provide Gortat with all the help that he needs in the paint. Markieff Morris factors in as a wild card, whose game and size remind me a lot of our Darrell Arthur, so we’ll see how he can put it together in year two.
On our side of things vs. the Suns, I’m again harking back to Dragic. In the one game against us in which he played more than twenty minutes last season, he put up 25 points, 7 assists, a steal and 3 threes. He’s exactly the type of player that we tend to struggle against. Also hailing from those pesky Rockets teams that we’ve had so much trouble against, Luis Scola seems to give us a hard time with regularity. His ability to “draw charges” (in other words flop) can be infinitely frustrating for our guys and knock them off their game. I give us the nod of Marc over Gortat and Rudy over Beasley, and ultimately overall at every position, except maybe the two, but that is what worries me. They will play scrappy defense and hang around in the game with the three-ball. As I keep stressing, the Suns are the type of team designed to catch opponents sleeping, and given our infuriating tendency to play down to a perceived lower level of competition, I approach this matchup with a fair amount of trepidation. The Suns are promising for their fans, but not quite there yet. With the overall talent disparity we should sweep them on the year, but I can almost guarantee that will not be the case. I have a sneaking suspicion that they may even repeat last year and take the season series from us.