PHOENIX — The paint job on the floor at U.S. Airways Center is different.
About half of the roster is different. And the number of new skill-development coaches is not that far below the number of new players.
Although the tempo is supposed to be the same, part of the offensive structure has changed.
And, based on his T-shirt-throwing motion, we’re pretty sure the guy inside The Gorilla suit is different.
But no matter how much the Phoenix Suns attempt to kick start their Post-Steve Nash Era, some things remain unchanged. Well, at least that’s the impression we have through a sample size of two practice games.
“There are still a lot of areas we need to work on,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said after his team knocked off the Portland Trail Blazers last Friday to even their preseason mark at 1-1.
Well, let’s check in with some of the prevailing issues.
The defense – which, despite some moments of clarity during last season’s 33-33 finish – dipped to 24th in the league for efficiency. Combining last week’s loss at Sacramento and the home triumph over Portland, the new-looking Suns have limited the opposition to about 40-percent shooting.
That seems like a fine start.
But despite the positive field-goal percentage defense, Gentry isn’t exactly thrilled with how his team – even with younger, crustier Goran Dragic replacing turnstile Steve Nash as the first line of resistance – is guarding the ball.
“We’re going to have to do a better job of keeping the ball out of the paint,” said Gentry, whose team will play the Mavericks on Wednesday night in Dallas. And he said that a lot last season.
Once a higher level of competition reaches the Phoenix paint, the Suns no longer have shot-blockers Robin Lopez and Channing Frye to close the road. Veteran Jermaine O’Neal should be a solid force as backup center and locker-room voice but probably hasn’t recovered enough bounce to provide a great in-lane deterrent.
And most of the center minutes will go to Marcin Gortat, who’s more of a threat to take a charge …although we’ll see if the new flopping rule inspires The Polish Machine to become more selective in his falling.
Markieff Morris should be an even tougher defender inside (more on him in a jiffy) during his second season, and newcomer Luis Scola is … well … he’s a really clever and skilled offensive player.
The task of keeping small forwards from cracking the defense – Grant Hill’s job in recent years– falls to Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson. Beasley wears the burden of defensive proof; Johnson, despite spending most of his days in Syracuse’s zone, isn’t bad when matched against small forwards instead of shooting guards.
But with Hill now working for the Clippers in Los Angeles, the Suns lack a shut-down defender capable of making life miserable for opposition hotshots at four (yeah, he took on power forwards, too) positions.
Even more nettlesome is evidence that Phoenix might not be much, if any, better at ending potentially successful defensive possessions by grabbing rebounds.
“The offensive rebounding is still a huge concern,” Gentry said, referring to the offensive rebounding by the other team.
Amen to that. In Sacramento, the Suns allowed the Kings to snag 16 offensive boards; the Blazers took 17. Sure, forcing a low shooting percentage means more offensive-rebounding opportunities. But this habit of spectating when opponents shoot the ball takes us back to last season, when the Suns were 24th in defensive-rebounding percentage.
For perspective, please note that the only teams worse than the Suns in this category last season were the Milwaukee Bucks, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Bobcats, New Jersey Nets, Kings and Golden State Warriors. Right, those teams had myriad reasons for being bad, but a lack of rebounding prowess doesn’t help.
The defensive concerns include a last-season flashback from Morris, who – after playing a relatively foul-free game in Sacramento – collected four in less than four minutes of first-half court time vs. the Blazers. He managed to play about a dozen second-half minutes with only one additional foul; that’s progress.
But while we’re nitpicking, it’s hard to insist the Suns don’t have the potential for more offensive firepower than last season. Beasley can be a cold-blooded scorer when focused (another burden of proof), and – like Johnson – has shot well the first two games.
Losing Frye could make it difficult to space the floor; even when Channing was slumping from behind the arc, the Suns offense usually had more juice when he played.
Incorporating the Corner offense should allow the Suns to keep the defense moving and out of help position. When defensive movement is properly read by cutters, scoring opportunities will arise. Putting Scola in the middle of these sets gives the Suns an intelligent passer from the post and someone capable of converting baskets in the paint.
Adding Scola, Beasley and Johnson as possible scoring threats could keep the Suns competitive for a playoff seed… well, if Dragic continues the improvement he demonstrated in Houston last season.
“I think Goran is in a good place,” Gentry said after Dragic handed out nine assists in 30 minutes against Portland. “I think his idea’s not to replace Steve, but to try and be the best player we want him to be.
“We want him to be the best Goran we ask him to be.”