Suns stagger into break with much uncertainty ahead, from trade possibilities to Hunter's culture change.
By RANDY HILLFS Arizona
With the upcoming NBA All-Star Weekend looming as a
Phoenix Suns-free experience, this really does qualify as an extended break for everyone on interim coach Lindsey Hunter’s team.
But he did offer some significant advice for the players that make up the 17-36 Suns.
“Work out while you’re gone,” Hunter said as his lead recommendation, “because we’re going to get after it when we get back.”
He was referring, of course, to an intense level of workouts leading into this season’s final 30 games.
OK, that’s what the Suns can expect. But fans and other interested rubberneckers are advised to pay attention to these potentially compelling variables:
THE TRADE DEADLINE
Although Suns general manager Lance Blanks recently told a local sports-talk radio audience he expects the current roster to remain intact through Feb. 21, that won’t curb much (if any) of the rampant speculation.
According to a Tweet from one national NBA writer quoting a team source, every Suns player can be had -- for the right deal.
The most chatter (for several months) has been generated by center Marcin Gortat, whose own interest in turning most of his thoughts into published words has accelerated the rumors.
Deserving of more touches than he currently receives but not skilled enough to warrant the amount he’d prefer, Gortat does put up solid numbers and has a reasonable contract with one year remaining after this season.
The Boston Celtics long have been considered to have interest in Gortat, but – despite losing rookie post man Jared Sullinger to injury – their recent run of success may change that notion. Or it may push the C's into seeking an inside player to help them in the grind-it-out atmosphere of the playoffs.
Swingman Jared Dudley – with his 3-point potential, high character and affordable contract – also is drawing interest from those who consider themselves contenders.
According to personnel guys around the league, the Suns also are looking to move backup center Jermaine O’Neal and (now) third-string point guard Sebastian Telfair for whatever return doesn’t compromise the team’s cap flexibility. That probably translates to second-round picks.
THE HUNTER GAMES
At 4-8 since replacing Alvin Gentry, Hunter is being plagued by many of the same issues that helped him get this job in the first place.
During the aforementioned radio interview, Blanks was effusive in his praise for what the first-time coach has accomplished thus far. Of course, much of Blanks’ future is tied to how well Hunter can change the franchise's (buzzword alert) culture.
“I’m very encouraged about the whole situation,” Hunter said earlier this week. “I do see things that are encouraging.”
He twice used the phrase "tug o' war" in describing his challenge in moving the Suns to a better place.
“It’s between the way we used to play and the way we want to play,” Hunter said from his end of the rope. “If I see the foundation being strengthened the right way, I know it will be better.”
Hunter has 29 more games to convince owner Robert Sarver that a solid foundation is in place and that he’s the best candidate to put up the walls.
If he doesn’t do enough convincing, several interesting candidates will line up seeking interviews.
Two assistant coaches now working for elite NBA teams recently told me they plan to take a hard run at the Suns job.
“Not too many of these are available,” one of the interested assistants said, referring to NBA head-coaching gigs.
TWO POINTS OF INTEREST
With the offense struggling to a degree not seen in these parts for several years, Hunter has been using Goran Dragic and rookie Kendall Marshall on the floor together.
This two-point-guard experiment is nothing new around the league. Several teams have been doing it for years; after Dragic went nuts on the Spurs in San Antonio during the 2010 playoffs, a lot of local hoops watchdogs were expecting Gentry to pair him with Steve Nash on occasion.
Those occasions were rare.
“It really frees up Goran to just score,” Hunter said of using him as a part-time shooting guard. “I think he’s a natural scorer. He has the ability to run free and create ... kind of like (San Antonio’s Manu) Ginobili.”
If Dragic could incorporate a smidgen of Ginobili’s change-of-pace chutzpah, The Dragon would be truly dangerous.
Although Marshall isn’t much of a shooter and not great at dribble penetration, either, he does have enough size to at least battle the more reasonably sized two guards on defense.
WHAT SHOULD BEASLEY ’DO?
Despite a rousing performance against the Lakers in Steve Nashapalooza, first year Suns hybrid forward Michael Beasley is making only 33 percent of his field-goal attempts at US Airways Center.
More at home away from home, his success rate rises to 45 percent on the road.
While his confidence and minutes have increased since Hunter took over, his last shift at home produced a 2-for-11 mark in the opening half against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Instead of taking the ball strong to the rim, Beasley spent much of the night tossing up low-percentage attempts on his drives.
They went in at a high rate during that rally against the Lakers; unfortunately, that’s rarely been the case otherwise for a player who – even with Hunter’s green light – has shot two or fewer free throws in eight of the 12 games since Gentry left.
But if you’re not expecting Beasley to improve on defense, attack the rim with a purpose and try initiating his offense within reasonable distance from the rim, at least you can monitor his changing hairstyles.
Currently registered as the fifth-worst team (by record) in the NBA, the Suns are in solid position to grab the highest pick the franchise has owned since it selected Armon Gilliam of UNLV at second overall in 1987.
If you’re rooting for that high pick, please note the Suns have four more games with the eighth-seeded (Western Conference) Houston Rockets, two each with the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors, and one each with the Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers.
Sure, the Suns have demonstrated the capacity to lose to any NBA team. But if Hunter and the gang elevate their level of performance a bit, the winnable-games list includes three matchups with the Minnesota Timberwolves, two each with the Sacramento Kings and rising Washington Wizards (six wins in their last 10 games) and one with the New Orleans Hornets.
No lottery review would be complete, of course, without the obligatory reminder that rooting for the Lakers to lose (and having them comply enough to miss the playoffs) can bring Phoenix another lottery selection.
Well, unless the team trades it away.
FUTURE SUNS, COLLEGE EDITION
Even though I love to watch college basketball, it hardly qualifies as high art these days.
OK, a grinding game co-starring defensive-oriented teams is swell, but to a point. Thanks to rules that allow more grabbing, pushing and lane clogging – teamed up with limited skill development at the lower levels – there aren’t many free-flowing events to witness.
Who cares? Well, if you’re interested in putting together your own scouting reports on the top candidates for lottery consideration in 2013, watching these games certainly helps.
So, while the Suns’ record slides them up or down the Ping-Pong-ball-combination scale, we can track the rise and fall of these prospects.
We can find out if Kansas Jayhawks redshirt freshman two guard Ben McLemore develops a killer instinct to match his dead-eye shooting touch and crazy explosiveness.
Also on our watch list is UCLA freshman swingman Shabazz Muhammad, whose lack of off-the-dribble shake doesn’t prevent him from frequently finding some sort of shot. How many games will Shabazz go before his next assist? Tune in and find out.
Another potential Suns target is shot-blocking Kentucky center Nerlens Noel, a flat-topped freshman who has more defensive range than anyone I’ve seen in a while and would look much better offensively if his backcourt teammates had even a trace of court sense. Unfortunately, his status is clouded by the season-ending torn ACL he suffered after hustling to make a chase-down block (on a fast-break opportunity created by another Kentucky guard turnover) in Tuesday’s loss at Florida.
Also, please don’t forget to check out 7-foot-1 Maryland big Alex Lin and ask yourself if he’ll turn out to be more than the second coming of Zydrunas Ilgauskas. At the least, the 19-year-old Ukranian whippersnapper is a lot more mobile than Z was when he entered the league.