On Sunday, Suns general manager Steve Kerr announced that his team needs to get tougher defensively. They're in "evaluation mode," assessing the Planet Orange and its options as the Suns' championship window slowly drifts down the frame, guillotine-like. As if on cue, the Suns sealed the next night's 100-98 victory over San Antonio with a last-second Boris Diaw steal.
The easy lesson: To get past the Spurs, the Suns need to more reliably get stops like that. But that silver and black they beat was short one All-Star point guard, and a certain All-Everything big man had 20/10 in the first half alone. The Suns might be making progress, but they still have a ways to go before they can leverage defense against elite teams like the Spurs. And this season, there's just not any way they can make that leap.
They don't have the means to acquire a DPOY-like stud, and adding one more hard-nosed role player isn't going to transform the team. This year, the Suns have no choice but to see once again if offense can win a title.
The Suns are no longer a defensive sieve. Shawn Marion and Raja Bell are near-elite about their business, and swapping in Brian Skinner for Kurt Thomas was a wash. Still, the team is always going to be vulnerable against a three-headed monster like San Antonio.
Yes, Phoenix won Monday night despite Tim Duncan's colossal numbers. It's been suggested that Phoenix has given up on containing Duncan, as San Antonio did with Amare Stoudemire in the 2005 Conference Finals. But Tony Parker's also capable of taking over games. If the Big Fundamental rolls like that, and Parker gives defenders fits, all of a sudden Monday's victory doesn't provide such a pristine template.
Steve Nash and Amare are the heart of Phoenix's offense; they're also both defensive liabilities, and they keep Marion especially doing double-duty. So what does Phoenix need? To compensate for those two dreamers, it would take a serious impact player to compensate. An Andre Kirilenko, Marcus Camby, Tyson Chandler, Tayshaun Prince, or Gerald Wallace.
The only problem is, none of these guys are available, except for possibly Kirilenko. Other than trading Marion, which would represent a step back, math precludes AK-47's making his way to the desert.
Bill Simmons suggests trading Amare to help the defense. Certainly, the 2005-06 season showed that this team can thrive without its stud semi-center. But if size is at least as important as defense to winning titles, why would the Suns trade away an All-Star big man?
If Phoenix decided to embrace all the Right Way cliches, Stoudemire would still be an indispensable presence. Amare may have his fair share of mental lapses and foolhardy mistakes, but he's essential to their half-court game (which also wins championships) and is an intimidating shot-blocker when he's not left scratching his head.
So realistically, the Suns are looking at adding a non-elite defender. To get this hypothetical player on the floor -- or maybe even to acquire him in the first place -- they'll have to fiddle with the roles of starter Grant Hill and super-sub Leandro Barbosa.
Hill has been an invaluable addition to the Suns attack, bringing a mid-range game that everyone but Nash lacks. Diaw put away Monday night's game, but it was Hill's clutch 17-footer that put the Suns in the proverbial driver's seat. Barbosa is one of the more feared scorers in the league, a long, blindingly fast guard who leaves defenders tripping over themselves.
So should they sacrifice their non-paralleled scoring punch to become a slightly better team at the other end? That leaves them unexceptional on both counts, which is hardly the look of a contender. The Suns are an elite offense. They aren't about to become an elite defensive team. Here and now, the Suns have no choice but to challenge the conventional wisdom about what wins championships.
Besides, it's not like this current Suns team hasn't gotten close with that philosophy. Had it not been for those pesky suspensions of Amare and Diaw, they would've taken the Spurs to seven games in the Western Conference Finals. Against Dallas in 2006, they took the WCF to six, and might well have won it if they'd had Amare, who, for all his shortcomings, is a better defender and stronger offensive presence than Boris Diaw.
So instead of worrying about defense, Steve Kerr and the Suns should stand up tall and accept who they are. A decent defensive team with a world-class offense. A group who could turn the "it all comes down to defense" cliche on its head. For them, it will -- it has to -- come down to offense. There's no way to change that now, and a clear-headed revolution makes for a much more inspired team. They're playing for something more than a ring, and they need to realize this.
Wool Shirt of the Week: John Salmons's Plight
A hairshirt makes you look silly and feel uncomfortable. A wool shirt looks good, but still makes you uncomfortable. The Wool Shirt of the Week calls out a player or team that makes my inner-fan jump off the couch -- while my inner-analyst snorts in contempt.
If I were an NBA team, I'd always go with best available and sort the rest out later. Things never go well when teams focus too hard on need, especially if they're not solidly on the road to contention. It leads to travesties like Andrew Bogut going first overall, or Don Nelson never inventing the Golden State Warriors.
But sometimes, it can lead to its own kind of headache. To wit: Today's Sacramento Kings. To be sure, they're a bad team. However, they have some decent young talent -- and there's no way to get them all minutes. For starters, there's Kevin Martin, a pure two with perennial All-Star written all over him. Martin's been out, which has opened a spot for one of the intriguing young swingmen, John Salmons or Francisco Garcia.
This season, Salmons has turned into a stat-stuffing adventurer, putting up points, grabbing rebounds, and registering assists like a key offensive cog. Garcia is no slouch either. Still under a rookie contract, he's erratic and is sometimes lacking in judgment. But Garcia's got range, some PG-ish skills, and the ability to make defensive plays. He's also someone who seems to gain confidence from additional minutes.
Complicating everything is that dude Ron Artest. Ron Ron can play the four, and probably should to get everyone in the game. But Artest's most comfortable at the three, and so you've got four very good to star-ish players going for the same two slots.
I don't know if there's an easy answer; as much as I would like to recommend playing all four at once, this isn't exactly the group for that. Sacramento's not abjectly rebuilding, but they're stuck in a limbo that's no less maddening. Sometimes, I cry a little.
Watch or Die: Clash of the Big Dudes
Magic at Rockets, 12/19: The Magic may be tumbling back to earth. But they've still got Dwight Howard, and he'll still have to match up with Yao Ming, and I fully expect to feel my television quake.
Lakers at Cavs, 12/20: I'm a sucker for national games that have "two-man scoring battle" written all over them. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James may both be smart basketball players, but they now what's up here. Forty points for each of them, but Andrew Bynum steals the show.
Sixers at Grizzlies, 12/22: This is only for the hardcore. I haven't watched breakout star Rudy Gay or Andre Iguodala yet this season. This Saturday night, I just might stay in and kill two birds with one stone.
This Week's Great Moment in NBA Photography
When I was younger, I used to go visit my father's relatives in Miami. Here, ref Bob Delaney and a bunch of Pistons reenact one such visit.