The More Suns Change, the More They Stay the Same
When news of Los Suns first came down the pike, Dave Zirin joked to me, "and to think, I've hated [Robert] Sarver for years for breaking up Seven Seconds or Less."
Calm down, basketball insiders. While meddlesome, Sarver didn't order the end of this century's most beloved cult team (in Bill Simmons' nomenclature, "critically acclaimed"). Mike D'Antoni signed off on the Shaquille O'Neal trade, and Steve Kerr, not Sarver, was the new voice whose voice actually mattered. Regardless, it says something about the SSOL Suns that everyone who presided over their demise still has some explaining to do.
Everybody loved the Suns. Unfortunately, all their creativity and good vibes didn't translate into championships. In 2005, the Spurs thumped them in the conference finals; the following summer, they again made it to the edge of the West, only to lose to Dallas. The strongest team was the 2007 edition, but it lost to the Spurs in second round in a series marred by controversy, making the front office panic all the more infuriating.
Fast forward to 2010. D'Antoni is gone, and the Suns aren't the circus show they once were. But Shaq is gone, too. Terry Porter, who succeeded Mike D and tried to slow things down, has been replaced by Alvin Gentry, a, SSOL assistant. Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire are better than ever. And the Suns swept San Antonio -- a team that, like many around the league, now regularly pushes the tempo with a small lineup. SSOL isn't dead, it just went mainstream.
Under D'Antoni, Phoenix selectively played defense, thumbed its nose at basketball convention, and dared to make the game fun again. D'Antoni, at first with Bryan Colangelo handling personnel, never shied away from an unusual player or counter-intuitive lineup. They insisted on small-ball, called on an aging Steve Nash to restore the sanctity of the pure point guard, and blurred the line between exquisite execution and total mayhem.
Contrary to popular belief, there were in fact three incarnations of this team, each with a distinct personality. The 2004-05 squad, which pretty much consisted of Nash setting up Amar'e for dunks, Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson for threes, or Shawn Marion for either, was a holy terror. The 2005-06 vintage was without Johnson (free agency), Richardson (traded), or Amar'e (injured), but broke many of the last year's offensive records by relying on better shooters, more ball movement, and the discovery of point-center Boris Diaw -- formerly Atlanta's eighth-string PG.
For 2006-07, Stoudemire returned, and middle ground was achieved. Still, though, they counted on Marion and Raja Bell for most of their defense, and the former for most of the rebounding. It's annoying to say that "defense wins championships," or parrot some conventional wisdom about controlling the glass, especially when the Suns seemed to offer nothing less than a basketball revolution -- and the possibility of winning while thinking way outside the box.
Maybe the Suns could have won doing things their way; they certainly were that good. Yet we can't really fault this team for deciding that defense, rebounding and grit are a valuable resource. To modify a cliche slightly, cliches are true for some reason. The Shaq experiment took this thinking too far, and in the wrong direction -- O'Neal simply wasn't that good anymore. Yet it's a little snobbish, or some form of indie hoops purism, to punish this year's Suns for making some concessions to common sense.
After all, they haven't done so in normal, or expected, ways. The team that Steve Kerr -- who now looks like a freaking genius -- assembled leans heavily on an ancient Grant Hill, and unheralded energy guys Jared Dudley, Robin Lopez, Louis Amundson, and Channing Frye. Frye and Dudley have been taught the three-point shot. Jason Richardson is an explosive swingman smart enough to realize that this can be a supporting role. In the playoffs, much of the team's success has depended on making sure Nash gets a long period of rest, which means tapping either Leandro Barbosa or the iconic Goran Dragic to hold things reasonably steady.
This team hasn't gotten more normal, they've found unusual ways to get the ordinary taken care of. D'Antoni was fearless, remarkable, and absolutely blind. Kerr and Gentry haven't tampered so much as they have tinkered. This isn't a polluted SSOL, it's a pragmatic version. The irony is that, as the league has come around to the Gospel of D'Antoni (who has so far proven feckless with the Knicks), it's perhaps a more hospitable place than ever for Phoenix's style. That doesn't change the fact, though, that his vision was an incomplete one.
Are these Suns compromising, or advancing SSOL the only way that ever made sense -- by finding a way to address its weaknesses without undermining its strengths? Some might see a thwarted revolution, or call it a sell-out; this team lacks the rollicking idealism of 2004-2007. And yet there's a difference between revolution and progress. A revolution can't sustain itself without lapsing into parody or ugliness. Eventually, it becomes its own kind of orthodoxy, even conservatism.
Progress is when that spark gets over itself and makes nice with the world. It's when other teams realize the usefulness of point guards, apositional players, speed, and the overlap of style and strategy. It's also when the very people who fired the first shot put down their swords and decide to grow some food. I can sit here and tell you that the Suns were more exciting a few years back, and insist that the pure SSOL is the only way. Or, I can be thrilled that a close relative of that team, with the same two superstars at its core, swept the Spurs.
The Suns aren't martyrs for a cause anymore. Nor are they struggling desperately to fit in, as they did with Shaq. As Zirin later put it, "Steve Kerr knows more about winning championships than I do. What a shock." A large part of that isn't just knowing what a team needs, but what foundation they have to work from. Or, you know, what David Banner and Gatorade said.