16 September 2008

The long, slow march towards conventionality (or, the inevitable decline and fall of the Phoenix Suns)

I don't think I could ever actually swear off basketball entirely, particularly after the last two (okay, three) years, where a game that had stagnated under the weight of boring-as-hell teams to watch like the Detroit Pistons and the San Antonio Spurs finally brought back some of the fun. D-Wade killing himself on the floor to win that championship (sure, maybe the refs were right there with him – those were too many free throws for any human being to make in any game, unless they're playing Bill Laimbeer's Combat Basketball – but he won a championship for one of my all-time, all-time favorite players, Alonzo Mourning) might've been the image burned into most everybody's brain, but for me, the only thing that mattered was Steve Nash (MVP!) and the Phoenix Suns.

That was the year the Suns really got around to playing basketball the way it was meant to be played: with heart, and with soul. Nash, the man with eyes on every side of his head (not just the front and back); Shawn Marion, the insecure hero who'll still do anything asked of him; Amare Stoudemire, the super-athlete man-child; Leandro Barbosa, who I kind of hope makes his way to New York so he can run the latest incarnation of the D'Antoni offense; Raja Bell, the gritty heart of the team... Those Suns were magic on the court, and somehow moreso precisely because they didn't win it all (if you haven't gotten around to reading Jack McCallum's “Seven Seconds Or Less” - about the 2005-06 Suns team – you really should take the time); that might have something to do with the “imagine what could've been” mystique that shrouds teams that fall short of their apparently limitless potential.

Anybody that says that “fundamental” basketball is more fun to watch than run-and-gun, risky, emotionally exhilarating/exhausting basketball is either lying or completely untrustworthy. Anybody who didn't jump out of their chair/couch when the Suns (incoming pun) caught fire and went on one of their trademarked unbroken scoring runs by playing gutsy, ballsy basketball doesn't understand the beauty that's inherent in the game (though, if it happened to your team, a different reaction might be excusable). The aesthetics of fundamentals pale in comparison to a no-look, alley-oop pass.

In a lot of ways, the 2005-06 season was when my basketball-watching experience peaked. The return of the fast-break, up-tempo philosophy that'd fallen by the wayside long ago injected into the game not just a sense of excitement, but one of almost old-fashioned idealism, a return to the good old days, if you will (seeing as how I wasn't alive for them, I'm viewing them through even more thoroughly rose-colored glasses than most). I had this inappropriate hope that maybe, just maybe, the Suns were going to herald a sea change in the National Basketball Association, that the fast-break would run through the league like wildfire. Perhaps this was a sign of a better world to come (and in this world, we needed all the hope we could get).

It was aided and abetted the next year by the improbable run of the Baron Davis-led, Nellieball-playing Golden State Warriors, who returned to prominence and relevance by throwing caution to the wind and just playing basketball. Watching their systematic dismantling of the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs, as they took control of the series and never looked back, allowed me to hope that I was right; sure, the revolution was going to take a while (many do), but once the Suns and the Warriors and their brothers-in-arms had finished remaking the league in their own image, we could finally say goodbye to plodding, creep-along basketball that had driven me, and so many like me, past the point of disinterest in the NBA, and basketball in general.

All of those hopes and dreams came crashing down with one simple hip-check. You know the one I'm talking about (and if you don't, a simple search for “Cheap Shot Rob” on YouTube will enlighten you). Grace, beauty, and style were driven out by artless physical domination. “The beginning of the end” is what I've come to call it.

It's not unreasonable that the Suns decided they needed to “get tougher” after losing in the playoffs to the Spurs once again; Horry's classless dropping of Nash to the floor exemplified the Achilles' heel of my hoped-for revolution in style: when finding yourself facing an opponent wielding a baseball bat, if you're holding an epee, you're going to have to fight perfectly in order to win. When all your enemy needs is one good shot to take you out, they're going to wait for their best opportunity. As much as I hate to admit it, the Suns played scared for the rest of that series, and that, as much as the suspensions of Stoudemire and Diaw, lost it for them.

I think there's a difference between physical toughness and mental toughness, and the Suns let that escape them. Anyone could see that they needed more players like Raja Bell, scrappy guys that never let the opposition get in their head, not like Brian Skinner, who can push people around and maybe get a rebound or two, but who contribute virtually nothing to the team's overall philosophy of scoring as many points as you can as quickly as you can. But, given that this is not a perfect world, where the things I dearly hope for very rarely happen (Firefly, anyone?), the Suns got tougher in precisely the wrong way, and it cost them. They started down the slippery slope to being a “conventional” basketball team, and there are too many of those as it is.

I don't actually want this to be taken as a condemnation of the Shaq trade, because I thought it was a fantastic idea at the time. Part of this, obviously, harkens back to Bill Simmons' long-running “No Balls Association” joke: since they were obviously moving away from D'Antoni's fast-break strategy, but not quickly enough to make a discernible difference – and the only thing that drives me crazier than conventional basketball is a half-assed commitment to fast-break ball – they might as well roll the dice and try to redefine their entire team in one stroke, but there was more to it. I saw this Shaq trade, strange as it might be, as some actual long-term planning. One thing the Suns clearly lacked was a good tutor for their big man, and it showed. Amare does, and did, a great job in covering up his lapses in skill with ridiculous athletic prowess, but he wouldn't be able to do that forever. Shaq could teach him how to compete when his body started to slow down on him, how to use his head to compliment the rest of his game. Shaq could show Amare how to be a better big man, which would contribute greatly to that overriding goal of getting Steve Nash a championship.

Clearly, since we're here, and I'm writing this piece, it didn't work out immediately, and the window's closed another year further. They had to give up The Matrix to bring Shaq over from Miami, and while I'm certain that I wouldn't like Marion as a person if we ever had to interact with one another, I can't deny his talent, or his skill, as a player. His future ceiling is a lot higher than Shaq's, and his most natural replacement, the ever-unreliable Boris Diaw, I can't imagine ever filling me with confidence (you never know whether gamebreaker Boris or invisible Boris will show up). The worst part, obviously, is the departure of the architect of the whole grand scheme, Mike D'Antoni. If his fast-break didn't leave with him, it's sure to become a far more ancillary piece of the puzzle that Steve Kerr and his staff are trying to put together. I just despair that this team I love is going to get disassembled piece by piece; D'Antoni put together an unconventional team that's incapable of playing conventional basketball. That was what made them special, what made them worth watching and remembering.

I can't make anything resembling a prediction for this season yet; I'm going to have to wait and see if Coach Porter and his staff are going to let Nash and his compatriots languish in a system designed to stifle them, or if they'll let them cut loose one more time and give them all the tools they can to succeed where the nouveau fast-break mastermind failed. I know what I'm hoping for.

Oh, and it doesn't help one little bit that Baron bolted from the Warriors for the Clippers. I guess no one's commitment to the best sort of basketball is absolute.

And by virtue of the fact that the comment I received on this article (??) is brilliantly hysterical, I'm including it, and my 2-part response, for the sake of posterity:

by dirty at Oct 04 2008 02:54 pm

This article pisses me off.... i dont even know where to start. Which is why it took me so long to respond to it. I think you should swear off basketball entirely. Where were you in 04-05 (ok three years) fuck you. That was the best team we had. We would have won if JJ did not break his face, are you kidding me. One of your all time fav players is ZO? unless you have one kidney Zo should not be your favorite players. Run and Gun has always been the way the Suns have played, in the late 80's, 92-93 suns that went to the finals, KJ was full throttle all the time. I know Fat ass or Sir Charles clogged the lane in the half court set, but he could still run. J-Kidd and Antonio Mcdyess doing half court ally-oops. There was even a year when the suns had J-kidd, KJ, and Nash, all on the team at the same time. 05-06 was the year your basketball watching peaked. Um Amare was injured the whole year..... and i dont know why you wouldnt like Trix as a person. To me the problem was with Amare but the team had to side with Amare cause he is the franchise. And the overriding goal of getting nash a championship. Who the fuck cares about getting nash a championship. What about the city the fans, Jerry, all the former players. This franchise has never won a championship. it is much bigger than NASH. So no the suns are not going to fall or decline. We still have STAT. Sorry but this article just seemed like a fair weather fans critique..... and it really made me upset.
by Phil W at Oct 14 2008 09:33 am

I think there's a difference between a "fair weather fan" and a recent fan, and I'm more in the latter category. I've lived and died with this team for a couple of years now, so while I may not have all the decades of emotional investment that you apparently have, I've been right there with you for a while now. I'd like to think that means that there's more than brings us together than drives us apart, but, you know, it's not like we'll ever actually meet, so it doesn't matter all that much.

"Best team" doesn't necessarily correlate with "best season." Any Patriots fan could tell you that. I enjoyed '05-'06 best; I'm sorry if that's "wrong" somehow. Just my opinion.

And what if I did have focal segmental glomerular sclerosis and had to get a kidney transplant? Do you have something against people with one kidney? For the record, Alonzo's one of my favorite because of NBA Jam: TE. When I wanted to win, and handily, I played as Charlotte, and that was because of Alonzo. And because the man has an awesome voice.
A long-time fan such as yourself probably doesn't need to read a book about his team to attain a better understanding of them, but a recent convert does, which is why I read McCallum's book. That, buddy, is where I get the impression than Shawn and I wouldn't get along. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think so.

I also think you missed the point of the title, that it refers to a specific sort of run-and-gun that I think is going to slowly fade away with Coach D'Antoni's departure. That's depressing to me, because that's precisely what brought me back to basketball, for good or for ill. Amare's presence, or lack thereof, has little to do with that (and, by the way, I don't think anyone should be allowed to give themselves a nickname).

And I, by the way, care about getting Steve a championship. If I could develop a massage technique that'd relieve some of his back pain, I would.

Oh, one more thing. I think it weakens your entire argument when you "apologize" at the end of your posting. If you're going to tell me to fuck off and die and never write a single word about your team ever again, don't end by saying, "I'm sorry, but you just made me so upset..." End by restating your point that I should fuck off and die and never write a single word about your team ever again.

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