Sunday, March 18, 2012

Phoenix is, er, Moving Up In The World

The Suns, previously scorned as a lottery consignee not worthy of Steve Nash's talents, are now 23-22 after defeating Houston by 13 tonight. The Suns have won 11 of 14 games and are now just 1 win back of Houston, which holds the 8th playoff position in the Western Conference. Lost earlier in the season, Coach Alvin Gentry has whipped his charges into shape by sitting free-agent disappointments from 2010 (Warrick, Childress), running his offense around pick-and-rolls with Marcin Gortat, and letting Jared Dudley bother opponents at both ends. Gentry, like Gregg Popovich in South Texas, wisely sits his older players at opportune moments; Nash and Grant Hill did not touch the floor last week in a road game against the Clippers, the middle frame of a back-to-back-to-back set. Stupendously, the Suns found a way to win the game anyway. And for Phoenix owner Robert Sarver, who values financial performance a bit more than other owners who crave a championship, a fringe playoff contender with Steve Nash on the roster puts more butts in seats than Sebastian Telfair and Markieff Morris would.

But Phoenix is not the only Western team to defy expectations. Utah, which was, following the February 2011 trade of Deron Williams, billed as a rebuilding team featuring four rookies or second-year players, also sits at 23-22 and will likely battle until late April for that final playoff spot. The Jazz's decision to sign veteran free agents Raja Bell and Josh Howard, and not to trade veterans Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, and Devin Harris, looked questionable in the frenzied fortnight of roster building last December after the lockout. With so much young talent, Utah need not worry so much about winning games, went the thinking. But the strategy has paid off: Hayward, Favors, Burks, and Kanter are beginning to thrive, and occasional (but not daily) starts have helped them ease into stardom. Better to develop them in a winning culture than a Bobcats-like woebegone culture. And the flip side of amassing FOUR lottery picks is that more top young talent would do more harm than good, messing with floor chemistry and team economics. So Utah has no need to "tank" this season. And with the NCAA men's basketball tournament running this month, let us not forget that Hayward came within a few centimeters of leading his team to the national championship two years ago. That guy is really good!