Around the NBA
FEELIN' GOOD IN PHOENIX
The Phoenix Suns are entering a season filled with questions, and I'm not about to try to answer them.
But I will tell you what I do know:
* Stephon Marbury has changed for the better. Marbury will deny this, as he has said repeatedly that he didn't play any differently last season than in years past. In one sense, that's true. Marbury has always been an exciting and point-producing point guard, a tough New York City-type who will hit a jumper in your face then tell you all about it.
But last season, he gave his teammates a chance. By that, I mean he tried to get the other guys in the flow of the game before trying to take it over himself. He became one the NBA's most underrated passers and one of its staunchest defenders. Honest. And he still managed to average 22.3 points per game while toning down the trash talk.
All of this is good news for Suns fans, because as good as Marbury's supporting cast is becoming, he's still the cement that holds this team together. If Marbury continues to show the type of leadership and unselfish attitude he displayed last season, the Suns will always have a shot to make the playoffs. If he reverts to his me-first ways, they'll be lucky to finish .500.
* Shawn Marion is one of the league's most underrated rebounders. We all know that Marion can jump high enough to touch the scoreboard above center court, that he is a deadly mid-range shooter who's slowly extending his perimeter game to the 3-point line. But at 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds, he doesn't exactly have the build of a rebounding machine.
Then you watch Marion play and suddenly notice how he uses his energy, athleticism, and sheer will to chase down rebounds on a regular basis. This is supposed to be a new era in pro basketball, a time when superstars of the MTV generation get by on athleticism alone. They aren't supposed to HUSTLE. Well, somebody forgot to tell Marion, because last season he crashed the boards as if a pot of gold was about to fall off the rim.
This isn't to say Marion is The Next Dennis Rodman when the idea is gobbling up bushels of rebounds ... but it is to show there's a lot more to Marion than just his leaping ability.
* Amare Stoudemire put the power back in forward. No high-school-to-the-pros rookie since Moses Malone had as big of an impact as Stoudemire did last season. In fact, you could even argue that Stoudemire had a better first season than Malone (and you could use Malone's trade from the Buffalo Braves following his rookie year for support). But there's no way the Suns would trade Stoudemire, not after watching him power his way to the basket to the tune of 13.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game on his way to rookie of the year honors.
Granted, Stoudemire has a lot to learn, particularly on offense, where his only move is a power dribble, a drop step, and a monster dunk. This allowed other teams to figure out that the best way to slow down Stoudemire is to get tough with him -- and toward the end of the season, all it took was one physical defender to force him into frustration. At this level, you're not a true post threat unless you're getting double- and triple-teamed.
Still, you can't complain about Stoudemire's start. And the bad news for everyone else: He'll only get stronger and more fundamentally-sound.
* This isn't the Penny Hardaway from the days of the Li'l Penny commercials. When Penny Hardaway was playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal in Orlando, he was a tall, athletic, and confident point guard who many called a poor man's Magic Johnson. Now he's 32 years old and injury-prone. And a shooting guard to boot.
But Hardaway's role with the Suns wasn't appreciated enough last season, as Phoenix was soaring until he went out with a thumb injury. When he returned, the Suns started playing well again. Everyone talks about the job Scottie Pippen did as the steadying force for Portland, about the veteran leadership he provided for a team that desperately needed some. Well, Hardaway basically performed the same role for Phoenix.
I'll be honest, I like the older Hardaway much better than the younger version. He's no longer an All-Star, but he is a complete basketball player. Today's Hardaway reminds me very much of how current Seattle coach Nate McMillan played as a guard with the Supersonics. Like McMillan once did, Hardaway does a wonderful job of seeing the court and keeping things moving. He's also a positive influence in the locker room, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him coaching in the NBA someday.
As for the Li'l Penny commercials, they're long gone. And know what? Thank goodness.
* Yes, the Suns have a decent center. Actually, they have three decent centers, all of whom pretty much play the same way. I'm talking about Scott Williams, Jake Voskuhl, and Jake Tsakalidis. OK, none exactly rings up memories of Bill Russell -- or even Luc Longley, for that matter. But all three play hard and don't mind hustling for offensive rebounds, even if they do simply pass those rebounds back out to someone with a decent shooting touch. These three aren't going to score much or block many shots, but somehow, they're reliable and productive.
* You gotta like the bench. At the end of last season and in the playoffs, second-year swingman Joe Johnson became the Suns' sixth man. It was a brilliant move by Coach Frank Johnson, as Johnson could have been a candidate for the league's Sixth Man Award had he done it for the entire season. That's because the Suns didn't miss a beat when Johnson relieved either Hardaway or Marion. Sometimes, they actually picked up steam, thanks to Johnson's solid shooting and all-out hard work.
Then there are guys like Casey Jacobsen and Bo Outlaw. Neither will cause opponents to tremble with fear when they check into a game, but they both serve a valuable purpose.
Jacobsen is a second-year player with a remarkable perimeter game. He also is an underrated natural athlete who can get to the basket and draw fouls. Word is, Jacobsen spent his entire summer in the gym, working with a shooting coach to extend his already accurate 3-point game. Meanwhile, Outlaw is 100 percent energy, the one guy on the team who always thinks about defense first. He's also the one guy who is willing to guard anyone from Karl Malone to Ray Allen -- and even at the age of 33, Outlaw still loves the game enough to have spent the offseason playing summer league ball.
* As for the rookies ... Last year, the Suns stole Stoudemire with the No. 9 pick in the draft. This year, they may have done the same with 6-11 Zarko Cabarkapa at No. 17. Cabarkapa has been compared to Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki (he himself prefers Nowitzki), and if he's anything like either of those two, the Suns are in for a real treat.
At the very least, Cabarkapa is lanky, agile, and can hit the 3-pointer. He should contribute off the bench immediately, especially when you consider the Suns could use another shooter to extend opposing defenses.
The Suns also acquired the rights to Brazilian point guard Leandro Barbosa in a draft day trade with the Spurs. I've only see Barbosa play one time, and let me just say the guy has the funkiest jump shot I've ever seen -- but it goes in. He's also a good ballhandler and decent at slashing to the basket, and he'll be a nice replacement for Marbury when Marbury needs a breather.
In other words, for the second straight season, it appears Phoenix's front office got two young guys who can really help the team.
* Finally, the coach. Like a lot of the Suns, Frank Johnson doesn't get enough credit. Truth is, Johnson is an underrated X-and-O guy who demands that his players respect the game. He's also one of the few NBA coaches who has unwavering support from the front office, which means Johnson isn't afraid to yell at the players when every other motivational tactic fails.
And there's a reason Marbury changed his ways last season. It's because of Johnson, who often meets with the players one-on-one to let them know exactly which areas of their games need improving. Johnson isn't the best coach in the league, but he knows how to reach the modern-day millionaires in high tops, and especially, how to get everyone to play hard.
* The bottom line. As I said at the beginning, there are plenty of questions. Will Marbury maintain his winner's attitude? Will Stoudemire be as effective now that other teams will put a body on him? Will Hardaway hold up? Will young players such as Joe Johnson and Casey Jacobsen become more consist? Will everyone continue to respond to Coach Johnson?
If the answer to most of those questions is yes, the Suns will be right back in the playoffs -- and my guess is, they'll sneak up on a few people while there. After all, it could be argued that Suns gave defending champion San Antonio its most difficult playoff series.
No matter what happens, it should be enjoyable to seek some answers in Phoenix this season. That's because at the very least, the Suns will be lots of fun to watch.
And there's something to be said for that.
-- It's a good thing Atlanta is matching Utah's contract offer for restricted free agent Jason Terry. The Hawks are already in trouble, but could you imagine if the only point guards on the roster were Jacque Vaughn and Dan Dickau? Yikes. Terry said he didn't want the Hawks to match the offer, which had me thinking, "It's good to see there are still some guys out there who are willing to play in Salt Lake City." Anyway, the Hawks are keeping Terry, and I'm sure he'll learn to like it.
-- In other point guard news, Kenny Anderson is still without a team, as are Rod Strickland and Bimbo Coles. Anderson is reportedly leaning toward signing with Indiana, probably for the same veteran's minimum offer he rejected from Miami earlier this summer. Strickland and Coles are also being eyed by the Pacers, as well as Orlando, Utah, and Boston. Anderson will be 33 when the season starts, Coles 34, and Strickland 35.
-- The Boston Globe reports that New Jersey center Dikembe Mutombo has been telling friends he thinks he'll be traded to Toronto. Of course, Dikembe says a lot of things that never end up happening, and it actually wouldn't be surprising to see the Nets bring him back as insurance. Right now, their current starter is Alonzo Mourning, who as you know, missed all of last season with a kidney ailment.
-- Well, TNT will be at it again with its corny NBA-related commercials this season. The channel recently announced a new ad campaign that will feature players in parodies of "well-known nursery rhymes." All you need to know is that Cleveland rookie LeBron James will be featured in a parody of "Rock-a-bye-baby." Heaven help us.
-- Esther Amico (Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio) e-mailed to say that in the previous newsletter I wrote "bare with me" when I meant "bear with me." Thanks, mom. I need an editor. But I promise it was just a type-o, and that you didn't raise no dummy (I speak, of course, solely for myself and not my sisters).
-- Forward Donyell Harvey, who had a productive year last season in Denver, signed a one-year contract with Orlando. This was an underrated move by the Magic, who added another athletic swingman to an already loaded roster. I really like what Orlando has done in the offseason. It hasn't been flashy, but I have a feeling it's really gonna pay off.
-- A poll on the New Orleans Hornets' Web site asked readers to vote for the newcomer who they think will have the biggest impact. My pick, Darrell Armstrong, received 66 percent of the votes. Rookies David West (26 percent) and James Lang (five percent) were second and third, respectively, followed by veteran center Sean Rooks (three percent).
TRAINING CAMP NAMES
Names you may know that will be participating in NBA training camps in a couple of weeks:
Mike Wilks, Gabe Muoneke (Houston); Eric Chenowith, Jamal Sampson, Ime Udoka (L.A. Lakers); Quincy Lewis, Kirk Penney (Minnesota); Alton Ford, John Crotty, Shammond Williams (Orlando); Mark Pope (Phoenix); Tracy Murray, Mamadou N'Diaye, Robert Pack, Adam Keefe, Norm Richardson (Portland); George Williams (Toronto).
I promise to get back to responding to your e-mails in the next newsletter, so keep those questions coming (please don't forget to include your full name and hometown).
In the meantime, thanks so much for reading, as YOU are what makes this newsletter work. I am extremely grateful.
And finally ... training camp is just a few weeks away! (And if you're a Cleveland Browns fan like me, it couldn't come at a better time).
Anyway, the NBA season is almost here -- that, along with your e-mails, always gives me reason to smile.
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