Kurt Thomas doesn't rush into things. He didn't play basketball until he was a junior at Hillcrest High in Dallas. "I was a bookworm," he said. "My parents made sure of that." Not highly recruited, he sneaked up on the hoops world in 1994-95, when, as a senior at TCU, he became the third player to lead the nation in scoring and rebounding. He then developed into a prized power forward during his seven years with the Knicks, recognized for his rugged, consistent and, well, unhurried presence.
As a newcomer to high-octane Phoenix, however, Thomas is going to have to start rushing things a little bit. Perhaps not his shot in the half-court offense, which he gets off deliberately and with near-perfect mechanics, but certainly the way he runs the floor. While the 6'9", 230-pound Thomas had been penciled into the starting lineup at center even before Amaré Stoudemire underwent the arthroscopic left knee surgery that will sideline him until at least February, the absence of the league's fleetest frontcourtman puts more pressure on every Sun to lace up his track shoes and fill the lanes.
Coach Mike D'Antoni is not expecting Thomas to suddenly take a pass from MVP point guard Steve Nash on the dead run and throw down a tomahawk dunk, something that the 23-year-old Stoudemire did about 300 times last season. But for Phoenix to continue to dictate tempo with its lethal fast break, Thomas will have to find a new gear somewhere in his 33-year-old body. "I admit it's been a change," says Thomas, "but I'll adjust. I always have." This, though, is one adjustment he'll have to make on the fly.
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Suns
"They'll be able to withstand Amaré Stoudemire's missing four months with a knee injury better than San Antonio, Miami or Houston could live without Duncan, Shaq or Yao because most of their points come in transition. The Suns also have to feel relieved that they traded for Kurt Thomas, who can give them scoring in the half-court.... What really sets them apart is that Mike D'Antoni trusts Steve Nash to run the offense as he sees fit. If you're only getting one guy back on defense, that's not enough. Not only do you have to contain Nash on the ball, but you also have to pick up their shooters at the three-point line.... By trading Quentin Richardson and Joe Johnson, they gave up more than half of their three-point scoring. But their replacements should all benefit from D'Antoni's system. Raja Bell can play at full speed and is an excellent defender; James Jones is long and can hit threes. While Boris Diaw lacks that kind of range--inviting defenses to back off him in the pick-and-roll--he can get into the lane and may thrive as a playmaker.... If they can be in or near first place when Stoudemire gets back, they'll be a scary team heading into the playoffs because so many of their players will be more confident after having taken on bigger roles while Amaré was out."
The Suns scored 16.2 more points per game last season than in 2003-04, the largest jump in the shot clock era. The old mark was 15.3, by the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959-60.
Projected Starting Lineup with 2004--05 statistics
Record: 62-20 (1st in West)
Points scored: 110.4 (1st in NBA)
Points allowed: 103.3 (30th)
Coach: Mike D'Antoni
(third season with the Suns)
BENCH 2004-05 STATS
4.8 ppg2.6 rpg2.3 apg0.56 spg42.2 FG% F-C AMARÉ STOUDEMIRE* 26.0 ppg 8.9 rpg 1.63 bpg 0.96 spg 55.9 FG%
*Injured (expected out until February)
BARRY GOSSAGE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES