BEFITTING THEIR Wild West setting, the Suns have run a shoot-'em-up offense the past four years, with point guard Steve Nash at the trigger. But with new sheriff Terry Porter in town—not to mention aspiring sheriff Shaquille O'Neal in the lineup—Phoenix has put its Seven Seconds or Less attack under a tombstone inscribed R.I.P.
"I'm a believer in playing up-tempo, but it has to start with defense," says Porter, who replaces Mike D'Antoni. "You make stops, and that enables you to run. That's a different mind-set than in the past."
Porter knows offense-first players such as Nash, Amaré Stoudemire and Leandro Barbosa won't turn into stoppers overnight, but he believes he can at least toughen up the team's soft underbelly. The former Pistons assistant has spent much more time working on defense in practice than did D'Antoni, emphasizing basics such as getting back in transition and steering opposing ball handlers toward the baseline, where O'Neal and Stoudemire can block or alter shots. "The main thing is to play with more of an edge and to be consistent," says Porter. "I want them to do it every night."
Come the playoffs, Porter hopes that the added defensive moxie will help them avoid the type of collapse that they suffered in Game 1 of their first-round series against San Antonio last April, when they blew a 16-point lead and lost in double overtime, a heartbreaker from which they never recovered. Will Phoenix learn from that meltdown? With an aging core in O'Neal (36), Nash (34) and Grant Hill (36), this could be its last roundup.
A rival scout on the SUNS: There's no future to Shaquille O'Neal. He could get off to a good start, but it's going to be hard for him to maintain that. He has been out of shape for so many years that he doesn't have much lift, and he's not as accurate scoring around the basket.... Amaré Stoudemire is past the age where you talk about his potential. Will he be a winner? He is an exceptional talent, but one thing he has never done is defend. So I don't know how much of a building block he can be as they try to create more of a defensive mind-set.... Rookie big man Robin Lopez from Stanford is going to be pretty good. He's surlier and a better defender than his twin brother, Brook, and I think he'll develop as a scorer now that he doesn't have to defer to his brother.... Terry Porter needs to take a hard look at what Mike D'Antoni ran last year and steal anything that worked. But the bottom line is that you can emphasize only one thing in training camp. You can't be a running team and a defensive team. You just can't.
Four of the Suns' returning starters shot 50% or better last year, helping them become the first team since the '96--97 Jazz to make at least half of its field goal attempts in a full (nonlockout) season.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2007--08 statistics
KEY BENCH PLAYERS: G Leandro Barbosa, F Boris Diaw, F Matt Barnes*, G Goran Dragic (R), C-F Robin Lopez (R)
Record: 55--27 (T-4th in West)
Points scored: 110.1 (3rd in NBA)
Points allowed: 105.0 (25th)
Coach: Terry Porter (first season with Suns)
CHANGE OF PLAN Nash (above) will not be pushing the ball as much in Phoenix's new system, which will limit fast-break opportunities for the high-flying Stoudemire (opposite).
[See caption above]
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
DAVID E. KLUTHO
BARRY GOSSAGE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES