The future belongs to others

If last year's Phoenix Suns had a more pronounced effect on attitudes around the Association, it was only because the '06 edition is so far ahead of its time. I've never thought it would be cute to call a basketball team "avant-garde," but here the cap fits the daughter; watching that game last night, I finally realized just how revolutionary this squad is. Not for the utter dependance on the three, the undersized line-up, the utter aversion to the static low post, or any of the superficial innovations that the rest of the league has, quite rightfully, been hesitant to adopt in the past. The Suns, like LeBron, are twisting up all the time and space nonsense that's become a given in the art of this sport. But while James forces these laws to collapse, allowing him access to normally contradictory qualities at a whim, the Suns don't even acknowledge the game. Weightless, ghostly, awesome in their ability to pull points out of thin air without any evident effort, the Suns are barely even playing basketball as we know it.

I've said enough on the Nash/Amare/Marion/Q/Joey Johnson team to bloat a thousand corpses, but their central lesson was that an overstuffed offensive machine could succeed if everyone got along. Say what you will about their reliance on Nash's ingenuity, or relative exile of Q and JJ to beyond the arc; the break keyed that team, yet their completeness and complexity as a unit was what made them so hard to contain for a full forty-eight. They scored a ton by playing basketball at a highly accelerated pace, executing as a blur that was as likely to explode as it was gracefully dissolve.

Minus #1 and their wayward wingmen, however, the Suns no longer had that option. Rather than beat basketball at its own game through sheer speed, creativity, and athleticism, D'Antoni now refused to even acknowledge the physical and psychological rules of NBA engagement. Watching them now is like a game-long exercise in the much-beloved "pull out the chair" defense, as the opposition grasps to figure out exactly what it is that goes in the Suns' collective brain during a possession. In last night's loss, it wasn't just that they had a chance to win with forty seconds left—to a man, they really didn't even seem to recognize that things had come down to the wire. Likewise, the dramatic dunks that Marion is wont to conjure up are much more significant for what they don't do; it's almost as if he, and the Suns fans, are mocking simplistic squads who depend on such cheap, primitive cues to get their offensive juices flowing. We've all heard every single announcer on earth point out that it's the three-pointer that really gets their home crowd inspired. Until yesterday, this sounded to me like the utmost curse of weakness and abstraction. Now, I'm convinced that it's proof of what the Suns are: a rational team in a fundamentally irrational sport.

So much of NBA ball rests on certain prized assumptions: control the boards, don't be afraid to penetrate, establish an offensive presence in the post, get stops to assert control of the game, clamp down in the final moments, get in your opponent's head, exploit mismatches to create points or opporunities for them, acknowledge positions, get to the line whenever possible, value the clock, etc. Most of these are either myth or depend on having like-minded foes on your plate. The Suns, however, simply could not give a fuck less about any of these. They play like a bunch of preschoolers on the soccer field, or a hoard of profligate gymnasts auditioning for a celebrity game of HORSE. Some commentors on here and friends over my phone have professed admiration for Phoenix's "elegance" and "crispness." Seriously though, I often feel like I'm watching a shootaround; there's only incidental attention paid to the defense and, even then, it's mostly only treated as an annoyance buried deep in Nash's/D'Antoni subconscious. Diaw and Marion ping-pong around the court at will, sometimes taking advantage of their ability to humble anyone on the floor, mostly just throwing up shots whenever they get a remotely clear look.

Is this such a bad thing, though? The Suns have, in essence, decided that the culture of basketball isn't worth their trouble. And from a Moneyball-ish perspective, it kind of isn't. Phoenix wins not against the odds, but because they just don't care about the distractions that make basketball, especially playoff basketball, what the gatekeepers of myth so prize it to be. It's not just that they're really fast or productive—the Suns aren't fast as a sign of utter determination, or productive as a way of blowing the opposition out of the water (as they were last year).

I hate having to do this, but I can't help but thinking that the Suns deconstruct the value of the time and space-related labels I began this post by talking about. They're redefining winning basketball without acknowledging that they're flying in the face of convention; small, fast, limited in what parts of the court they can hold down, full of "tweeners," in love with the three and unorthdox spacing, they never seem interested in proving their critics wrong by turning these "weaknesses" into "strengths" within the conventional framework of the game, making us recognize them as valid means to an accepted end. Instead, they go out and do their thing nightly, and leave it up to their baffled opponents to figure out if the rest of the Association should follow suit.

That said, they're still losing to Dallas in seven.


At 5/27/2006 1:41 PM, Blogger EMC said...

Didn't Paul Westhead, post-Lakers, do the same thing years ago with ... uh ... some team or other? And why didn't it work then, and why does it work now?

And isn't Phil J. starting to look like genius for almost beating the post-modernist Suns with straight-up Enlightenment b-ball?

At 5/27/2006 2:39 PM, Blogger Thomas M. said...

I imagine that Westhead's teams didn't have the same level of success because they didn't have players like Nash and Diaw, who are equally capable of scoring or giving somebody else the easy score. Players are often identified as 'pass-first' or 'score-first', both of those guys sit comfortably on the fence, being both at the same time.

Add onto this that one of the most crucial parts of the puzzle is Tim Thomas, one of the most unlikable and seemingly cancerous players in the league, now meshing perfectly systemically and personally (seemingly) after having to sit out most of the season.

The Suns fly in the face of basketball orthodoxy. They're like the BLAST! of the modern NBA.

At 5/27/2006 3:34 PM, Blogger crawfish warmonger said...

EMC- Westhead's system didn't translate well to the pros because of a few reasons:
1. pressing and trapping doesn't rattle NBA teams like it does some college squads
2. deeper teams don't get as winded by the pace
3. Michael Adams' shot was even uglier than Shawn Marion's (and considerably less effective. in that system, dude made Vernon Maxwell look downright modest as a chucker)
4. they had Chris, not Joe, Jackson (nee M.Abdul-Rauf)
5. Orlando Woolridge is not Boris Diaw
6. Not only was Laphonso Ellis not Amare Stoudamire, he probably wasn't even James Jones
7. Denver's a harder town to run in?
8. I forgot what 8 was for
9. aliens
10. no Jeff Fryer

At 5/27/2006 6:12 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Westhead is now plying his trade with the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA. We'll see if it works there - Taurasi is a pretty awesome weapon to start with.

hh, teh - I think the main issue is he doesn't have Per Stumer. Or The Human Bruise.

At 5/27/2006 6:49 PM, Blogger crawfish warmonger said...

T, as a fellow Rocket fan, let me tell you how bummed I am that Richie Frahm didn't do much in his brief stint as a Kette. I've been thinking he has the Fryer nature, more so than anyone else in the association. I really hope he gets Barry's roster slot next year. Freeing Frahm, now that would be liberating.
Shoals, oddly enough I was wondering when this post would come. While watching the first Dal/PHX I was thinking how their style isn't just a gimmick, it's a sound tactic for trying to keep some of level playing field in a league that's only starting to rewarm to the idea of non trad. 5ives. But even more FD (my perception of yall anyways) than that, is the idea that the Suns don't win with 'THE team concept' (which for the past 10 years has devolved to whether your mugging is coordinated and well-communicated), they win with
" 'A' team concept". It's a return not to the days when everyone played fast and scored a lot, it's a return to when there were fast teams, slow teams, big teams, and teams that only won in their dungeon of a gym.
In other words, The D'Antoni Transform doesn't go without certain components obviously, but those components (Nash, Marion, 1) aren't assembled to win necessarily as a unit + 2 on the floor, they're put together to enforce a specific concept, an ideal, of basketball, as it were. It's quite monotheistic really. When the Suns get ecumenical and have to acknowledge other hoop cosmogonies (scoring under 100, having to play only 6 men), their religion wilts faster than Urantia cells in Rucker, Alabama. No, the Suns must forcibly proselytize their culture of basketball in 41 engagements with heathens a year and further entrench the message of speed on their own turf the rest of the time. But in the final analysis, I fear it will be as you say, and this will not be the year of the league's full re-education.

wv:stctk (Suomi takes cake, throws knives)

At 5/28/2006 2:40 AM, Blogger billikenbluff said...

The Suns are composed of players without pasts. There are no Kevin Garnetts, NY Rangers 1940s chants, or even Mark Cubans. It's a like a team of individuals who were orphaned at birth and feel no obligation to play according to any set style or in any tradition. There are no parents to make proud or expectations to live up to. They have no allegiance to franchise or country.

They are also full of players and coaches of murky origins. Diaw, Barbosa, D'Antoni. Who knows where they learned their craft? I know nothing of pickup bastetball in Paris, San Paulo, or Firenza. Tim Thomas is a born again. They are beyond reproach.

This reminds me of the final scene from 25th Hour narrated by Brian Cox. Ed Norton is escaping from legal entanglements in NYC and considers driving west to the desert maybe to Phoenix:

So you go...and you never come back. You never come home. We'll drive. We'll keep driving. Head out to the middleof nowhere. Take that road as far as it takes us.

You've never been west of Philly, have you? This is a beautiful country, Monty. It's beautiful out there.

Looks like a different world --
mountains, hills, cows, farms,and white churches.

I drove out west with your mother one time before you was born. Brooklyn to the Pacific in three days.

Every man, woman,and child alive
should see the desert one time before they die.

Nothing at all for miles around,
nothing but sand and rocks and cactus and blue sky. Not a soul in sight. No sirens, no car alarms,nobody honking at you, no madman cursingor pissing on the streets.

You find the silence out there.
You find the peace.
You can find God.

But yea, I still see them losing to Dalls.

At 5/28/2006 12:30 PM, Blogger jon faith said...

Such a sublime juxtaposition. Thanks, man. Cheers - jon

At 5/28/2006 4:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

um, a little too academic for me...

At 5/28/2006 5:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why Dallas in 7? Why not in 5? Reason being they know how to beat those guys. That's the thing that has struck me about Dallas, how quick they learn how to beat the other team. Take game 1--by the 2nd half, after some Avery Johnson adjustments, they had figured out how take some measure of control of the game. Of course they lost that one, but not to the Suns, not to D'Antoni and the run and gun, but (mostly) to Steve Nash. Dallas pretty much got over the much bally-hooed Sun's offense quickly.
On the opposite side, the Sun's don't ever seem to try to figure how to beat any one particular team. They have one strategy and they try to employ it constantly (if inconsistenly). You don't get the sense that Phoenix knows how to beat any any one particular team, though they can beat "The Many". Which is bad news when you are playing a very flexible team like Dallas.
If Phoenix is like a mythical bird of prey (pardon the metaphor)--fast, strong and incisive--then Dallas is more like doppleganger who can change form depending on the context. Philosophically, Phoenix is more absolutist, Dallas more relativistic.
I'm going with the relativists since, given my lack of nostalgia for foundationalist belief systems, the relativists have always made more sense to me.
(Unless God exists, of course, and intervenes on the Sun's behalf.)

At 5/28/2006 5:32 PM, Blogger bobduck said...

It's not Dallas in 5 because Phoenix has an uncanny ability to take every series to 7, even if they should lose it. Take the first round: if the foul on Kobe driving to the basket in Game 1 was called, or if Tim Thomas hadn't had the game of his life (also Game 1), the Lakers sweep the Suns. Even PhilJax, who did his best job of coaching ever was somewhat powerless as the Suns were winning 3 straight.

Personnell probably made the difference in that series; Phoenix got valuable PT from just about everyone, while Kwame Brown, et. al. had a strange disability where it's impossible to make a basket within 5 feet.

However philosophically or talent-ly superior Dallas is, Phoenix has the ability to win games despite being badly outplayed. You could make the case that Phoenix was outplayed in each of its first two series, and look where they are now.

At 5/28/2006 11:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. Nice writeup on the Suns. They might go out in six though if Bell doesn't heal up quick.


3. Liquid Giraffe, yo: I was going through my Savage Sword of Conan collection to try and see how many issues I could find that had a character that looked like Dirk Nowitzki. Turned out it was like almost every one. Wir spielen Witzkrieg.

At 5/29/2006 1:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

bobduck, I think it will be harder for the Suns to win that way against Dallas. Dallas is little bit deeper and a little bit smarter than the LA's. Of course Phoenix could take it to 7 and no one would be surprised. I just want to float the possibility that Dallas is dominant on a scale that Phoenix--and most teams--can't compete with. So why not Mav's in 5? I'm not completely sure about this idea myself but I do wonder if the Mav's are a bit under-rated, against Phoenix in particular.

At 5/29/2006 2:23 AM, Blogger bobduck said...


Dallas will definitely give the Suns a harder time, and after watching tonight's game I'm more inclined to agree with you about the 5 game possibility. However, Phoenix can be outplayed, even badly beaten, and still manage to win the game. There is not doubt in my mind that Dallas is the better team, but Phoenix has the ability to take this series all the way.

Postscript: What is it with announcers and misusing "intellectual" words? Why can't they just stick the language of the common man and leave "peripheral" and the like to people who have time to think about how to use them?

At 5/29/2006 5:43 AM, Blogger Thomas M. said...

One thing that's stuck with me during the playoffs is the constant reiteration by the various announcers/pundits that you don't want to be the team reacting, you want to be the team forcing reactions from the other team.

I can understand this somewhat in the sense that most teams have a System and allowing another team to take you outside your System (instead of vice-versa) is risking not knowing what to do in certain situations and generally inviting chaos.

On the other hand, this doesn't allow teams to win through flexibility. The theory seems to be that whichever team is more monolithic in their style will win the game, which seems to fly in the face of the Mavs, who can either play a half-court grind like the Spurs or a small-ball running game like the Suns and most importantly, can switch between the two relatively easily.

At 5/29/2006 10:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shoals, only a couple things about the post. I liked it, but the paragraph about the myths that the suns don't give a fuck about is a bit off.

Controlling the boards- The suns have been switching to their version of a bigger lineup more and more during the past 2 series, tim thomas has been starting instead of getting 20 off the bench, and they have been doing everything they can to try and keep up with the clips and suns on the boards. When they were even with the clips on the boards, they won. They had a nash, and all forward lineup out there last night too.

don't be afriad to penetrate- Nash and barbosa do it at will. It's how nash gets his teammates so many open looks. He drives constantly. Same with diaw, barbosa and marion.

establish a post presence- they don't slowly back down, make a drop step and score but marion and diaw have certainly been working the post a lot this playoffs especially diaw. Diaw is making things happen from the post where he's too quick, too athletic and too good a passer to defend. He is scoring from it and creating all sorts of points for others from it.

create and exploit mismatches- This is probably the biggest key to the suns. The high pick and roll where diaw or marion come over and set a mean moving high pick to get the big man to guard nash, and the point to guard diaw/marion. That's how nash gets most of his points. With the big man on him, he scares him back then shoots or drives around him because that means the lane is open because the rest of the defense is defending the 3. Or he gives it to diaw to post up on a small guy.

get in your opponents heads- Mike D does a great job at this because of his seemingly "pull out the chair" defense. He lulls teams into taking quick, bad shots and to play a lot faster than they want to. He makes every player on the other team think he's a 40 point scorer and you get a lot of guys rushing 3s(god help us if the suns play miami and antoine walker in the finals). All you hear about with the suns is how they get teams to try and run with them and how hard it is to keep your mind straight and just play your game how you want to play it against them.

I liked the article shoals, i just had a problem with that little sentence, because while i feel the suns are breaking the mold, they're still using the traditional nba ways to win, they're just forming them to what they want to do which is what good coaches are supposed to do.

At 5/29/2006 2:03 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...


i know that the suns give a fuck, and that in some ways do all these things, but it's not always readily apparent that they're getting these things done. and they are not always the first priority of the team.

they have been doing everything they can to try and keep up with the clips and suns on the boards.

obviously they get rebounds, but other than marion, who is in there as "that guy that helps us secure the boards?" they get rebounds because they have players running all over the place and retrieving a lot of missed jumpers, not because they're setting up for it in the traditional way.

don't be afriad to penetrate- Nash and barbosa do it at will. It's how nash gets his teammates so many open looks. He drives constantly. Same with diaw, barbosa and marion.

it's been said a million times on here that nash looking to score is the kiss of death for the suns. he penetrates, but doesn't go strong to the basket--it's a red herring and he usually kicks it out. diaw and barbosa drive a lot, but it's usually once they have the benefit of a relatively wide-open. once the offensive scheme has fucked up the defense's sense of space.

establish a post presence- they don't slowly back down, make a drop step and score but marion and diaw have certainly been working the post a lot this playoffs especially diaw.

they don't feed the post when there's a frontline down there to be reckoned with. it's usually one-on-one, out a ways from the lane, and more a weapon of surprise.

create and exploit mismatches- This is probably the biggest key to the suns.The high pick and roll where diaw or marion come over and set a mean moving high pick to get the big man to guard nash, and the point to guard diaw/marion. That's how nash gets most of his points.

again, this does happen, but it's not in a "so and so can't guard this guy, he'll have this all night" way. the entire team is a mismatch, since everyone's role and position is always in flux and almost arbitrary.

get in your opponents heads- All you hear about with the suns is how they get teams to try and run with them and how hard it is to keep your mind straight and just play your game how you want to play it against them.

i was talking mostly about on offense, but also on defense in the traditional way. there's nothing the suns do that would warrant trash-talking.

I liked the article shoals, i just had a problem with that little sentence, because while i feel the suns are breaking the mold, they're still using the traditional nba ways to win, they're just forming them to what they want to do which is what good coaches are supposed to do.

obviously they aren't not doing ANY of these things in ANY way, but can we agree that when they do employ traditional nba themes, they do so in bugged-out, non-tradtional ways?

At 5/29/2006 2:29 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

actually i just re-read what i wrote. . . all the words that passed between us still hold as true, but my "they don't give a fuck" was meant more psychogloically than tactically. as in they don't seem, as an operation, to rally around and feed off of these basketball totems. sometimes i wonder if they feed off of anything, other than pure production.

At 5/29/2006 2:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's exactly what my last paragraph said. I just think it's a bit short sighted(although it makes for a more dramatic post) to say they reject traditional nba themes when i clearly showed that they still use most all of them. All of the things you said they don't do are fundamental to their success. Such as harris on nash isn't a mismatch, just as dirk on diaw isn't much of a mismatch, but when they run the pick and roll almost every half court set play, dirk can't keep up with nash so he usually has to concede the jumper(which nash takes gladly), and harris on diaw won't work and diaw is really smart about going straight to the post up for the mismatch. This is all key to what mike d wants to do. The suns don't have pure rebounders like dampier, but they certainly care about getting the boards because they know it's essential. Because the suns shoot so many 3s, having a dedicated 7ft stiff rebounder doesn't help them because of the long rebounds. That's why small athletic small forwards help them so much and why tim thomas has been playing so much in the playoffs.

You can nitpick things, but you still showed that all of those things are key to the suns' success. I'm not knocking your post or anything because while i'm a bit burned out on this year's suns(because i was so high on them in the regular season), i still enjoy them. Like one of the commentors said, if they're so evolutionary and out of this world, what does it say that they were picked apart by a lakers team not supposed to make the playoffs and the perrenial losers clippers? Simmons actually had a paragraph or two in his mailbag when talking about the suns. The players are all really good for that system. It's a different system sure, but if this team can't get it done, i don't know of other players in the league who can get it done with the suns system.

At 5/29/2006 4:09 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

This? Is gold for this site.

Two Wizards arrested for disobeying police

Chronicle News Services

MIAMI BEACH, FLA. - Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas and forward Awvee Storey have been arrested on charges of disobeying police.

Storey was blocking traffic in the middle of a street when an officer told him to get back to the sidewalk Saturday night, according to police reports. Storey refused. Arenas then got out of a vehicle and walked over, refusing to get back in his car. While being arrested, stated reports, Arenas said, "You can't arrest me. I'm a basketball player."

Heck yes!

At 5/29/2006 5:08 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

aug--if they are using them in disorienting and oblique ways, then i don't think it's as simple as "yes they are using the key elements of the game." they play as if they weren't, which makes it difficult to match up with them if you're still playing a form of basketball that looks to my list as the emotional, technical, and psychological keys to (emotional, technical, and psychological) success.

while in retrospect i probably would've changed that "don't be afraid to penetrate" to "attack the basket," and "exploit mismatches" to "exploit linear mismatches," i don't think that my point is "too dramatic." teams have trouble with the suns because they're confusing, and that's due in large part because their priorities don't line up with the way the rest of the league's.

At 5/29/2006 5:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

T -- I think you left out the best part of the Arenas arrest -- his fierce loyalty to Awvee Storey.

From the AP article:

While police were arresting Storey, Arenas got out of a vehicle and walked toward the arresting officers. According to reports, an officer told Arenas to get back in his vehicle, but he refused, saying he wanted to stand next to his teammate. The officer took Arenas into custody and charged him with resisting without violence.

As Arenas was being arrested, according to reports, he said, "You can't arrest me. I'm a basketball player. I play for the Washington Wizards, and I'm not going to leave my teammate."

At 5/29/2006 9:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know. I just think the teams they've played in the playoffs haven't had problems with them because of their other worldiness. To say the suns in the playoffs have been streaky is too obvious. They have up and down games. Some times they forget about rebounding and defense, and just get out played. Other times their shots are on and diaw, marion and nash are on their games and they pull it out because they have some really talented players and a good offense. If amare wasn't coming back, i'd be really interested in seeing what happens to this suns team in the regular season next year since the 3 playoff teams have found ways to take the wind out of their sails. Then again, the clips and mavs are no joke. I know what you're saying shoals, but you know i just have to argue something. But when did you start singing the suns praise this year? Or are you just waxing about how they're not your typical team?

At 5/29/2006 11:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

nash is the adaptor that translates what the suns play into anything remotely resembling nba basketball. the rest of the team almost seems like blind and deaf zombies that have been instructed only to put the ball through the basket as many times as possible.

the other way ive thought of it at times is to liken it to the difference between golf and team sports. in popular team sports, your goal is to go out and beat the other team. in golf youre just trying to beat the course. it seems like the suns just try to beat the basket into submission every night, instead of trying to best the other team.

At 5/30/2006 9:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yo one of you guys need to wax poetically about dwyane. surely even shoals can find something to love in this set of performances?


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