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Suns season motto: No margin for error

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Posted: Sunday, December 25, 2011 12:00 am

The following attempt to pinpoint the potential of this season's Phoenix Suns has been distilled into one chilling sentence delivered by Alvin Gentry:

"Our margin for error is not great," the Suns' coach said.

The brutal translation? The Suns must execute their offense with a sinister precision not witnessed last season. They also must make shots at a soaring rate and perform a (hopefully) upgraded defensive scheme with an enthusiasm that suggests their hair is on fire.

A less-than-great margin for error also requires a lack of physical calamity and the development of what the Suns' star player often refers to as cohesion.

And if anything less occurs? Well, based on potential surges from teams recently camped near the bottom of the Western Conference, anything less would put the Suns back in Secaucus, N.J., the home base for the NBA draft lottery.

To helpful NBA watchdogs outside Phoenix, this may not be horrible news; draft sharpies are predicting the deepest pool of draft-able talent we've seen in a while. But players and coaches don't go to work each day considering the big-picture potential of failure. The Suns figure to start four players who played major roles on a team that reached the conference finals two seasons back.

That's why the aforementioned star player wasn't traded when his market value was more reasonable. That's why it's much easier for writers in other time zones to continue issuing "if you rebuild it, they will come" sermons. That's why every defeat in this shoe-horned, 66-game season has the capacity to provoke encouragement to trade the star player.

For the record, the star player has continued taking the progressive approach.

"This is a playoff team," Steve Nash said. "We have a lot to prove. Our mindset has to be making the playoffs. It's all out there to be proven and played for."

It sounded reasonable and almost inspiring when he said it, but since then, the Suns went minus-42 in a couple of preseason tilts with the Denver Nuggets. It should be noted that the Nuggets didn't use four key players in Thursday's 25-point rout in Phoenix.

And while these practice games can be misleading, the Suns' issues are difficult to ignore.

When the previous season began, Jared Dudley and Channing Frye -- two regulars from that conference finals team of 2010 -- were working on the Suns' second unit. Goran Dragic backed up Nash at point guard, Jason Richardson was a big scoring threat as the first-team shooting guard and newcomer Hedo Turkoglu was a proven talent being asked to take his finesse game to power forward. Yeah, Amar'e Stoudemire was in the wind, but even most doomsday observers were only wondering how low the Phoenix playoff seed would drop in 2011.

The lab didn't exactly survive the first experiment. Richardson and Turkoglu went to Orlando last December in a blockbuster deal that brought a pretty good center (Marcin Gortat) to Phoenix along with two wing players the Suns no longer employ. Dragic and a first-round pick also acquired in the deal with Orlando eventually were sent to Houston in a trade for a point guard who now works in China. The Suns' first-round pick yielded a tough-minded power forward (Markieff Morris from Kansas) who seems to be a good addition, but minimal spending capacity did little to add free-agent firepower that was missing late in games last season.

Checking a current roster that's in holding position pending next summer's intended free-agent binge, it's easy to see why the margin for error is limited.

Dudley, penciled in at two guard along with former Los Angeles Laker Shannon Brown, reportedly was the star of training camp. Frye, a "stretch" four whose glory days from two season backs served to make last season an uneven exercise, made just 1 of 14 shots (0 for 8 from 3-point range) in those two rehearsals against Denver.

"He's going to have to be able to do that," Gentry said when asked about Frye's shot-making.

If not, Morris -- who shot the 3 better at KU than most people think and made 2 of 4 Thursday -- could spend a lot more time with the first unit.

Dudley shot well Thursday but -- like almost all of his teammates -- remains heavily dependent on spoon-feeding from Nash. Brown can create his own shot, but the latitude given most players in the Phoenix offense makes him seem more eager to do so than his skill should allow.

Grant Hill, now 39, was re-signed and given a nice raise after attracting admirers in free agency. Although a balky knee has limited his prep time, Hill probably will continue playing elite defense in rationed minutes. His backup, Josh Childress, has displayed a puzzling lack of the activity that usually highlights his performances.

After becoming something of a double-double revelation last season, Gortat was slouching into the start of this season until backup Robin Lopez demonstrated he's prepared to battle for minutes. Gortat's rally to that challenge was sidetracked a bit by a thumb injury; he missed Thursday's preseason game but is expected to give it a go in Monday's season opener (at home against the New Orleans Hornets).

Lopez, it should be noted, seems relatively fit and bouncier than the struggling 7-footer whose promising close to 2010 made last season even more difficult to take. Unfortunately, his dexterity around the rim appears to be as miserable now as it was a year ago.

With restricted free agent Aaron Brooks (acquired in that deal with Houston) committed to a team in China, Nash's caddy will be former Utah Jazz reserve Ronnie Price. Price, a good defender with toughness to burn, has very little to offer in an offense that puts supreme focus on the point guard making plays.

As a defensive collective, a new system implemented by first-year assistant coach Elston Turner appears to hang its hat on early help-the-helper rotation recognition. With most NBA offenses structured around screen-and-roll tactics, the Suns' supposedly altered approach to defending this maneuver usually calls for a blitz or hard hedge on the ballhandler.

Surviving this aggressive style requires (among other things) fast and proper rotations. Unfortunately, Suns players seem to forget that the player guarding the ballhandler and the teammate called upon to double-team off of the screener must put heavy pressure on the ball. If this doesn't happen, most NBA-level ballhandlers will either split the double or be allowed to make the initial pass that destroys the defensive set.

With Hill, Morris, Gortat, Price and Brown in the rotation, the Suns do have the chance to improve when the other team has the ball.

For the record, of the players on this entire roll call, only Morris and Lopez are under the age of 25. Most of the slightly older Suns are close to scraping their skulls on the ceiling of their potential, while veterans Nash and Hill must rely on healthy living to thrive.

That explains most of the early projections (which often embarrass those making them) that offer little short-term optimism for Suns fans. Yet Nash, nearing age 38 and now in the final year of his contract, is talking the talk of a leader.

"I don't know who thinks we're good or who thinks we're bad," he said when asked for comment on exceeding expectations, "or what a surprise would insinuate. But we're definitely going to go into the season with a goal of making the playoffs."

And we'll definitely monitor those national projections crowding the margins.

 

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