Looking Toward the Future In Phoenix

A Daily Babble Production

"We're here to win championships.  We're not here to develop players."

If it is possible to epitomize the end of a coaching regime in a nutshell, it is that comment that does it for Mike D'Antoni's time in Phoenix.  

That was the line that semeed to indicate differences beyond repair between coach and general manager as D'Antoni defied Steve Kerr's wishes of utilizing the back of his bench more in favor of sticking with his shallow but established rotation.  It didn't help matters that the undermanned Suns got knocked out of the playoffs in the first round at the hands of long-time nemesis San Antonio.  So ended D'Antoni's tenure despite four straight seasons of at least 50 wins, including two 60-plus-win campaigns.

It seems that the Suns have garnered a label around the league as old and on either the back side or the outside of their championship window altogether.  This is largely thanks to last season's trade of Shawn Marion for 35-year-old Shaquille O'Neal and the fact that all-world point guard Steve Nash is already 34 and not getting any younger.  The team was also heavily reliant last season on Raja Bell, 31, and Grant Hill, 35. 

So yes, many prominent pieces of the current incarnation of the Suns may only be around and productive for a short time longer.  But thanks to the drafting of the last two years, some off-season work and three current big-time contributors, new coach Terry Porter and staff may have plenty to work with moving forward, especially if the emphasis on development rises this season.

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Of primary note is the aforementioned point that three of the team's key players aren't going anywhere due to age anytime soon.  Principal among them is franchise cornerstone Amare Stoudemire, who despite doubts about his work ethic and responsibility level continues to become more dangerous with each passing season.  Just 25 years old, the man also known as STAT is already a six-year veteran, and he is slowly but surely becoming a better interior defender to match his work on the boards and his enthralling all-around offensive game. 

Meanwhile, supporting cast members Boris Diaw, 26, and Leandro Barbosa, 25, sit in Stoudemire's age bracket as well.  Both have been in the league for several seasons already and add dimensions to this team.  Barbosa's sheer speed and ability to score in bunches is a major asset, and Diaw's versatility and passing vision from all positions help make the game easier for everyone around him.

But the real intrigue comes with wondering what can become of four of the Suns' neophyte additions over the last two years.  In 2007, the Suns drafted Alando Tucker and D.J. Strawberry, who played in six and 33 games respectively this season, leaving much unknown about their future NBA value.

Both were productive players at the collegiate level, and both certainly have skill sets to help them become solid NBA players.  Strawberry is a two-guard with an explosive first step, a love for getting up and down the floor and good finishing skills in transition.  Perhaps most importantly for a Suns team looking to tweak its approach,  Strawberry garnered a reputation for being a very solid perimeter defender while at Maryland, and he is believed to have the quickness and length to do the same as a pro.

Tucker, the former Wisconsin Badger, can play both swing spots and is another player who will have no trouble running the floor for the Suns.  He isn't known as a great defender, but he is a coachable player with the quickness and size to become one if he puts in the work.  Tucker is a good jump shooter and can rebound reasonably well for a guard, nabbing 5.4 boards per game in his final season at Wisconsin.  Both he and Strawberry could step up to play big roles for this team in the years to come if given the chance to grow at the NBA level.

The additions of the summer of 2008 could be even more valuable to the Suns in the long term.  Nearly two months ago, they drafted big man Robin Lopez out of Stanford, and they may have found either a solid sixth man or the right guy to play next to Stoudemire once Shaquille O'Neal has moved on.  The 7-foot Lopez is still very raw on both ends of the floor, but he is also just 20 years old.  He is already a tough player with reasonable defensive and very good shot-blocking skills, and he has boundless energy, particularly for a big man.  While he needs to really work on polishing his offensive game and refining his positioning, Lopez has the agility and hustle to make him a very nice spark plug off the bench and possibly a solid defensive complement next to Stoudemire in the front-court down the road.

Finally, the Suns are currently in the midst of wrapping up an agreement with European point guard Goran Dragic, who has already mused about his dreams of replacing the Nashty one some day.  Dragic's big flaw right now is his poor outside shooting, but the 22-year-old lefty has plenty with which to make up for it.  At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, he has great size at the point and gets toward the basket very well.  He defends well and knows how to run an offense, and though he needs to work to avoid turnovers, the guy has quite a bit of upside of his own.

As of right now, yes, the Suns are in a bit of a state of flux, facing a lot of questions about the team's prospects for contention this year and how long the old guard will remain in town.  But while the neophytes are by no means sure things, there is no shortage of promise to look forward to in the acquisitions of the last two summers in the Valley of the Sun.

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