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What’s next for Amar’e Stoudemire?

Phoenix Suns forward Amar’e Stoudemire announced today that he will, too, join the free-agent powwow with the other megastars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Joe Johnson.

After his team bowed out of the Western Conference playoffs despite a valiant effort against the Los Angeles Lakers, one has to wonder — what’s on the docket for STAT next season?

A few months ago, it was a foregone conclusion Stoudemire would depart Phoenix this summer. The last two seasons, his name was rumored wildly at the trade deadline, too. Thanks to the team’s overcoming a midseason lull and the aforementioned run through the postseason, no one’s so sure anymore.

That said, Stoudemire’s destination next season will largely depend on whether he can command a maximum salary from any given team. Will the Suns, clinging to the coattails of Steve Nash’s remarkable career, pony up and pay Amare the maximum? It remains a question.

Stoudemire will be an offensive force no matter where he plays. His explosiveness and athleticism paired with a solid shooting touch out to 18 feet make him a dynamic threat. Not withstanding his exceptional ability, there are questions about his character (his work ethic, in particular), his rebounding, his defense, and, most importantly …

The status of his knees. Stoudemire has played very good basketball in the wake of his microfracture knee surgery, a procedure that can be damning to the success of NBA players. Amar’e has dealt with it swimmingly so far, but as he gets older, it may become a much larger issue.

If Stoudemire decides to leave Phoenix, it would be a big blow to the long-term future of the franchise. While Nash plays through his final years, he’ll struggle to continue to lead a team without a true companion like Stoudemire — someone who pairs perfectly with the point guard in the pick-and-roll game. They’ll be confined to the lottery for years to come and will have to begin a lengthy rebuilding process.

On the contrary, the team that brings him on board will be in for quite a bonus. But if he wants to play on a true contender, that team will have to be solid on the defensive end already. The problems against the Lakers front court was evident, and unless Amar’e plays alongside a true defensive paint presence, it will be more of the same for that new team.

Assuming everything goes well for STAT in terms of his health and the condition of his knees, the future is bright for him. He still about eight or nine years left in his career, and for most of that, he will be an offensive dynamo. His decision this summer has a much larger impact on the Suns and any team he might join than it does on himself.

Maybe the other big stars have some advice for him.

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NBA Today: May 28

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NBA Summit 2010

On Thursday, impending free agent Dwyane Wade announced that before he makes any decision about where he’s going to play next season, he’s going to consult his partners in crime (Yeah, it’s a crime how much they’re going to yank from their teams next year) LeBron James, Joe Johnson, and Chris Bosh.

The nature of this conference is, and will remain, largely confidential, for the most part, but let’s call this what it is: a conspiracy to take all the power away from the GMs and reserve it for themselves.

They’re going to say that they will debate the merits and drawbacks of each team (the prospects of winning, the market, etc.), but the purpose of this meeting — and, more accurately, the announcement of this meeting — is to stir the pot, develop baseless “conditions” for signing one of these stars, and give the notion that there’s some semblance of a super team under construction.

Hey, maybe we’ll even hear that one of them will be willing to sign for one dollar under the maximum!

This whole deal stinks of corruption and misplaced sense of power. The closest comparison I can draw is Elaine, George, and Kramer’s collective demand for $1 million per episode for Seinfeld’s final season. Unfortunately, this is a lot more fishy.

The NBA has all kinds of strict rules about when and how teams can engage and discuss potential free agents in anticipation that a wheeling-and-dealing GM might secure a top player before anyone else has a chance. In effect, it is to protect the players.

Why, then, is this sort of meeting acceptable? Sure, you can say it’s simply freedom of speech for them to talk to one another, but if the league is going to go out of its way to ensure protection of the players, shouldn’t it do the same for the teams? The free agents have a lot more impact on this offseason frenzy than a lot of people would expect, so why the league allow them to wield even more in this de facto manipulation of teams in pursuit?

To put it simply, the league shouldn’t. But they’ll never change anything. This process has become way too much of a publicity stunt, and the NBA doesn’t want to see that dissolve.

Already we have the mere speculation that LeBron might leave, and its headlines dominate the press landscape on a daily basis. Hello? There are two competitive playoff series going on right now, and all most people care about is where “The Chosen One” will land next season. Granted, it could have implications far greater than one NBA title, but let’s save the analysis for when things are little more concrete, huh?

This meeting is going to boil down to just this: “Hey, guys. How can we get these teams to sweat a bit more and brighten the spotlight on us? I don’t even care about winning, just give me the fame!”

Well, that’s just great.

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Suns win on the strength of fundamentals

The Phoenix Suns played picture-perfect basketball in Game 4.

The Phoenix Suns have made the Western Conference Finals a lot more interesting than most could have hoped for after the Los Angeles Lakers took a commanding 2-0 lead in the series.

Behind the support of its home crowd, Phoenix took Games 3 and 4 against the defending champions after looking weak, uninspired, and apathetic.

I’ve already written about coach Alvin Gentry’s timely decision to have his squad try a zone defense on the Lakers, but in Game 4 on Tuesday night, that defensive scheme wasn’t what won the game for the Suns.

No, it was a return to fundamentals, instead, that sparked the Suns to a series-squaring victory.

When you think about Phoenix Suns basketball, fundamentalism isn’t the first thing that comes to mind for most. They run, they shoot a lot of threes, they have no back-to-the-basket post scorer, and they tend to “relax” on defense. But Tuesday’s game was a good illustration of how an unconventional team like Phoenix can win by embracing the basics of basketball.

This approach to the game manifested itself if three primary ways: (1) a balanced scoring effort; (2) superb bench production; and (3) exceptional shooting discipline leading to streaks.

In the usual Suns game, the offensive production is funneled through Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, as they effortlessly run the pick-and-roll play for easy points. Throw in the occasional outburst from Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, or Leandro Barbosa, and that’s the typical makeup.

On Tuesday night, though, that wasn’t the case. The team’s leading scorer was Stoudemire, but he put up a modest 21 points. Steve Nash contributed only 15. More importantly, though, the Suns had six scorers in double figures, and everyone who played in the game posted no fewer than 6 points.

Spreading the wealth with that kind of ball distribution allows the whole team to get in to a groove, preventing the Lakers from keying in on anyone in particular on defense. Usually, Phil Jackson can sit back and expect his team will defend Nash and Stoudemire while not having to worry about anyone else. In Game 4, everyone was hitting shots, so it spread the Lakers’ defense thin to the point that it couldn’t keep up.

In a similar vein, the Suns’ bench played brilliant basketball against the Lakers. Led by a gritty performance in relief of Nash by Goran “Enter the” Dragic (8 points, 8 dimes), the Suns drilled the Lakers with 54 bench points and were absolutely on fire from the perimeter. At one point in the game, Channing Frye, Leandro Barbosa, and Jared Dudley hit consecutive threes to ignite the crowd and knock LA back on its heels — it was a meaningful turning point for the game.

The solid play by the reserves allows Nash and Stoudemire to get their well-deserved and much-needed rest without a cause for concern. In the fourth quarter, Gentry even elected to stay with his second unit a few minutes longer than usual because it was playing so well. That’s a good sign for your team.

Lastly, the Suns used the power of momentum to their full advantage. I mentioned above that streak of back-to-back-to-back three-pointers; those weren’t lucky shots. Phoenix spread the floor very well, creating space for the shooters on the perimeter. Each one of those shots was sufficiently open.

But it takes rare confidence for Barbosa and Dudley to fire off those long-range bombs after Frye’s make. They sensed the opportunity to create some distance between the Lakers and themselves, and they took advantage. They knew they could hit the shots, and they had the power of the crowd behind them as further encouragement.

If the Phoenix Suns can continue to pair this fundamental execution with their effective zone defense, the Lakers have to be careful. Sure, the series is going back to the Staples Center, where the Lakers play much better than they do on the road. That won’t stop the stranglehold that the Suns’ zone has on their paint production, though. If the perimeter players can find their rhythm from the outside like they did in Game 4, the Lakers won’t stand a chance.

It’s the Phoenix offense at its best — with a twist of defensive prowess and fundamental execution.

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NBA Today: May 26

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Zone defense against the Lakers

Can Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol handle the Suns' 2-3 zone?

The Phoenix Suns showed the Los Angeles Lakers that they aren’t just going to roll over and allow the defending champs to waltz into the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year.

On Sunday night, the Suns defeated the Lakers on their home court by a score of 118-109 on the strength of a defensive effort absent in Games 1 and 2, in which the Lakers scored 128 points and 124 points, respectively.

But aside from the advantage of playing in front of their fans at home on Sunday, there was another reason the Suns excelled on defense. Noticing the Lakers’ complete obliteration on the front line, coach Alvin Gentry decided to make a change. Deviating from the man-to-man defense he instituted in the first two contests, in Game 3 he had his team playing a 2-3 zone defense.

Continuously discussed before and during the beginning of the series was the Suns’ deficiency in the front court against the trio of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom off the bench. And that was only magnified by Amar’e Stoudemire’s comment that Odom “got lucky” with his 19 rebounds in Game 1.

The goal of the zone defense, particularly the 2-3, allows the defense to swarm easily on Gasol and the others down low (or deny the entry pass altogether and keep the ball out of the paint), nullifying their advantage and making any shot in the immediate basket area a difficult one.

There are typically drawbacks to such a defensive scheme, though. With a good passer in the post like Gasol for the Lakers, the Suns run the risk of a kick-out pass to an open shooter. With three men left clogging the middle, that leaves only two defenders remaining to close out on three possible jump shooters.

Luckily for the Suns, the Lakers are not a great perimeter-shooting team. Other than Kobe Bryant, who played very well (36 points, 9 rebounds, 11 assists), their other guards aren’t very good three-point shooters. Ron Artest, specifically, has been dreadful from the outside thus far.

If the Suns can continue to execute on defense, the zone should help them deep into this series. But as soon as the Lakers set in to the mindset that they have to attack the zone with drives from the outside, it could wreak some havoc and get Phoenix into early foul trouble.

That said, it’s really their only option right now. In Games 1 and 2, the Suns were lame ducks looking to be blown away by the Lakers. In Game 3, they showed what most were expecting coming off of a series sweep of the San Antonio Spurs. The series should get interesting from here on out.

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NBA Today: May 25

  • Would Lenny Wilkens, the second-winningest coach all-time, consider a return to the NBA?
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Top coaching candidates this summer

Alongside the jaw-dropping free-agent class that will hit the streets come July 1, there could be a significant change in head coaches next season. As it stands, the New Jersey Nets, the Chicago Bulls, the Atlanta Hawks, the Los Angeles Clippers, the New Orleans Hornets, and, after today, the Cleveland Cavaliers are all looking for new leaders next season.

We have already seen, too, TNT analyst Doug Collins come to a coaching agreement with the Philadelphia 76ers. Based on all that, here’s a list of the top-five coaches available this summer. The list will be limited to those who have coaching experience. ESPN analyst Mark Jackson is a compelling candidate, but I’ll leave him out of this rankings. Without further ado …

(5) Tom Thibodeau (current Celtics assistant coach)

Despite many years as a renowned assistant coach and defensive guru at the NBA level, Tom Thibodeau has yet to find an NBA head-coaching gig. There was speculation that he might find a spot a couple years ago, but he is still standing alongside Doc Rivers on the Boston Celtics’ bench. Because of his defensive knowledge, Thibodeau might be a candidate for any number of the teams looking for a new coach. He seems a good fit for the Nets, but the team brass seems set on “making a splash” and hiring a big name like some of the ones to follow.

(4) Avery Johnson (last coached the Dallas Mavericks in 2007-2008)

Avery Johnson is currently an analyst for ESPN, and many were baffled and upset by his dismissal from Dallas in favor of the more seasoned Rick Carlisle. Despite his firing, Johnson led that Mavericks team to some of their best seasons in a long time. Saving a catastrophic breakdown against the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the 2007 playoffs, he might have come away with a championship that year, after garnering a No. 1 seed with a 67-15 regular-season record. He is a very animated and emotional coach, so he should have no problem motivating players on his next team. He has reportedly had two interviews with the Hawks already, so he might very well be Mike Woodson’s replacement in Atlanta.

(3) Jeff Van Gundy (last coached the Houston Rockets in 2006-2007)

Also an ESPN employee, Jeff Van Gundy has repeatedly made public that he is content with his broadcasting job and doesn’t want to get back in to coaching. Nevertheless, his name continues to make the rounds in the rumor mill. He had moderate success during his terms with the Rockets and, earlier, the New York Knicks, going as far as the NBA Finals in 1999 before falling to the juggernaut San Antonio Spurs. Furthermore, his insight on broadcasts has gotten many executives’ attention, and he seems like he has taken a step forward since initially retiring from the league.

(2) Mike Krzyzewski (current coach of the Duke Blue Devils)

Mike Krzyzewski’s name is also one that is being floated around the NBA, but he continually asserts his satisfaction in his current position. He nearly left Durham, N.C., for the Lakers job earlier this decade after a mammoth offer, but he decided to stay put at the time. Now, many suspect some NBA team will make him a more convincing offer and that he’ll finally make the leap to the professional level. After his most recent championship with Duke, it seems like he has accomplished all he can at the NCAA level, and it might be time for him to make the next step. After Mike Brown’s ouster from Cleveland, it has been rumored owner Dan Gilbert will make the type of offer to draw Coach K from Duke and keep LeBron on the team, too, as they have forged a close relationship through their work with the U.S. national team.

(1) Phil Jackson (current coach of the Los Angeles Lakers)

Phil Jackson isn’t out of a job yet, and he continues to coach the Lakers through this year’s playoffs. Even still, there have been reports that he’ll have to take a major pay cut to arrange another deal with Los Angeles, so when other teams are willing to pay the premium, he may see fit to leave Laker Nation. There have been discussions during the past offseasons of Jackson’s coaching only home games or limiting his attendance to some degree, so he may elect, instead, just to retire rather than take another job. All that said, Jackson is the clear No. 1 on this list. He has done everything in the NBA, and any team would be thrilled to have his tremendous knowledge grace its presence. Some think that new Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov might make Jackson an irresistibly astronomical offer to make the aforementioned splash this summer.

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The importance of Derek Fisher

If you ask a group of friends what the weak point of the Los Angeles Lakers starting lineup is, the answer will invariably come back Derek Fisher — unless, of course, you count Ron Artest’s three-point shot.

After all, at this point in his career, his offensive repertoire consists of little more than wide-open spot-up jump shots. On defense, he’s essentially spent. While he is scrappy and has reasonable strength, his lateral quickness is all but evaporated, and he cannot stay with quick opposing point guards at all. He’s the one flaw of a very strong defensive front.

But despite his reputation as an over-the-hill minor contributor, Derek Fisher has come up bigger than anyone could have expected or wanted so far in the team’s conference finals matchup against the Phoenix Suns.

Coming in, one of the primary concerns for Lakers fans was how he would even hope to counter Steve Nash on defense. Nash is too quick, everyone said. He’ll run rampant against D-Fish, everyone said.

Even facing appreciable physical disadvantages when compared to his Phoenix counterpart, Fisher has managed to keep Nash in check to a reasonable degree. In Game 1, Nash posted 13 points and 13 assists but committed four turnovers and didn’t hit a three-pointer. In Game 2, he contributed 11 points and 15 assists, but gave the ball away five times.

Surely Fisher’s reasonable defense on Nash doesn’t come from some heavenly reacquisition of quickness. Instead, he’s using what he has to the best of his ability. He has been particularly aggressive fighting through screens, never settling to go underneath the pick. And that is a major reason Nash hasn’t been able to find the range from deep in the series.

Furthermore, his hands and feet are always active. He is constantly knocking balls away with well-placed fingers and closing off Nash’s pick-and-roll passing lanes to Amar’e Stoudemire and the other Suns.

Fisher’s contributions to the Lakers don’t just come through his defensive presence, though.

Fisher is one of the most experienced players on the team, and many of his teammates see him as a key leader alongside Kobe Bryant. He certainly has a strong passion and fire for the game, and his leadership seems to have quite an effect on the rest of the Lakers.

Moreover, Fisher is always ready to hit the big shot. It seems like every time I see him heave the ball in a late-game clutch situation the ball hits the bottom of the net following a smooth, lazy, high-arching delivery. As he lacks the athleticism to put up big points or really run the offense at his best from the point-guard position, his clutch shooting is at the crux of his viability.

As the series progresses, Fisher shouldn’t give up on trying to defend Nash. While it seems a foregone conclusion that LA will win the set and advance to the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year, further refining his defense of a big-name point guard will hopefully prepare him for the even larger challenge at that position that awaits should Boston seal the deal.

The Boy Wonder, Rajon Rondo.

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Disrupting Dwight Howard

It’s no secret that success for the Orlando Magic begins and ends with Dwight Howard. His impact on the offensive and defensive end is so crucial to the team’s culture of winning.

It’s also no secret that Howard often has his troubles coping in the paint on offense and in his personal-foul management on the defensive end. When he succumbs to these issues, the Magic tend to lose.

With the team down to the Boston Celtics 2-0 (and well on its way to a third loss to their Eastern Conference counterparts), D12 hasn’t yet had a good game. Looking back on his dominance in the first two playoff series against the Charlotte Bobcats and the Atlanta Hawks (and the team’s according blowout wins), it is evident that the problem isn’t with Howard; instead, it is mostly because of the effort of the Celtics defense that the Orlando center has provided so little offensive production.

Looking at Howard’s role in his team’s offense, his post skills and scoring ability down low play only a small part in his effectiveness. His ability to draw double-teams and create open shots for his teammates is where his true value manifests itself. As a result, it stands to reason that opposing teams who can get by without doubling Howard are better off on the defensive end.

During the regular season, 18 of Orlando’s 20 losses came to teams who have centers capable of defending Howard in single coverage. That says something about his passing ability and the detriment of helping on him on defense.

In the playoffs, the Magic quickly dispatched the Bobcats in Round 1. Nazr Mohammed, the Bobcats’ starting center, isn’t exactly equipped to handle the load.

But in the second round, they squared off against the Hawks. Al Horford was one of the players I counted as someone who can counter Howard on his own. He definitely can. So why did they sweep the Hawks and now face a troubling deficit to the Celtics?

Well, both Atlanta and Boston have the resources to play single coverage on Superman. The Celtics, however, have a particular advantage. Whereas the Hawks must to resort to Zaza Pachulia to guard Howard when Horford is on the bench, the Celtics never lose a step; there’s always someone who can keep him in check.

Whether it is Kendrick Perkins, Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, or, to a lesser extent, Glen Davis, there’s always someone roaming to cause trouble for Howard. But the advantage doesn’t stop there. In addition to the depth of the front court on defense, each of these guys has his own particular niche in his game.

One minute, Howard’s facing Perkins, who relies primarily on his strength to deny Howard position and make him take more difficult shots. The next minute it’s Garnett, who takes advantage of exceptional finesse, timing, and positioning to protect his basket. Later, Howard might see a defensive matchup from Wallace, who tends to frustrate Howard and can affect his shots with his length.

The variation in the defensive styles that the Boston forwards use is undeniably frustrating to Howard, and it prevents him from getting into any reliable rhythm. And if there’s one thing that no one wants to see, it is Howard’s playing in rhythm.

Sure, Boston’s defense is immaculate overall. But at the core, at least in this series, is a deceptively inconspicuous front designed to limit the key cog in the Orlando offense. And that’s why they might not lose one this series to a team that previously hasn’t suffered a defeat in a month.

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