Best Reason to Believe the Suns Are Still a Contender

Suns GM Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr has long been one of the best minds in basketball, even if he did sign ancient center Shaquille O'Neal to a run-and-gun team last year. We thought that was a bad move from the start, but we realize that the Suns were never going to win a championship with the small-ball Shawn Marion squad. And, frankly, Marion was an overrated pain in the ass. Good riddance!

Kerr knows that one thing the charismatic Shaq will do is put fannies in the seats at U.S. Airways Center. But we digress . . . Kerr's putting together what may be the best Suns team in a long time. He's added crucial elements, like a big man, in Robin Lopez, who can come off the bench to spell both O'Neal and Amaré Stoudemire. Did we mention that Lopez, out of Stanford, is a defensive specialist? And Kerr's added a point guard of the future, Goran Dragic. The 6-foot-4 Slovenian, the second-best point guard in the '08 NBA draft, will actually be able to replace Nash some day. Kerr also grabbed swingman Matt Barnes from the Golden State Warriors.

These are major moves, along with the hiring of coach Terry Porter, who will stress D — unlike his predecessor, whose system was a flashy failure. We want a championship, dammit, before a couple of Suns become AARP members! Last year, with the aforementioned stubborn Mike D'Antoni around, Kerr couldn't shine. But his off-season moves will make the Suns, with aging stars like Nash and Shaq, shine again. We smell a championship trophy — or is that Amaré's jock strap?

The great hopes for the Diamondbacks this year have been a couple of pitchers: Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, the team's All-Stars in 2008. After winning the 2006 Cy Young Award with a 16-8 record and 3.20 ERA in 33 starts, Webb has gone on to be arguably the best pitcher in the National League. At press time, he had a 21-7 record (the NL's first 20-game winner, he started the season with nine wins in a row).

Haren, acquired from the Oakland A's last December, had a 15-8 record at press time, and in the 2007 season with the A's, he was one of the top 10 pitchers in the American League — winning 15 games, striking out 192 and sporting an ERA of 3.07.

The two pitchers provide the best one-two punch of any pitching staff in baseball. In the All-Star game, they combined for three scoreless innings. Webb might have started if he hadn't pitched a tough game a few days before and needed the rest. In the 2007 All-Star Game, Haren did start for the American League (because of his incredible performance in the first half of the season) and led it to a win. The Diamondbacks offense, despite occasional spurts, has continued to be a disappointment this season (and not just because of injuries to key players like left fielder Eric Byrnes), but the team's best two pitchers have been stellar.

Best Reason to Believe the Diamondbacks Will Someday Win It All

Manager Bob Melvin

Bob Melvin toiled for eight major-league franchises as a player, including the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, and the San Francisco Giants, but was never much of an offensive player. A backup catcher during his career, he finished his playing days with a batting average of .233 and 35 home runs. But he has been a hell of a manager in his still-young career. He won 93 games as manager of the Seattle Mariners in 2003 but was let go after the next season, when the team lost 99 games. Shit happens!

He returned to the Diamondbacks, where he'd been bench coach, in 2005 and led the team to the National League West Championship last year, going on to manage the D-Backs to a sweep over the Chicago Cubs in the National League Division Series, only to see his team swept by the Colorado Rockies in the NLCS. But it was a marvelous journey, one that earned Melvin National League Manager of the Year. The poorest offensive team in the National League would never have gone as far as it did without "The Mad Scientist," which is what broadcaster and former D-Back Mark Grace dubbed Melvin because of his frequent juggling of winning lineups.

He did a whole lot last year with a team of promising youngsters and only one real star, Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Brandon Webb.

This year, he had a few more stars but (at press time) was seemingly less successful. Melvin has a quiet intensity on the field that inspires the confidence of players and fans. We pray (as we always do when in comes to the D-Backs) that the Mad Scientist can connive a way to get us into the World Series — someday. Bob, go back into the lab and conjure up a potion.

We know, we know . . . Shaquille O'Neal is over the hill, or certainly he's crested the top of it and is heading down. Still, he's got a lot of gas left in the ol' tank, and he proved it during the 2007-08 season, producing double-figure points and rebounds in most games. What do you naysayers expect the Big Aristotle to do? He's not going to be the high-scoring, stellar-rebounding monster he was back in his L.A. Lakers championship days. He's not even at the level he was when he and Dwyane Wade brought an unexpected championship to the Miami Heat. But he's a boost to the team, not only because he's a great role player but because he's a great role model. Not to the kids (that genie movie aside) but to his Suns teammates. They desperately need a champion in their midst — a guy who knows how it feels to be at the top and win rings and championship trophies (four of them).

But Shaq's more than just an inspiration; he's a celebrity. Look at that big grin; look at his antics on and off the court. He's strictly showbiz, from his sprinting ahead of his speedy teammates to prove that he's fit, to diving for balls in the stands (and having impromptu conversations with fans) to refusing to accept Spurs star Tim Duncan's help off the floor after a hard foul. Shaq's out in the community doing charity work, and he's volunteering with the Tempe Police Department to keep his law enforcement chops current.

Whether he's acting (and we use the term loosely), clowning around with teammates and fans or just grinning at the camera after reciting one of his raps (remember this one after the Lakers were pulverized by the Celtics in this year's championship: "You know how I be/Last week Kobe couldn't do without me/I call myself big, but I'm not as good as Biggie/I call myself big 'cause I live next to Diddy/Excuse me, Diddy lives next to me/So in the hood, dog, I feel like B.I.G."), the man now called the Big Cactus is just a pleasure to have in Sand Land. And now that dunderheaded Coach Mike D'Antoni and his failed fast-paced offense are no more, we may be very glad to have an entertaining veteran on the floor. Another thing we desperately want to believe is that he means it when he says he will win another NBA title with the Suns.

We love Grant Hill. He's cool; he's friendly. But he's too gimpy to play major minutes as the Suns' small forward. He definitely shouldn't be the starter anymore. Coming off the bench would be this gimp's speed nowadays, and hopefully new coach Terry Porter will use him effectively in this role this season. Hill adds character and leadership to the team. He's the kind of guy that young players look up to. Plus, he had his moments during the regular season. He injured himself at the end of last season because coach Mike D'Antoni gave regular playing time to just eight team members. There are 12 active players on the team, and other more successful teams (say, the San Antonio Spurs) rotate 11 players into the game. This is the way you develop players, and the way you preserve the bodies of your veterans. Duh, he was worthless to the Suns in the playoffs because D'Antoni had used him until he used him up!

Here's why Hill must be used sparingly: He's been in the NBA since 1994, six years with the Detroit Pistons and seven with the Orlando Magic, and he's been injured much of that time. Hill's had everything from ankle injuries to a life-threatening staph infection to a sports hernia that allowed him to play in only 30 percent of the Orlando Magic's regular-season games when he was there. Last year, we said Hill was a valuable addition to the team, and we still think that. But as a bench player!

Last year, we thought the Suns would, at the most, start him and play him maybe half a game. That way, he could've given the team quality minutes and stayed healthy. If Porter is wise (we know GM Steve Kerr is, and we know he understands that there's only so much life left in veteran players), he will use Hill as a sparkplug. He will keep the slasher fresh so he has some spring in those gimpy legs of his.

Dustin Pedroia may be the best major-leaguer to come out of Arizona State University since (dare we say!) Barry Bonds — and he hasn't resorted to steroids (we think). Consider these stats from the Woodland, California native, former Sun Devil, and current second baseman for the defending champion Boston Red Sox: a .317 batting average in his first full season with the Red Sox in 2007 and .327 through 147 games of the 2008 season. After winning American League Rookie of the Year in 2007, his performance this year earned him his first spot on the American League All-Star team. In last year's League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians, Pedroia batted .345. In the seventh game, he hit a two-run homer at Fenway Park and had five runs batted in to lead his team into the World Series.

Along with fellow rookie Jacoby Ellsbury, Pedroia got the Red Sox off to a tremendous start in the fall classic. On the first pitch of his first World Series at-bat, Pedroia homered over Fenway Park's Green Monster. In helping Boston take the first three games of the series, Ellsbury and Pedroia, batting first and second in the Red Sox lineup, combined for seven hits and seven runs. Boston took game four and swept the Colorado Rockies to give the team its second World Series title in four years (before 2004, it hadn't won an MLB championship since 1918).

It was predictible that Pedroia would do so well in the majors. During his ASU career, he hit .384, with 71 doubles, 14 homers and 146 RBI — phenomenal stats for a college player. But he wasn't just an offensive marvel; Pedroia was named 2003 National Defensive Player of the Year while at ASU, and has been a stellar infielder as a pro.

Chuck, run for governor of Arizona instead of Alabama. Please! We need you in this state, where all but a handful of Democrats are Democrats in name only. We know you used to be a Republican, but then you denounced that party for its B.S. You would inject some life into the political scene here, just as you have into the NBA sportscasting. Frankly, we don't know what we would do without you on TNT. Ernie Johnson and Kenny "The Jet" Smith would be nothing without you. Even Magic or Reggie can't match your spunk. You crack us up.

Sometimes we figure you're drunk or stoned when you pontificate perversely from the right-hand corner of the screen, but we love it. We loved it when you said that Nellie Ball, which Mike D'Antoni persisted in reinventing, has never worked and never will. You were talking about the proverbial Don Nelson, lately coach of the Golden State Warriors, who invented the small-ball, run-and-gun system that D'Antoni's Suns employed to not enough avail. Somebody needed to freakin' say it, especially when D'Antoni was so badly botching it after the arrival of Shaquille O'Neal. Entertaining honesty!

Sir Charles has got to be the most quotable SOB in sports:

• "I don't care what people think, people are stupid"

• "I love New York City; I've got a gun"

• "Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids"

• "My initial response was to sue her for defamation of character, but then I realized that I had no character"

• "We don't need refs, but I guess white guys need something to do"

• "Somebody hits me, I'm going to hit him back. Even if it does look like he hasn't eaten in a while."

The former Round Mound of Rebound has been entertaining us in Phoenix for going on 20 years; his 1993 Suns team was the last to play in an NBA Finals. When he retired eight years ago as the fourth player in history to rack up 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, and 4,000 assists, we knew we hadn't seen the last of him. We in Phoenix knew more than anybody what a hoot he was; now he's the most entertaining guy on sports television.

We wish he were the new coach of the Suns, but let's give Terry Porter a chance. Doug Collins has head-coaching experience out the you-know-what, having led a young Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls and an old Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards. He also coached the Detroit Pistons, played on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team, was a first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia 76ers out of Illinois State, took (along with Julius Irving) the Sixers to the NBA Finals against Bill Walton's winning Portland Trail Blazers in 1977, was a four-time NBA All-Star, and is the best basketball announcer in sports. After a stint with NBC earlier in his career, the Valley resident has been with TNT for four years doing color commentary. Collins is known for his insight into the game and for his understated sense of humor.

We really thought he would be named the Suns' new coach, since he often sat beside Steve Kerr during TNT telecasts, before Kerr abandoned the microphone to take on the GM reins for our NBA franchise. The two are pals. During the off-season, Collins was also rumored to be up for the Chicago Bulls coaching job. But when the Suns job went to another Kerr buddy, Porter, and the Bulls job went to Suns assistant GM Vinny Del Negro (Collins reportedly took himself out of the running), we were glad that we'd continue to see him on game broadcasts.

Unlike Walton, who bested him in that championship series back in the '70s, Collins is a reasoned broadcaster who never fawns over star players, much less jabber just for the sake of jabbering. Along with fellow TNTer Charles Barkley, he was righteously critical of the Suns' lack of defense during the Mike D'Antoni era. As a Valley resident, he spoke from the vantage point of fan as well as sports analyst. And analyst-supreme Collins has always been. The insight into the game he's gained through years of coaching and playing alongside the best nabbed him the coveted job of Olympic basketball coverage this year. That and a calm, avuncular style that makes the beer and popcorn go down all the more smoothly.

We've had our differences with Jerry Colangelo over the years. There were times when we felt the Valley public sector was bending over frontward to financially enable this sports entrepreneur/developer. But, Jerry, we've forgiven you, because you are indeed a pillar of not only our sports community but the world's. You proved your prowess as a sports executive beyond compare with your takeover of troubled USA Basketball. That the team returned to Gold Medal form says it all. In summer Olympics past, we've wondered why multimillionaire NBA players couldn't win the gold against less-accomplished international teams, and now you've proved that they can. Money players prevail, as the Good Lord intended! We guess it just took the right man at the top to make this happen again.

Your great moments in Phoenix sports are legendary. As the original general manager and, later, head honcho of the Phoenix Suns, you may not have won a championship, but you came close a couple of times. Without you, there would be no U.S. Airways Center. But your greatest accomplishment was bringing major-league baseball to us — and three years later, fielding a World Series champion Diamondbacks team in 2001. Beating the New York Yankees in the aftermath of September 11 was something special. Much of the nation was (finger down throat) praying for the Bronx Bombers to prevail as a "healing" measure for America, but the team you assembled (with pitchers Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in their primes) made sure that didn't happen. Boo-hoo for the red, white, and blue. We say bravo for sticking it to the rest of America in '01, and then helping the U.S. stick it to the rest of the world in '08.

How many times did we see Boris Diaw drive to the goal and then, inexplicably, pass the ball back out? Way back out? How many times did we see him wide open for a lay-up yet nervously not take the shot, instead choosing to pass to an incredulous teammate. (That is, the teammate couldn't believe his eyes when Boris refused an easy basket, the result being a bobbled ball and a turnover.) Diaw may be getting paid mega-bucks, on the heels of his most-improved NBA player trophy for the 2005-06 season, but he's too shy to be a major NBA player.

We're saying, how many times must he fail to impress before the Suns trade him to somebody who wants him — say, Mike D'Antoni's New York Knicks? D'Antoni, who failed to win a championship with his system, owes us that much. We're not one to lash out at the French, but Diaw's the kind of player who makes you wonder whether the whole country's made up of a bunch of sissies. Hey, it's not that he hasn't played well on occasion. The guy's had three triple-doubles. Last year, in game four of the first round of the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs, Diaw almost achieved another one (20 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) in 44 minutes.

Why he hasn't turned in performances like this regularly is a mystery; he's avoided serious injury. We think he lacks heart, intensity, confidence. He surprises even himself when he plays well and hasn't the swagger to carry the success into the next game. The idea that the best man to fellow basketball Frenchie Tony Parker (Mr. Eva Longoria) could play point forward regularly and allow Steve Nash major breathers is just crazy. How many turnovers can the team stand? How many missed opportunities for easy buckets? Please, Suns, put Boris out of our misery.

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