He doesn't have the star power of Justin Upton, but Miguel Montero is the best all-around player on the Diamondbacks' roster. First of all, the catcher position is the toughest in baseball. Imagine squatting for your entire career. Most catchers' knees go to hell eventually. Indeed, Montero had a right-knee sprain in April that kept him out of the lineup for two months, or 57 games. Otherwise, imagine how good he would be at the plate by now. At this writing, he has a .267 batting average, with nine home runs and 43 runs batted in. He had a spectacular game against the Washington Nationals in August in which he slugged two homers and caught seven masterful innings from emerging D-Backs pitching sensation Ian Kennedy. Catchers are the quarterbacks of baseball teams, and a rub on Montero was that he needed to improve handling pitchers and calling games. Another complaint was that he was easily stolen upon during his early years in the majors (he was called up in 2006). But he has been nailing runners consistently this season. Miggy's work calling games also has improved as the team's pitching staff has gotten better with trades and a new manager. Like right fielder Justin Upton, third baseman Mark Reynolds, center fielder Chris Young, and interim manager Kirk Gibson, Montero's a guy the D-Backs can rebuild around. Everybody on the team loves the outgoing Montero, who's not only the team's field general but an emerging clubhouse leader.
It's a distant memory, but Brandon Webb won the National League Cy Young Award in 2006. The ace of the Arizona pitching staff couldn't have saved the Diamondbacks from this season's bullpen woes (except by pitching an occasional complete game, maybe), but Webb in his prime would've made things a little rosy. Well, less thorny, anyhow. Webb was sidelined with what was at first described as pitching "shoulder stiffness" early last season. But things just kept getting worse, which eventually wound up with his having shoulder surgery. Nobody among D-Backs brass admitted to concern. But the team was headed by recently fired general manager Josh Byrnes, which may have had something to do with it. Despite the shoulder issue, Byrnes and company decided to exercise an $8.5 million option to keep Webb a Diamondback — which has to be one of the many reasons Byrnes is gone. There was talk in spring training this year that Webb could come back in June. Well, he didn't come back all season. And nobody's saying if he will ever return. Rumors abound that there's nothing really wrong with Webb anymore, that he just lacked the confidence to return, that he's a pussy. We find that hard to believe — the surgery must not have returned his arm to the gold standard of his 2006-2008 seasons. He arguably should've won the Cy Young again in '08 when he went 22-7 and had a 3.30 earned-run average. He pitched four innings in 2009, before the shoulder problem forced him to the bench. Then, poof. We've seen it so many times in baseball; pitchers are at the pinnacle of their careers, get injured, must go under the knife, and it's all over.
Certainly, Scottsdale's Danica Patrick, the only woman seriously competing in professional motor sports these days, is the best-looking human in racing. (Ever get a look at Dale Earnhardt Jr.?) We'd only seen her beautiful head emerging from those emblem-cluttered racing coveralls until we spotted her at a Diamondbacks game, and we've got to tell you, she's all-over hot. (Down, boys! She's married.) Once she started driving in the Indianapolis 500, Playboy asked her to pose nude for the magazine, an offer she turned down. She did make the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2005, however, but it was because she was the fourth woman ever to compete in the Indianapolis 500 — and named the event's rookie of the year — not because (too bad!) she rocked a skimpy swimsuit. Yeah, we know, we're drooling over her sexiness. But this hottie can handle a powerful engine like no woman in history. (Hey, we resisted using a drive-shaft metaphor.) Her third-place finish in the Indy 500 was the best by a chick in the race's history. Danica became the first woman to win an Indy race in 2008 with her victory in the Indy Japan 300. This year, she's driving a Chevy for Scottsdale's GoDaddy.com in NASCAR's Nationwide Series. Go, mama!
This superhero exudes class. He's a fierce competitor who leaves it all on the court and, somehow, makes no enemies in the process. In interview after interview, his competitors talk as if he's Mahatma Gandhi in sneakers. His charity work is legendary, both locally and nationally. One minute he's hanging out with cancer kids, the next he's rebuilding homes in ravaged neighborhoods, with NBA buddies hammering nails beside him. With the departure of Amar'e Stoudemire to the New York Knicks, Saint Steve is the only superstar left on the Phoenix Suns. He keeps his great attitude despite what must be searing, chronic back pain. You can see him lying flat on the court when he's getting spelled during games, trying to keep the spasms in check. And one reason for the agony has been the necessity of him carrying the team on his back. Not that he ever complains; he would be the first to say that a guy getting paid millions to participate in a playground game needs to just suck it up. Be grateful. At 36, you'd think Nash would be wearing out as a professional jock — point guards like him run close to 20 miles a game — but last season, he played as well as he ever had (though in decreased minutes because of the coming of age of backup Goran Dragic). The Canadian sports legend (only, perhaps, Wayne Gretzky surpasses him in the Great White North) averaged 17 points and a league-leading 11 assists last season — well above his 15 and 8 career totals. In the conference finals against the superior Lakers last season, he averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds. Remember, nice-guy Nash is a pass-first player. Arguably, he could've led the league in scoring during his younger years if he were a ball hog like Kobe Bryant. Though they like him off the court, players tend to beat him up on it (he weighs only 180 pounds on a 6-foot-3 frame). He gets fouled a lot. How many times have we seen his nose bloodied or his eye swollen shut? Because of this, and because of his precision shooting skill, he's third all-time in free-throw percentage at .893. and first by a country mile ahead of current players. Nice guys sometimes finish first.

Best Hope for the Suns to Go Far in the Playoffs

Center Robin Lopez

In an age when few true centers are left in the game, the perennially small-ball Phoenix Suns finally have one in Robin Lopez. Based on a stellar second-half-of-his-second-year performance for the Suns, we're hoping the 7-foot Lopez puts on the cape and achieves full superhero status this season (forget about Dwight Howard). Lopez filled the gigantic shoes of Shaquille O'Neal last year, and this year, he'll have to step up for the departed-to-New York Amar'e Stoudemire. But the 255-pound bruiser out of Stanford University should be up for the job after coming along superbly after the All-Star break. He was hobbled in the first rounds of the playoffs by a bad back, but all that should be, um, behind him when the season kicks off this fall. He was a great defensive player at Stanford, and he was solid defender and top shot-blocker for the Suns last season (once assistant coach Bill Cartwright taught the intense young man how to stop fouling so much), but who knew that he had such overpowering offensive moves? Though his overall stats for the season appear mediocre, after coach Alvin Gentry began starting him, he had several double-figure rebounding and scoring games in the second half of the regular season. After returning from his injury in the Western Conference Finals, he overpowered the Los Angeles Lakers' big men in the Suns' first finals win, with 20 points in 29 minutes. And he did it with pizzazz — 15-footers, hooks with both hands, and dunks early and often. When he'd gone down earlier, NBA prognosticators wondered whether the Suns could win in the playoffs against Portland and, later, San Antonio without him. (Something we thought we'd never be hearing about scoring phenom Brook Lopez's twin brother.) The Suns did win in the first two rounds, but his 7-foot, eagle-wingspan presence was missed. Fropez (he of the big hair) wasn't 100 percent even when he returned, despite that solid performance dunking over the likes of the Lakers' Pao Gasol. If he had been, the Suns would've had a better chance of upsetting the Lakers and maybe bringing Phoenix its first NBA championship.
Why? Because he's the smartest. He wouldn't give Amar'e Stoudemire the huge contract he demanded. Everybody likes to rag on Robert Sarver because he let a superstar go, but he made a sound business — as well as sports — decision. Though Amar'e was capable of 40-point, 20-rebound nights, he rarely produced on the rebounding side of the equation. Plus, he was a lousy defender — always seemed lost out there. The buzz-phrase was: He "lacked focus." Whatever. Giving top money to someone who's less than a superstar doesn't make sense. Superstars do everything Amar'e did, plus play solid D. It also didn't make sense to bet on the often-injured STAT to last through a five-year, $100 million contract, which is what the New York Knicks gave him — despite nobody being willing to insure him. The reason is that he had microscopic surgery on his left knee in 2005 and detached-retina surgery in 2009. Because of his health issues, the 27-year-old was limited to only three 82-game seasons in his eight-year career. Sarver's righteous hang-up with keeping Amar'e was the fifth year of the contract — Sarver wasn't willing to guarantee it because of Amar'e's health issues. But once Stoudemire headed north, Sarver didn't sit around doing nothing. He brought in two young, promising power forwards to replace him, plus veteran forward Hedo Turkoglu. He also gave forward-center Channing Frye a new contract for bench strength in the frontcourt. The Suns will be fine without a guy who was always carping about deserving max money. Our prediction is they will again challenge the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. If that happens, you won't be complaining anymore that Sarver's a banking mogul caught up in the recession who was too cheap to keep a superstar. He'll be a superhero in a suit.
The first time we watched Hedo Turkoglu, he was giving the Los Angeles Lakers hell in the playoffs as a Sacramento King. These were in the post-Charles Barkley, pre-Steve Nash days, when the Lakers were the closest "professional" basketball team we had nearby. He was playing behind fellow Eastern European Peja Stojakovic at the time, but you could tell that this 6-foot-10 player would someday be a star. He's traveled around since, with a stop in San Antonio, five seasons in Orlando, and one in Toronto. Last year with the middling Raptors was his worst since he became an NBA starter — he averaged only 11 points and five rebounds a game. But the crack outside shooter (he's 38 percent career from the three-point line) was riddled by injuries (none nearly as serious as those of the guy he will replace in the Suns starting lineup, Amar'e Stoudemire). This year, Hedo should be healthy and able to return to the form he demonstrated during his years with the Magic, including one when the team went to the NBA Finals. His best year for the Magic was 2007-08 when he averaged 20 points, six rebounds, and five assists a game. He alone won't be able to replace Stoudemire (he won't have to; the team drafted two young power forwards to back him up, plus re-signed forward-center Channing Frye), but he's a slightly better defender, who may become an even better scorer when playing with pass-first point guard Nash. Who knows how good Stoudemire would've been without the two-time MVP from Canada? We look for the Turkish Turkoglu to have the best year of his career playing with a guy who will set him up with open shots. Signing Turkoglu was the Suns' smartest move of the off-season.
If anybody doubted that Alvin Gentry was a superhero NBA coach, last year proved them wrong. Gentry managed to do something that no other Suns coach ever had been able to do in the team's run-and-gun-era — get his team to play solid defense. He even had defense-challenged (and now-departed) Amar'e Stoudemire doing it once in a while. Gentry also, for the first time in the Steve Nash era, developed one of the best benches in the league. His predecessor, Mike D'Antoni, only went about seven deep in his lineup, while Gentry routinely put 10 players a game on the floor. Sometimes 12. It slowed down the Suns, sure, but it made them a better team — one, against all odds, that made it to the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers last season. This after solidly beating the talented Portland Trail Blazers in the first round and crushing the team's nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs, in the second. Just beating Tim Duncan and the Spurs like that made Gentry a man of steel in our book. Gentry's team, sometimes led by second year-players he and his staff vastly improved (like backup point guard Goran Dragic and starting center Robin Lopez), even held their own against the most talented team in the league, led by Kobe Bryant, in the finals. It was almost unbelievable that the Suns tied the series with the Lakers, before losing it in six. With the improvement Gentry made in the team in his first full season as coach, we're expecting him to work wonders this year. We'd be surprised, barring a killer midseason acquisition, if the Suns can win it all this year, but it wouldn't surprise us to see them going head-to-head against Kobe and company for dominance in the West.
Two seasons ago, Goran Dragic, who had been a star in Europe, was the butt of jokes in this town. He was also getting his butt kicked by former Suns Coach Terry Porter for sloppy, tentative play during the rare times he appeared in games. It seemed as though drafting the young Slovenian to be a solid backup to Steve Nash was a pipe dream, one of the stupidest moves Suns management ever had made. Then came last season, when Dragic came of age under Porter's replacement, Alvin Gentry. To say that Dragic turned in phenomenal performances would be an understatement. He had very few bad games all season, and he was among the best players in the league in a few. Particularly in the playoffs. In the Suns' 115-106 series-tying, game 4 victory over the Lakers in last year's finals, Dragic overpowered L.A., as his mentor, Nash, sat for almost nine minutes of the fourth period. Dragic played 18 minutes overall and had eight points, four rebounds, and eight assists — the same assists total that Nash had in 30 minutes. The play of the game came when the 24-year-old went past Derek Fisher and 6-foot-11 Lamar Odom for a cool, seemingly effortless lay-up. The home crowd went crazy as Fisher looked befuddled about where the hell the speedy guy he was supposed to be guarding had vanished to. It was a wonderful sight for Suns fans and a superhero moment for Dragic. But he'd turned in an even more spectacular fourth quarter in the semifinals last year against the San Antonio Spurs. In game 3 in the Alamo City, Dragic scored 23 of his 26 points in the fourth — hitting nine of 11 shots and four three-pointers. Nash sat out the entire period, and the Suns won that game 110-96 before eventually sweeping the hated Spurs in the series. Dragic not only established himself as a solid backup to the aging two-time MVP, but proved he's the team's point guard of the future and a budding NBA superstar. What a difference a year made.
Jared Dudley and Lou Amundson gave the Phoenix Suns, always considered soft in the NBA, some much-needed muscle last season. These guys were about taking it to opponents on defense. They did stuff that was mind-blowing — hassling the hell out of offensive players, blocking shots, grabbing rebounds, and in Dudley's case, scoring baskets at crucial times. A deadly three-point shooter, Dudley could also scrap under the goal. Along with Amundson, the two would shoot, get their own rebound, shoot again, miss, shoot again, and usually make the basket. It was hustle at its finest. Dudley will definitely be back; he'll come off the bench at small forward in the coming season. He will play a lot behind aging starter Grant Hill. But at this writing, we're not so sure about Loooooooouuuuu, a huge crowd favorite at US Airways Center. He was a free agent in the off-season, and nobody had met his salary demands at this writing. Consider this irony: When Dudley and starting shooting guard Jason Richardson came to the Suns in a trade with the Charlotte Bobcats for Boris Diaw, Raja Bell, and Sean Singletary, all anybody talked about was Richardson, a former two-time NBA slam-dunk champion/jump-shooting star. But last season, though Richardson was a solid-enough performer, he paled in comparison to trade-afterthought Dudley. In his reserve role, Dudley was often the difference between winning and losing, the anchor of Coach Alvin Gentry's suddenly superb bench. Here's hoping this tandem stays together and continues laying the hardwood to opponents.

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