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.
Because of his size, hands, speed, and leaping ability, Larry Fitzgerald is the best wide receiver in pro football today, and he could, before it's over for him, be the best in history. Of all the athletes in town, he's Superman at what he does. An exaggeration? He's got the records to prove it. Take a look at the Cardinals' run to the Super Bowl 2008, when he smashed the league's post-season receiving record with seven touchdown catches and 30 overall receptions for 544 yards. He's kept up a rabid regular-season pace for three seasons now, earning him three consecutive Pro Bowl selections. He reached 7,000 receiving yards for his career in week 15 of last season, surpassing Randy Moss as the youngest player ever to reach the milestone. He led the NFL in receptions last year for the second-straight year, the first player to do so since Terrell Owens in 2002-03. And he ain't Owens, which is a very good thing. Owens fizzled because of his 'tude. Receivers are dependent on quarterbacks like players at no other position, and Terrell's big-mouth complaining about his touches pissed off his benefactors and coaches. Fitzgerald, the consummate nice-guy team player, never will have such a fuck-you problem. But this brings up an interesting point this season: Can Fitz keep up the killer pace without future Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner? He'll be good, no matter what, but to be great at his position, new starting QB Derek Anderson must at least be good. We'll see.

Best Offensive Reason to Believe the Cardinals Will Go Far in the Playoffs

Running backs Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower

Though the Arizona Cardinals' running game improved vastly last season — from terrible to all right — we predict it will become respectable in this year's regular season. Maybe even good. Running back Chris "Beanie" Wells, the team's first-round pick, was beset with rookie-itis in 2009-10: He had to get used to bigger, tougher defenders; hard-ass pro coaches; the NFL's longer schedule; and travel demands — and being away from Mama. One of 11 children, Wells was homesick for his family in Akron, Ohio. But mostly the Ohio State star missed his mother, whom he consults about practically all of life's trials and tribulations (doing it over the phone wasn't cutting it). This year, Wells is more rooted in Arizona and has a son with his girlfriend. The result of his experience in the league and a more stable home life is certain, barring injury, to be increased production for the Cardinals. The Cards have used third-year back Tim Hightower as the starter in the early-going, but look for Wells to take over that role as the season progresses. Wells and Hightower will be a solid tandem; they set a good foundation last year. Wells rushed for 793 yards on 176 carries for a 4.5 average. He ranked second in the NFL among rookie running backs behind Denver's Knowshon Moreno. His seven rushing touchdowns put him in a tie for first among rookie backs. As for Hightower, who started all 16 regular-season and two postseason games last year, he rushed for 598 yards on 143 carries last season. He also was a receiving threat, with 63 receptions — second in the NFL — for 428 yards. With Kurt Warner gone and a new QB behind center, Arizona will need Wells and Hightower's one-two punch to be a serious contender this fall and winter.

Best Defensive Reason to Believe the Cardinals Will Go Far in the Playoffs

Tackle Darnell Docket

Darnell Docket is a wild-haired, supremely tattooed mammoth who's an NFL quarterback's worst nightmare. He's the Cardinals' best defensive player, and a premier defensive lineman in the league. Without this defensive anchor, we shudder to think how porous the team's D might become. Last season, he had seven QB sacks, leading all NFL defensive tackles and earning him his second Pro Bowl berth. In his previous six seasons with the Cardinals, the Florida State star has 26 career sacks, four interceptions, eight fumble recoveries, and six forced fumbles. All of it resulting from his magnetic ball-location savvy, quickness — for a 6-foot-4, 290-pound freezer-locker of a man — and intensity. The guy's a beast, continually taunting opposing players, yelling at slacker players on his own team, and charging like a rhino. His over-the-top behavior sometimes gets on head coach Ken Whisenhunt's nerves — the guy posted an online video of himself taking a shower. Also irking the head coach has been Docket's over-the-top behavior on the field — he'd become so emotional that he'd rack up loads of penalties. But that problem's as close to being resolved as it can be with a guy like Docket, and the Mighty Mouth last season was voted a team captain. One last note: We wouldn't want to be rookie QB Sam Bradford. After the Oklahoma star was taken first in the draft by the St. Louis Rams, Docket twittered gleefully that Bradford's "fresh meat." By the time you read this, the Cardinals will have opened the regular season with the Rams. You tell us how Sam fared. They play the Rams again December 5.
We have both fond and melancholic memories of Phoenix's all-time greatest boxer, Hall of Famer Michael Carbajal, who reached the top of his brutal sport only to be ripped off blind by his trainer and oldest brother, Danny. No one in town has come close to replicating Michael's fame and skill level, but teenager Jose Benavidez Jr., from the Central Boxing Gym on West Van Buren Street, seems headed in the right direction. Out of the ring, the bespectacled, reed-slender (about six feet and 140 pounds) boxer looks tame, but that's a deceptive appearance that belies a warrior within. The kid has exceptional skills and seemingly unlimited potential. Promoter Bob Arum signed Junior, as he's known, to his stable of boxers and put legendary Las Vegas trainer Freddie Roach on the case. Jose's dad is very much involved in the youngster's budding career, and father-son boxing teams usually scare us — too much baggage, too many hopes. But hope springs eternal, even in the fight "game," and we wish this homegrown pugilist the best as he pounds his way to the top.

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