Posted: Monday January 2, 2006 1:14PM; Updated: Monday January 2, 2006 5:20PM
The difference comes from the team's core: guard Steve Nash and coach Mike D'Antoni. Heading into last season both Nash and D'Antoni knew that their young team's best chance of winning would come by focusing on running, dishing and shooting at will. With players such as Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion and Quentin Richardson on the floor, defense wasn't going to be a high priority, anyway. They couldn't survive among the trees if the score read 94-87 at the end of the night, and they couldn't afford the sort of frustration that sets in with a slow start. Alas, mon frere, they ran.
This year, minus the offensive talents of Johnson, Richardson and Stoudemire, the Suns, without a little D being thrown in, would have been wiped off the face of the earth before Amaré even got a chance to lose his crutches. Even if Nash still doesn't make anyone think of Tayshaun Prince, Nash and D'Antoni have gotten the message across: Phoenix needs to run, score and defend to win. Although Phoenix gives up 96.4 points per contest, it still outscores teams by 6.7 points per game -- the second-highest differential in the NBA.
There's glorious depth on this club, with seven players averaging double figures in points while Eddie House and Leo Barbosa combine to average 24.6 points per game in 42 minutes a night. The downside is that there are still a lot of guys to keep happy. James Jones has been solid in his first year as a Sun, but he tends to mope. Luckily, Bell's upcoming three-game suspension for fighting (you know it's going to happen, by St. Patrick's Day at the latest) could open up a nice little starting slot (however short-lived) for the former Pacer.
So what's next? January is no picnic, starting with the Spurs and Heat in the year's opening week, and half of the Suns' games this month are on the road. Don't expect a return to the mean, however. In the wacked-out, nutty 2005-06 season, the clang-happy Pistons can shoot while those high-archers from Phoenix are suddenly all up in yo' grill. Scary stuff.
The Chicago Bulls seemed just fine with their prospects and potential heading into '05-06. Even coming off a surprising 47-win season and a return to the playoffs with the East's third-best record, a letdown was to be expected, and the team prepared accordingly. Without a major free-agent signing or a first-round draft pick, Chicago's only big additions came in the form of Knicks forward Michael Sweetney, who was acquired in a deal that sent starting center and former leading scorer Eddy Curry to New York for a host of draft picks. The idea was that as long as the youthful core continued to learn (of their nine-man rotation, only two are older then 26), a slip in the standings could be swallowed.
But the Bulls haven't so much slipped as they have done a pratfall. The current 12-17 mark puts them on pace for 34 wins, which won't be enough to even sneak in the back door of the postseason. Among the lower points of the current six-game losing streak were a pair of defeats to a second-year Bobcats squad that was allowed to set the pace from the opening tips. Inexcusable. Coach Scott Skiles deserves his share of the blame, watching while his team has had to re-invent itself frequently amid his various lineup rotations.