Season preview: Phoenix Suns
New coach Terry Porter will be charged with trying to improve the Suns' defense
The Suns brought in some defensive-minded role players in the offseason
The core of the team is aging -- can it muster another deep playoff run?
SI.com will analyze each of the NBA's 30 teams as regular-season tip-off approaches. For a complete list of team-by-team breakdowns, click here. The information in the "Go figure" category below is provided by Roland Beech of 82games.com.
Suns at a glance
Last season: 55-27; lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Spurs
Notable additions: Robin Lopez (R), Matt Barnes (FA), Goran Dragic (R), Louis Amundson (FA)
Notable losses: Gordan Giricek (signed with Turkey's Fenerbahce), Brian Skinner (signed with Clippers)
Coach: Terry Porter (first season with Suns; 71-93 in two seasons as NBA coach)
Reasons for hope
1. The talent is there. It's easy to forget that the Suns won 55 games last year despite a major midseason trade and a resulting change in playing style. Phoenix also finished the season strong by winning 15 of 20. Steve Nash might be slowing a bit, but he still averaged 16.9 points and 11.1 assists a year ago while shooting a career-best 47 percent from three-point range. Amaré Stoudemire put up his usual beastly numbers with 25.2 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. With Shaquille O'Neal, Grant Hill, Raja Bell and Leandro Barbosa, Phoenix has the core talent to rack up a fifth straight 50-win season.
2. Greater emphasis on defense. Porter was hired in part to improve Phoenix's notoriously soft underbelly. The former NBA guard was a hard-nosed defender during his playing days and will spend more practice time on defense than did his predecessor, Mike D'Antoni. The presence of Shaq in the middle for a full season should at least help clog up the lane a little, while the addition of Barnes on the wing and rookie center Lopez should provide a little more defensive depth.
3. Nash's leadership. Now 34, in his 13th season, Nash's window of opportunity for winning a title is closing fast. The two-time MVP might have lost a step but he is still a maestro with the basketball, a brilliant orchestrator and a terrific shooter. He's also a team leader who sets the tone with his work habits and practice routine. As long as Nash stays healthy, the Suns have a chance to be among the West's best.
Reasons for worry
1. Age is catching up with them. With Nash (34), O'Neal (36), Hill (soon-to-be 36) and Bell (32), much of the Suns' core is old by NBA standards. They also have a history of getting injured. O'Neal has missed 86 games over the last three years. Hill never makes it through a season (there's talk he could come off the bench this year while Barnes starts). Nash has been bothered by back problems over the years. It seems fair to wonder how much they will have left by the end of the season.
2. Defense remains a question. Porter can preach defense all he wants, but the fact is the Suns don't have the personnel to be great stoppers. Nash struggles to stay in front of his man, Stoudemire often treats defense as an afterthought and Shaq plays the pick-and-roll as if his feet are nailed to the floor. The Suns can improve with repetition and greater effort, but they are still going to have to outscore opponents most nights.
3. Is there enough in reserve? One of Porter's main tasks will be to find a way to shore up the bench (especially up front) so it can give the aging starters more rest. With Barbosa, Boris Diaw and Hill or Barnes, Phoenix has the makings of a solid reserve unit. But with unproven players such as Lopez, Dragic and Alando Tucker filling up the rest of the bench, the Suns are still thin in this area.
Keep an eye on ...
Shaq's health. The 7-1 behemoth has managed to play in just 59, 40 and 61 games, respectively, over the past three seasons. Meanwhile, his production has been slipping steadily. If Shaq gets injured again or continues to decline, the Suns will be in trouble.
With Nash on the court last season, the Suns scored 15.5 more points per 100 posessions than they did while he was on the bench. That was the biggest disparity for any player in the league.
Nash and Stoudemire can keep the Suns near the top, but it seems unlikely that this collection of dinosaurs can stay healthy enough to go deep in the postseason.
Sports Illustrated's NBA preview issue will be on newsstands Wednesday, Oct. 22.