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Posted: Monday November 3, 2008 4:45PM; Updated: Monday November 3, 2008 4:45PM
Paul Forrester Paul Forrester >
INSIDE THE NBA

Suns are shifting gears in first full season with Shaq in the middle

Story Highlights

The Suns are in the process of a style change under first-year coach Terry Porter

Toronto is off to hot start, while James Posey is paying off immediately for N.O.

The Bobcats could struggle early while adjusting to new coach Larry Brown

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The Suns would love to see more defense like the kind Amaré Stoudemire and Shaquille O'Neal played against Tim Duncan here.
The Suns would love to see more defense like the kind Amaré Stoudemire and Shaquille O'Neal played against Tim Duncan here.
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With the Suns having won at least 54 games in each of the last four seasons, the decision to put the brakes on an offense designed to shoot in seven seconds or less has struck more than a few observers as unnecessary tinkering.

But to general manager Steve Kerr, the shift in gears to a more conventional attack, along with a renewed focus on the defensive end, was the only way the Suns would keep pace with their Western Conference rivals.

"I loved the old style," Kerr, who was hired in June 2007, told SI.com. "I really had no intention of changing anything, but it became apparent as we went through the course of last season that teams caught on that we were very vulnerable inside. We were getting pounded by the bigger teams, by the Lakers and the Spurs. We needed to add some size and some girth inside if we were going to compete because we had faltered in the playoffs against the bigger teams [before], and we could see that coming [again]. At that point, we made the decision to make the trade for Shaq."

While Kerr says both the front office and the coaching staff were unanimous in their desire to acquire more size, Shaquille O'Neal's addition before last season's trade deadline robbed Phoenix of the advantage former coach Mike D'Antoni pressed -- the ability to run past teams that weren't geared to play the Suns' style in a single-game setting.

With their offensive rhythm thrown off-kilter, the Suns, who had a .698 winning percentage before the trade, lost six of their first nine games with Shaq before recovering to go 15-5 down the stretch. A five-game, first-round playoff loss to the Spurs further illustrated the Suns' struggles to incorporate Shaq while offering little evidence that his presence strengthened their defense.

"Once we made that decision [to trade for Shaq], I saw a lot of things defensively that I felt we needed to change," Kerr said. "We had to get better against the pick-and-roll. That is really the staple of your defense because that's what everybody runs offensively.

"When Mike decided to leave [for the Knicks], I wanted to bring in a coach who could implement those changes, and Terry [Porter] was the right guy for me."

A former teammate of Kerr's in San Antonio, Porter impressed his new boss with a blend of modesty and confidence, and a willingness to run the type of defense that the GM envisioned.

"What we're doing differently now is sending everything baseline and sideline rather than toward the middle," Kerr said. "We're funneling everything toward Shaq and [rookie first-round pick] Robin Lopez and Amaré [Stoudemire] down on the baseline. We're cutting off angles."

That's an awful lot to place on the shoulders of the 36-year-old Shaq (who hasn't played more than 55 games in five years), especially with the Suns' plans to limit his games and minutes. Which is why this Phoenix team intends to utilize a rotation deeper than the seven or eight D'Antoni regularly favored. In the Suns' first three games, Stoudemire was the only player to average more than 34 minutes.

"The one thing we haven't been able to do in recent years is rest our older players," Kerr said. "We probably ran Grant Hill and Steve Nash into the ground a little bit last year. With the five new players we've added, we feel like we're much deeper than we've been in the past. Now we're more capable of managing Shaq's games and Grant's minutes and Steve's minutes. We should be much fresher going into the playoffs."

That, of course, assumes they get there, which is no sure thing for a team undergoing a drastic identity change. Perhaps that is why Kerr expects the season to be more of a process than an abrupt turn.

"Maybe [our mantra] will be 12 seconds or less," he said.

The week ahead

• Wed., Nov. 5: Charlotte at New York, 7:30 p.m. ET -- Larry Brown returns to Madison Square Garden for the first time since he was sent packing two years ago with an $18.5 million payoff. Perhaps Stephon Marbury will have something in common with his former coach soon.

• Wed., Nov. 5: Atlanta at New Orleans, 8 p.m. -- The Hawks get another chance to see what might have been when they visit Chris Paul in the Big Easy while still clinging to hope that Marvin Williams finally breaks out three years after he was drafted in front of Paul.

• Sun., Nov. 9: Boston at Detroit, 6 p.m.; Houston at L.A. Lakers, 9:30 p.m. -- After a weekend full of pigskin, it might be easy to overlook a pair of potential conference final previews. Don't.

Who's up

Toronto Raptors: A 3-0 start has included nice contributions from newcomer Jermaine O'Neal and a dominant stretch from Chris Bosh, who averaged 26 points (on 54 percent shooting) and 10 rebounds in victories against the 76ers, Warriors and Bucks.

James Posey: Robert Horry's title-dust successor helped the Hornets open the season with three straight wins, two on the road, while hitting 10-of-16 (62.5 percent) from three-point range.

Who's down

Dwyane Wade: This has the look of a long season for the Heat. Wade seemed downright ornery during Miami's season-opening loss in New York, and with little help outside of a misplaced Shawn Marion and rookie Michael Beasley, D-Wade might be in need of anger management by April.

Beno Udrih: The Kings' starting point guard celebrated his new contract (five years, $32 million) by committing 12 turnovers and shooting 37.5 percent during an 0-3 start.

They said it

• "If this is what it is, there is always next year. I'm not going to harp on this year."
-- Stephon Marbury closes the book on the 2008-09 season one game in after he didn't play a minute in the Knicks' opening victory.

• "[Joel] Przybilla can't guard me when I'm 27, 37. He tries to be physical, but I used my finesse game on him and schooled him."
-- Shaquille O'Neal lets the Portland center know what he thinks of his defensive effort. Shaq scored 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting in the Suns' 107-96 victory Saturday.

• "I thought that was just a Halloween thing."
-- Lakers coach Phil Jackson offers his opinion of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's beard in talking about his own clean-shaven look this season.

Scout's take

An NBA scout assesses Larry Brown's chances of turning around the Bobcats.

"Larry will make them better, but it will get worse before it gets better. They play a lot of home games early, which will help, but I wouldn't expect a fast start because a lot of his players will be trying to adjust to the way he coaches and what he wants them to do. There is a lot of thinking going on, which is not atypical of any team he would take over. He's also trying to adjust to them, and he's already admitted that the roster is very different than anything he's ever coached before.

"I believe the guys are trying to buy in and do what he's asking them to do, so I don't think there is any push-back. There was quite a bit of that by this point last season with Sam Vincent. Apparently, about midway through the preseason, the players were about at the point of revolt already.

"On the other hand, you have to be careful with Larry. By early November, he will have wanted to trade virtually everyone on the team. That might be a little strong -- give me the first of December as a little margin for error. [Former Sixers GM] Billy King had a 48-hour rule in Philadelphia. They would never make any roster move that Larry wanted to make without waiting 48 hours to see if Larry changed his mind, because he had a tendency to get a little tempestuous and would want to make a move out of emotion. That has still got to be the way you operate with Larry.

"Michael Jordan and Rod Higgins will pull the strings on the personnel, as they have in the past. Michael has wanted to maintain control, and I think that's why he resisted hiring Larry before. Now he's realized that at some point you have to put someone in place who really knows what they're doing."

3-pointers

• Don't blame the Knicks' D'Antoni for cursing those pockets of New York fans chanting "We Want Steph" at MSG. There wasn't a basketball fan in New York who wouldn't have personally driven Marbury to the airport last year to excise him from the team. Now when the club has a coach who selects his rotation based on performance more than reputation, the crowd wants a walk down memory lane? Quick reminder: Memory lane was paved with 59 losses last season.

• With each Cavaliers loss, the drumbeat will grow louder that LeBron James is counting the days until he can leave for a bigger media market. That may eventually be the case, but can we please do away with the notion that part of the reason James would leave would be to become an even bigger media superstar? How much bigger could he be? China? Done. Ties to products outside NBA circles? Done. Politics? Done. If one of the game's biggest stars leaves Cleveland, it likely won't be because he lacks for attention.

• Maybe Memphis GM Chris Wallace knew what he was doing last season in dealing Pau Gasol to the Lakers. Not only did the Grizzlies pick up Pau's younger brother, Marc, an emerging presence in the paint, but they also acquired a late-first-round pick that turned into former Kansas big man Darrell Arthur. The 6-foot-9 Arthur started two of the first three games and was Memphis' early leader in rebounding and shot-blocking, helping the Grizzlies, who were terrible defensively last season, hold opponents to 87.3 points on 38.9 percent shooting.

 
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