The post-Steve Nash era: Suns pre-season outlook

We held on to Steve Nash for way too long. We only have ourselves to blame. Well, Robert Sarver probably deserves more blame than anyone else, but still. The question now stands: without Nash on the court, what should Suns fans look forward to this upcoming season?

Like Amare Stoudemire in 2010, Steve Nash’s time in Phoenix is done. And just like 2010, management completely botched how to handle the situation, allowing a big star to leave without getting any compensation for his departure. There’s a certain stinging sensation in fans’ hearts at Nash joining the Los Angeles Lakers, the team Suns fans despise above all others. However, that disappointment shouldn’t cloud over the fact that for the first time in years the Phoenix Suns are actually going somewhere. Whether that’s backward or forward remains to be seen.

Nash was the team’s hero and Grant Hill was a go-to defensive stopper, but they were never going to keep the Suns in playoff contention once Stoudemire left. After a few disappointing years of mediocrity, the time finally came for Nash and Hill to move on, allowing the true rebuilding process to begin. And thankfully, Sarver actually pulled the trigger at the right time, even if fans can still resent him for allowing their hero to leave for a hated enemy.

So where do the Suns go from here? It all starts with the return of Goran Dragic, who was a fan favorite off the bench for some of his jaw-dropping plays and promising potential in Phoenix a few years ago. Anyone familiar with the Suns knew Dragic could be something special as a starting point guard, so his breakout year in Houston was no surprise when he was called upon to fill in at starting point guard for an injury-depleted Rockets team. His return to Phoenix will finally give him the chance to shine in front of a crowd that’s excited to have him back. Backing up the Gorantula will be rookie Kendall Marshall, a terrific passer who may one day fill Nash’s shoes as an exquisite pick-and-roll guard, since Dragic is more of a scoring point guard. However, Marshall really needs to develop his shot and become more of a scoring threat on the offensive end for pick-and-rolls to be effective.

But with all the promise at the point guard position, Marshall still needs to develop and Dragic isn’t a high-caliber superstar with the ability to turn the Suns around by himself. The Suns will also rely heavily on their frontcourt of Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola for scoring and rebounding. Gortat had an offensive breakout season last year thanks to the terrific pick-and-roll opportunities that arise every time Nash touches the ball. Scola has always been an underrated and talented big man, highlighted by the fact that the Houston waived him, which allowed the Suns to claim him with the highest bid. However, Gortat will discover that his boosted numbers had a lot to do with the Steve Nash Effect. And like Amare Stoudemire in New York, Gortat’s numbers will never be the same without such a masterful architect of the pick-and-roll getting him easy looks. To top it all off, Gortat isn’t a terrific defensive big man and doesn’t get a lot of blocks.

After Gortat and Scola, the Suns are thin in the backcourt. I’ve never been a big fan of Channing Frye because of his terribly inconsistent 3-point shooting, but even I have to admit to his value as a rebounder increasing over the past few seasons. His absence for the entire season because of his enlarged heart is an unfortunate blow to a team that will now have to rely on Markieff Morris and Jermaine O’Neal as backups. Morris has the potential to be a decent contributor and O’Neal could be an asset if he’s healthy and up to speed, but for now, the Suns’ frontcourt faces quite a few question marks when Scola and Gortat take a breather.

Feb. 20, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash during game against the Washington Wizards at the US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Wizards 104-88. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

As far as shooting guards and small forwards are concerned, the Suns now face a similar situation that seems to be the case with all Alvin Gentry teams: an abundance of decent guards and forwards that really aren’t too far apart in talent and because of that, will receive pretty balanced minutes over the course of the season. Jared Dudley and Michael Beasley will start, but Shannon Brown and Wesley Johnson will be ready to come off the bench if the Suns’ forwards start struggling. Because of Dudley’s work ethic and positive attitude, it seems more likely that Beasley will take more time adjusting to his new lineup. Beasley could be good for the Suns, but keep in mind that he’s never really lived up to being the number two overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft. Suns fans should be cautiously optimistic about this pickup, especially considering his past history of violating league policies. However, fans can look forward to Brown and Johnson coming off the bench to give the Suns some much-needed bench scoring. Brown had a surprisingly solid season in his first year with the Suns, and even though Johnson’s numbers saw a slight dip last year with the Timberwolves, he could join Beasley in having a fresh start in Phoenix.

Unfortunately, all these new, young faces don’t change the fact that the Suns might not be a playoff team this year. All the new personnel means that Gentry and company will need to develop their team chemistry and find a groove before they’re playing their best basketball. Asking for a newly united group of guys to reach the playoffs the year after losing Nash and Hill might be too much to ask, even if I still think Dragic will be something special as the starting point guard. As a perennial Suns fan, I’d like to hold on to optimism that my team makes the postseason, but the Western Conference is stacked this year, so the Suns making the playoffs would surely mean a first-round sweep for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers or the San Antonio Spurs. It would also mean another mediocre draft pick. I hate to say it, but it might be better for the new-look Suns to have a poor season and move up in the draft. But knowing the Suns, that probably won’t happen. What will most likely happen is Phoenix will get off to a rough start, find their rhythm halfway through the season, make a push for the eighth spot in the West, and end up falling just short.

So begins the post-Steve Nash era.