This season the difference in play between Seattle and Phoenix will be a compelling story to watch.
Both teams emerged as suprise successes last year. Both featured young, exciting rosters fueled by veteran guards and suprisingly efficient offenses. Both have taken vastly different approaches to the offseason.
Its reported today that the Suns are considering the addition of former Sonic Gary Payton, a 37-year-old guard who last played in Boston. This will be in addition to Boris Diaw a 4th-year guard, 30-year-old journeyman Raja Bell, 33-year-old PF/C Kurt Thomas, and 33-year-old PF/C Brian Grant. In adding these players the Suns gave up their #20 draft pick, Nate Robinson, 23-year-old C Steven Hunter, 24-year-old G Joe Johnson, and 25 year-old-G Quentin Richardson.
In summary the Suns have made changes to 5 of their 9 rotation players. They've added more size and ostensibly more toughness but have completely changed the nature of their game by adding players who are older, slower, more injury prone, and lack the versatility and scoring prowess of their previous roster. In my opinion they've replaced players who specifically cater to the strengths of Steve Nash with players who will not complement him nearly as well.
The Sonics meanwhile have suffered their own losses with Jerome James and Antonio Daniels defecting for large contracts and Nate McMillan accepting a large contract with Portland. They have however chosen the not so glamorous route of "continuity" over large scale turnover. The absence of Daniels and James will apparently be filled by a comittee of Vitaly Potapenko, Robert Swift, Damien Wilkens, and Flip Murray, all of whom were on the roster last year and many of whom have played key rotation roles at points during the last two years. The Sonics only free agent aquisition of the season, journeyman Rick Brunson, was signed for the veteran minimum and clearly will have the contract and skills to be a role player in limited minutes behind starter Luke Ridnour. Should Flip Murray step up in the preseason it is very conceivable that Brunson serves only as a deep bench reserve while Murray manages the backup PG duties.
The two plans are almost complete contradictions. The Suns feel that Amare Stoudemire and Steve Nash are so talented decided that they needed a core of veterans to make an immediate championship push. The Sonics are banking on improvement by 3rd-year players Luke Ridnour, and Nick Collison, as well as the continued improvement of Rashard Lewis and Vladi Radmanovic to keep them in contention over the next 3-5 years of Ray Allens contract.
In addition the Sonics continue to pursue their path of fiscal responsibility in an effort to avoid long term problems retaining their roster. A large contributor to the Suns roster turnover this season has been their willingness in the past to overpay for marginal talent. Several years ago the Suns gave Stephon Marbury a maximum contract extension prior to his contracts expiration as well as granting Shawn Marion a max contract. Quentin Richardson, while a fine player set a contract bar that was difficult to exceed for Joe Johnson, a superior player at the same position.
Those deals have resulted in a bloated payroll with players like Howard Eisley still counting for nearly $6 million towards the Phoenix cap, This year they paid nearly $5 million for Raja Bell but then were forced to let go of Johnson due to financial constraints. In similar circumstances the Sonics are using the hammer of restricted free agency and lower priced veterans to retain role players at relatively minimal contracts. Prolonged negotiations with both Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen have resulted in better value contracts for those players than the Suns have been able to achieve. The hope is that the team will retain the financial flexibility to retain both Ridnour and Collison to team with Allen, Lewis, and Radmonovich on a long term basis.
My prediction is that the Suns will face a difficult season. The roster they've assembled is not nearly as well suited to the strengths of Steve Nash as last year's and their chances of avoiding serious injury have lessoned considerably. While I am not sure how the Sonics will fare this season I believe their chances for long term success are significantly higher than those of the Suns.