The Phoenix Suns are playing well. Better than they've played all season long. It took this team a while to gel, but now they are winning games they should win and hitting their stride when the games matter the most.
Does this sound familiar to anyone?
It should. Since Alvin Gentry took over as the Phoenix Suns coach a little more than three seasons ago, his teams have played better and won more games in the second half than in the first half.
2009-10, Gentry's first full season as head coach
In 2009-2010, the Suns finished on a 28-7 run to vault all the way to 3rd in the West after starting the season only 26-21 despite featuring 2 all-stars, league-leading 3-shooting and a former dunk champion in their lineup. That season featured what turned out to be 3 different teams. The one that started 14-3 did it with smoke, mirrors and a great offense hiding a horrible, horrible defense. The poor defense and rebounding caught up with them, resulting in a 12-18 midseason stretch. I remember our vaunted blog leader writing an article in January that showed these two stretches, concluding that the latter was longer and therefore more indicative of the team's future.
Gentry, Nash and Hill preached patience during the bad stretch, saying they just needed to find that right combination in the lineup. The bench was playing poorly. Soon after that, Gentry found it by moving Robin Lopez into the starting lineup and Channing Frye to the bench. Suddenly, the starting unit had defense and the bench had offense.
On January 28, 2010, the team as a whole ramped up their games for the stretch run and ran out to a 28-7 finish that included offense, defense and rebounding.
That season was a struggle, highlighted by a big midseason trade of half the lineup. But Gentry found a sweet spot once again with a 10-man rotation that vaulted the Suns to a 17-7 record from January 12 - March 4.
This run could legitimately have lasted through the end of the season and into the playoffs, but Channing Frye inexplicably separated his own shoulder in a game against Oklahoma City (Durant was in the vicinity but no foul was called) and the Suns' season was effectively over. They just didn't have the horses to finish the job without a healthy Frye in the lineup.
Here we are again. It should be no surprise that Gentry has found the sweet spot in the Suns rotation. After starting the season a paltry 12-19, the Suns are currently on a 16-7 run since February 19, 2012. With 12 games to go, the Suns are in a dogfight for a playoff spot.
If you factor in the late start to the season, the point in time at which the Suns started to gel if eerily close to the prior 2 seasons under Gentry.
So why does it take so long for Gentry's teams to gel? You can blame roster turnover for part of it, but not all. This year, the Suns returned the same starting lineup from the end of last season. Fully 8 guys are in at least their second year with the Suns, if not a lot longer: Steve Nash (8 years), Grant Hill (5), Robin Lopez (4), Jared Dudley (4), Channing Frye (3), Marcin Gortat (2), Hakim Warrick (2), Josh Childress (2).
That's all 5 of the starting lineup, 1 regular rotation player and 2 bit players. The coaching staff is a veteran one as well. Gentry has been here 8 years total (4.5 as an assistant), while everyone other than Elston Turner is in their 4th.
The key here is the bench. In his 3 full seasons as Suns coach, Gentry has stubbornly stuck with a minimum 10-man rotation in every single game. Sometimes he plays 11 or 12 guys, even. That means he needs to find 5-7 guys who can predictably play well every night.
Some of that is keeping the minutes down for their best players: Steve Nash and Grant Hill. The backup PG and SF are going to get minutes. And some of that is a roster full of different, but equally middling talent after those two. Marcin Gortat, their third best player, is really good but is he that much better than an energetic Lopez? Channing Frye is good but doesn't always bring his A-game on offense, which makes him interchangeable with rookie Markieff Morris. And so on down the line.
So Gentry has to spend half a season to find the sweet spot on his bench each year - the best combination of players and minutes for 5 of 8 guys sitting there next to him after the opening tip. Only one of who turned out to be the "best 5" this year was on the team a year ago.
We need to give Gentry credit for finding a winning combination every season, despite turnover on his roster and less-than-stellar talent.
28-7 finish in 2010
17-7 run in 2011 before Frye's devastating injury
16-7 this season, with 12 games to go.
Let's keep this ball rolling, and give Gentry credit for making it happen!