After eight games, the Phoenix Suns record is perfectly average with a 4-4 record. Their offensive efficiency is just above average (13th overall) while their defensive efficiency is near the bottom of the league (27th overall). As a team, the Suns are pulling down just under half of the available rebounds, which places them in the bottom half of the league (19th). Sound familiar?
Despite those offensive and defensive numbers, rebounding is the key to success for this team. So far on the young season, the Suns are 3-0 when they outrebound their opponent. And 1-4 when they don't.
Where it gets interesting is when you pull back the layers of data on how those rebounds are coming about. There are big differences between this current team (so far) and the Suns of old.
Prior Suns teams would regularly outshoot the opponent, while the current team is getting outshot more often than not. That meant the Suns had, on average, more defensive rebounding chances than their opponent each night, giving them a distinct advantage on the boards in simple terms of opportunity.
This season's Suns are not shooting the ball nearly as well, which hands the rebounding advantage to the other team. The Suns shooting percentage so far this season is a paltry 42.8% while their opponents are making a robust 47% of their shots. This equates to the Suns missing six (6) more field goals per game, which is six (6) more defensive rebounding opportunities for the opponent.
All things being equal in rebound rates, the team that misses more shots should also lose the rebounding battle.
The Suns should be losing the rebound battle by six boards a game thanks to their poor shooting, yet that's just not the case so far. In fact, the Suns are crashing the offensive boards (7th in the NBA) and grabbing most of those extra misses themselves.
Thanks to rebounding their own misses more than their opponent is doing, the Suns have reduced that disadvantage to only 1 fewer total rebound per game so far and have outrebounded their opponent in each of their wins (despite only outshooting them twice).
Captain Obvious says this team will win more games if they make more shots.
Well that's one solution. The Suns are currently in the bottom third of the league in effective shooting percentage (which weighs 3-pointers heavier than 2-pointers) after regularly topping the standings in that area in years past. They are shooting 42.7% overall, and only 32.8% from 3-point land. Only Goran Dragic and Shannon Brown are making at or above their career average on 3s.
Another solution is to force their opponents to miss more shots. The opponents so far are making 47% of all of their shots, and a crazy 43.8% of their 3-pointers. Can this Suns team possibly be defending the 3-point line any worse than years past? Not likely. Last year's opponents made only 35.2% of their 3-point attempts. Methinks this is a fluke that will be corrected with patience and a minor defensive tweak here and there.
The Suns shooters will improve to their mean, and the Suns opponents will regress to theirs. All of this will just happen in time.
And when those shooting numbers level out, as long as the Suns keep crashing the boards they may just find themselves winning the rebounding battle on a regular basis. And that would equate to more wins.
The Suns are undefeated this season when winning the total rebounding battle.
Grabbing more defensive rebounds on their opponents' misses is a top priority. Suns C Marcin Gortat, the Suns best rebounder, thinks it's all about their mindset.
"Everybody wants to try to get the rebound," he said after practice yesterday. "But first we have to box out. Unfortunately we are not always doing it. Secondly we have to get tougher, that is it. If you really want to go get a rebound and you don't want to box out we have to anticipate that that guy is going to fly at you with full speed. If you don't want to box out you have to go up, hard, and strong to secure the ball and we are just not doing it."
Just in case we weren't sure what he meant, he elaborated as only Marcin Gortat can.
"Those "unathletic guys" should focus more on boxing out I think," he continued. "And those athlete guys supposed to take those balls from the rim, but they have to do it hard.
While their offensive rebounding has been great, the defensive rebounding has not been quite as good.
The Suns, so far, are 20th in the league in defensive rebound rate (the percentage of opponent misses rebounded by the Suns). Better than prior Suns editions (24th, 28th and 29th in the last three years, respectively), but not good enough to overcome a struggling offense.
Clearly, the key to winning games is to make more shots than the opponent.
Past Suns teams would start by outshooting their opponent and hope the shooting would negate any disadvantage on the boards.
This current team cannot afford to wait for anything - they have to win the rebound battle every night. And if they do, that could go a long way in a playoff run.
"We have to get better," Gortat said. "And we have made a lot of mistakes during the games."