PER-petual Shortcomings: An Angle on Suns Playoff History


Dear 2010-11 NBA Season, please hurry.  That is all.

I'll be honest - if you don't like statistics, this might be painful to read.  If you're looking for a quick read?  This might not be the post for you.

In light of our recent statistical conversations and because I can taste the season right around the corner I took a plunge into some numbers.

I mean, we've talked about defense, we've effectively killed the rebounding conversation this past year, we've talked positional logjams...  yet with all of that, my thoughts this off-season continually turn to the new players and how they will improve the depth of our roster.  I'm excited especially about Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick and the explosiveness they will add to our bench - and that all got me thinking... Just how much better will our bench really be?  Will the off-season moves make up for the loss of Amare Stoudemire?  Will it all translate to another deep playoff run?

Since training camp hasn't even started and a game hasn't been played to analyze... I turned to the stats, and one in particular: PER, John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating.

What I found was interesting (well for me anyways... you at least might enjoy my colorful tables and pretty pictures), and call me Captain Obvious or Redundant - but I am officially in all my blog power predicting that our bench will be the best bench ever (at least statistically) to wear a Suns uniform, without a doubt.  Jump it.


Let's get down to the dirty dirty.

PER (Player Efficiency Rating):

Definition: In a nutshell it is a generic rating of a player's per-minute productivity.  In his own words Hollinger summarizes, "The PER sums up all a player's positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments, and returns a per-minute rating of a player's performance."  Each 'positive accomplishment' (i.e. FG made-steal-block-assist yatta yatta) is assigned a point value and the same with the negative.  It's all added together - adjusted for pace, and viola! We have a mechanism for comparing player productivity regardless of discrepancies in their minutes played.

DISCLAIMER: PER has it's flaws - it is definitely not perfect or unequivocally accurate. (I am not advocating that it is perfect so please don't comment and tell me I'm a big fat doo doo head for giving it so much attention here - remember it's the off-season, DUH.)

You see - Albert Einstein and John Hollinger are a lot a like in certain ways... kind of sort of.


Albert Einstein spent his entire life searching for a unifying theory that would simplify the many complexities of Physics - and hey!  John Hollinger spent some time developing a unifying theory that would simplify the many complexities of basketball statistics...  the biggest difference besides working in very different fields - is that Einstein died trying to find his theory (and no one since has been able to complete his task) while Hollinger just kind of made do with what he had.

Criticism of PER:

There are a lot, but I'm only worried about a couple.

1) DEFENSE - While PER incorporates some defensive accomplishments like blocks and steals - it doesn't reliably represent good defensive players because there's no accurate way to quantify some of the things done on defense.  So some players who are known to be defensive specialists often have a deceivingly low PER. 

2) INTANGIBLES - Science has not yet figured out a way to quantify intangible factors, so until they do, PER will be incomplete and video games will continue to be the only place that this problem is non-existent.  Factors like determination, cohesion, defensive awareness, court vision, leadership, clutch performing, etc. really  do have an impact on a player's value and on the outcome of games and seasons.

Keep these major criticisms in mind when we get into the playoff analysis in bit.

For more info on PER... look it up yourself you lazy bum.

SUNS Deep Playoff Runs and PER:

Now the Suns as we all know hold the title of something like, 'the most winningestest team to win a whole lot and be in the playoffs all time and be super-fun to watch and root for but to never to have won a championship" bla bla bla we know the history.  Well I want to focus on what kind of teams we've had historically when we were able to make deep playoff runs - something I'm hoping our new roster will be able to do again this year.

So as not to spark a raging debate in the comment section - for the purposes of this study I will define 'deep playoff run' as follows,

Deep Playoff Run: Making it to the Conference Finals or further.

By that definition - the Phoenix Suns have had a total of 9 deep playoff runs including 7 WCF appearances and 2 NBA Finals appearances.


(Click image to enlarge)

So being the bored off-season fan that I am I decided to break down the average team PER for each of those Suns playoff teams and the PER of their opponents - just to see what I could find.  The following are my results.


2009-10 WCF - SUNS v. LAKERS (2-4)

Let me first explain how I whipped these charts up - some of it is pretty obvious.  The last two columns of each table divide up the team's starters from their top 5 bench players (the 2nd unit).   This is my attempt to find out just exactly how good our bench has been and if it has impacted previous playoff teams to the extent that I'm hoping this year's team might.   More on this later.

The Total is just just a generic average of the PER of every player on the team's playoff roster.

The Real Total is my discretionary PER average which includes the starters and the 2nd unit - no garbage-time players are included in this one.  My general rule of thumb was to exclude players who played less than 50 minutes total in the playoffs.  So for example - In the tables below Clark, Collins (I excluded Collins because I knew he played very limited minutes in the WCF though he had contributed up to that point a small amount) and D.Jones are all excluded from the REAL TOTAL for the Suns while likewise J.Powell, Walton, and Adam Morrison's numbers are excluded from the Lakers' RT.   This stat was interesting because, of the 9 total playoff series analyzed  - the team with the higher RT won 5 times - and in a majority of the exceptions there are very obvious PER Criticisms that would explain why the Suns lost despite having the higher team PER RT.


I know this is still fresh in everyone's mind and the pain is still lingering - so I apologize. 

The PER numbers in this series really bring to light all the predictions that took place before it started.   You can see that obviously in the starting rotation it would appear that the Suns have the better 5 man squad - but this is where we get a taste of our first example of the PER Criticisms. 

(Disclaimer - I hate the Lakers.  I just wanted to make that clear)

Everyone predicted that D.Fisher was the weak link - his PER certainly suggests that he is not on the same level as the guards in the Suns line-up, but Fisher through his long career of winning championships has accumulated vast amounts of intangible skill points.  The guys is a leader - he's clutch - he's feisty - he's determined.  All these things don't show up in the PER calculations.  Same case for Ron Artest, he's hands down one of the best defenders in the game and his PER is deceptively low for his actual game productivity. 

Then there's always the Kobe factor - his tangibles and intangibles are constantly compared to Michael Jordan's, that should explain a lot when it comes to evaluating his actual productivity and impact on his team.

By the numbers, our bench was amazing and should have dominated the Lakers bench, and it did on some occasions perform to the numbers, but remember that Kobe played something like 77 minutes a game rarely was it ever our bench v. theirs.

In the end - the intangible factors came through for the Lakers (THAT INCLUDES LUCK, re: Kobe air ball and Artest put back), Fisher hit the big shots - Kobe found the 'zone' offensively, and their 3pt shooting which had been terrible all season long decided to show up

So what did the PER teach us?  The team with the better RT won.


2005-06 WCF SUNS v. MAVERICKS (2-4)


The numbers in this series don't lie or deceive.  The Suns undoubtedly had the superior starting lineup - but the Mavericks had Dirk.  28.1 PER - the dude was lights out all season and that didn't change in this series, he was a German en fuego.  But that alone isn't what beat the Suns in this series.  It was the Dallas bench and overall team depth.  Their bench was relentless and D'Antoni's notorious 7 deep roster really is to blame for this series loss.

"Our guys fought as hard as they could; we just ran out of steam," said Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, who ended his postgame comments in tears. "Third quarter, we just got bogged down and couldn't score."

The story each game was the same - PHX jumps to a huge lead and then drops the ball in the 2nd half.

"You can't just tail off every second half the way we did and not expect it to mean something," said Nash, who clearly was fatigued throughout the series.


Again - the team with the superior RT wins.


2004-05 WCF - SUNS v. SPURS (1-4)


The Numbers again tell the story.   Tim Duncan happened.  No Bench happened.  Also - No defense happened.

In the last game -

Led by Nash, the run-and-gun Suns topped the NBA in scoring this season. However, they were last in defense, the staple of the Spurs. Phoenix was held below 106 points just twice in the postseason, both times by San Antonio.

"On the whole, we're a little better than them defensively, so we had to make those stops and we made them in the third and fourth quarter that allowed us to have an opportunity to win the game," Popovich said.


Again, the better team RT-wise won.


1992-93 NBA FINALS - SUNS v. BULLS (2-4)9293f_medium



Well, now that I've got you all in tears because of the above picture - let's get to the point.

Here - the numbers simply get it wrong.  No doubt this is one of the most talented and one of the deepest Suns teams in franchise history, even Paul Westphal truly believed they were the more talented team, and they were - on paper... but they ran into one small problem.  They were facing Michael Jordan and the Bulls.  Jordan averaged 41 PPG FOR THE SERIES.  

PER-wise, you can also argue that B.Cartwright's 8.3 is deceiving given his defensive strengths - but that doesn't even matter. 

This is an exception series because of a Superstar - Michael Jordan.

1989-90 WCF - SUNS v. BLAZERS (2-4)


From here on out (and by that I mean as we travel further back in time) I'm really venturing out of my comfort zone.  Though I know for a fact I've been a Suns fan my entire life (since 85') and watched games on TV with my dad when I was very young, the 1993 Finals is the first time I actually remember watching games and knowing who was playing.  So anything earlier than that I'm really at a loss to remember in order to dig deeper into the facts and non-statistical factors that might explain these PER discrepancies.  

I was able to find some clips on youtube - this pregame clip alludes to the fact that the Blazers had won the 'squeekers' (close games) while the Suns were winning blow out games.  To win the squeekers - you know there are some intangibles at work, often luck or it comes down to hustle plays/turnovers or it seems it was foul trouble for stars like Tom Chambers that might have contributed to the PHX loss here.

So though the PER suggests PHX is the better team again - it's obviously not Gospel.


1988-89 WCF - SUNS v. LAKERS (0-4)


This one looked like a no-contest... especially when the Lakers and Magic are hitting shots like the one @ 1:00 - check it out. RIDICULOUS.



1983-84 WCF - SUNS v. LAKERS (2-4)


I'm guessing some of the same went on here... with that Lakers starting lineup I wouldn't cry if they beat my team either.   Couldn't find any footage or whatnot for this one.  If you know anything you'd like to contribute to any one of these series feel free to punch it in the comment section.

I did find this sweet Picture of my boy Walter Davis -


I still think my Larry Nance impression is pretty good too...


Yes.  That's my head.  Yes. Those are Larry Nance's sexy legs, not mine.   And Yes - it is awesome. 


1978-79 WCF - SUNS v. SONICS (3-4)


Another disclaimer - from 1980 and earlier the PER stats get sketchier and sketchier because certain statistics had not been recorded until certain dates (the 3pt shot didn't exist til 79', turnovers weren't recorded til 77', O-Reb, steals, and blocked shots not recorded til 73').

There's also something else i noticed while examining the minutes played by each team.  For one - they didn't keep track of who started games - so I'm really just guessing by total minutes played as to who started and who came off the bench.  But with that being said - it was interesting to me to see that nearly every single player on these rosters was averaging double digit minutes per/game.  If there were 14 guys on a roster - all 14 were putting in work most of the time.  With this being the case - the more accurate PER total to compare for these series is probably the regular TOTAL.  13.97 - 13.61 is pretty close - and the fact that this series went to 7 games and was tight down to the very last second support the idea that these teams were pretty evenly matched.

Check this out and remember, "basketball is the most emotional sport!"


1975-76 NBA FINALS - SUNS v. CELTICS (2-4)


Last but not least was our first Finals appearance - the shot heard round the world series.  Again, I didn't spend too much time analyzing this one because it really is hard picking apart teams from 35 years ago when the playing style/rules etc. are all different.  Defense was played different - game plans drawn up differently.  But again looking at the PER regular totals for each team - the suggestion is once again that these teams were pretty evenly matched and knowing the history of the series, it was a very competitive series all the way to the end.  


(pssst - I kind of got tired of analyzing this older teams too if you couldn't already tell)




I made up this litte chart for this years team. Here are a few contingencies I'm basing these PER numbers on:

  1. Nash, Hill, and Richardson play at about the same level as year
  2. Robin Lopez turns into the productive post player we are all hoping (Jumping from 17.6 to 22)
  3. Hedo Turkoglu is the Hedo from his ORL Finals days (I took his PER from that year)
  4. Channing Frye and Goran Dragic continue to marginally improve (15-15.5 and 14.8-15.5 repectively)
  5. Jared Dudley comes back even better with a new part of his game improved like last year (13.6- 14) though I am worried about his minutes given our positional logjam. 
  6. I plainly took Warrick and Childress' career PER averages - but I'm betting that they will improve in our system and on this team.
  7. I have no idea what to expect from the youngins Clark/Lawal/Janning/Jones/Silas.  Maybe you guys can help. But their PER really isn't all that important unless someone above them gets injured.

So lets wrap this up - remember my questions ALL the way back at the beginning?

Just how much better will our bench really be?    

With all of these 'Ifs' and speculations above, I'm predicting the best bench in Phoenix Suns history and a playoff worthy Starting lineup. 

Will the off-season moves make up for the loss of Amare Stoudemire?

Looking at the PER - NO.  That's the answer plain and simple.  Amare was an offensive scoring machine and the PER stat is very kind to creatures of his nature.  I've tweaked this year's projected PERs as much as I homerly can without feeling to guilty of complete bias, but even so last year's starting squad is still the better with a PER of 18.48 to this year's 18.28.  

BUT - the bench will improve significantly from 14.36 to 15.38 - more than a whole point increased.  What does that mean?  Who knows if that will help heal the void - we'll have to wait and see for that answer.  Statistically - it looks good.

Will it all translate to another deep playoff run?

Per the PER data - this team will definitely have enough talent (or at least enough productivity per minute) to hang with other playoff teams.  In my mind at least - it's now just a question as to whether or not they can put it all together as a team on a consistent basis.  

If all these stars align and barring any serious injuries I am more than willing to put my huevos on the table and predict that this team will make yet another 'deep playoff run' to add to the Phoenix history books.  


Eutychus. OUT>

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