The Phoenix Suns appeared to be a team in transition, ready to play anyone and everyone in order to find "keepers" for the next great Suns team. Yet, a month into the season, coach Hornacek is playing a tight 8-man rotation loaded with league veterans.
Throughout the preseason, Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek played at least 14 guys every night. A rotation so deep was untenable during the regular season. But after years of watching Alvin Gentry and Lindsey Hunter play at least a 10-man rotation on a regular basis, the Suns seemed destined to ride the rotational turnstile yet again.
Still, the question was a good one. How deep would the rotation be, once the season started?
"Eight or nine guys would be ideal," coach Hornacek said before the season. "But with this team, where we are, that's probably not possible."
Hornacek was referring a rebuilding squad that would try to incorporate young players with a handful of veterans in a hodge-podge season sure to produce a lot more losses than wins. Throughout the preseason, the Suns had 17 players on it's active roster if you included rehabbing Malcolm Lee.
Certainly, there had to be some give. It helped when the Suns traded four players (Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown, Malcolm Lee, Kendall Marshall) for none (injured Emeka Okafor and a future first round pick), but that still left 13 playable guys on the roster.
The 13 players did not include any All-Stars, no one who demanded minutes over every other player on the roster. We all knew Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic would play a lot, but who else would get 30+ minutes a night?
Looked like a deep rotation was in the offing.
Yet, a month into the season, one thing has become clear: these Phoenix Suns are running with a veteran 8-man rotation.
We haven't seen an 8-man rotation in these here parts since the mid-2000s "Dantonis" graced the court.
But here we are. Eight guys average 22+ minutes, while no one else gets more than 12. Some of that limitation on the rotation has to do with Alex Len's lingering injury. Yet, I don't see where Len will get big minutes when he's healthy. Channing Frye is rounding into form and Miles Plumlee is earning his minutes as well. That's your center rotation at the moment, and for the foreseeable future.
Another mitigating factor is the play of Gerald Green. The 6'8" long-distance shooting Green has been playing like the perfect compliment to Dragic and Bledsoe. In fact, he's giving the Suns most of what they hope Archie Goodwin can someday produce. Goodwin's ceiling is higher on defense and scoring, but he's only 19 and is just not yet earning minutes over Green.
And frankly, the only reason Ish Smith and Goodwin even get 23 minutes a game between them is due to injuries to Dragic and Bledsoe. I expect the 8-man rotation to become even more pronounced as those players stay healthy.
There will always be 9 or 10 men in the box score each night, but it sure appears that only 8 of them will get long, consistent minutes.
And the ones getting long minutes are the veterans. While Hornacek instills his imprint on the team, he's using his veterans to set the tone. Of the top 6 minute-getters, 4 of them are 27 or older (Dragic, Tucker, Green and Frye).
One wonders if the rotation will be as tight or as veteran when spring rolls around, but for now you're looking at the best players playing the most minutes every night. Something Jared Dudley wished for last year, but didn't get.
Here is your formal weekly recap for the Phoenix Suns with a look at all the games, the news and notes, key stats, NBA Draft updates, Quote of the Week, and more. Let's get it...
Despite the ugly loss to end the week, the Phoenix Suns (9-8) had a strong week in terms of rebounding after a losing skid and getting back on track. That was largely due to the career best play of point guard Goran Dragic.
vs. Utah Jazz - L (112-104) Full Recap
The positives this week outweigh the negatives, if you want negatives scroll down to the Key Stat, but lets take a moment to appreciate the play of Dragic this week.
In three games he averaged 21.3 points, 9.3 assists, 53.5% shooting (50% from three), and took 8.6 free-throws a game. The efficient manner that Dragic was able to lead the team in scoring, assists, and free-throw attempts was impressive. He made as many free-throws as field goals, 23.
Production at this level has never been done by Dragic in his NBA career. He has come close with a few three game windows last year, but nothing near the 19+ points 9+ assists 50+% shooting and volume of free-throw shooting.
He was more impressive than ever shouldering the offensive load showing his ability to score in a variety of ways. Play like this always evens out over the course of an 82 game season. Last year Dragic showed this was a side of his game that can be tapped into, but did not have any help so defenses keyed on him. This year that can change with more offensive weapons around him to take some of the defensive pressure off of him.
For scorers at the NBA level, outside of the elite, efficiency is not a focus, which is something that Dragic was able to display this week. He was 18/33 from two, 5/10 from three, and 23/26 from the free-throw line. Efficiency in a nut shell.
This was the type of play that was expected when the Suns signed Dragic last summer and it took a year longer to get there, but this year feels more like the real Goran Dragic.
The Week of the Dragon is over, can this be the Year of the Dragon?
-3.0 & -5.4
In football a clean jersey for the quarterback is a sign that the offensive line did their job, they did the dirty work that is largely unnoticed, but leads to winning. A parallel for that in basketball is offensive rebounding and second chance points. This week the Suns were -3.0 in offensive rebounds per game and because of that gave up an additional 5.4 points per game in second chance points.
An exclamation point on this: The Suns gave up 106.3 points per game this week on average. Of that, 50.0 points per game came in the paint (and 20.6 from the free-throw line) showing the glaring hole inside right now. That is 66.4% of the opposing offenses production coming off of effort and from the free-throw line in...
Quote of the Week
We have the second youngest team in the league, I felt great today and I a thirty, so its like shoot... No excuse. Lets go out and play. This is all we have to do today. -- Channing Frye after the loss to the Jazz
2014 NBA Draft Update
Surrogate Watch continues and the Suns have one lottery pick (theirs) and with the current projections they do not own four picks yet. It was a pipe-dream to begin the season, but still something to root for. Here is the update on how the three picks look right now:
Timberwolves (9-10) -- No. 10 Overall (Pick stays in Minnesota based on Protections) Somewhere between 8-10 the draft sees a bit of a cliff with the next tier. The T-Wolves get Kansas freshman guard Wayne Selden here.
Suns (9-8) -- No. 14 Overall (Pick stays in Phoenix based on Protections) This is a soft part of the 2014 Draft where reaching is an option, but on the current Mock Draft Croatian wing Mario Hezonja is available and would be a solid pick up.
Wizards (8-9) -- No. 17 Overall (Pick goes to Phoenix based on Protections) The Suns philosophy is to take the best player regardless of position and add elite athletes to the roster. Here they do both with Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell.
Pacers (16-1) -- No. 30 Overall (Pick goes to Phoenix based on Protections) The third and final first round pick can be a Hail Mary pick, like last year, and on the current Mock Draft Indiana freshman forward Troy Williams can be just that. Long, active, athletic forward that has shown flashes early this season.
News & Notes
Suns History Lesson
This week in Suns History: December 8th, 1999 Charles Barkley's career came to an end in Philadelphia (playing for Houston) when he tore his left quadriceps on an attempted block...
This week in Suns History: December 9th, 1993 Kevin Johnson became the 13th player in NBA history to record 10 steals in a game...
Previewing the Week Ahead:
Tuesday, December 3rd @ Memphis Grizzlies (8-8)
Wednesday, December 4th @ Houston Rockets (13-5)
Friday, December 6th vs. Toronto Raptors (6-10)
The concept of the Suns playing to their opponents will be tested this month and that starts this week. Early in the season the Grizzlies have struggled to find consistency under a new head coach, but are at .500 and playing quality defense overall. Last year the Suns played some exciting games against the Grizzlies when they were contenders, and like the game against the Raptors on Friday to end the week, this will be a test of wills for the team.
Harden loves seeing the Suns. For his career he averages the most points per game (19.9) against the Suns that any other team that he has played at least 10+ games against. In his 14 games career against the Suns Harden is averaging 19.8 PPG 3.4 APG 4.7 RPG, maybe it is an Arizona State thing.
If the Suns catch themselves looking ahead they run the risk of dropping two out of three games.
The topics du jours are bad defense, bad losses and a (not bad) player who may be on his way to a career year. It's hard not to lead with the bad stuff, though, after the Suns just got blowed up by the worst team in the NBA.
After Dave King analyzed the reversal in fortunes in regards to the Suns defensive and offensive efficiency yesterday morning, things became even more pronounced later that evening. The Suns surrendered 112 points to Utah, a season high for the Jazz, coupled with a season worst DRtg of 129.1. It marked the first time this season the Suns have allowed an opponent to shoot over 50% (.513). Utah is 25th in the league in FG% at .426. It was a grossly atypical performance by a team that has only broken 100 points three times (twice against Phoenix) in 18 games.
It is becoming a disturbing trend on defense for the Phoenix Suns.
The Suns DRtg for the season is 105.4 (points per 100 possessions), but over the last four games they have posted numbers of 115.3, 118.1, 117.4 and 129.1. The Suns have also been scoring more points per possession recently with ORtg numbers of 99.1, 133.6, 130.2 and 119.9. This has happened while the pace has slowed down to 89 possessions per game, down from the season average of 94. The Suns pace is actually slightly below the league average.
So the game has slowed down and the Suns have become worse defensively.
Allowing better shooting is part of that. The Suns have allowed seven of their last eight opponents to shoot above 45%, which is both the league average and what the Suns have held their opponents to on the season. Some of it is only forcing an average of 12.4 turnovers over the last seven games. That was after pressuring their opponents into 17.1 over the first 10.
The defense has just lacked it's vivacity and tenacity... and if they continue to trend towards becoming a lackluster defensive team it seems unlikely they can muster enough offensive punch to offset that.
The Western Conference is stacked and deep... and likes to score in bunches. 12 of the 14 teams in the league that average more than 100 points per game are in the West. That's basically the whole damn conference. The Suns just got done getting torched by two (Sacramento and Utah) of the three teams that don't.
Speaking of getting torched by crap teams...
When the Suns sprinted to a 5-2 start they had played everyone competitively and both of their losses were to two of the league's elite (San Antonio and Oklahoma City). The Suns have been more tepid in their last 10 games, going 4-6, and have suffered some losses that are either bellwethers or inexcusable lapses.
The most recent of these puppet shows was a 112-104 loss to the Jazz at US Airways Center last night that gave Utah its first road win of the season. While I was reveling in the midst of an obstreperous crowd in Tempe cheering on the Sun Devils Kris Habbas texted me that the crowd at USAC was half asleep. Quite fitting since the Suns were playing like they were in a coma.
The Suns have actually been humbled four times this season at the hands of the Sacramento Kings (twice), Utah Jazz and Brooklyn Nets. Those three teams are a combined 4-2 against Phoenix and 8-35 against everyone else.
Those losses are compounded by the fact that the Suns have already exhausted five (out of eight) of their games against (apparently) the only two really bad teams in the Western Conference. Sacramento is 4-10 (14) and Utah is 3-15 (15), but the Pelicans (13) are actually the only other team in the conference under .500 at 7-8. A 4-1 mark against those two measly squads could have the Suns sitting at 11-6. Two teams who have only seven wins combined with nearly half of them (three) against the Suns...
In total, the Suns have played seven games against the bottom three teams in the West. That's seven of their 17 games. They are 4-3 in those games. Once again, not the best example of exploiting their early schedule. The overall difficulty of the Suns' schedule has been buoyed by five games against the top three teams in the West and a game against the Heat in the East (one of only two good teams in the East). The Suns are 2-4 in those games.
That leaves four games remaining against Charlotte (8-9), Orlando (6-10), Brooklyn (5-12) and Denver (9-6). The Suns went 3-1 against this group with a quality win against Denver, albeit a Nuggets team that went to 1-4 with that loss and is 8-2 since.
All of this has culminated in a fairly imbalanced schedule. The Suns have played 12 games against the top three and bottom three in the West, but only one against the middle eight. A dramatic shift will occur this month as the Suns play nine of their thirteen games against those teams in the middle of the pack, all of whom have winning records.
By mid to late December we may finally have a good idea of how good the Suns actually are, although they are easily better than the catastrophic congeries that some foresaw. What we do know is that the Suns have failed to show a behavior that many good teams possess - winning the games they are supposed to win. Instead the Suns have shown a proclivity to be hoodwinked into playing down to the level of their competition... Something that portends rather ominously in the West, where it appears possible that multiple teams with winning records will miss the playoffs.
Frye is 20-40 from three point range over his last six games. It is the first time in his career that he has made at least 20 three pointers in a six game stretch while shooting at least 50% from three point range. Apparently the cold stuff is still coursing through his veins.
He is averaging 17.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game over this period. In fact, Frye is matching or exceeding nearly all of his career numbers. Only his rebounding is a little bit down. His shooting efficiency is just a shade below his magical career season in 2009-10. In fact, lets look at where he rates out in a couple of areas compared to his career highs...
Turnovers per 36 - 1.2 (2)
Blocks per 36 - 1.2 (2)
Steals per 36 - 1.3 (1)
2P FG% - .534 (1)
3P FG% - .397 (2)
eFG% - .566 (2)
TS% - .582 (2)
Considering that Frye stumbled out of the block, he may very well be on his way to a career year. This should be somewhat expected considering he is near the peak of athletic performance in terms of age (30), but is impressive considering the obstacles he has overcome.
Despite all this success on the court, though, Channing did lose a bet recently that should lead to some great twitter fodder and BSotS cover art. But more on that later...
There's not much mystery to the Phoenix Suns' player of the week this time. Here's a look at how well Goran Dragic has played over the last five games. Will it continue?
Weekly Stat Averages:
Points: 22.2 FG%: .521 3pt% .389 Assists: 10.0 Rebounds: 3.8
Dragic's stat line was tremendous this week. Looking at his scoring alone, 23,14, 31,19, and 24 points, respectively, would likely be reason enough to crown him. However, he also scored at a very efficient clip, shooting over 50% from the filed overall, and was also very effective at getting to the rim and also drawing the foul...shooting 32 free throws in all over the past week.
Still, this doesn't yet begin to describe the true impact he made on the team. In addition to his scoring, he averaged 10 assists per game over the past week...Doing a phenomenal job of orchestrating the Suns offense as a whole. In addition, he was consistently chasing down loose balls, hustling back on defense, and playing every possession with maximum energy.
This may have been Dragic's most impressive stretch of games that I've ever seen him play. He's had plenty of great games before, but he strung together an entire week's worth this time, and was impressive in each one of them.
In the absence of Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic stepped up his game in a big way, and completely took over the role as the Alpha Dog of the team. Dragic not only took over as the sole facilitator, but also the aggressor and the closer. In fact, the return of Bledsoe while seemingly a bonus in Utah, may have been one of the reasons for the Suns undoing last night in Phoenix...as it may take a couple of games for the Suns to re-establish their continuity together.
Before Eric Bledsoe went down with his shin injury, there was little doubt that there was a new sheriff in town, and that the Dragon would assume the role of second fiddle in Phoenix. After all, Bledsoe is still the leading scorer on the team in points per game (19.6), as well as steals (1.73), and is the best rebounding guard as well (4.5). On the other hand, Dragic has a higher assist average (7.6), and a slightly lower turnover rate (2.57).
But things could certainly change. this is still a very young season and the team is still trying to figure things out, including their respective roles.
It will be interesting to see if the dynamic changes once again with Bledsoe back in the line-up. Will he quickly reassert himself as the Suns' leading man, or will Dragic continue his way of playing without relinquishing his role. Time will tell, but Bledsoe will have to step up big time in order to best the performance that the Dragon has put on over the past week.