It took me way too long to understand how good Steve Nash was.
Outside of the fact I try to objectively write about the Phoenix Suns because I moved across the country some ten odd years ago, I have no deep attachment to the franchise. I get called a contrarian by angry Suns fans sometimes, but I've never written anything intentionally with an opposite view -- I simply state what I feel.
Outside of a fanatic following of the New York Knicks and Michigan Wolverines, the team that made me fall in love with basketball was the Sacramento Kings. In a way they were the Suns before the Suns. A flashy point guard named Jason Williams and my guy from Michigan Chris Webber helped put Sacramento back on the map, and then the team continued to evolve into a more substantive group with shrewd personnel moves. Much like the Suns they peaked in the Western Conference Finals, but their foil was the Los Angeles Lakers not the San Antonio Spurs.
I'm pretty sure I was still a senior in high school when the first Seven Seconds or Less team was gifted upon us during the 2004-2005 season. This was a time before I started ordering league pass or social media was a thing. I loved watching basketball, but my view of the sport was simplistic compared to what it is today.
During the Steve Nash MVP years, and throughout the Seven Seconds or Less era, I fell into the category of people who thought he was overrated. I was fine with Nash winning his first MVP in 04-05, but not a chance he should have won it over Kobe Bryant that next season (I stand by the latter part today). I wasn't able to distinguish how "Two-Time" impacted a basketball game.
Going through college I started to intern at the flagship home of the Suns and went on to work there. During this time I had the opportunity to work on many pre and post game shows, produce talk radio during the day, plus eventually covered some games in person. Listening to Nash talk on a regular basis, he was insightful and honest, yet I found him to be a tad bit whiny at times -- understandable considering the hardship he went through in moments of the highest possible leverage.
I've talked about this before, but it seems pertinent to bring it up again now. I didn't gain a true appreciation of Nash until the peak of his time with the Suns passed. Maybe even more impressive than what he did surrounded by the likes of Amar'e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson, Raja Bell, Kurt Thomas, Leandro Barbosa, Quentin Richardson, Boris Diaw, Grant Hill, Jason Richardson and Shaquille O'Neal -- was what he did when the majority of those players were gone.
In 2010-2011 this roster went 40-42, with the ninth best offensive rating in the NBA.
In 2011-2012 this roster went 33-33, once again with the ninth best ORtg, and actually played the Utah Jazz in the second to last game of the regular season, in what was essentially a win or get in playoff game for the eighth seed. They obviously lost, In that contest Michael Redd was tied for a team-high with 15 points. Yep, Michael Redd played for the Suns.
This is what it took for me to recognize what Steve Nash was, not watching him thrive with strong supporting casts. Seeing him drag below average rosters, I thought were destined to pick early in the lottery, to the middle of the NBA landscape was the journey I needed to understand Nash's greatness.
Part of this makes me sad I didn't grasp how good Nash was when the Suns were at their best, but at least I came to a realization before carrying an incorrect perception with me for the rest of my life. The cliche better late than never is fully appropriate for me in this instance.
Winning five out of six games can mean a lot of things. A weak schedule, playing a good team on their bad night, a buzzer beater, a spike in overall play, or something much bigger. Something much bigger is what's going on with the Suns and while it's a shame that it took them 71 games into the season to get there, it's pretty great that we have arrived.
So what's this alluring and mysterious "bigger thing" I am talking about? The Suns are finally playing like a real basketball team in terms of all the intangibles fans have been desperately searching for. The first thing I noticed was the void position of "veteran leader" on the team and someone finally stepping up.
has Gerald decided he's becoming the veteran leader?— Kellan Olson (@ATSWGoes) March 14, 2015
Gerald Green saw his minutes completely depleted by head coach Jeff Hornacek and he has responded with becoming the head cheerleader on the bench and is only going about it in a positive manner. Green is averaging 19 MPG this year, but he can't even reach that total in the past five games combined. No one was happier for Archie Goodwin the past week than Green, which is a bit funny considering Goodwin is the one that stole his minutes.
This isn't to say that Gerald was a negative nancy on the bench or anything, but this level of enthusiasm was not here a couple of weeks ago.
I noticed that during the Suns loss to the Hawks, a game that they had in their control in the middle two quarters before scoring only 14 points in the final quarter. It looked like the same old stuff; a young and inexperienced team that could not hold onto a lead and close out games.
Then Gerald starting doing things like this after that guy who stole his minutes hit a ginormous shot.
All season the Suns couldn't win ugly, steal a game, or close one out, but they've managed to do all three of those in the past two weeks. There was the horrifying display of basketball against the Pelicans last Thursday, the response to the comeback by the Mavs two nights ago, and the overtime heist in Brooklyn two weeks ago. All three of those were wins and those are the wins you need to make the playoffs.
So what's really going on here? The first thing you notice is the defense, as the Suns are visually playing much smarter and are just more committed to playing both sides. One example of that was the lockdown of James Harden in Houston, a great act of team defense that was the topic of a recent fantastic post from Mike Prada.
Another example of this is that the Phoenix Suns are THIRD in the NBA in defensive efficiency in the past 15 games. That's not a typo. Third. After some big trades and more time for the youngsters, the defense has actually been dramatically better in the past month. I am as floored as you are by that number, but it's true. In case you aren't picking yourself up off of the floor, the Suns are currently 15th on the season and that's been lowered because of this spike.
In those past 15 games from the defensive efficiency stat, the Suns are 4th in REB%, a statistic they are 21st in for the season. A quick glance at the averages in the past five games for the starting lineup gives you a good idea of who has stepped up where.
My goodness. Poor Alex can't even get any rebounds because everyone else is taking them from him. I never thought I would see the Morrii combine for 17 RPG and 7 APG in any facet. That's insane. Look at Marcus averaging 4 assists a game too! What is happening?!
There has been a downside though, which might be due more to the trades than this new found focus, but the Suns offensive efficiency is all the way down to 27th in those 15 games (11th for entire season). The AST% is still at a putrid number and they are giving up even more points off of turnovers. However, there's still even more improvement to point at.
In that stretch the Suns are 7th in second chance points allowed and 17th in points in the paints allowed. Those two stats along with points off of turnovers and fast break points allowed are 4 statistics the Suns are in the bottom five for the season. A dramatic improvement in half of those, arguably the two that have the most to do with effort, says something.
Something happened. Whether it was a team meeting or all of the players finally buying into what Hornacek was trying to go for, it happened. The team is playing with much more effort and cohesion both defensively and as rebounders. The offense is really struggling, but everyone knows that the last department the Suns need to worry about.
Whatever it is that happened, it could not have happened at a better time while the Suns are chasing the eighth seed. Is 11 games enough to make a push into the playoffs? I don't know and I don't care, because this type of basketball is what the Suns will need in the future to grow and contend from their young roster and we might have found the starting point.
Brandon Knight's imminent return raises questions; here are 5 reasons to bring him off the bench and keep the starters intact.
Allow me to preface this with the following disclaimers:
1. I really like Brandon Knight. The cache of assets that the Phoenix Suns gave up for him is a bit jarring, but I think he's an extremely talented player with a very good head on his shoulders.
2. Jeff Hornacek knows more than me and will make a decision that is much more informed than what comes of my nerding out on a laptop.
Ok, let's begin.
The Phoenix Suns have now won five of their last six games with newly-acquired guard Brandon Knight on the sidelines with a sprained ankle, suddenly vaulting themselves back into the Western Conference playoff picture. They have gone with a starting lineup of Eric Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris and Alex Len, who has returned from a sprained ankle of his own.
Knight's return to the lineup is rapidly approaching, possibly as soon as their next game Wednesday versus the Sacramento Kings. Therein, the question is obvious: where in the lineup does Knight fit?
The easy (and perhaps correct) answer is to simply return him to his starting slot alongside Bledsoe in the backcourt and pick up where they left off. The problem is, where they "left off" was going 4-5 since the trade and suffering a handful of embarrassing defeats such as losing by 28 at home to the Spurs and getting smacked around in Miami by Goran Dragic's new team.
Knight has had very little practice time with the Suns and is adjusting to playing off the ball beside Bledsoe, so the struggles aren't a surprise and shouldn't be taken as an indication of what caliber of player Knight is, nor how well he fits with this team.
He is also heading into restricted free agency this summer and clearly would want as much time on the floor as possible to show what he can do, so there is a political factor to consider.
However, the Suns have found a new identity in the wake of his absence and need to play as close to perfect as possible if they want to pull off the improbable and steal a playoff seed. Perhaps Knight would contribute the most to this team in the Isaiah Thomas role as a supersub off the bench during these last 11 games?
Here are five reasons why that just might be the case.
Isaiah Thomas and his formidable scoring punch were traded to facilitate the arrival of Knight. Marcus Thornton is shooting 1-16 on 3PA's and 30.6% overall since landing in Phoenix. Gerald Green ate some viscous peyote a while back and has been wandering the desert barefoot ever since.
Brandan Wright and T.J. Warren are both gifted at willing the ball through the cylinder, but both operate best with someone feeding them the rock at the right time. Archie Goodwin has his moments, but is very much still a project. A.J. Price is A.J. Price.
Once perhaps the greatest strength of the team, the bench scoring is now abysmal. This weakness could easily be turned back into a strength, or at least be brought back to respectability, with Knight added to the second unit. Remember that cozy feeling when IT would enter the game with a 10-point deficit, and you knew there was always a chance that he could tie it back up all by himself?
Knight could fill that role, and it might even add more to his value as a free agent than being overshadowed by the frequent heroics of Bledsoe.
There's a reason why no one talks to the pitcher while he's throwing a no-hitter. While winning five out of six games isn't exactly a herculean effort, in the final days of a playoff race it might as well be a 20-game winning streak. It's wise to tiptoe during such instances; walk too heavily and you might just topple the whole structure.
Since the strength of the Suns during the current streak is clearly coming from the starters, inserting Knight into the bench rather than the starting lineup will have the least amount of ripple effect, and will yield the greatest potential for net gain.
Obviously Knight's return will take minutes from somewhere, but it would be best to take them from the places that aren't currently contributing to wins.
Ah, those Morris kids. They live to annoy you, even if it's by playing extremely well just when you were ready to drop them down the laundry chute. Are there any players in the NBA that rely on chemistry (or biorhythms, or whatever you want to call it) as much as they seem to? One can almost tangibly see it when things are clicking for them, and when they go cold, they go absolutely frigid.
As touch-and-go as the twins are, when they're playing well just let them do their damn thing. It just so happens that cumulatively, they're playing about as well as they have ever played. Once the team scapegoats for one-dimensional and selfish play on the court, they have become all-around contributors in recent days.
Against Dallas, they both recorded double-doubles with a combined 30 points and 24 rebounds, and Marcus even added seven (7!!!) assists. The night before in Houston, they combined for 34 points, 15 boards and 10 assists.
At home versus the Pelicans they both suffered through dreadful shooting nights as they combined to go 6-26 from the field, but they also combined for 21 boards and seven assists.
A fire has been lit in their shared heart (cause they totally share a heart), and the Suns staff should do everything they can to fan that flame for as long as possible. If it ends up being a flash in the pan, fine. Make the necessary changes at that time. But don't put the fire out prematurely.
Unfortunately, reinserting Knight into the starting lineup might do just that as it would inevitably force Marcus back to the bench.
Let's get this out of the way quickly: If you can successfully defend James Harden and Monta Ellis on back-to-back nights, you can play shooting guard in the NBA. As a bonus, Tucker has been a steady contributor on offense since the break, scoring in double figures in 14 of 17 games.
He didn't skip a beat when moved to the 2, where he suddenly has a matchup advantage in his favor. Generously listed at 6'5, there was little Tucker could do on offense against longer small forwards besides spot up and shoot when open. At guard, however, he can exploit his opponent in the low post and on the boards, and does so with an obvious glee as he makes his poor adversary work that much harder, thus having less energy to expend on offense.
He was already a bonafide badass at the 3. At the 2, he's just wrong.
Bringing Tucker off the bench should never be an option on this current team (missed buses notwithstanding). Running Knight in from the bench to spell either guard position makes abundantly more sense.
The Suns have found a new identity recently as -- no, seriously -- a competitive defensive team that works hard on the glass. Rick Carlisle described them as "smash-mouth". Steve Kerr said that playing the Suns was "like a wrestling match".
They have won the rebounding battle in each of their last six games, this from a franchise that hasn't been an above-average rebounding team since the Scott Skiles coaching era. The current dynamic might seem more out of place than Hank Hill grilling with charcoal, but as fun as small-ball can be it's a welcome change.
While the starters are leaving their mark as a bruising unit that battles in the trenches, imagine a bench unit with Wright, Warren and Goodwin being led by the speedy Knight, coming in to crank on the afterburners and push the pace to 11.
Smash & Dash. There's already a name for it, so it pretty much has to happen.
Obviously most of the points I attributed are born from a small sample-size of only six games, and those six games could well end up being more of an exception than a rule. But with 11 games left to decide the fate of the season, those games are all we've got.
Even if it has been a fluke, it needs to be capitalized on as much as possible given the short window of opportunity.
For a team that needs every little thing to go right, they need to protect the things that have gone right. A shakeup to the starting lineup, however justified it might be, could be enough to doom the season.
Knight's free agency situation will be handled over the summer. The suggestions posited here only pertain to the remaining part of the season. The Suns owe it to themselves, and to us, to put that first.
I think he'll understand that.