The Phoenix Suns are knocking on the door of the Western Conference playoff race, but once again find themselves counted out due to their youth and lack of star power.
The Phoenix Suns franchise in 2014 was not supposed to be a contender, but on many nights in 2014 the team played like that was the case.
2014 in review
A team full of kids and reclamation projects was supposed to fight the Philadelphia 76ers for the top draft pick in 2014, but they instead fought for a playoff position while still tracking on the long rebuilding process. Rebuilding and contending are nearly mutually exclusive, but the Suns have found a way to pair those two in a mostly-effective fashion.
A lot happened in the calendar year of 2014. In January, just when the Suns were surprising the NBA world with a 19-11 record on the back of career years from the entire roster, Eric Bledsoe missed a couple of months with a knee injury and the Suns were suddenly in the mode of treading water.
Their starting lineup sported a second-year starter at point guard, two journeyman wings who weren't even in the NBA two seasons prior, a first-year starter at center and a dude who'd missed the prior season with a heart ailment. Yet they rebounded from a lost-Bledsoe hangover (losing 6 of 9) to dominate the league-leading Indiana Pacers twice within 8 days and hold the fort until Bledsoe returned.
The Suns finished the season on a roll, winning 11 of 14 to climb as high as the 7th playoff seed with a week to go, before losing three critical games in a row (Spurs, Mavericks, Grizzlies) sending those teams into the playoffs and the Suns into summer vacation.
Summer of discontent
The Suns finished the season with 48 wins, tied for the most wins by a non-playoff team since the playoff field was expanded to 16 teams in each conference thirty years ago.
The summer of 2014 was a whirlwind of rumors and strife as the Suns tried to land big fish after big fish, but after being spurned the Suns decided to stay the course of the rebuild.
They re-signed nearly every free agent from the 48-win team, replacing only Channing Frye with Isaiah Thomas and Anthony Tolliver. The front office kept the Suns' youth and future intact, adding three more rookies to the stable of developing youth behind the regular rotation.
The Suns would enter 2014-15 with the playing rotation of only 26 years old with a handful of kids and draft picks behind them between waiting in the wings for an opportunity to contribute. Of Zoran Dragic (25), Bogdan Bogdanovic (22), Alex Len (21), T.J. Warren (21), Archie Goodwin (20) and Tyler Ennis (20), only Len has played significant minutes so far this season.
The 2014-15 season began with heightened expectations, especially among the Suns players and fan base, though the national audience predicted a bit of a regression from the Suns. Most pundits predicted 42-45 wins from the 2014-15 team, and an 18-16 record so far is right on track with that prediction (projects to 44 wins).
But hidden beneath the 18-16 record were opportunities to be better. Much better. Two buzzer-beating losses on lucky-bounce three-pointers at the buzzer (Clippers and Bucks). Another loss in overtime on their own missed three-point attempt for a win over the Thunder. And four ugly home losses to lowly East teams that should have been wins.
Youth struggles in the NBA
Most of the late-game failures can be attributed to three factors: (1) youth, (2) inexperience and (3) lack of star power.
After star power, player's age and experience matters when it comes to playoff contention. Kids make mistakes. The older and more experienced your team, the more likely you will be able close out close games.
Just look at the West landscape for evidence.
*'Playing Age' was calculated as a function of total minutes played by regular rotation players in the 2014-15 season divided by their age as of 12/31/2014. Players who rarely play are not included in the calculation (ie. Archie Goodwin, Tyler Ennis, et al).
*'Yrs exp' is the average number of seasons each rotation player has served in the NBA prior to this season
The top seven teams in the West - all playoff teams a year ago - have a rotation with an average age of 29 years old and 7.3 years of playing experience entering the season.
The playing age of each team's rotation factors in minutes played this season, so the Thunder got younger this fall by playing their youth when Durant and Westbrook were injured and the Wolves got younger as well with Rubio and Martin hurt.
While it's obvious the Suns are the youngest current playoff-seeded team by age, it's positively eye-popping how little actual NBA playing experience the Suns have versus their counterparts. The Suns average 26 years old with only 3.2 years of NBA experience.
And that's without counting most of the Suns youngest players because they've played so little. Only Alex Len (21) brings down the Suns collective age.
Here's the same chart sorted by 'Playing Age':
And now by years of NBA experience coming into the 2014-15 season:
Only one team in the West has less NBA experience than the Suns, and that's the 11-21 Utah Jazz. Even the 5-25 Timberwolves have more experience in the league, even after factoring out the missed time for Martin and Thad Young.
The "sure" playoff teams are much older than the Suns.
You could argue that the playoff teams (besides the Thunder) are choosing to get older vets for bench minutes while the lottery teams are more likely to load their bench with youth, but that's a real "which came first" argument. Clearly, if playoff teams are loading up on vets, they are your best bets to win key games.
So far, the youthful and inexperienced Suns are losing those close games. You will note that in the past two days, the Suns have lost to equally young New Orleans and Oklahoma City, but each of those teams was playing at home and there's mountains of statistical evidence that gives the home team an advantage with all other factors being equal.
For example, the Suns have gone 1-6 against West playoff contenders on the road this season versus 3-1 at home. The Pelicans have gone 3-6 on the road against those same teams versus 3-3 at home. The Rockets have gone 2-3 on the road against those same teams versus 5-3 at home. Those are just three examples.
Oklahoma City is perfect microcosm of youth vs. experience. Early in the season, they had to play without their stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and so far this season have only had both for ten of their games. But because they've filled out their team with youth, they lost most of their non-star games. Yet when the stars returned, so have the wins. Durant and Westbrook are both young (26) but have a wealth of NBA experience as starters (7 and 6 years respectively) and are both stars.
In 2014, the Suns youth has come up short in key games. The final week of the 2014-15 season and the last two weeks of December show ample evidence.
But those games are over. If the Suns are going to make the playoffs, the key will be growing up fast, and closing out close games against more experienced teams.
The 2015 part of the 2014-15 season is about to begin, and the Suns can look forward to a very home-heavy 2015 where they will get plenty of chances for revenge. The Suns will play 27 home games the rest of the way versus only 21 road games, and have only nine back-to-backs left on the docket.
But even with a home-heavy schedule, 2015 will be a real test of whether the Suns are going to "grow up" this year.
After one more 4-game roadie early in January, the Suns can make hay in January with 11 of 14 at home before the All-Star break (good) but 10 of those 14 against current playoff seeds (eight against the West, plus Cleveland and Washington, with only two of those being roadies).
If the Suns are going to make a statement this season, January 1 to February 10 is the time to do it.