Five days before the regular season starts, the national media apparently want to set us straight on just how bad the Phoenix Suns will be this season. They might as well just mail in the season, according to various outlets who take it upon themselves to predict the future.
SCHOENE System projects the Suns to finish 14th in West - (Michael Schwartz - Valley of the Suns)
...Basketball Prospectus' SCHOENE projection system, which tabbed the Suns to finish all the way down in 14th as well with an even more lowly 28-54 record that ranks in the bottom five of the league.
SCHOENE also projects the Suns to rank 26th in offensive rating (105.3) and 22nd in defensive rating (110.6) behind the second-lowest projected payroll in the NBA.
Clearly SCHOENE attributes the Suns' ability to be a top-10 offense last season largely to the brilliance of Steve Nash, as the piece points out the Suns were a whopping 8.1 points per 100 possessions better offensively last season with Two Time on the floor.
NBAPET System picks the Suns last (or 15th) in the West with a 27-55 record (Bradford Doolittle - Basketball Prospectus)
Using NBAPET, my system for projecting, evaluating and tracking the league, I've entered all transactions through the weekend and created a wins forecast for every team.
I've also compared the wins forecast to last season's total of Pythagorean wins per 82 games for each team, which is the record each team should have had based on its point differential. This gives us an idea how teams have moved up and down the NBA ladder since the Heat wrapped up the championship a couple of months ago.
ESPN - Summer Forecast picked the Suns to finish in 14th place in the West with a 30-52 record. To add weight to their still-amateur predictions, they threw lots and lot of amateurs at it. The wisdom of crowds, so to speak.
For foresight, we surveyed 100 of ESPN's best basketball minds, including contributors from ESPN.com, the TrueHoop Network, TrueHoop TV, Daily Dime Live, ESPN TV, ESPN Radio, ESPN Deportes, espnW, ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Insider, ESPN Fantasy, ESPN Games, ESPN Dallas, ESPN Los Angeles, ESPN Boston, ESPN Chicago, ESPN New York, ESPN Stats & Information, ESPN Topics and ESPN Analytics.
John Hollinger of ESPN (Insider) picks the Suns dead last in the West as well. To his credit, at least he devotes a lot of rhetoric to his conclusions.
...the transition from "Seven Seconds or Less" to "50 Losses or More" seems nearly complete, with Jared Dudley and Channing Frye the last of the old guard that went to the 2010 conference finals. (Pedants will note Goran Dragic left and has since returned.)
Unfortunately, there's just no easy way to deal with the fact that last season they were a veteran team propped up by Nash, and now there's no Nash. Most likely, this team will have to get considerably worse before it gets better.
Well for one thing, they mean that the Suns are no lock to win significant games this season. As we have written ad nauseum on this and other boards and sites all summer, the Suns do not have even one star player to trot out there every night. Star players attract attention and still get their points, rebounds and/or assists no matter how hard the other team tries to stop them.
Yet, I don't think any statisticians can accurately predict this Suns team.
It is my belief that any team which turns over most of its entire roster and is ready to field a rotation that returns only two starters and five of ten rotations players from last season cannot be accurately predicted using metrics from prior seasons.
The two best returning players, Jared Dudley and Marcin Gortat, never played significant minutes without Nash on the court in the last couple of seasons, so the sample size of their Nash-less effectiveness is way too small to project over a full season.
Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson were in a different lineup and offensive scheme. So were Goran Dragic and Luis Scola. While there will be similarities in the new offense this season, the statisticians and prognosticators cannot accurately predict how much.
Sure, these guys and their numbers may be right. But I don't believe they actually know any more than we do about what's going to happen this year. Even with a largely unchanged team last year (ie. easier to project), SCHOENE predicted only 27 wins (the Suns actually won 33). Hollinger has predicted dire results for the Suns for YEARS (in his NBA "Future Power Rankings"), yet the Suns continue to outperform those expectations.
Alvin Gentry knows how to get the most out of his players. This season we will find out just how much was Steve Nash and how much was Alvin Gentry. A 4-3 preseason record despite playing 15 guys a night is a good start, at least.
I do believe the Suns will be much better than 14th or 15th in the West. They have winners in their lineup. No question they will win more than 30 games.
The question to me is: can they make the playoffs?
No one really knows for sure what will happen to James Harden, now that he is "the man" on the Houston Rockets. He certainly knows all about offensive efficiency and getting the most out of his shot attempts. And, he knows how to distribute the ball. But he has never wanted to be "the man" and has never had to worry about an entire defense scheming against him. It's a sharp fall from Westbrook and Durant to Lin and Asik.
But few would argue against Harden's skillset to be an All-Star level. He has top-level talent, and has shown the ability to create excitement and wins for his team.
Houston GM Daryl Morey wanted a player of Harden's ability for a long time. He made a dizzying array of moves in order to position himself to be the General Store for anyone who wanted to go shopping.
What did Morey give up for Harden?
Was it too much? Three starting-quality players (or at least two) for one who has never started or been "the man" on his own team before?
Actually, in retrospect I think it was a heck of a deal for Houston. They get a top-level talent for three guys who were not. Why couldn't the Suns offer a better trade after two years of trying to position themselves for this kind of acquisition?
And an even bigger question is: why weren't the Suns even in the conversation?
Of course, we don't know for sure that the Suns were NOT involved in these discussions. But it seems that Yahoo! reporter Adrian Wojnarowski was in bed with the Thunder FO last night to put together the timeline of the deal and it appears that only the Rockets were involved. The Thunder originally wanted more players and picks, eventually settling on Martin (expiring), Lamb and two #1s in 2013 plus a high #2 (Charlotte's). Why wouldn't the Thunder actively involve the Suns to, if nothing else, drive up the price to Houston? OKC had wanted Chandler Parsons too. And another #1 pick.
The Suns' best offer seemed to be: $7 million in cap space to absorb unwanted contracts, up to three #1 picks next spring (including their own likely lottery pick), glue-guy Jared Dudley, Marcin Gortat and young PF prospect Markieff Morris.
The problem with Gortat is that he isn't as big as Perkins, and therefore not such an asset against the Lakers like Perkins can be. But Gortat's contract is one year shorter than Perkins, so that huge tax hit in two years could be avoided without amnesty.
The problem with Morris is that the Thunder just signed Serge Ibaka for $12 million a year, so Morris would never elevate to starter-status before needing to be paid on the FA market. But Morris appears to have a nice upside, and would have been a good piece for the Thunder front line (though the Thunder apparently don't want front line help, or they would have plucked one of the 15 from Houston).
So we've got comparable picks available, between Houston and Phoenix:
The big difference between the Rockets offer and the Suns' best offer is the players involved: Jared Dudley vs. Kevin Martin, and Markieff Morris vs. Jeremy Lamb.
One could argue that three affordable years of Dudley (at $4 million per) is better than one year of Kevin Martin. But maybe the Thunder don't want three years of Dudley, preferring to roll the dice on a great year from Martin and then free agency (or Lamb) in the future.
One could also argue that Markieff Morris is a better prospect than Jeremy Lamb. Morris has shown a lot of progress this spring with a versatile, aggressive offense, while Lamb is a jump shooter on a team suddenly heavily reliant on jump shooting.
So why weren't the Suns in the bidding?
Or were the Suns in the bidding, but decided that three #1 picks plus Dudley and Morris were too much for Harden? or, three #1 picks plus Dudley, Gortat and Morris for Harden and Perkins?
If the Suns had acquired Harden for that package and signed him to a max extension, their future flexibility would be largely gone. No 2013 draft pick, and less than max cap room to fill out the roster. Here would be the 2013-14 roster at the beginning of draft/free agent season:
Gortat (final season of deal)
The Suns would have less flexibility to fill out the roster - only $7-9 million to spend on at least 5 players to fill out the 13-man roster, with no #1 draft picks. Yet the Suns still don't know for sure what they have in Beasley and Dragic.
What if none of the three (Harden, Dragic, Beasley) ever becomes an all-star? Should the Suns forego flexibility just to lock those guys up for multiple years?
Houston's Daryl Morey, with a similar combination of Harden/Lin/Asik, answered yes to that question. He is gambling that those guys are worth it.
Phoenix's front office is of a different disposition. They are not risk-takers who commit both big money AND assets for any one player. They didn't offer a truckload trade to New Orleans, and didn't offer a truckload trade to OKC. That's a lot of risk to take on. The Suns' youth and big contracts would be on the perimeter. They'd have to find frontline help to make any hay in the West.