This week I take a look at the Phoenix Suns fairly understandable defensive issues and the fairly undecipherable opinion some people seem to have about Kevin Love.

After issuing some encomiums to the entire Suns' squad for their improvement across the board in the last installment I'm feeling a little more irascible this week and have decided to take on the role of the pugnacious little troll voice of reason on a couple of subjects.  First off...

The Suns defensive shortcomings relative to point differential.

While the Suns' offense has been surging, their defense has been struggling somewhat. Dave King recently detailed some of these issues, with particular emphasis on second chance points and points in the paint disparities.

But here's the issue with picking on a team on one side of the ball.  Only really good teams, mostly title contenders, tend to be upper echelon on both sides of the ball.

Pt

The above chart is a list of all teams in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating over the past five years (including the current year).  You'll notice that all of these teams have excellent records and turgid point differentials.  In fact, three of the previous four seasons saw the top four teams in point differential as the only four teams in the top 10 in both ratings.

The biggest outlier from the past four seasons was the Dallas Mavericks, who had the lowest point differential from those seasons... but won the title that year.  In fact, three of the previous four seasons both teams that made the Finals were on this list.  In 2009-10 the Lakers won the NBA championship while finishing just outside the top 10 (11) in ORtg and fourth in DRtg.

This season appears to be somewhat incommensurate with previous seasons, as the Indiana Pacers are first in point differential despite having an exiguous (19) ORtg.  That is due to the scoring discrepancy being bolstered by what is far and away the best defense in the NBA.  Also interesting is that the Timberwolves have managed to crack this list despite being a .500 team thus far.  It is always possible that their record will improve or the rankings will drop over the remainder of the season.

Another team off to a great start this season (fifth in point differential) that is absent from the list is the Portland Trail Blazers.  Portland is first in ORtg (113.7) by a hefty margin, but just #22 (107.4) in DRtg.  For comparison, the 2009-10 Suns were first in ORtg (115.3) and #23 in DRtg (110.2).

What all of this evidence suggests to me is that until the Suns are back to competing for a title it is completely expected that they have weaknesses.  The worse a team is the more glaring those weaknesses tend to be... but even teams with title aspirations are not without flaws.  While system and coaching influence a team's ability to improve in areas, talent is the ultimate trump card.

Look at it this way.  If the Suns eliminated the -3.3 second chance point differential Dave noted (in a vacuum) that would up their overall point differential (currently +2.6) to +5.9 points per game.  That would put them in a virtual tie with Portland for fifth.  The Suns would become a virtual statistical title contender. But team's don't improve in a vacuum. Usually improvement in one area comes at the expense of performance in another.  If the Suns focus on defensive rebounding what does that do to fast break points?  It's a simple ripple effect dynamic.

Teams just have failings (the Heat lack size for instance) and the best ways to address them is through coaching and talent acquisition.  To be cognizant of these failings, and to attempt to improve or eliminate them, is prudent, but to be overly captious of them seems counterproductive.

What is nice, though, is to be able to pinpoint specific areas that need improvement this season as opposed to just dealing with sucking at pretty damn much everything last season.

Better to have Loved and lost than never to have Loved at all.

Now for something that I wanted to discuss that as a byproduct delivers some shameless self-promotion (because that's how I roll).  By using the tags of Phoenix Suns and Kevin Love I can try to drive kitten and car chase hits to my story.  I will preface this discourse by emphasizing that I have no idea whatsoever whether this possibility is even remotely possible or completely unfounded.  I did, however, skim through some conversation on this topic on the site over the last couple days (on top of the woolgathering on the subject for years) and was perturbed at a few viewpoints... at least enough so that I decided to address them.

There was discussion of A) people that felt that Kevin Love was bad enough defensively that it didn't make up for his offensive production and B) that the Suns shouldn't give up too much for him... e.g. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe should be untouchable.

IF Kevin Love is or becomes available AND the Phoenix Suns did acquire him it wouldn't just be some kind of happy circumstance... it's THE PLAN.  Bringing in a star talent to build a championship contender around has been the mission statement of the (wildly heralded) front office.  This is why they've been acquiring assets.  For this.

It seems rather humorous to me that some appear to heckle a player who is easily at the very top of the NBA pantheon.

Let's start with win shares per 48 for this season -  #1 Chris Paul, #2 Kevin Durant, #3 LeBron James and #4 Kevin Love.  If we look at a different metric, wins produced per 48 minutes, the order is #1 Chris Paul, #2 LeBron James, #3 Kevin Love and #4 Kevin Durant.  Or another?  PER - #1 LeBron James, #2 Kevin Love, #3 Kevin Durant and #4 Chris Paul.

It almost seems like a pattern is starting to develop...

Then there are Love's defensive deficiencies.  The same guy who has the second best DRtg on a Timberwolves team that is top 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions.  The same guy who would pair with Miles Plumlee as the two best players in DRtg on the Suns to anchor an interior defense.  The same guy who is third in the NBA in defensive rebounds - which would shore up the Suns dilemma with surrendering second chance points.  The same guy who is sixth in the league in offensive rebounds - which would ameliorate the Suns own second chance points total. That 3.3 point deficit in second chance points would have a great likelihood of shrinking.

But Love can't help stretch the floor the way the Suns like to play.  No, because he's only 11th among big men in three point % (.386) and number one among bigs in the league in three point makes... and still manages to gobble up all those offensive boards while floating around the three point line.

Weak free throw shooter?  Nope.  83%.  Which helps his TS% (.595) which would be right at the top on the Suns.

Love is averaging 26.1 points and 13.8 rebounds per game.  If he can sustain those gaudy numbers it would be the second time he has averaged 26+ points and 13+ rebounds for a season (previously 2011-12).  Prior to Love's achievement this feat had only been accomplished three times since the 1981-82 season - once by Hakeem Olajuwon and twice by Shaquille O'Neal.

Love, who just turned 25 before the season, has appeared in two all-star games and made one second team All-NBA.  In all likelihood he would have one more of each without an injury last season and will add to each total this season.  If the Suns were able to acquire and extend him they would lock him up through the prime of his career.

Who is even in Love's class at his position?  LaMarcus Aldridge?  Blake Griffin?

But there will always be those who find flaws.  After all, just look at the players who made All-NBA teams last season...  Maybe none of them meet the Phoenix Sun standard.

Kobe Bryant - old and a Laker

Tim Duncan - old and a Spur

LeBron James - the decision and not one, not two...

Chris Paul - almost 29 and hasn't made it to the Conference Finals

Kevin Durant - still second fiddle to LeBron

Carmelo Anthony - black hole

Marc Gasol - offensively limited

Blake Griffin - mentally weak

Russell Westbrook - selfish

Tony Parker - old and a Spur

Paul George - why is his team an offensive mess...

James Harden - maybe... but that beard

Dwight Howard - liability due to poor free throw shooting and a vacillating prima donna

David Lee - no substance to his stats

Dwyane Wade - old

So... maybe a couple of these guys meet the Suns standard.  The high standard set by the likes of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Miles Plumlee.  After all, the Suns shouldn't "gut" their roster by trading away pieces that have a combined zero all-star appearances for perennial all-star all-NBA top five-ten NBA talents, right?  Or maybe it's just because fans tend to overvalue their own assets, sometimes to a ridiculous degree, and undervalue those of other teams... Until they become their own team's assets.  Then they start to overvalue them.

It would take a nearly impossible package for me to not pull the trigger on Love if he becomes available.  If Minnesota wants to swap Barea for Dragic or Bledsoe in the deal I do it.  If they want Len or Goodwin... or both... I do it.  Draft picks?  Which ones do you like?  The Morrii?  Yep, they would be a good replacement for some of Kevin's minutes. Cap relief?  We've got an expiring.  Maybe it wouldn't be every single one of these areas, but absolutely everything would be on the table for me entering the discussion.  Unless McDonough sees these guys as best case better than top 10 players why wouldn't he? Kevin Love is already the best case scenario for what any of those guys could possibly develop into.

After the Suns lost out on James Harden, which they had been involved in talks with OKC about but lacked the ammunition, they went about getting firepower so that if another opportunity presented itself they would be poised to strike.  If Kevin Love became available that would be exactly the type of situation they were/are preparing for.

So find flaws if you like... I'm admiring what I hope could be the realization of the plan.

In a business analytics course in my sports MBA program, we learned about a concept called cluster analysis in which a set of objects are grouped so that the objects within each group are more...

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There's not much debate about who deserves the Phoenix Suns' player of the week this time. Miles Plumlee officially arrived and is putting the league on notice. Can he keep it up?

The Player of the Week

Miles Plumlee aka "Vanilla Sky"

Weekly Stat Averages:

Points: 16.0 FG%: .576 Rebounds: 13.3 Blocks: 1.7 Stitches: 7

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by what Miles Plumlee accomplishes on the court any more. In fact, it was only a few months ago that many considered to him to be trade filler, or a 3rd-string center at best when he first arrived in Phoenix. I remember watching him at Duke and thinking he was a decent big man in college, but it wasn't until I saw him in the Summer League this year that I started to see real flashes from him.

Once he was traded to the Suns, I was able to get a good look at him in the Suns intra-squad scrimmage, in which I along with Dave King and Jim Coghenour took a Bright Side of the Sun road trip to go watch in Flagstaff. One of the first things that jumped out to me is how Plumlee was not beating, but dominating Marcin Gortat on both ends of the floor.

We made remarks back and forth about his impressive performance, but after all, this was just a scrimmage and Plumlee had a lot to prove...It wouldn't mean much in the grand scheme of things, right?

Then pre-season happened, and the Suns' fanbase was quickly introduced to a young, explosive, and surprisingly talented and skilled young center who provided not only dunks and rebounds, but nice footwork and a pretty impressive hook shot. But still, it was only pre-season, right?

Fast forward a couple of weeks later and Gortat gets traded the day before the season and Plumlee is named the Suns starting center. Hmmm...maybe there's something to this Plumlee guy, but they're obviously just tanking, right?

Then the regular season started, and in the very first game against the Portland Trailblazers, Miles Plumlee officially opened eyes and jumped onto the scouting report in games to follow after registering 18 points, 15 rebounds, and 3 blocks in nearly 40 minutes of play. But surely this was just an aberration...beginners luck right?

Interestingly enough, the only thing about that game that was a complete aberration was Plumlee playing 40 minutes, something he hasn't really gotten close to doing since. Although Plumlee wouldn't top his 18 point performance until just this week, he has reached it twice and hovered around it on a few occasions...and his rebounding which also wasn't topped until just this week has also been impressive.

In fact, he's averaging just under 10 points and 10 rebounds a game this season, in just under 28 minutes a game. Pretty impressive stuff for a guy who's just 55 minutes removed from being a rookie.

Although this entire season has been incredible for Miles, this week was Plumlee's best of his career thus far. He had career numbers in two different games this week, in two different categories.

On Monday he set a career high in rebounding against the Lakers, grabbing 20 rebounds to go along with 17 points in 31 minutes of play.

Then last night he scored a career high 22 points to go along with his 13 rebounds in 32 minutes of play against the Philadelphia 76ers.

There's no doubt about it, Plumlee had a great week and is off to a great start. He's still developing and improving, but what he's giving the Suns on both ends of the floor is something Phoenix hasn't seen since...well...ever?

See, he's a very unique player. He's not just a guy who uses his athleticism and footwork to score in the post, or a rebounder, or a shot blocker, or a smart post defender...he's all of those things. And he's continuing to learn how to do all of those things at an even higher level as well.

Now I'm not saying this guy is the best center the Suns have ever had, but he certainly provides the Suns with an added dimension of athleticism, energy, instinct, and basketball I.Q. in the post that I don't think anyone expected him to give Phoenix when he was originally traded here along with Gerald Green and a first round pick for Luis Scola.

The only unknown now is just how high Miles's ceiling really is, and whether or not he can continue to play at this level for the rest of the season, and beyond. Have the Suns really found their center of the future, or is he just a one or two season stop-gap until they find someone better?

I mean, sure, he's playing great now...but the Suns can't possibly count on him to continue putting up these kinds of numbers, and even get better...right?

Poll
Will Miles Plumlee be the Suns' starting center after next season?

  567 votes | Results

The Phoenix Suns know they have a good basketball team - so much that the 6th-seeded team is even talking about the playoffs already. Yet talk of the playoffs is being used more as a warning than a fight song.

With more than a third of the season in the books and an 18-11 record to show for it, the talking points for the Suns have changed. All off season and early in the regular season, Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said he was looking for continued improvement and growth from the team, rather than wins vs. losses. Now? Hornacek has added one more argument to that mantra.

"We're at the point that if we have any hopes of making the playoffs, they gotta buckle it up," Hornacek said after the Suns played another lackluster defensive game against the talent-challenged 76ers. "They played soft in the first half."

Hornacek went on to say that after 29 games, the Suns have established who they are as a team and that the team is playing at playoff caliber levels. However, that carrot may be more of an orange-colored stick. He says they have a lot of work to do to compete when other teams start playing harder as the season goes along.

Goran Dragic said, after beating Philadelphia by 14 points, said that it's a good sign the team can win comfortably despite not playing well.

"The good teams, even if they don't play good they find a way to win the game," Dragic said. "We did that tonight."

All the players have noticed that teams have begun preparing for what the Suns can bring, devising game plans to defeat the two point guard lineup.

"They are preparing for us. Every night is tougher," he said. "They know what the strengths are, and they try to take that away. At the beginning of the season, they thought it was going to be easy. Not so much anymore."

After getting shocked by the Suns two weeks ago, Golden State's Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson came out focused and ready to avenge that loss on Friday. And then against Philadelphia, they faced Philly's own version of a two point guard lineup for much of the game. Rookie Michael Carter-Williams and second-year player Tony Wroten combined for 49 points in the loss (albeit on an inefficient 45 shots).

As the season wears on, the two point guard lineup that accounts for nearly 40% of the Suns scoring and most of their assists and steals will be schemed against better and better. Whether those schemes work is up to coach Hornacek, Dragic and Bledsoe, largely, but the Suns have to bring something else to the table when the schemes work.

It's on defense where the Suns will have to make their mark.

While Miles Plumlee continues to prove he's not a flash in the pan thanks to his boundless energy and athleticism to make a difference under the basket, the Suns are really going to struggle on the defensive end when games get tougher.

Currently, the Suns are 15th in defensive efficiency - smack dab in the middle of the pack - which only gets you so far. Even the vaunted mid-aughts Suns, armed with the league's greatest offense, eventually foundered in the playoffs when they couldn't get stops at key times.

Some of that will improve with the players on hand. Eric Bledsoe and Miles Plumlee, in particular, still tend to go for the big play more often than the coaches want, and too often get burned for it. Both are discovering their NBA ceiling this season right before our eyes with expanded, consistent minutes.

Last night, Plumlee injured himself going for a block that he "probably shouldn't have. The guy was too far away." In the effort, Plumlee sold out and lost his footing, crashing hard to the ground. As a result, not only did he miss the block, he wasn't available for the rebound if it bounced AND he took himself out of the game for a while as he got 7 stitches.

Eventually, they will settle down and realize an NBA game is won on 48 minutes of intelligence rather than the biggest plays.

"Settle down!" Spurs coach Gregg Popovich once yelled at Manu Ginobili, during a first half timeout in a pivotal playoff game against the Suns. Ginobili had just gone supernova for a few minutes, mostly in a good way for the Spurs, but had committed a couple of bad turnovers in the process. "The game isn't won in the first half!"

Bledsoe and Plumlee will learn this lesson as well, just as coach Hornacek was taught by legend Jerry Sloan, his Jazz coach, on the way to two Finals appearances in the 90s.

But some of the Suns deficiencies won't disappear with experience. The current Suns 8-man lineup is really small, and a little light on defensive chops.

"P.J. [Tucker] does a good job defensively but we can't have P.J. guard everybody," Hornacek said of halftime adjustments to slow down rookie MCW and forward Thaddeus Young. "If we could clone P.J. and have three or four of him to play in the fourth quarter it would help defensively. But these other guys have got to step up defensively like P.J. does."

Where the Suns struggle the most, though, is closing out possessions with rebounds. The Suns are one of the worst teams in the league at giving up second-chance points (more than 15 points per game). Unless Miles Plumlee and 6'11" Channing Frye are on the court together, the Suns have a major size deficiency.

It would help if either 7'1" rookie Alex Len (ankle) or veteran defensive ace 6'11" Emeka Okafor (neck) could get healthy enough to slide into the backup center spot behind Plumlee for even 10-15 minutes a night.

Alex Len has been held out of all basketball activity for a month now, trying to rehab that surgically repaired ankle and return at 100% health. Per Paul Coro of azcentral.com, Len is working out without pain and is close to returning to Suns practices - maybe in the next week or so.

Emeka Okafor has been a ghost since being acquired in October for Marcin Gortat, but that was by design. Okafor is rehabbing a neck injury without surgery, with his own specialists back east. The injury was serious enough that Okafor is not even performing any basketball activities while trying to get healthy.

The last word on the street is that Okafor will get re-evaluated in January by the Suns staff to check his progress. There have been no indications from either Okafor's camp or the Suns that the veteran center will be healthy enough to play at this time.

Whether the Suns get one or both of those centers back for the stretch run is a mystery, but if the Suns hope to do any damage in the playoffs another defensive presence in the lineup would be really helpful.

PHOENIX — With their third-best three-point defense in the league, the Phoenix Suns had room for concern in the first six quarters following a four-day break. The Golden State Warriors hit...

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