The Phoenix Suns and Alex Len take on the Philadelphia Sixers and Nerlens Noel on Friday night in a highly anticipated matchup of two forever-linked big men from the 2013 NBA Draft.
Noel had been the consensus #1 or #2 overall mock-picked until the final weeks before the draft when Noel, and Ben McLemore as well, began dropping down teams' big boards due to concerns over health and dedication, respectively.
Meanwhile, injured Maryland center Alex Len - who had not even made his all-conference team in either his freshman or sophomore season - rose up the boards steadily. By the eve of the draft, the most widely respected NBA draft site (draftexpress.com) had Len going #1 overall to Cleveland.
When the Suns came up on the board for the 5th overall pick, they still had their choice of the consensus two most talented players - Noel and McLemore - and the late riser whose measurables were perfect but his production was iffy. And, he was injured.
The Suns took Len.
"If Len's not on the board then you look at those guys," General Manager Ryan McDonough said of picking Len over Noel and McLemore. "But he's a guy that can be a game-changer down the road and it's a situation where when we all looked at the guys and ranked them he was the consensus by all of our guys that he's got the biggest upside, at that size, and his skill level. And so I think you take the best player available at that time. Is it the best for tomorrow? Maybe even still then he's the best for tomorrow. We just think that as we go through this rebuilding process with our guys, some of the guys we have on the team, he helps us get there maybe a little quicker."
The Suns trainers and doctors felt that Len had a healthier future ahead of him in the NBA than did Noel. They didn't like his knee injury, and the lack of thickness in the lower body left teams to wonder if Noel would ever be able to handle the NBA pounding.
But it wasn't just health that had the Suns taking Len over Noel.
"I think all around skill," said coach Hornacek of taking Len over Noel. "Is he as good of a shot-blocker as Noel? Maybe not, but he is still long and he can block shots. Then he had the offensive game. When you can get a guy - again, I'll keep going back to this - you get a guy that's 7-1 that can do things defensively and block shots, take up space, with the wingspan and he's got a good offensive game; you can use him to pass, you can use him to score; that's something you don't see very often at both sides of the game. That's what we felt was really exciting about the guy: he's not just one-dimensional."
Eighteen months later, both players are healthy and playing important minutes at center for their teams.
Nerlens Noel is getting 28 minutes per night for the 0-11 Sixers as they continue their mockery of the NBA competitive spirit in the hopes that one day they can completely turn around the franchise. Noel has started 6 of 9 games he's appeared in. He missed two for various nicks that were not serious.
Alex Len has played in all 12 Suns games, but has not started. He's getting 22 minutes per game and showing that all-around skill that the Suns drafted 18 months ago.
See where Len and Noel rank this young season, in order of Win Shares, among first and second year big men (guys 6'10" or taller who play forward or center exclusively).
Len has had the most positive impact, in terms of Win Shares, on his team in this young season. Sure, the season is only 12 games old (10 or 11 for some other guys), so the list will change but it's a huge relief for the Suns and their fans that Len is making such a difference on a winning team.
In terms of minutes, points, rebounds and blocks, Len drops into 6th or 7th place, but that's a function of minutes. The other guys at the top of the list are getting more burn.
These two players will forever be linked, for Suns fans. Who ends up with the best career will be an ultimate indictment on the GM Ryan McDonough.
So far, McD's decision looks to be a good one.
Watch the Suns take on the Sixers on Friday night in Philadelphia. The only other time these two faced off, Alex Len got the better of Noel when they were 19 and 18 years old, respectively. Len was entering his sophomore season at Maryland while Noel was in his first college games as a freshman at Kentucky.
Interested in playing Daily Fantasy Basketball with the chance to win money? Sign up for FanDuel here! You can put Noel against Len yourself and potentially take home some money!
The biggest concern for the Phoenix Suns this season was replacing Channing Frye. He gave the Suns a big body down low to deal with bigger lineups like Detroit's last night and more importantly he was a sniper from distance who could provide the most optimal spacing for the Slash Brothers.
We are 12 games into the season now and while the spacing isn't disastrous, there are still some parts the Suns need to iron out as the season goes along. Before we go there, here are a couple of plays where Frye made a difference last season so you know what you are looking for.
A couple of the things I want you to see here from this game last year is that the Suns are playing one of the best defensive teams in the NBA this year the Grizzlies and the amount of space there is.
Dragic has found himself on a switch here and has Marc Gasol on him. The key here is the space that Goran has going to his left. Look at where Zach Randolph is and look at who he is guarding. His foot isn't even in the key because of Frye. This is pretty insane to see because defenses usually collapse on guys once they get this far into the key, especially when it's a third team All-NBA player who is an elite finisher. Z-Bo has to respect Frye.
Same sort of action and deal here with Bledsoe, but all Z-Bo can do here is take a little swipe at the ball instead of stepping in front of Bledsoe to help here. Z-Bo would 100% jump here to help if that was Markieff Morris at the top of the key, but it's Frye. Now it's all up to Bledsoe to finish at the rim and being one of the best guys in the league makes the Suns take that possession every time.
Now, let's look at what defenses have been doing to Markieff Morris in the same sort of spots.
First of all, this is just bad spacing. Bledsoe leaking out where he does leaves Courtney Lee near the corner so he can deny that pass as well. Anyways, do you remember Z-Bo barely leaving the elbow? He's come all the way over to the middle of the free throw line and that's with Mike Conley behind him still. Morris gets the ball here, but that's denying Dragic from the rim and that's what Memphis wants.
Boris Diaw is flat out disrespecting Morris here. Keef needs to learn with this sort of position now to read the defense and slide a couple of feet to the left and when Diaw denies the lane this much. Diaw's flash here allows Parker to stay pretty glued on Bledsoe at the top and even Bellinelli on the bottom is not going too far away from Green. It's all about Morris hitting that shot.
Remember what I said in the last screen shot about sliding over? Morris has done it here and Z-Bo is still miles away. It's the same sort of stuff here with the defense on the two in the corner, as Keef is the only real option.
Same story. Daye doesn't really have to do anything here as Marcus Morris is already left open in the corner, but he's still willing to enter the key in case Dragic somehow spins off of Duncan. Even Danny Green joins the party.
This is the holy grail of concern. The Grizzlies leave both Morris and Bledsoe wide open to stop Dragic. The cap is about a second behind, but Lee really leaves Morris at the top and ditto for Conley with Bledsoe in the corner. Yikes.
The key thing to grasp from this little bit of evidence I've shown is that the defenses are cutting off the two guys that run the show for the Suns. Among starters who drove the ball often enough (at least 26 MPG and 4 DPG if you want specifics), Bledsoe, Dragic, and Isaiah Thomas were in the top 10 of the NBA in FG% on drives via nba.com. The names they are in the company of are LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Lance Stephenson, Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, Tony Parker, and Paul Pierce. That's five all-time greats, a very good young player, and a guy playing with three hall of famers. It's elite company that Hydra is in for an offensive category that carries magnitude and the move from Frye to Morris restricts their ability to bring it to their maximum potential.
With all that in mind, Morris has to avoid lazy possessions. Here are two.
On both of these Morris has to find somewhere on the perimeter so the defender has to make a decision. 95% of the time they are going to cut off the lane, but being in the mid-range doesn't help anyone because the defense can get back in time for his shot. This might be the effects of missing a couple of threes and starting to get uncomfortable that far out, but it's his job now to hit that shot. Morris is shooting 9-28 (32%) from three, which is bad, but it's not burn the house and our spacing down to the ground bad. He needs to stay outside and keep improving out there. That's the only solution right now.
It's early enough in the season for the Suns to work out the kinks. Jeff Hornacek even tried some P.J. Tucker at the 4 last night in the pick-and-pop role. I'm not really sure where the solution comes from in order to give Bledsoe, Dragic, and Thomas more space in the lane, but Hornacek has time to experiment with it like he did last night. Now it's all about hoping he figures it out.
One of the most notable things about the Suns team this year for me besides what we just talked about (and besides the defense) is their ball movement offensively. It's just not there. One of the reasons this jumped out to me is that when the Suns had two passes in a row without the ball touching the floor and it led to a basket against the Celtics, I felt like leading a parade down my street. I shouldn't feel that good about ball movement, but the lack of it made me realize how much I missed it.
Our own Bryan Gibberman had a tweet that summed it up for me:
If The Suns have 3 passes in a possession someone should storm the court and celebrate.— Bryan Gibberman (@Gibberman10) November 15, 2014
Right now Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe have 277 field goals combined while Gerald Green and Isaiah Thomas have 274 field goals combined. Dragic and Bledsoe play 63.8 minutes per game combined while Green and Thomas play 44.8 minutes combined. Those numbers should not be where they are.
Those type of numbers lead to a tad more selfishness between the two starting guards and that limits the movement while they are on the floor. They are already giving Markieff Morris his well-deserved 12.7 shots a game (tied with Dragic for the team lead), and you can see a little bit more of that scoring mentality from the two instead of the best play available.
I'm still really confused about where this leaves Bledsoe and Dragic from a numbers perspective to be honest. I've been waiting for it to sort itself out, and while Dragic being tied for the team lead in field goal attempts is a start, it's still clear that the cohesion offensively isn't there.
The other thing about those numbers a few paragraphs up is that right now the Suns are heavily relying on Green and Thomas to be efficient. The balance between relying on these two and succeeding from their contributions is something they have to figure out, but Thomas and Green have to allow them to get there in both regards. I'll save a bigger breakdown for all four of these guys when this becomes an actual full fledged issue, but I'll just show one for now I have with Thomas.
Unfortunately, the passing concerns for Thomas from one of my favorite people on this planet might be reasonable. The two most frustrating things about Thomas as a playmaker is that he is good at the two key parts, getting by his initial defender and being able to make the pass. Here are a few examples of the first part happening, but Thomas taking the shot instead.
The concern here is that while being a decent enough finisher at the rim, Thomas is still only five freaking nine. Defenders just go straight up on him and force him to make these ridiculous shots that are honestly impossible in some aspects. Thomas is one of the best guys in the league in getting by his initial defender. His first step is deadly and with the amount of rotations he forces defenses to do he could average six to seven assists a game off of the bench for Phoenix this year. I know the Suns don't have Ray Allen wide open in the corner on some of these, but the pass is the right move in a lot of these. He just seems to want to have the shots and it's hurting the Suns in a lot of ways.
The last bit here on Thomas is that those forced finishes near the rim and floaters farther from the hoop are still taking away the other fact in that he has a very quick trigger on his jumper. His first step allows enough hesitation from the defender for them to be decent enough shots sometimes, but it's not often. He's not exactly in Green's league when it comes to that, but he takes enough of them for it to be a massive concern when him and Green are doing it together off of the bench. Thomas is 8-36 in his last four games and while this is probably just a scoring rut, he has the ability to use his playmaking skills to even out his rough shooting nights. I really want to see him try that. I enjoy Thomas as a player, I'd just like to see him impose more balance on his game and I think he could be a great player for the Suns if he looked to pass more.
The Suns offense needs to be more balanced from a production standpoint. That's not even airing any concerns about keeping everyone happy, which could start to become a problem as well. It's very early in the three point guard experiment and it's been an uneven start. The combination of trying to create the spacing and balance to the offense has the ball movement in a logjam and it looks it's just going to have to work itself out. Who will become the leading man and after that will everyone buy in on the right amount of ball movement? It's something to be concerned about despite the Suns being 8th in PPG because the defense still has a ton of issues. We will have to wait until the 30-40 game mark to be truly freaking out, but there are certainly rumblings to discuss as I have now. The Suns have a very easy rest of the month schedule wise to figure this out. Let's hope by December/January that everyone yelling "it's too early!" at me is right.