The new look Suns have yet to participate in a single practice together, yet many pundits have already bemoaned an incondite roster and predicted calamity in the coming days. Some seem to do so without a firm grasp of what the existing players on the roster bring to the table and the possibilities that exist with the new additions. The prevailing logic seems to be that the Suns minus Nash equals doom.
People come to their conclusions in a variety of ways. Wild conjecture is an approach utilized by some. Others rely on intuition mixed with acumen. Sometimes the schedule can lend insight based on perilous and benign stretches. Many teams return a core, and the guesswork is limited to figuring out how a few ancillary pieces will contribute. People have written intricate computer programs that simulate the season thousands of times in advance. No matter what method a person employs, there is always a smattering of doubt. Soothsaying is not a science.
I have decided to explore an assessment that falls somewhere between tossing out arbitrary numbers and punching data into a simulator. My approach may not be accurate. It may be absurdly ineffective, for that matter, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I've at least put a little more thought into it than many experts who think the Suns win total will fall on the wrong side of 30.
Bounce to be bombarded by a brilliant breakdown brimming with buoyant belief.
On a whim, I decided to take a look at how the Suns new roster fared last season in terms of three advanced statistical categories - win shares, wins produced, and PER. These are fairly arbitrary selections, like some of the estimates I mentioned previously, but are three of the more comprehensive and commonly used performance measuring metrics. The results of my investigation are shown below.
Based on the numbers from last year, the new roster should have won between 23-31 games last year. I adjusted the total wins to compensate for for the fact that the new additions played more minutes than the departing players (66 games x 240 minutes/game = 15840 minutes). Manipulating the totals again reveals that this projects to a range of 29-39 wins in an 82 game season. Marshall and Tucker were left off since they didn't have numbers from last season.
That passes the eyeball test. I had recently surmised that I thought 30-40 wins seemed like a realistic range. Another thing this shows is that the team PER is 14.8. I weighted that number based on minutes played, so it should be representative of the total team PER. League average is 15. By that reasoning, the Suns are very close to an average team (41 wins). This is closer to the zenith of the projected range, even though many have speculated the Suns will finish closer to the nadir.
Taking this data, I ranked the players on the team based on their scores in the three categories.
It was not surprising at all that Gortat, Dragic and Dudley were the top three players. Maybe we should send this table to the judges of the three-on-three competition.... Despite a steady flow of aspersions being cast in his direction, Frye was fourth. Beasley finished tied for ninth, ahead of only the pitiful Wesley Johnson. Based on this criteria, two of the Suns acquisitions this summer would have been the worst players on the team last year.
Then I decided to look through the roster and decide which players might improve (or regress) to help the Suns improve on that 29-39 win range.
Marcin Gortat - Gortat is coming off of the best year in his career. At 28 years old, this should be a prime year for him. There has been rampant speculation that there will be a noticeable dip in Marcin's overall numbers due to Nash's absquatulation, and there is probably some merit to that line of thinking (at least on the offensive end). Given those variables, I think that if Gortat can match his performance from 2011-12 it would be a boon. Hoping for an improvement here would be a stretch.
Goran Dragic - The Dragon capped off last season with a conflagrative stretch of play. Will he continue to breath fire, or choke under the pressure? I think there's good reason to expect Goran to be a dragon instead of a hatchling. Going back to the 22 games after the trade in 2010-11, Dragic has actually maintained this level of play for 88 games. His numbers for the last 22 games in 2011 were actually slightly better than last year. Goran just turned 26, so there's still hope for improvement along standard growth patterns as well. I wouldn't necessarily prognosticate a huge leap for Dragic, but an incremental increase seems to make sense.
Jared Dudley - Dudz is an orange collar worker. Like his former teammate Stoudemire, Dudley never misses an opportunity to tweet about his workout schedule, so we all know he's been assiduously applied to improving his game this summer. Despite all that effort, JD3's advanced numbers have been strikingly similar for four straight seasons. At 27, it appears that Dudley is probably already at or near his peak - and there's nothing wrong with that. Dudley would be an asset to any team, I just wouldn't expect him to increase his contribution this year.
Luis Scola - Scola set career lows for PER and WS/48 last year. He actually netted a negative WP/48 last season, meaning that he had a pernicious effect on his team according to that metric. Be that as it may, Scola was still at least an average player last season by other metrics. The question is whether last season was an anomaly or a trend. Are the career lows in shooting percentage, rebounds, and free throw attempts coupled with a career high in turnovers a result of a decline due to age? I think so. While a solid contribution from Scola would be propitious for the upcoming season, I think we will be lucky if the decay doesn't progress.
Channing Frye - Frye seems to be the type of player that isn't done justice by advanced statistics. When he is on a torrid streak shooting threes he can win games by himself. His ability to spread the defense helps leave the lane uncongested. Unfortunately, Frye has been winning less games with his shooting lately. He went from 17 games with 4+ three pointers made in 2009-10, to 16 in 2010-11, to only five in 2011-12. For a more comprehensive analysis on how Frye's shooting influences the Suns fortunes click here - do it. It's about a third of the way down in the comments. While Frye's numbers haven't been bad the last couple years, he hasn't been able to replicate his numbers from 2009-10, and at age 29, coming off of an injury, there isn't a reasonable expectation he will do so this year. Frye puts up very quality numbers for a back up big, just don't expect him to improve to the level of a quality starter.
Shannon Brown - Brown struggled last season coming off the bench before turning it on down the stretch when he entered the starting lineup. It will be interesting to see how the rotation plays out this year. Although Dudley would invariably prefer to start, his numbers have remained fairly static compared to a reserve role, so it might actually be prudent for Gentry to consider starting Brown. On the other hand, Brown's numbers coming off the bench for the Lakers the last three years were better than his totals last year. Maybe he was just struggling to get acclimated to his new surroundings? Either way, I think that there is cause to be hopeful that Brown can build on last season and be more effective this year.
Michael Beasley - Beasley is a perfect example of a breach in causality where talent doesn't equate to results. After two reasonably productive seasons to begin his career, there has been a declivitous descent. Super Cool has not been a player you would want on your team. Based on his LP/48 (that's losses produced instead of wins) last year and his $6 million dollar salary this year, Beasley has the chance to provide the least "bang for the buck" of any player on the roster. Then again, B-Easy is an intriguing, enigmatic player that could follow in the footsteps of the Phoenix for the Suns and undergo a palingenesis that resurrects his withering career. I don't expect Beasley to play like an all-star this year, but I could definitely see him steering the ship into the current and being a serviceable player who, at 23 years old, still has the chance to be a very good player in this league in the coming years.
Sebastian Telfair - After sputtering early last season, Telfair sizzled down the stretch. So which player do the Suns get this season - the underwhelming player that sojourned his way through six NBA teams with disappointing play before landing with Phoenix last year, or the impact player we saw at the end of last season? I tend to hypothesize we will get neither. I think that Telfair will be more balanced and fall somewhere in the middle. One thing to monitor will be whether Telfair will get enough playing time to get in the flow of the game behind Dragic. Bassy may have to play like a switch this year to be effective. I think that Telfair's overall numbers will be comparative to last year - he may not win a bunch of games for the Suns, but at least he won't lose a bunch for them either.
Markieff Morris - Morris's numbers last year weren't particularly remarkable, but given the circumstances and obstacles he faced, I think they actually adumbrate pretty favorably. I can see Morris making a big sophomore jump. In an ideal scenario, I would like Morris to overtake Scola for the starting position by the end of the season based on what I think may be a meteoric rise for Morris and a continuing decline for Scola. Next to Beasley, I think that Morris represents the second biggest possibility to show marked improvement.
Wesley Johnson - Johnson has basically been putrid garbage for his two seasons in the NBA. What makes this even more inauspicious is the fact that he's already 25. The story on Johnson so far is that you should only play him if you want to lose games. His PER is atrocious. He averaged six points a game last season as a starter. I don't know that there's much reason to hope that he reinvents himself this season. I would think that he would have to really show Gentry something in practice to even get more than mop up duty on the court. Then again, with Gentry's inclusive rotation, who knows? It wouldn't surprise me if Johnson becomes this year's Childress, except without the egregious price tag.
Jermaine O'Neal - Despite a noticeable dip from his most productive years, O'Neal has still proven to be a useful asset - when he's healthy. As the aphorism goes - the best players are the ones who can play. O'Neal will probably get more minutes at the beginning of the season, while Frye is completing his rehabilitation, and it will be interesting to see how the minutes are distributed once Frye is ready to go full tilt. If we are to believe Dudley's reports, O'Neal may very well be able to make a meaningful contribution to the Suns this year. Furthermore, he might provide the Suns with flexibility to make moves at the trade deadline.
Kendall Marshall & P.J. Tucker - Sorry, but I just don't think these guys will be statistically significant this season, and if they are... we're probably screwed. Besides which, neither has a track record that can be used to project from.
Then, using this
astute analysis, I constructed a new table showing how the numbers might look next season if my crystal ball is properly polished.
Improvements by Dragic, Beasley, Brown, Morris and O'Neal were more than enough to offset a predicted waning by Scola. My scenario also has only nine players receiving minutes. I don't favor an extended rotation. I prefer to keep my best players on the court. It will be interesting to see how Gentry monitors minutes now that the roster has had an infusion of youth. Obviously some of these other guys will play some. There will be injuries. Different players will probably succeed and fail.
What my table does show is that, with some fairly modest improvements, the new and improved Suns might be closer to a 35-44 win range. The new PER suggests that the Suns might be a slightly above average team. Is it a reason to be hopeful? I have no idea. It could be that my breakdown is no more effective at predicting an outcome than rolling dice in the three-on-three format. I would offer that I am still hopeful, but dubious...
What do you think of my approach? Where did I misstep? Which players do you think will climb the ladders and slide down the chutes next season? Is 35-44 wins a more reasonable range, or does 29-39 appear more likely?
Fans of the Phoenix Suns expect their team to be competitive and to make the playoffs. That's just the way it is. Anything less is a disaster. After a run of 18 playoff appearances in 20 years (1988-89 to 2007-08), a whole generation of Suns fans had not experienced even one perennially below-average team until this past few years.
Talk about spoiled. And pissed off. Suns fans deserve better than this!
Until this year, the Suns had not missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since a three-season drought from 1985-88 marred by pedestrian talent and drug scandal. Jerry Colangelo, who'd been with the team for 20 years in various roles including General Manager and Head Coach (twice) before buying the team, executed a huge reboot. He engineered the Kevin Johnson/Larry Nance trade, signed the NBA's first ever unrestricted free agent (Tom Chambers) to replace Nance, ushered all-time leading scorer Walter Davis out the door, and went back-to-the-future by installing Cotton Fitzsimmons as Head Coach (Cotton had coached the team 13 years before).
The rest is history. For many Suns fans, the 1988-89 season in which KJ, Chambers, Eddie Johnson, Jeff Hornacek and Dan Majerle burst from the shadows onto the national stage was the most enjoyable season of their lives. Why was 1988-89 more enjoyable, for some, than 1992-93? Or even 2004-05?
Because Suns fans were at the bottom of the barrel, embarrassed on a national level, disenchanted by drug scandals and poor play. And then all of a sudden the sun came out and shone on Phoenix brighter than ever.
What makes the Suns' play fairly astonishing (32-17 as of February 27, 1988) is that at the start of the season the players barely knew one another. In a breathtakingly short span, Phoenix, which finished 34 games out of first place in the Pacific Division last season, has reinvented itself; the only player left from its roster of two seasons ago is guard Jeff Hornacek.
"We thought if this team could play .500 and make the playoffs, it would be a tremendous comeback from adversity," says Sun president Jerry Colangelo at the time.
Imagine being a Suns fan in the mid-80s (I personally don't have to imagine it because I was there, but many of you would have to). The Suns were a disappointment and at the end, a disgrace. The venerable John MacLeod was losing his touch. Throughout this period, the Suns boasted two star talents in sweet-shooting, 6-time All-Star, all-time leading Suns scorer SG Walter Davis (22 ppg and 4.6 assists in 1986-87) and in-his-prime All-Star PF Larry Nance (22.5 ppg, 8.7 reb, 3.4 assists in 1986-87). Young Jeff Hornacek was an underperforming bench warmer and all the other guys were middling.
In the last year of that stretch, the Suns third-best player was Eddie Johnson. At the trade deadline, Colangelo shook it up. Years of disappointment despite the presence of two all-stars just wasn't getting it done.
So he sent the Suns very best player - all-star Larry Nance, still in his prime - to Cleveland for a rookie PG, a couple of role players and swap of draft picks (the Suns getting the short end of that stick, as the worse team). While in hindsight Suns fans call it the Best. Trade. Ever. because it marked the beginning of an era, at the time the Cavaliers thought they had won the day. Nance was now part of a Big Three with Mark Price and Brad Daughtery, hopefully propelling the Cavs to the Finals to combat the mighty Lakers and Celtics.
That end came near the conclusion of the 1986-87 season, when center James Edwards, guard Jay Humphries and guard Grant Gondrezick, as well as former Suns Garfield Heard and Mike Bratz, were indicted by a Maricopa County grand jury on charges of possessing or trafficking in cocaine or marijuana. Walter Davis, the Phoenix guard who had entered a drug rehabilitation clinic once before, in 1985, agreed to testify against his present and former teammates to avoid prosecution. As the accusations grew seamier, Sun fans began derisively referring to the team as Phoenix House and the scandal itself as Waltergate.
That all the charges were either dropped or reduced did not begin to undo the damage. How had things ever gotten so out of control?
"For a number of years we didn't have the personal contact with our players that we needed," says Colangelo. "I think the fans were hurt by the drug charges, and they were ready to point fingers. It hurt to find out that a lot of those fingers were pointed at me."
Colangelo and right-hand man Cotton Fitzsimmons took a lot of heat. As players were being traded left and right, in the wake of the scandal (and oh yeah, don't forget the team was bad), there was a lot of anger in Phoenix.
Columnist Joe Gilmartin of the Phoenix Gazette addressed Fitzsimmons on behalf of many Phoenix fans when he wrote, "There's a train leaving at midnight. Be under it."
While they spent a lot of money on background checks before the 1988 draft - eventually settling on vanilla, never-in-trouble players Tim Perry with the 7th pick and Dan Majerle with the 15th - they didn't follow the script with the signing of Tom Chambers. And fans and players wondered what the plan was.
But when the Suns decided to go out and spend big money on a free agent for the first time in their history, they seemed oblivious to the troublemaking implications of their act: The player they came up with was Tom Chambers, who in his seven seasons with San Diego and Seattle had gotten the reputation of being a selfish malcontent and was despised in practically every arena he played in, including, at times, the Coliseum in Seattle.
"I used to hate watching him play," says Kevin Johnson, and even Colangelo admits that he used to think Chambers was "a little whiny." Nonetheless, Phoenix gave Chambers a five-year, $9 million contract and set about building the team around him.
Chambers remade himself in Phoenix, for sure.
Chambers has often played out of position for the Suns-including at center-and has even thrown his body around diving to the floor for loose balls.
"If I had been with this team the first five years of my career, maybe all those negative things would never have been said about me," says Chambers. "It was always one isolated incident here, one there, and they followed me around the league. It hurts to have people think I'm a jerk. I wish it would all be forgotten, but it never will be, and I understand that."
He grew up and became the symbol of the new Suns. He averaged 25.7 points per game that year and remained their best big man until Sir Charles showed up to join him as he faded into the sunset. To this day, he devotes every day to the Suns franchise as a studio host.
Chambers was just one of the new faces who blossomed on that team. That rookie PG, Kevin Johnson, turned into one heck of a player in his second season, going from 12 and 9 in 28 games after the trade to 20 and 12 in 81 games the next season. Eddie Johnson played a great sixth-man role. Steve Kerr rode the deep bench, while Jeff Hornacek - who'd re-made his entire shooting stroke - emerged into one heck of a player after being an afterthought in two prior seasons. Dan Majerle was a high-energy scrappy kid off the bench, after being booed on draft night.
The point here is that the Suns went from nothing to something overnight. Their front office was maligned and disliked locally and nationally. Jerry Colangelo had been the GM throughout the drug scandal and that three-year drought with a poor roster.
And the two faces of the mid-80s franchise were, at one point, ushered out the door despite giving everything they had to the Suns. Nance and Davis were the best the Suns had to offer, and they epitomized the type of player the Suns wanted to present to the world. Wonderful athletes, great players and great men.
When Davis left the Suns - remember, he was the all-time franchise leader in scoring and a six-time all star - the Suns had reportedly offered him a paltry one-year deal at a 50% pay cut. And didn't even promise him - a six-time all-star, though nearing retirement - a starting position.
But when the team struggled, they had to go. You can't always reboot while keeping your best players and you can't always get great value when they leave either. Between the two all-stars, the Suns got a rookie PG, a worse draft pick and a net gain of one middling role player (and "cap space to sign new guys").
Sometimes, you just have to roll the dice and start over.
That 1988-89 was a gamble. They were not picked to win the West. Heck, they weren't even picked to make the playoffs. Chambers had just merely replaced Nance. Kevin Johnson, while a good player, would be lucky to match the contributions of the departed Walter Davis. The rest of the roster was a hodgepodge.
Who would have guessed, before that season started, these guys would start a run of wild franchise success?
I'm sure some people will look back on that 1988 trade deadline where Nance was shipped to Cleveland and say they saw the bright future right then and there. And some will say that pushing "Sweet D" Walter Davis out the door was the best thing for the franchise. And others will say that the Tom Chambers signing (29 years old at the time) was a sure sign of franchise success going forward.
We all love to look back on those wonderful times and say "I knew it!"
But sometimes, dawn breaks before we even realize it. It's easy to lambast the Suns right now, having ushered Steve Nash and Grant Hill out the door in an attempt to reboot. It's easy to kill the Suns over signing an offensively-talented tweener forward who had worn out his welcome on his prior team. It's easy to ridicule the "safe" but underwhelming picks of Morris and Marshall. And it's easy to wonder what kind of master plan includes the acquisition of a hodgepodge of new players at different stages of their careers.
But maybe, just maybe, the Suns can hit lightning in a bottle. At least they are trying.