We can forget holding out hope that the Suns might drastically improve and make the playoffs this season. It's pretty simple: if you manage to lose to the Nets, Cavs and Raptors all at home, you're just not a good team at all. There's no two ways about it.
There's all kinds of reasons for this, namely an inability to execute on offense, especially when Nash sits, along with poor defensive efforts (save for a few games when it was impressive). There's also the fatigue factor, with the shortened and packed schedule seeming to be a bad thing for a team where two starters are almost 40. But let's not go over all that. What I want to look at is the shooting, specifically, the three point shooting.
Since the 2004/05 season when Nash returned to Phoenix, the Suns have been known as a great three point shooting team. Their ability to space the floor with good shooters who could knock down their shots was as vital to their success as anything else. Here's a look at the percentages for each season since Nash returned, along with the key performers from three point range. We'll ignore those who didn't shoot much, for example Maciej Lampe shot .667 from 3 in 2004/05, but only had three attempts.
(all stats taken from Basketball Reference)
2004/05 - 62-20, lost in WCF, first Nash MVP season
Suns shot .393, best in the league.
2005/06 - 54-28, lost in WCF, second Nash MVP season
Suns shot .399, best in the league.
2006/07 - 61-21, lost in WC semis.
Suns shot .399, best in league. Exactly identical to previous season.
Best performers: Steve Nash (.455), Leandro Barbosa (.434), Raja Bell (.413)
Again, not including Marion (although he dipped to .317), and Jalen Rose (.447 but only 21/47).
2007/08 - 55-27, lost in first round. Marion/Shaq trade.
Suns shot .393, a slight dip but best in league once more. Identical to 2004/05.
Best performers: Steve Nash (.470), Raja Bell (.401), Leandro Barbosa (.389)
Once more this doesn't include Marion's .347 clip through 47 games before his trade. Grant Hill's first season as a Sun saw him shoot .317 and that's about it. Nash's amazing .470 seems to have carried the team's %.
2008/09 - 46-36, no playoffs. Cheers Porter.
Suns shot .383, dropped to 5th best in league after four straight seasons of being 1st.
After those 4, there's only really Barbosa (.375) and Matt Barnes (.343) worth listing. Dragic and Hill combined only made 44.
2009/10 - 54-28, lost in WCF, the revival year.
Suns shot .412, their best since Nash's return, and of course back to best in the league.
Grant Hill shot .438, almost good enough for second best on the team, but that was only 35/80. This is clearly rhe best season of three point shooting, with FIVE players amazingly hitting basically 40% or better, six when you include Grant nailing those corner threes he used to hit, even if in small doses.
2010/11 - 40-42, no playoffs. The beginning of the end, no more Amare.
Suns shot .377, good enough for 4th best in the league, but their lowest of the Nash era.
Best performers: Jared Dudley (.415), Jason Richardson (.419), Steve Nash and Grant Hill (both .395), Channing Frye (.390)
After those 4, there's Vince C*rter (.366) and Mickael Pietrus (.342). Apologies for reminding you of them.
And then we arrive at this current season:
Suns currently shooting .334, 17th best in the league. Seventeenth.
Telfair and Price combine for only 1.1 attempts per game, so perhaps it's unfair to list them, but Channing Frye is shooting a mere .323 and Jared Dudley a .320, both a far cry from their previous seasons for the Suns. Shannon Brown is more or less the same at .326. And then we have Michael Redd, brought in to try and give the team a scoring boost. He's shooting .250 whenever he does actually make it onto the court. I suspected Grant Hill would have the worst shooting percentage, and he does. Those corner threes he used to knock down at a clip of .438 two seasons ago? Gone.
Grant Hill is shooting .158. Thankfully he's only averaging 0.2 attempts per game which is half of what he averaged in 2009/10.
The team as a whole is averaging exactly 19 attempts per game so far this season. By comparison, it was 22.6 last season, and they averaged 21.6 the season before (2009/10) when they shot their best from downtown.
So those are the stats. The Suns are more or less shooting the same amount of threes as last year, but with far worse results. Why?
Short training camp/packed schedule
The excuse/reasoning in the first few weeks was that the players were not in prime condition and that the shots would start to fall once the players' conditioning improved. With the exception of Steve Nash who showed a noticeable improvement in his shooting once his ribs recovered, that hasn't really been the case. Is there still time for it to happen? Possibly. I'm not hopeful. It seems strange that every single player's success rate has dropped.
Lack of inside presence/less floor spacing
Gortat has done really well offensively in the majority of games, the Boston one being the best example. He's no Amar'e though. He doesn't have as big an arsenal of weapons in his armoury, he's not as explosive, he doesn't force teams to double team him, and so on. The result is that the Suns don't get to space the floor and have open men as much as they used to, so a lot more of the shots are contested and/or rushed. That's my theory anyway, although I don't have the stats to back it up and frankly I'm statted out by this point. Just thinking back at the games played so far this season, it's hard to recall some clearly open three point attempts. Frye always seems to have an arm in his face, ditto Dudley. But then, the Suns didn't have Amar'e last season either and weren't nearly as bad.
It could well be the slower offense, leading to slower ball movement and failing to swing the ball to the open man as effectively as they used to. There's a noticeable lack of pace in the offense this season, and it's definitely related to the team's poor three point shooting.
The most obvious reason is of course that the players currently on the roster simply aren't as good outside shooters as what the previous rosters had. Where there was once Q-Rich, Barbosa, Raja, J-Rich and the likes, the Suns now have Shannon Brown, Ronnie Price, Sebastian Telfair and a finished Michael Redd. That's the most obvious thing. The Suns used to be deep with competent three point shooters. Now, they have only three (Nash, Frye, Dudley), with two of them just not producing.
The Suns are no longer a good three point shooting team, that's the reality. Even if Frye and Dudley start hitting their shots, they are still going to be a distinctly average three point shooting team. With this roster, there's sadly no way out of that.
As if losing to the Raptors at home last night wasn't bad enough, Suns center Robin Lopez got himself ejected from the game in the second quarter due to another of his failures at temper control. It was a new low for Lopez in a season that had started so well for the Suns big man. He showed enthusiasm and commitment by showing up on the first day players were allowed back at team facilities as the lockout was ending, looking and sounding physically and mentally rejuvenated.
Lopez was so impressive in preseason that there was talk of competition at starting center between Lopez and Marcin Gortat, even though Gortat had clearly won the job down the stretch last season. Then Lopez took advantage of the opportunity provided by Gortat's injured thumb to score 22 points to go with 7 rebounds in the season opener against the Hornets. Despite a Suns loss, he was the team's player of the game.
Unfortunately, that game nearly a month ago was his finest moment of the season, by far. And now the Suns will not sign Lopez to an extension by today's deadline, making the 4th year player a restricted free agent at the end of the season.
In the Suns' current situation, the lame duck status of their backup center doesn't make sense for either party. It's time to aggressively shop Robin Lopez and trade him for the best available return before March 15th's trade deadline.
It's not surprising that neither the Suns nor Lopez are all that interested in a deal right now. The Suns' primary focus has been to avoid salary commitments after this season, in hopes of a major push in July's free agent market. Lopez is a former starter and talented player who finds himself in a position where he has virtually no chance to start given the emergence of Gortat. The Suns don't want to invest too much in a backup, Lopez must think he's capable of being more than a backup; there's no deal to be made. (More on the rules of restricted free agency in the NBA can be found here.)
Of course, come July it's unlikely that this dynamic changes any. Centers are at a premium in the NBA, especially young and athletic ones, and it's a virtual certainty another team will offer Lopez more than the Suns are willing to pay a backup. The Suns also figure to have several irons in the fire this July, looking for talent at shooting guard, small forward and power forward, at least. If Steve Nash decides to sign elsewhere or retire, the Suns will be in for a complete roster makeover and the only starting position that will be relatively set will be Gortat at center.
In short, the Suns will have a long to-do list this off-season and re-signing Lopez to back up Gortat will be a very low priority.
What kind of offers can Lopez expect to see? In one example, the Warriors signed Kwame Brown to a 1 yr/$7M contract this past off-season. You don't think Lopez could command a salary in that neighborhood, or a longer-term one? And if so, why would it make any sense for the Suns to match the offer? If they didn't, Lopez would walk and the Suns would get nothing in return. Trading him now would at least net some return, minor though it might be.
Most importantly, Lopez hasn't done anything this season to warrant the Suns keeping him. Sure, he looks healthier and has regained much of his lost athleticism, but that isn't helping his production any. Let's look at his career stats:
Through 17 games, he's actually producing even less in nearly identical minutes per game than last year, shooting less often and less efficiently. The one stretch of his career that gave the Suns a glimpse of what a playing-to-full-potential Lopez can do started about 2 years ago and lasted only about 2 months. Are we to hang on to that and ignore the rest of his 3+ year career? No, of course not. Lopez has had his opportunities and he hasn't succeeded at anything close to an acceptable level of consistency. Time to part ways.
None of us truly know what other NBA front offices would be wiling to give up for Lopez. A first-rounder would be great, a second-rounder would be a little tough to swallow but probably tolerable. Or the Suns might be able to pick up another low-priced contributing player, or dump a salary on a trade partner. None of those options are too exciting, but much better than the option to hold Lopez now and watch him walk for nothing in July.
Epilogue: The NBA's Circle of Life
Robin Lopez was selected by the Suns with the 15th pick of the 2008 draft, a pick acquired from the Atlanta Hawks along with Boris Diaw and the 21st pick in the 2006 draft (used to select Rajon Rondo, who was immediately traded to the Celtics) in exchange for Joe Johnson in an August, 2005 trade.
Johnson had been acquired by the Suns in a February, 2002 trade with the Celtics, along with Randy Brown, Milt Palacio and the 2002 #22 pick (used by the Suns to select Casey Jacobsen) in exchange for Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk.
Rogers had signed with the Suns as a free agent during the 1999 off-season and had a nice career as a role player in Phoenix, including winning Sixth Man of the Year in 2000 while making 44% of his 3s that season, 4th best in the league.
Delk was a Suns free agent signing before the 2000-2001 season and became a solid contributor as well, averaging double figure scoring as a guard backing up Jason Kidd. He scored 53 points in a game at Sacramento on January 2, 2001.
So, this asset of Robin Lopez originated with two shrewd free agent signings, one in 1999 and one in 2000. Soon we'll find out who, if anyone, is the next link in this chain.