It took me way too long to understand how good Steve Nash was.
Outside of the fact I try to objectively write about the Phoenix Suns because I moved across the country some ten odd years ago, I have no deep attachment to the franchise. I get called a contrarian by angry Suns fans sometimes, but I've never written anything intentionally with an opposite view -- I simply state what I feel.
Outside of a fanatic following of the New York Knicks and Michigan Wolverines, the team that made me fall in love with basketball was the Sacramento Kings. In a way they were the Suns before the Suns. A flashy point guard named Jason Williams and my guy from Michigan Chris Webber helped put Sacramento back on the map, and then the team continued to evolve into a more substantive group with shrewd personnel moves. Much like the Suns they peaked in the Western Conference Finals, but their foil was the Los Angeles Lakers not the San Antonio Spurs.
I'm pretty sure I was still a senior in high school when the first Seven Seconds or Less team was gifted upon us during the 2004-2005 season. This was a time before I started ordering league pass or social media was a thing. I loved watching basketball, but my view of the sport was simplistic compared to what it is today.
During the Steve Nash MVP years, and throughout the Seven Seconds or Less era, I fell into the category of people who thought he was overrated. I was fine with Nash winning his first MVP in 04-05, but not a chance he should have won it over Kobe Bryant that next season (I stand by the latter part today). I wasn't able to distinguish how "Two-Time" impacted a basketball game.
Going through college I started to intern at the flagship home of the Suns and went on to work there. During this time I had the opportunity to work on many pre and post game shows, produce talk radio during the day, plus eventually covered some games in person. Listening to Nash talk on a regular basis, he was insightful and honest, yet I found him to be a tad bit whiny at times -- understandable considering the hardship he went through in moments of the highest possible leverage.
I've talked about this before, but it seems pertinent to bring it up again now. I didn't gain a true appreciation of Nash until the peak of his time with the Suns passed. Maybe even more impressive than what he did surrounded by the likes of Amar'e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson, Raja Bell, Kurt Thomas, Leandro Barbosa, Quentin Richardson, Boris Diaw, Grant Hill, Jason Richardson and Shaquille O'Neal -- was what he did when the majority of those players were gone.
In 2010-2011 this roster went 40-42, with the ninth best offensive rating in the NBA.
In 2011-2012 this roster went 33-33, once again with the ninth best ORtg, and actually played the Utah Jazz in the second to last game of the regular season, in what was essentially a win or get in playoff game for the eighth seed. They obviously lost, In that contest Michael Redd was tied for a team-high with 15 points. Yep, Michael Redd played for the Suns.
This is what it took for me to recognize what Steve Nash was, not watching him thrive with strong supporting casts. Seeing him drag below average rosters, I thought were destined to pick early in the lottery, to the middle of the NBA landscape was the journey I needed to understand Nash's greatness.
Part of this makes me sad I didn't grasp how good Nash was when the Suns were at their best, but at least I came to a realization before carrying an incorrect perception with me for the rest of my life. The cliche better late than never is fully appropriate for me in this instance.
Winning five out of six games can mean a lot of things. A weak schedule, playing a good team on their bad night, a buzzer beater, a spike in overall play, or something much bigger. Something much bigger is what's going on with the Suns and while it's a shame that it took them 71 games into the season to get there, it's pretty great that we have arrived.
So what's this alluring and mysterious "bigger thing" I am talking about? The Suns are finally playing like a real basketball team in terms of all the intangibles fans have been desperately searching for. The first thing I noticed was the void position of "veteran leader" on the team and someone finally stepping up.
has Gerald decided he's becoming the veteran leader?— Kellan Olson (@ATSWGoes) March 14, 2015
Gerald Green saw his minutes completely depleted by head coach Jeff Hornacek and he has responded with becoming the head cheerleader on the bench and is only going about it in a positive manner. Green is averaging 19 MPG this year, but he can't even reach that total in the past five games combined. No one was happier for Archie Goodwin the past week than Green, which is a bit funny considering Goodwin is the one that stole his minutes.
This isn't to say that Gerald was a negative nancy on the bench or anything, but this level of enthusiasm was not here a couple of weeks ago.
I noticed that during the Suns loss to the Hawks, a game that they had in their control in the middle two quarters before scoring only 14 points in the final quarter. It looked like the same old stuff; a young and inexperienced team that could not hold onto a lead and close out games.
Then Gerald starting doing things like this after that guy who stole his minutes hit a ginormous shot.
All season the Suns couldn't win ugly, steal a game, or close one out, but they've managed to do all three of those in the past two weeks. There was the horrifying display of basketball against the Pelicans last Thursday, the response to the comeback by the Mavs two nights ago, and the overtime heist in Brooklyn two weeks ago. All three of those were wins and those are the wins you need to make the playoffs.
So what's really going on here? The first thing you notice is the defense, as the Suns are visually playing much smarter and are just more committed to playing both sides. One example of that was the lockdown of James Harden in Houston, a great act of team defense that was the topic of a recent fantastic post from Mike Prada.
Another example of this is that the Phoenix Suns are THIRD in the NBA in defensive efficiency in the past 15 games. That's not a typo. Third. After some big trades and more time for the youngsters, the defense has actually been dramatically better in the past month. I am as floored as you are by that number, but it's true. In case you aren't picking yourself up off of the floor, the Suns are currently 15th on the season and that's been lowered because of this spike.
In those past 15 games from the defensive efficiency stat, the Suns are 4th in REB%, a statistic they are 21st in for the season. A quick glance at the averages in the past five games for the starting lineup gives you a good idea of who has stepped up where.
My goodness. Poor Alex can't even get any rebounds because everyone else is taking them from him. I never thought I would see the Morrii combine for 17 RPG and 7 APG in any facet. That's insane. Look at Marcus averaging 4 assists a game too! What is happening?!
There has been a downside though, which might be due more to the trades than this new found focus, but the Suns offensive efficiency is all the way down to 27th in those 15 games (11th for entire season). The AST% is still at a putrid number and they are giving up even more points off of turnovers. However, there's still even more improvement to point at.
In that stretch the Suns are 7th in second chance points allowed and 17th in points in the paints allowed. Those two stats along with points off of turnovers and fast break points allowed are 4 statistics the Suns are in the bottom five for the season. A dramatic improvement in half of those, arguably the two that have the most to do with effort, says something.
Something happened. Whether it was a team meeting or all of the players finally buying into what Hornacek was trying to go for, it happened. The team is playing with much more effort and cohesion both defensively and as rebounders. The offense is really struggling, but everyone knows that the last department the Suns need to worry about.
Whatever it is that happened, it could not have happened at a better time while the Suns are chasing the eighth seed. Is 11 games enough to make a push into the playoffs? I don't know and I don't care, because this type of basketball is what the Suns will need in the future to grow and contend from their young roster and we might have found the starting point.