When: Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 6:00 PM local time (9:00 EST)
Where: EnergySolutions Arena, Salt Lake City, UT
Watch/Listen: TV: FSAZ, Radio: 620 KTAR
The Jazz beat the Suns 87-80 on January 4th in Phoenix. Utah leads the season series 2-1.
The triumvirate of Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors helped Utah dominate the paint, where the Jazz outscored the Suns 60-28. A fast start by the Suns was negated by a season-low nine point second quarter and 20 turnovers. Marcin Gortat led the Suns with 18 points and 11 rebounds, but was apparently unable to provide a defensive presence to stymie Utah's assault in the paint.
Utah Jazz: 35-36
Points per game: 98.0 (14th) Points allowed: 98.7 (16th)
The Jazz has been in full scale meltdown mode, hampered by nagging injuries and (mostly) a brutal schedule. By stumbling to a 4-12 record over their last 16 games, Utah now finds themselves on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
Despite every effort to bungle away a playoff berth, the Jazz are still in a position to qualify for the postseason if they can reverse their trajectory. That's a big if based on their recent ineptitude. The schedule does foster some hope, though, as they have an easier remaining path than the teams competing against them.
The strength of the Jazz is a stalwart front line anchored by Al Jefferson (17.2 points and 9.1 rebounds per game) and Paul Millsap (14.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game) and backed up by 20 year old Enes Kanter (11.5 points and 6.0 rebounds per game in March) and 21 year old Derrick Favors (9.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game). Look for Utah to attempt to exploit these matchups.
Phoenix Suns: 23-48
Points per game: 94.4 (22nd) Points allowed: 100.6 (22nd)
The Suns have hit a rough patch that I like to call the 2012-13 season. At 23-48 the Suns will have to go 6-5 just to avoid the ignominious feat of finishing with (a tie for) the second worst record in franchise history. For those of you who haven't been paying very close attention (which includes the vast majority of Suns fans at this point), that ain't gonna happen...
The Suns are a meager 2-9 in their last 11 games, and have lost by an average of 17.6 points in the defeats. A bad team to begin with, the latest futility has been exacerbated by
tanking a youth movement. Dave King detailed the salient decrease in veteran's minutes between February and March, which coincided with increased playing time for every player 25 or under, in his recent article "Just how much younger have the Suns gotten this season?"
Goran Dragic has been playing his best basketball of the season since the all-star break, racking up 11 double-doubles (including five straight) in just 18 games. Prior to this impressive stretch he had just four in 53 games. Four. Goran even had his first 30 point game of the season on Sunday against Brooklyn. His improved play hasn't translated to more Suns wins, though, and his numbers were actually worse in the last two Suns wins (15 points and 5.5 assists) than they were in the last nine losses (15.4 points and 9.4 assists).
What To Watch For:
Points in the paint. In Utah's two wins they outscored the Suns in the paint 112-64. In the Phoenix's win they outscored the Jazz in the paint 48-42.
2013 Lottery Watch
The Suns (23-48) are poised to finish in the top five in the lottery positioning barring a monumental collapse. It appears the quest for third has become a three team race, with Detroit (24-48) and Cleveland (22-47) as the other two combatants.
The Suns also appear to be on their way to stultifying critics that picked them as the second worst team in the West... by finishing dead last. Shows what they know.
Perhaps the more intriguing race (though not necessarily as important) is another tantalizing trifecta. So what order will the Lakers, Mavs and Jazz finish in?
This race is going to come down to the wire and could end up being a photo finish. Utah needs to avoid going 0-2 on their upcoming away/home back-to-back against Portland and Brooklyn. Dallas needs to navigate a tough four game roadie at least 2-2. The LA/Dallas game could be pivotal. The possible X-factor? Portland has four games left against these three teams...
The Final Word(s):
As the season reaches its climax every game matters. Draft positioning is on the line for Phoenix, which could be of paramount importance in preventing recurrences of this historically woeful season. Not only do we get a chance to watch the Suns with rapt attention to discover how the plot unfurls, but we also get a chance to cheer on the Wolves as they attempt to rip the Lakers cold, dead hearts from their vile, pestilence ridden chests (metaphorically speaking... or am I?).
There has always seemed to be invisible lines in the sand drawn between the amateur nature of the NCAA and the professional entity that is the NBA. The lines are not visible, but over the course of time they have been felt, and one of the most profound lines has been in the transition of coaching from college to the next level.
Coaching elite the likes of Rick Pitino, John Calipari, and Fran Tarkanian all ascended to the professional ranks only to be humbled by the game they taught so well on the college level.
Situation and circumstance play more of a role in the missteps than basketball IQ in these situations.
Petino and Calipari road their hot names to the Northeast with Petino in New York Knicks (87-89) and Boston Celtics (97-01) while Calipari (96-99) took on the same role with the New Jersey Nets. Neither coaching great was equipped with all-star talent and therefore underachieved until their were relieved of their duties. The Nets acquired Stephon Marbury before letting Calipari go and and the Celtics reached the Eastern Conference Finals the year after Pitino.
Since then the water has been lukewarm to college coaches looking to make the same transition. Recently teams flirted with bringing in Tom Izzo, Mike Krzvzewski, and Calipari again. The Charlotte Bobcats went in a different direction in hiring career assistant Mike Dunlap. Over the past 32 years Dunlap has sat on the bench with George Karl, Ernie Kent, Steve Lavin, George Raveling, and Ed Goorjian until he finally got the call to be the man.
The next name that is garnering some buzz is Iowa State University's Fred Hoiberg. The "Mayor" has done wonders in three years with the Cyclones.
He has earned that moniker based on his personal historic relationship with Ames, Iowa as a high school player, college athlete, and now rising star in the coaching ranks. Around the league Hoiberg is a name that has traction for potential head coaching jobs next season.
As an NBA player Hoiberg was a role player that played a role teams that made it to the Conference Finals three times with Indiana and Minnesota. His career came to an abrupt end with a heart condition due to an enlarged aortic root and a surgery. That led to the pursuit of a job on the Minnesota Timberwolves coaching staff, followed by a role in the front office, and eventually the head coaching job at his Alma Mater.
In his three years with the Cyclones they have gone 62-39 with two wins in the NCAA Tournament. Just last week they lost a heart-breaker against favorite Ohio State on a controversial call that would have vaulted them past the second round for the first time in 14 years.
The system Hoiberg runs is translatable to the NBA level as they get up and down the floor, shoot the ball from the perimeter, and allow their best player to showcase his skill-set.
Ask 2012 first round pick Royce White and/or current member of the Phoenix Suns if their former college coach can make it at this level. They both flourished in the system and their are a few current Cyclones that will be playing at the next level very soon in part because of the tutelage of The Mayor.
Over his ten year NBA career Hoiberg was peppered with the knowledge of Larry Brown, Larry Bird, Tim Floyd, Flip Saunders, and Kevin McHale. All with different styles and wisdom to pass along.
If the past 5-6 years are an indication of the potential Hoiberg has at landing a head coaching job soon, the odds are in his favor. Former role players that learn the game from watching it play out in front of them every night like Scott Brooks (Oklahoma City Thunder), Vinny del Negro (Los Angeles Clippers), Monty Williams (New Orleans Hornets), and Jacque Vaughn (Orlando Magic). Giving young coaches a shot is also the norm with Frank Vogal (Indiana Pacers) and Eric Spoelstra (Miami Heat) leading their teams to the top of the Eastern Conference; not to mention Mark Jackson (Golden State Warriors).
All of those teams took a chance on a new face with the reputation and after just two seasons five of the seven have paid off in unfathomable ways reaching the very apex of NBA coaching success.
About a third of the NBA is led by retread coaches with mixed results in their careers, most of them are under .500 this season and have the potential of losing their jobs this summer. One of the most admirable traits of Fred Hoiberg has been his loyalty. Will that loyalty prevent a team from prying him from his home as the unofficial, official Mayor of Iowa?
Prying him away will be no easy feat, but could ultimately land a team like the Phoenix Suns a coach for the next decade that can reinvent the wheel of basketball bring them along in the rebuild that has only just begun.
As an NBA franchise, you don't want the double-whammy of being one of the oldest teams in the league AND fall short of the playoffs. And yet, that's exactly where the Suns were last season and the season before that.
Barely missing the playoffs got the Suns marginal prospects in the late-lottery that Seth Pollack already detailed were okay for where they picked, but certainly not good enough to revitalize a franchise. In fact, the Suns have not drafted a franchise-revitalizing player since 2003 (Amare Stoudemire).
By letting go of those three players and six others, and bringing in nine new players in their place, the Phoenix Suns dropped the age of their 11-man playing rotation by three full years - 29.2 years old to 26.1 years old* - despite bringing in 32-year old Luis Scola and 34-year old Jermaine O'Neal.
*I multiplied the ages of the Suns' actual playing rotation this March 2013 by the number of minutes they played this month, and compared that to a year ago March 2012.
*those shaded RED denote players whose minutes have declined this month, while those in GREEN are those seeing more minutes.
And here's your 2012 Suns rotation:
I did the same calculation for the entire league this March, to see where the Suns rank on the list.
Yet, a playing rotation that averages 26.1 years old is still just smack dab in the middle of the NBA for games played in March.
The Suns are still the second-oldest non-playoff team in the NBA, in terms of who's playing minutes in March. The oldest, Dallas, is fighting the Lakers for the right to be the very oldest lottery team this season, sparing the Suns of ignominy.
Last season's Suns, if kept together as some suggested, would now average over 30 years old - right at the upper edge of all NBA teams.
While age is not a primary, determining factor in success of NBA teams, it is quite instructive and interesting to me the nearly direct trajectory of age vs. success in the league.
For the most part, the youngest teams in the league miss the playoffs and get younger with a high draft pick. And the oldest teams, by and large, make the playoffs and stay just as old as they've always been.
Only three "young" teams (Houston, Golden State and Indiana) are projected to make the playoffs this season while a fourth, Utah, is dying on the vine while playing their younger players as Jefferson and Millsap have both battled injury this month.
In fact, the youngest teams have been bad for a long time. Look at the 'Last 5 years' column and nearly every one of them is a fixture in the lottery.
The problem is that there are only two pools of quality NBA players: free agency and the collegiate draft.
Part of the problem with getting truly younger in one summer is that unrestricted free agency only kicks in when guys reach about 25 to 26 years old (four years after their draft year). Anyone younger than that still is controlled by their drafting team, unless the team lets them go.
To a get a full rotation of guys younger than 25 or 26 requires a lot of draft picks and/or signings of young, un-drafted free agents.
If the Suns go this route to get younger, then don't expect a great deal of success in the win column. So, it's no wonder the Suns front office is trying to straddle that fence between too young to win and too old to rebuild.
The Suns will add a couple of young players in this year's draft, likely replacing a couple of middle-aged guys. But whether they bring back Jermaine O'Neal and Marcin Gortat, and even Hamed Haddadi, will indicate whether the Suns want to win games or if they just want to wait another year.
Don't count on the latter. The arena is getting emptier and the natives are either restless or, worse yet, losing interest. Expect the Suns to continue to straddle the fence on being too young vs. too old.