Every time the Suns have looked to be turning the corner this season, a disappointing loss has provided a slap of reality to the face. They started January winning 3 of 4 games, then a loss in LA to the Lakers initiated a 5-game skid. February began with the Suns winning 4 of 5 before a tough home loss to the Rockets sent them spiraling to a 5 losses in 6 games streak.
When the team is 14-20 two months into the season with no apparent major trades on the horizon, the die looks as if it's been cast: the Suns aren't playoff material and are destined to muddle around .500 (and probably below) for the rest of the season.
Five teams stand between the Suns and the final playoff spot in the West, but only four games. If the Suns could ever put together a serious hot streak instead of their standard one step forward, step and a half back pattern this season, they would be right in the thick of the playoff hunt.
For that unlikely scenario to play out, let's look at some key improvements the Suns will need, after the jump.
Coming out of the gate for the second half March 1 vs. the Timberwolves, the Suns play 9 of their first 11 games at home. There are some difficult opponents in there, most notably the Thunder and Mavericks, but if the Suns are going to make things interesting this season, now is the time. For that to happen:
More production from Michael Redd
Heading into the season, the Suns' wing players were a question mark. Jared Dudley was new to the starting lineup and Grant Hill, as ageless as he sometimes seems, is 39 years old. Dudley and Hill have held up decently in their roles but Shannon Brown and Josh Childress, slated to be their backups, have played so poorly that each has been banished to the end of the bench for long spells.
Enter Redd. A one-time all-star, Redd is currently the Suns leading scorer per 36 minutes at 18.2 but is shooting even worse than Brown in the process. Whereas Brown chucks up bad shots, Redd's taking open shots in the flow of the offense, but they're just not falling. Surely, a 38% career 3-point shooter can shoot much better than the 28% Redd is shooting from behind the arc this year, right? There's a lot of rust for him to shake off, as the 21 games he's played so far this season are his most since 2008-09. The Suns remain reliant on 3-point shooting, and Redd is their best chance to improve from their current #15 spot in the NBA in 3-point %.
Better play from the PF position
Ideally, Markieff Morris will continue his development and work his way into the starting lineup soon, and both players improve their rebounding. Frye's shooting has been erratic, though it has been improving lately, while Morris shows the inconsistency which is to be expected of a rookie. Rebounding from each will be most important, though, as the Suns sit at 26th in the league at offensive rebounding % and 24th at defensive rebounding %.
They're combining for 18 points and 11 rebounds per game, which is respectable, but each is too one-dimensional on offense, staying parked out at the 3-point line. Floor spacing is great, but can't the Suns feed these two in the post a little more, or give them some of the pick and roll opportunities? Markieff should not be playing like Frye 2.0. That's not why the Suns drafted him.
Backup PGs not screwing the pooch
We've been over this all before. From good Goran Dragic to bad Dragic to Aaron Brooks and now to Sebastian Telfair and Ronnie Price, the role of Steve Nash's backup is always a point of conversation. The Telfair/Price combo has produced about as poorly as what Dragic did last year before the Suns decided they must attempt to upgrade, and burned a 1st round pick in the process.
They've been terrible, and not significantly worse than they've played for the rest of their careers, so little chance for improvement here. It might be worth it to scour the D-League for a player, or hope for modest improvement from either Telfair or Price but, frankly, there's little chance this situation gets any better for the Suns this season. Well, unless you count on Aaron Brooks coming back at the end of March.
Continued good health
The Suns have been remarkably healthy this season. Nash has had a couple of dings, and Hill started the season with a balky knee, but injuries have not been a serious problem for this team so far. A serious injury to Nash, Hill or Gortat in the second half would make these other issues moot. With the backups struggling as is, moving a bench player into the lineup to replace an injured starter would spell doom.
It's actually quite discouraging that the Suns had such a poor first half and don't have injuries to blame for it. There's no player who they can look forward to coming back to give a lift and the only way this situation changes is for the worse. Not a good sign.
The Blazers currently sit in the 8th seed at 18-16, a 35-31 pace for the season. Let's estimate the Suns need to go 36-30 to make the playoffs. That will require a 22-10 record the rest of the way, unlikely unless the Suns strike gold on all of the above variables.
Now that the first half of the season has concluded, the 14-20 Phoenix Suns and their fans have a fairly good understanding of where this team stands.
Currently, this team is not built to contend for a championship...that much is for sure. Not only that, but this team also appears set to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season; something that this team and it's fans are not particularly accustomed to.
This proud franchise has the fourth highest all-time win percentage in the history of the NBA (55.8%), and if the Suns fail to turn this season around, it would be only the fifteenth time in team history, dating back 44 seasons to 1968, that they would be out of the playoff race. It's no wonder that many fans had a hard time believing this team would struggle to this extent, even with the relative lack of talent currently on the roster.
However, despite the roster the Suns' currently have in place, there remains a sense of disappointment in how this team has played so far...especially since the Suns have seemingly regressed since last season in which the team finished 27-28 after the Gortat-Carter-Pietrus trade. Many fans expected the Suns to improve with the additions of free agent signings Shannon Brown, Ronnie Price, and Sebastian Telfair plus their first-round draft pick Markieff Morris to replace Vince Carter and Mikael Pietrus, along with Aaron Brooks who has been playing overseas. Other than that this roster remains the same as it was last season. If the Suns continue on at this rate, they would end up with a record of 28-38...which is lower than what most of the fans and contributors predicted on this site before the start of the season.
So which players have been a disappointment thus far? Which players, if any, have been a pleasant surprise?
Read on after the jump for a breakdown.
Shannon Brown - Brown was brought on board to add athleticism and scoring to a Suns' team in desperate need on a go-to wing scorer to fill the void left by trading Jason Richardson. Jared Dudley was penciled in as the starter, but most fans and analysts alike believed that the Suns would be better off with Dudley coming in off the bench. Shannon Brown was an electrifying player for the Lakers, and although he had a tendency to jack-up bad shots once in a while, most fans still seemed excited with the prospect of Brown playing in Phoenix. Despite the warnings of C.A. Clark from the Lakers' SB Nation blog Silver Screen and Roll, many Suns' fans thought Brown would inject more fast break scoring and energy into this team and would replace Dudley in the starting line-up and help this team return to the ways of 7SOL, right? Well that hasn't happened. In fact, Brown has registered more DNP's thus far (7) than he has starts (1). He's
Here's a look at his stats this season compared to his career:
Looking at his stats this season compared to the rest of his career, his numbers are fairly consistent with how he's played in the past. Sure his FG% is down slightly, but everything else seems right about average. Perhaps it was the expectations of how he would play with an elite point guard like Steve Nash that were too high rather than Brown's actual play. Either way, I'm sure most fans and the Suns' front office as well have been underwhelmed with what Brown has done to help this team so far.
Sebastian Telfair and Ronnie Price - Telfair and Price were brought in to help give the Sun's second unit a boost while Nash rests. After Goran Dragic was traded for Aaron Brooks last season who then decided to sign a binding contract in China just days before the lockout ended, the Suns were placed in a precarious position of needing to find someone, anyone who could fill a short-tern need of a back-up point guard. The Suns gambled on both of these players in hopes that at least one of them would step up and earn the job of leading the second unit. So far, that bet hasn't paid off.
Here is a look at Telfair and Price's stats so far this season compared to the rest of their careers:
What jumps out at me from these stats is that Price's production so far this season has been relatively consistent with his production throughout his career, but Telfair on the other hand is performing worse than he has on average in nearly every category. Both of these players have been underwhelming so far and neither one has secured the spot as the back-up point guard yet. Head coach Alvin Gentry continues to experiment with different line-ups, and although Telfair has been playing more minutes lately as the back-up, that could still change at any time...Especially with Bassy's numbers showing a noticeable decline.
Robin Lopez - Lopez is something of an enigma in the NBA. He has shown tremendous potential at times and even flashes of dominance, only to follow it up with disappointing play and questionable basketball I.Q. After a breakout season in 2009-10 which was stunted by a back injury, many fans and analysts expected a big season from Lopez in 2010-11 only to witness what looked like a regression and lack of physical talent. Rumors surfaced of Lopez still being hindered by the nerve damage in his legs which stemmed from the pinched nerve he suffered in the prior season, and Robin never gained back the momentum he started the year prior and was instead replaced in the starting line-up by Marcin Gortat.
However, with the long off-season due to the NBA lockout, many fans wondered if Lopez would finally be fully recovered and return to form this season. Once training camp began, numerous testimonies to Lopez's impressive practices and his renewed athleticism and explosiveness began to trickle out to the media, and the fans were once again hopeful that Robin would return to form during the shortened 2011-12 season. Everything started according to plan, with Lopez posting a very impressive 21 points and 7 rebounds in only 26 minutes in the Suns first game against the New Orleans Hornets. However, Robin's impressive play once again disappeared almost immediately and returned to mediocrity starting with the very next game and continuing on to this point. Lopez has shown flashes here and there, but so far his overall play has definitely been a disappointment.
Since his minutes have fluctuated quite a bit over the past couple of seasons, here are his "Per 36 Min" stats this season compared to his career thus far:
Looking at these stats everything looks fairly consistent except for his FG%, which has dropped off significantly compared to just two seasons ago. This of course has also impacted his points per 36 minutes which is the other most noticeable drop off. At this point I believe we have to accept that Robin is who he is, a player who may never realize his potential for whatever the reason. I have no answer as to why Lopez has continued to get worse this season when all signs initially indicated he was ready for a very productive year. But one thing is for sure...his play has been a big disappointment.
So what about the other side of the coin? Surely there has to be some Suns' players that are playing better than we hoped, right?
Well yes, as a matter of fact there are. Here is a list of players who I believe have played above and beyond most people's expectations.
Markieff Morris - Morris is the Suns' rookie power forward who was drafted with the 13th pick in the first round of this season's draft. Many fans, including myself, were worried that the Suns had once again drafted the "lesser brother", and would have yet another disappointing first round draft pick to add to the legacies of Earl Clark, Alando Tucker, and Robin Lopez. However, Morris quickly proved his doubters wrong by almost instantly contributing meaningful minutes to the team and even earning a short stint in the starting line-up over Channing Frye. While his time as a starter was short lived, his production off the bench has continued to help this team, not only on offense but with rebounding and defense as well. Markieff has shown himself to be a very well-rounded player with more upside than many people initially realized.
Here are his stats for the season thus far:
These numbers show a very solid average for a young player who joined his team without hardly any off-season or training camp to speak of, showing the kind of NBA-readiness that the Suns' front office spoke of as one of the main reasons he was drafted. The Suns have had a rough start to the season, but Morris has undoubtedly been one of the brightest spots on the team, and likely one of the few players who will be at the core of this team going forward.
Marcin Gortat - Gortat was brought in via a trade last season with the Orlando Magic to help solidify a center position that was inconsistent at best with Robin Lopez at the helm. Gortat was widely considered the best back-up center in the league behind none other than Dwight Howard, who is considered the best center overall. The Suns took a gamble on Gortat in hopes that he would compete with Lopez for the starting center position, and he quickly exceeded even the loftiest of expectations.
This trend has continued this season as well with his stellar play and consistency. While many fans expected Gortat's production to level off or even decline, the Polish Machine had other plans
Here are his stats:
As you can see, Gortat has not only matched his impressive output from last season, he has actually improved in a number of areas as well. He was a viable candidate for the NBA All-Star team this season, and if he continues at this pace I expect him to achieve that honor within the next season or two. I think it's safe to say that Gortat is the real deal, and his performance last season and at the start of this season was not an aberration, but rather an indication of what he's capable of.
And last but not least...
Steve Nash - the former two-time MVP who just turned 38 years old has once again been one of the biggest positives for the Phoenix Suns this season. Once again, most analysts and fans had predicted that the ageless one would experience a significant drop-off this season as his body would finally reflect his age. Once again, everyone was wrong.
Nash has defied not only his age, but the lack of talent on the roster along side him, and once again leads the NBA in assists. While most fans still expected a productive season from Nash, I don't think very many expected him to perform this well...so well in fact that he earned his 8th All-Star appearance despite the team's losing record.
Here are his numbers this season compared to the rest of his career:
As the stats show, his numbers and production are just as impressive as ever. If Steve is starting to slow down, there's no evidence of it here whatsoever. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised by anything Nash accomplishes anymore, but still, his ability to continue playing at such a high level despite his age and the talent, or lack thereof, surrounding him is nothing short of incredible.
As for the players I didn't mention, they are all playing more or less equal to expectations. Until recently I may have included Jared Dudley and Channing Frye on the "disappointing" list as well, but their play as of late has improved. Grant Hill also had a rough start to the season, at least offensively, but he is slowly coming around while continuing to perform at a high level on defense against some of the most talented opposition in the league. As for guys like Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress, they've also had their up-and-downs this season, but neither of them has become a consistent contributor this season, and most people didn't expect them to either. In my opinion, these players have all performed about as well as expected overall.
How will the second half of the season shape up? A lot of that will depend on whether or not the Suns will make any trades, or if any of the "disappointing" players will find a way to step up and help this team succeed.
Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver has spoken about the debacle that the 2011-12 season has become. In a story found on AZCentral.com, Paul Coro brings us some quotes from Sarver who has been relatively quiet this season, at least to the public.
Sarver is not saying much, but sometimes we can speak volumes with what we do not say, yes?:
(on the season thus far) "...I'm disappointed...I think we haven't performed up to the level of our potential. If we want to be a playoff team, we have to make up ground and definitely hold the fort better (at home). I think we can make up the ground but we've got to start winning more at home...I think we're potentially a playoff team but we're going to have to show it."
Potential? What potential? To have potential you have to have enough talent to build expectations. The Suns are clearly lacking in talent, that is no secret. So did Sarver really have playoff expectations?
Sarver is pointing a finger here, but it isn't clear who specifically he blames. Obviously the team has had some nice flashes, but the overall result is poor play, 14-20, 13th in the West.
The team is made up of individuals, so who exactly isn't performing up to their potential? Well let us search the roster...
Obviously you can't blame Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Jared Dudley, or Marcin Gortat. That's a given. Nash IS the Suns, Hill is playing lights out D as usual and defying age, Dudz is giving 110% as usual, and Gortat has spent most of the season leading the league in field goal percentage, and the Suns in rebounding and points. No, no disappointment there. Oh yes, Josh Childress. Very disappointing season for Chill, right? In his 13 minutes per game, we should be seeing much, much more production out of him, right? And Hakim Warrick? Enough said. Oh and Shannon Brown, the career journeyman (6 teams in 6 seasons) who has some rings from hanging out with Kobe Bryant? The career 41% shooter, and 8 ppg game guy whose averaging 8 ppg and shooting 3.5 percentage points lower than last season? If Brown was going to be a star, it would have happened. He couldn't beat out Jared Dudley for the 2 guard spot.
And while we're at it let's just add in the rest of the cheap additions to this year's squad: Telfair and Price. Disappointing? Of course. However, that doesn't mean that there was talent or potential. Did you expect Sebastian Telfair to be the Suns future PG? No. To stabalize the second unit? Well, maybe we were hoping, but no, not a realistic expectation. He couldn't do it anywhere else, could he? How about beat out Ronnie Price definitively for the backup job? He couldn't even do that.
Alright now, let us get down to brass tacks here. Robin Lopez. Is Robin Lopez averaging career lows in nearly every category? Yes. Is he a disappointment? Yes. But he was last year. And every moment since the 2010 season ended. We all hoped that Lopez could rebound from injury and poor play this season, let's be honest, weren't the odds less than 50/50 that he could return to the same form as when he started alongside Amare Stoudemire?
Channing Frye. Disappointing season this far? Yes. Did we have higher expectations? Yes. Does he have the potential to be better? Absolutely.
So, in summary, our good players are playing good. Channing Frye has played most of the first half of the season in disappointing fashion. This leaves Brown, Childress, Price, Telfair, Lopez, and Warrick as disappointments who haven't played to their potential. Or, they haven't integrated into the group to cumulatively form a better team.
But, they aren't good NBA players. So, if you take a bunch of medicore to bad NBA players and throw them in with a few good players, what do you think is going to happen?
What's my point? There are a few. First off, Sarver clearly isn't accepting any blame for the poor accumulation of talent on this team, and he certainly isn't calling out Lon Babby and Lance Blanks (if Blanks has actually been let in the building yet). He is not talking about the lack of talent on this team. Which, to me, is the biggest disappointment of this season. The Suns were never formed to make the playoffs. The were formed to cheaply round out a roster with some vague hope that something magical could occur. Well, it hasn't and I don't think it will.
But if Sarver thinks there is talent on this team (outside of the SteveDuHillTat), then perhaps what he is saying is that Alvin Gentry and Co haven't done a good enough job. If the talent is there, but the execution and results are not, who do you blame?
Here's a little something that hits home with you and I:
"We could use a couple thousand more people in the arena," Sarver said. "It helps encourage the players and helps the home-court advantage. But winning at home helps to encourage fans to come out."
Good point. Alvin Gentry pointed this out, and we all know that home court should be an advantage, and that is due in part to playing in a friendly environment. But...I'm just spitballin' here...Would you pay good money to watch a few guys perform well but inevitably lose because the majority of the team just isn't very good? Sorry for the way things work here Mr. Sarver, but we won't come just because you built it. You need to build it well. Oh, and you shouldn't get locked into a war over money for several months with other millionaires while the little people are forced to bear the brunt of your greed. That tends to sour some people away from the game.
I suppose the good news here though, is that at least Sarver is coming out and admitting he isn't happy with what is going on. And perhaps that will reaffirm his commitment to improve the roster some time soon. Then again, if he looks up and down his roster and thinks this team is a playoff contender, well then...Ah, nevermind.