PHOENIX — Steve Nash is set to make his second return to the Valley Monday night as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, and while the build up might not have been what it was back on January...

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What is a snake without its bite? Well, the Los Angeles Lakers (36-32) are still Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, and a very dangerous team, especially to a team like the Phoenix Suns (22-45) at this point in the season.

With Kobe Bryant out, the Lakers were able to win their last game and they even won a tough one against Eastern Conference contender in the Indiana Pacers with only 12 minutes out of the Mamba. He is the best player on the Lakers roster, but when you start to create a pecking order of the best players in this match-up, the pendulum swings to L.A. and stays there for a while.

Universally, Bryant is the best player. It would be hard to argue that 2-4 are Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and Steve Nash. The debate could even be made that Ron Artest is the fifth best player between the two teams.

Subtracting Bryant makes this a lesser team, of course, but against a bottom-three team in the league, it does not make them terrible.

The Suns have something to play for as every Lakers loss gives them a better shot at two lottery picks in the upcoming NBA Draft. It is also the Lakers. So little needs to be said about knocking off the divisional rival and playing the role of spoiler for them.

(Recent) History Lesson

This will be the fourth and final installment of the Lakers-Suns this season. The Lakers won two of the first three, but they were all close affairs. In those three games, the teams have played tough, lower scoring games to a tune of the Lakers (97.0 PPG) being only a +4 on the Suns (93.0 PPG) in the series. The Suns look to even the season series tonight at home where they are 1-0 against their rivals.

Head-to-Head (past four seasons including Playoffs)

Suns: 104.2 PPG (7 wins)

Lakers: 108.5 PPG (14 wins)

There has been a triple-overtime game, six battles in the Western Conference Finals, and animosity between these two teams over the past four seasons. It has not always been this way, with the Suns looking at the lottery and the Lakers looking at the playoffs. This was a fairly even battle over the past 12 years.

Head-to-Head (career)

Lakers Player vs. Suns: 15.5 PPG 4.8 RPG 2.4 APG 2.4 SPG 42.8 FG% (34 games)

Suns Player vs. Lakers: 9.2 PPG 2.4 RPG 1.0 APG 1.0 SPG 40.7 FG% (9 games)

More on Artest below, but the Suns need a big game from Johnson as he will be matched-up with Jodie Meeks rather than Bryant. That is a situation that a player has to take advantage of. In his career he is 0-9 against the Lakers, but has broken out for a pair of 20+ point games, including a career-high 29 while in Minnesota.

Smiling Wes has scored 20+ points five times in his career and 40% of those games are against the Lakers.

Starting Line-Ups

PG - Goran Dragic v. Steve Nash

SG - Wesley Johnson v. Jodie Meeks

SF - Marcus Morris v. Ron Artest

PF - Markieff Morris v. Earl Clark

C - Jermaine O'Neal v. Dwight Howard

Potential Suns Inactives: Marcin Gortat (Foot)

Potential Lakers Inactives: Kobe Bryant (Left Ankle) and Pau Gasol (Plantar Fascia)

Key Match-Up

Marcus Morris vs. Ron Artest

When you face the Lakers, you have to win the individual battle with Artest. Because if you do not, that typically means they are running away with the game. Or does it? He is a shell of his former self, meaning that Marcus cannot let him get into his head and throw his game off.

On the season, the Lakers are 4-4 when Artest scores 20+ points, 11-9 when he scores between 15-19 points, and 20-19 with 14 points or less.

Marcus has been in a funk the past few games and could use a breakthrough against what is now his biggest rival other than his brother wearing the same thing as him when they get ready to go out.

Interesting Stat: 14 Games

The Lakers only have 14 games, including tonight's tilt with the Suns, before the playoffs start. If they are a Top 8 team in the West at that time, then the Suns are drafting with their pick and Miami's pick. Getting this win to help the reeling Utah Jazz would give them .5 games back on the Lakers, who they have the tie-breaker with based on the in season match-ups.

Meaningless Stat: Lakers Offense

With Bryant: 102.3 PPG 22 APG 94.7 Pace 1.06 PPP (52.2% Winning Percentage)

Without Bryant: 113 PPG 28 APG 92.7 Pace 1.32 PPP (100% Winning Percentage)

That is a one game sample without Bryant this season by the way. You are welcome.

Phoenix Suns 99, Los Angeles Lakers 76  The last time Steve Nash played in a Suns’ uniform at US Airways Center, the crowd chanted “We Want Steve.” Tonight, that same crowd might be...

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As a professional basketball team you cannot make everyone happy, but this past week the Phoenix Suns (22-45) made a portion of their audience very happy. In doing that they went 0-4 losing games by wide margins and inching themselves lower and lower down the standings, and up the lottery board.

Game Recaps

vs. Denver Nuggets - L (93-108)

@ Houston Rockets - L (81-111)

@ Atlanta Hawks - L (94-107) 93.25-113.25

@ Washington Wizards L (105-127) 373-453

Like we talked about in the Podcast, Jim and I, the Suns had the potential of dropping all four of these games, but with the way they have been playing they could win one. They hit the road after a route served to them by the Nuggets, but then they seemingly lost their offense with customs.

It is always tough to pinpoint the win in a week against three future playoff teams and one destined for the lottery, this week the Suns didn't have that "one game." Normally they find that one game to win one game in a week, but they do have now five losing streaks of at least 4+ games on the season.

Key Stats

Scoring In General

Nobody on the Suns roster averages more than 14.1 points per game and this week was another example of why. There was zero consistency on the offensive end with three different players leading the team in scoring in the four game window.

Of the 16 players that have suited up for the Suns on the season, for at least one game, 13 of them have led the team in scoring. Is that parity or parody?

Leading Scorers By Game
Goran Dragic 14
Luis Scola 11
Shannon Brown 10
Marcin Gortat 10
Michael Beasley 10
Jared Dudley 8
Markieff Morris 5
Wesley Johnson 3
Sebastian Telfair 1
Jermaine O'Neal 1
Marcus Morris 1
P.J. Tucker 1
Kendall Marshall 0
Diante Garrett 0
Hamed Haddadi 0
Luke Zeller 0

The chart above shows that the there has been some parity in the teams scoring as evident by the fact that 13 different people having led the team in scoring. Winning teams do not have that same parity, they have players that go out there and display consistency scoring the ball, but the Suns have a parody of that.

The Highs

Jermaine O'Neal rejoined the team after being bedside at a hospital in Boston taking care of his daughter who had to unfortunately have heart surgery. He arrived back in the valley a few days before the team hosted the Nuggets, but sat that game out to get back in shape, both physically and mentally. Having a healthy daughter and basketball as a home remedy to get back to reality was just what the doctor ordered for the Suns defensive enforcer.

The Lows

As Seth detailed here, the margins on the season for the Suns have been erratic and unacceptable at best. The team has been losing games by a wide margin and winning games in battles. This week they played four games and were outscored by an average of 20.0 points. It was not pretty.

Grades

A look at three different players on the Suns for the week forming a good, bad, and a surprise either way each week.

  • A- for Goran Dragic: Against four quality point guards this week The Dragon was out-played overall by the law firm of Lawson-Lin-Harris-&-Wall.
  • D+ for Wesley Johnson: He started off the week on fire leading the team in scoring getting points inside the three-point line and pacing the offense, but was a non-factor in the last two games.
  • C+ for Marcus Morris: In his first eight games on the team Marcus was getting 9.3 PPG 3.5 RPG on 50% shooting (52.9% from three), but has seemingly regressed in the last four at 6.25 PPG 1.5 RPG on 47% shooting (42.8% from three).

Player of the Week:

Jared Dudley - 10.5 PPG 2.5 RPG 2.25 APG 47% FG (42.4% 3PT)

Moving to the bench was nothing new for Dudley as he has been in-and-out of the starting line-up all season. Since moving back to the bench he has been one of the teams more consistent contributors averaging 12.5 PPG 2.5 RPG 2.7 APG on 53.7% shooting in six games. Four of those games were this week as Duds paced the offense off the bench. There really isn't a "Player of the Week" when you go 0-4, but Dudley was not part of the reason the team was losing games. He was a bright spot.

Previewing the Week Ahead:

Monday, March 11th vs. Los Angeles Lakers (36-32)

Wednesday, March 13th vs. Washington Wizards (23-42)

Friday, March 15th vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (23-41)

Saturday, March 16th vs. Brooklyn Nets (38-28)

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Remember back in the good old days of November and December of the year Two Thousand and Twelve when the Phoenix Suns were generally going to give you a competitive fight every time they took the court? Those days are gone.

I have a hard time believing that anyone who's watched this team this season would dispute that the 48-minute fight is a thing of the past. But here's some numbers showing that the team is worse since Lindsey Hunter took over and changed 80 percent of the defense and about 55 to 60 percent of the offense (Jared Dudley's numbers).

Under Alvin Gentry, the Suns lost six of 41 games by 15 or more points.

Under Lindsey Hunter, the Suns lost ten of 26 games by 15 or more points.

Under Gentry, the average margin of defeat was 9.87.

Under Hunter, the average margin of defeat is 16.22.

Of course, it's been even worse, 19.33(!), in the six games since Marcin Gortat's injury but even without those six games, Hunter's margin of defeat is still 14.66.

Since we all like pictures, here's a chart showing the margin of defeat for the Suns throughout the season. You can see which direction the trend line is headed.

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Does this even matter?

Yes. At this point, the Suns record is only relevant as it relates to the team's chances to win the draft lottery. But HOW you lose games matters.

It matters to the organization trying to build a winning culture out of the ashes of...a winning franchise. It matters to an interim coach who wants a permanent job so he can completely overhaul the offense (whatever that might mean). It matters to the fans who don't want to see their team roll over at the first sign of adversity and get run off the court.

Is it really Hunter's fault?
"I think that being the end of the year it's going to affect us mentally. That's just being honest." -Jared Dudley

There's really no way for me to tell you if the team has "bought into" Lindsey Hunter or not. Are they just not responding to him and therefore not playing hard or are there other things at work such as this excuse given to me by Jared Dudley:

"I think the drain of the season. I think that we've been getting beat down, getting lost sometimes. I think that mentally, it can get to you. I think that early in the year your energy is up...I think that being the end of the year it's going to affect us mentally. That's just being honest. Sometimes that happens. It's not what you want to see but at the end of the day, that's where we're at right now."

I have sympathy for that. These guys are people too. A lot of them don't have much to play for at this point and it's painfully obvious this group lacks the chemistry to fight hard for each other. They realize where things stand. They know fans are rooting for losses now.

So now when the other team goes on a run, whatever fight the Suns brought into the game deflates. The other team smells bloods and attacks like a pack of hungry sharks. Things only get worse as a few guys try too hard to do something on their own either to pad their stats or just because they think they can be the one to lead their team back. The ball starts to stick making the opponent's defensive job even easier. Next thing you know, they are down 20 and there's nothing left in the tank.

Game. Over.

There will be exceptions to this. There will be nights when the other team is having their own issues or where a guy like Michael Beasley gets hot enough to carry the Suns. But in 13 games since the All-Star break, the Suns have lost nine (all by large margins) and have won five (all by small margins). That's a large enough sample size to define the pattern this team is in right now.

I don't envy Lindsey Hunter's job. He's trying to find guys that want to play hard but he walked into a tough situation and now he's lost his starting center for the season. In the middle of that, he's trying to completely remake how the team plays on-the-fly, all the while using an ever-changing combination of players.

He's, rightly, trying to play his younger players but that also reinforces the message to the team that the season is over. Why should they fight for a few extra scraps of dignity when the team has thrown in the towel? And despite all the tough talk about trying to win every game, this team has thrown in the towel. And again, who can blame them?

What will Robert do?

This summer, Robert Sarver is going to be faced with yet another pivotal set of decisions. After the 2010 Western Conference Finals run, he somehow managed to let Steve Kerr walk and made a total mess of the post-Amare world by bringing in Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick.

Will he dump Lon Babby and Lance Blanks and likely by extension, Lindsey Hunter (who's self confidence seems to have won Blanks over)?

If he does decide to go in a different direction, he'll need to move very fast so the new front office can have as much time as possible heading into the June draft and July's free agency period.

But a change now also means another reset of the rebuilding clock. New front office architects are going to want to draft all new blueprints and ditch what's in place. That takes time and will likely set things back a full season.

If he sticks with Babby, he's endorsing what this team has done since July 20, 2010. Fair or not, there's few people nodding their heads in approval over what's gone on in the Babby/Blanks era of Suns history.

Lon says he knew it would be difficult when he took the job. That's fair. There's little chance this team wasn't going to bottom out. But fans of this franchise aren't accustomed to losing and are rightly afraid of jumping on the perpetual rebuild cycle like we've seen from the Kings and Bobcats...and Arizona Cardinals.

It's a difficult decision to pull the plug or stay the course. That's why Robert makes the big bucks.

Robert Sarver is a difficult guy to understand. He's not the caricature of the cheap banker-owner that a lot of the national media makes him out to be. He's certainly passionate about winning and is generally well-liked by a lot of people in the organization.

It's a difficult decision to pull the plug or stay the course. That's why Robert makes the big bucks.

My sense, correct or not, is that he's easily influenced when it comes to basketball decisions. I hope he spends the rest of this season talking to people he can trust...I'm just not sure who those people are. Robert can't just call up Pat Riley and seek advice. Maybe he can chat with Jerry Colangelo? I don't know.

I just hope that Robert's instincts prove right. I have no idea what I'd do in his shoes and while you might like to think you do, you don't.

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