While the Suns are reprising the old days of beating other teams with their offense and overall shooting prowess, it's the defense on the other end - specifically, second-chance points allowed - that could derail long-term plans for the season.
The Phoenix Suns have their best record in four years at 17-10. Not since the last time they made the playoffs and went all the way to the Western Conference Finals did they have a record as much as 7 games over .500.
The offense is smoking along with the three-point shooting - making 41.7% in 10 December games - and the game of basketball analytics is playing out before our eyes. Knowing that points scored at the rim or behind the three-point line are the highest value on the court, the Suns are taking 71% of all their shots from those two areas, good for one of the best ratios in the league. It helps, too, that the Suns are making better than league average in those areas.
As a result, the Suns are scoring at a high rate - 107 points per game since December began - and winning at a high rate, going 8-2 in December and 17-10 overall on the season. Not only are they taking the league's second most three-point attempts (30.7% of all their shots), they lead the league in fast break points at 19 points per game. That's down from 24 per game earlier in the season but still leading the league by a good margin.
That's what you call "maximizing performance".
Not all daisies and sugarplums
But, alas, there are some warning signs signaling these Suns have some growing still to do. On that same NBA stats page linked above, you can see where the Suns are struggling despite their success.
For the season, the Suns are the league's 5th worst in their own second-chance points per game (11.8) but are giving up the second most to the other guys each night (15.1). That's a 3.3 point deficit on the scoreboard after missed shots. That deficit leads directly to the Suns' other major deficiency - a 5.5 points per game deficit in the paint (40.9 vs. 46.4).
Yet, that's the Suns' game.
The Suns play for the three-point shot more than any other team in the NBA besides Houston, meaning the lineup is weighted toward long-distance shooting more than size. Miles Plumlee is the only big man in the rotation geared more toward defense than offense, while the other bigs in the rotation - Channing Frye, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris are more offense oriented.
So when the Suns play defense, the other team tries to crash the boards to maximize their possessions as the Suns rain down threes on their heads a few seconds later.
One way to limit the opponent's offensive board crashing is to "run on makes" as often as possible, which puts the fear of the fast-break into the opponents' heads as their own shot is going up - make or miss. If the opponent is fearful of a fast-break regardless of the outcome of the shot, they are less likely to sell out on the boards.
Coach Hornacek has been pushing this theory into the Suns heads all season, but it has yet to sink in consistently. Despite getting a league-high 18.3% of their points on fast breaks, which by definition are completed early in the shot clock, the Suns are still only 12th in total possessions per game across the league.
If the Suns could run on made shots, the pace would quicken across the board and force the opponent to be thinking about transition defense even more than they already do, which would cut down on their efforts at offensive rebounds.
The San Antonio Spurs took a page out of their mid-2000s defense to stop the Suns just last week in Phoenix. The Spurs won by slowing the game down even more than the Suns wanted, limiting the fast break opportunities and scoring as efficiently as possible on their end of the floor. The more shots they made, the less the Suns could run the fast break.
Anyhoo, I'm just pointing out a chink in the armor. As long as the Suns make a high percentage of their threes, the wins will continue to come. But if the Suns stop making so many threes, then the deficit on the boards and in the paint will hurt them. This is where an Alex Len or Emeka Okafor would really help as the backup center, if and when either gets healthy.
I know. I'll say it for you: bah humbug.