A weekly review, a look at the teams defense as of late, quote of the week, 2014 NBA Draft Update, and a preview of the week ahead...
Every week we are learning more and more about the Phoenix Suns (18-11) as they continue to evolve in different ways right before our eyes. They are not the bottom feeder most thought they would be three months ago. They are not Championship contenders that the bandwagon drivers might proclaim. Just calling it like it is; they are one of the best 5-8 teams in the Western Conference.
As the pendulum swings and the season grows long it will become more apparent whether they are closer to the No. 5 seed or the No. 8 seed.
One thing is for certain so far this season and that is the coaching staff is coaching them like they have something to prove every night and because of that they are able to avoid jumping the shark.
They took care of business against two teams they should beat, which was not the case just a few weeks ago, and are getting respect from the other teams in the league. At the beginning of the season teams thought of the Suns as an easy win, but now they are preparing for them like other playoff teams and giving them their best shot. That is what happens when you are a good team. The target is on your back.
That has become evident with the recent defensive production.
Early in the season the team was respectable on the defensive end, but ironically they were not winning at the current they are with the defense under-performing. Defense wins Championships is not a common expression without reason. Every team that wins at the highest level has the ability to make multiple stops down the stretch of important games to win.
Recently they have struggled to get stops and on the other hand teams are struggling to stop them. The team is relying on a strong offense that is potent with the eight best overall shooting team (46.1%), the tenth best three-point shooting team (37.3%), and scoring 103.6 points per game good for 10th in the NBA today.
They have the ninth best pace (97.9) and offensive rating (105.6) on the season as well. This is not the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, but they are lethal in their own right forcing teams out of their game-plans to try and outscore them.
Will the offense be enough to remain a Top 5-6 team in the deep, tough Western Conference? Time will tell, but the defense is not something to be ignored. One way or another it will play a factor in how long the Suns will be able to play at this high of a quality.
Defense was never the foundation of this team, but it has been one of the ways they were winning games early in the season. As of late they are showing some chinks in the armor giving up 100+ points in seven of the past nine games. It has not hindered their winning ways as they have won seven out of the last nine games, but being one dimensional has never been a recipe for late season or post-season success. The exclamation point was added on when the Warriors dropped 115 points on them, a season high, in a season worst 29 point blowout loss.
Quote of the Week
We tried that before and it didn't work," Coach Jeff Hornacek on the team trying to sleepwalk through bad teams. They did not do that this week.
2014 NBA Draft Update
Surrogate Watch continues and the Suns have three first round picks with the current projections, none of which are in the lottery. A slight change of pace from pre-season projections. Here is the update on how the three picks look right now:
Minnesota Timberwolves (15-15) -- No. 14 Overall (Pick stays in Minnesota based on Protections) Here the T-Wolves address their shooting void on the perimeter and add in a player in James Young, freshman Kentucky, that can score points in bunches.
Washington Wizards (13-14) -- No. 19 Overall (Pick goes to Phoenix based on Protections) Adreian Payne, senior Michigan State, is one of the better stretch-four prospects that have come along in a while. He took longer to develop than others, but he can shoot, defend, block shots, and has improved as a post scorer on the block.
Phoenix Suns (18-11) -- No. 23 Overall (Pick stays in Phoenix based on Protections) With their own pick the Suns add another raw athletic talent on the perimeter in UCLA freshman Zach LaVine. He has been one of the most exciting prospects in the open court and has just scratched the surface as an all-around offensive weapon.
Indiana Pacers (22-5) -- No. 29 Overall (Pick goes to Phoenix based on Protections) Draft and stash here. Too many young fellas on the roster as is so Serbian point guard Vasilije Micic fits the bill. Tough, pass-first point guard that plays the game the right way.
Keep following along here to get updates and information on the 2014 NBA Draft Class and more.
News & Notes
Previewing the Week Ahead:
Monday, December 30th @ Los Angeles Clippers (21-11)
Thursday, January 2nd vs. Memphis Grizzlies (13-16)
Saturday, January 4th vs. Milwaukee Bucks (6-24)
This week provides a good challenge for the Suns as they play the Division leading Clippers and their high powered offense for the first time. A win over the Clippers puts the Suns .03% behind them for the lead in the Pacific Division and just one full game behind them in the standings. Pretty amazing considering the pre-season expectations. Their offense is so potent when it is clicking because of the ability to distribute the ball and carve up a defense. They are 4th in the NBA in assists per game, primarily because of Chris Paul, and can dissect a defense with their passing.
With the way the Suns have been playing defense as of late they will need a better sense of discipline and execution on that end of the floor.
While the Grizzlies are not the Grizzlies of last year, they are still one of the more stingy points allowed defenses in the league giving up 97.3 points per game (6th best) even thought the rest of the statistics do not back them up. They are average on the glass, average defending the three-point line, and average defending field goal attempts in general. While they are three games under .500 they are not one of the "teams they should beat" on the surface.
...then there are the Bucks. At the very least Giannis Antetokounmpo will be fun to watch.
Swingman Jared Dudley is the third consecutive "former Suns starting small forward" to join the Los Angeles Clippers in the offseason, following Matt Barnes and Grant Hill. ClipsNation blogger Steve Perrin brings us up to speed on Jared's transition to a star-studded team.
Guard/forward Jared Dudley was a big-time fan favorite in Phoenix, so much that hopefully he won't ultimately symbolize the "bad" Phoenix Suns because he was their most quoted, recognizable player during the darkest Suns days since the 1980s. To be synonymous with bad Suns basketball would be a major tarnish on what was otherwise a wonderfully honest and fair player who put the team's PR on his back for a few years.
Now Jared is in Los Angeles, playing for a Clippers team fighting for home court advantage in the playoffs -- and fighting to hold off his former team from streaking right past them in the standings. The Clippers (21-11) vs. Suns (18-11) is a battle of 11-loss teams boasting two of the best 8 records in the entire NBA. His role is what we always thought JD should have been - a 3-and-D guy who is, at best, the 5th best player on a contender.
Let's check in with ClipsNation.com editor Steve Perrin to see how Duds is fitting in there in Cali, and what's up with megastar Chris Paul in the wake of Eric Bledsoe's trade.
Bright Side: We all loved us some Dudley in Phoenix. He became a cult hero during the Suns' 2010 playoff run and was a fan favorite because he was so good with the public and the media. How does Dudley's persona play in LA?
Steve Perrin, ClipsNation.com: I quipped in pre-season that even if the Clippers aren't successful on the court this season, they're going to have several representatives on the NBA's All-Interview team. With Dudley and J.J. Redick joining the likes of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and the incomparable Doc Rivers as the coach, this team is astoundingly polished and well-spoken. It doesn't get you a whole lot of wins (unless you want to equate it with basketball IQ) but it is definitely a welcome development for the media covering the team. DeAndre Jordan and Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford are all charming dudes as well. So Duds fits right in with a pretty cerebral, super-articulate group. Hopefully it does indeed translate into some good things in terms of really grasping Rivers' more complex defensive schemes as well, but if nothing else, Dudley can clearly explain why he's missing so many shots.
Bright Side: I see Dudley is off to his usual slow start. He always shoots worse in the first half than the second half of the season. Have the Clippers fans shown patience with Duds? Overall, what do the Clippers think of our latest favorite former Sun?
SP: That was a transition up above. Did you catch that? As you are fully aware, some fans are more patient than others. It's funny, I keep hearing about this "usual slow start" for Dudley, but looking at his career splits, December has been one of the strongest months for him over the course of his carer. So if this is indeed just a slow start, it's lasting longer than usual. Dudley has been dealing with a pretty severe case of tendinitis in his knee most of the season -- he probably should have taken some time off, but Barnes has been hurt most of the season (he just got back a few games ago). To make matters worse, rookie Reggie Bullock twisted an ankle just after Barnes was hurt. So I've been wondering if Dudley would benefit from some rest, but it simply hasn't been an option so far as he's been the only semi-healthy three on the team. Dudley had a four game stretch a week or so ago where he hit .564 from the field and made 13-23 from deep, the Clippers won all four games easily and we thought "Yes, finally, this is how it's supposed to be." In the four games since, he's 1-12 from deep, and we're right back where we were, wondering what exactly it is that he does at an NBA level. So yeah, as of now, it seems like he's kind of a 3D guy, who can't hit threes and isn't very good on D, but the few times that he was actually effectively stretching the floor, things were really humming for the team. So hopefully this is just part of a slow start, because the Clippers could use him.
Bright Side: Has Chris Paul gotten even better this year than ever? His numbers are up across the board, though his shooting percentages are slightly down. Is the bigger workload sustainable over the season, or will he wear himself out?
When Doc Rivers was asked in the pre-season if he was going to try to keep Chris Paul's minutes down, he basically said "No, he's my best player, I'm going to play him. He's young." After last season, where Vinny Del Negro did as well as any coach in the league this side of Gregg Popovich at keeping his stars fresh only to have them swept out of the playoffs in the first round, I'm not against increased minutes. Besides, while 35.3 minutes per game is up from last year, it's still the second lowest minutes average of his career. Doc does have Chris doing two things differently and they make a huge difference: he's got him playing at a faster pace, and he's got him looking for his own shot more frequently. Contrary to their high-flying Lob City reputation, the CP3 Clippers have really been a slow-paced affair, 17th in the league in pace last season and 27th the season before that. That's all on Paul, who has always preferred to walk the ball up the court. To his credit, Rivers has convinced CP3 to go against his nature some and push the pace -- the Clippers are the seventh fastest team this season and are getting a lot of easy baskets in transition. And speaking of Paul's nature, he's a pass-first point guard to a fault, and deeply prefers to involve his teammates rather than shoot himself -- which is all well and good, except for the fact that Paul is frequently the team's best option on offense. So what jumps out at me is the 15 shots per 36 minutes he's taking, which is his highest level since 08-09 in New Orleans.
Bright Side: The Clippers appear to be loaded, especially when Redick comes back to full strength. Do you see the Clipper e-Clips-ing their best season yet?
Oh sure, the Suns guy with an eclipse pun. Hope that doesn't come back to haunt you.
I predicted 60 wins for the Clippers heading into the season which would be a new franchise record. Their obviously not on that pace at 21-11, but there are a few reasons to suspect that they might be primed for a strong run in the coming months. Redick's absence has certainly been a major blow -- he is a key component to the motion offense with his tireless off-ball movement and the offense struggled for a few weeks when he went out before they found their footing again. Secondly, the defense began the season as one of the worst in the NBA, but has been among the best over the last month, which seems to indicate that they took some time to really embrace Rivers' schemes, but that now they're getting it. If they can put that solid defense together with the high-powered offense upon Redick's return, the team could really have a solid run in 2014.
Bright Side: What's been the Clippers biggest achilles heel so far this season? What would the Suns need to do to beat the Clips on Monday night?
The team's biggest problem frankly has been cold shooting. Rivers made a concerted effort to add shooting after he was hired, trading for Redick and Dudley, signing Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens. But the Clippers are shooting a much worse percentage from deep this season than they did last season (.332 vs. .358), and jump shots in general just haven't been falling (except in the case of Blake Griffin, somewhat ironically). So the Suns should probably pack the lane and dare the Clippers to beat them from the perimeter. When those shots are falling, the Clippers are very, very tough to beat. But they've had far too many games this season where they can't buy a jumper, and if you catch them on one of those nights, they're very beatable.
Thanks for bringing us up to speed in LaLa Land, Steve!
Check Clips Nation later today to see how I answered 5 questions on the Suns.
This week I take a look at the Phoenix Suns fairly understandable defensive issues and the fairly undecipherable opinion some people seem to have about Kevin Love.
After issuing some encomiums to the entire Suns' squad for their improvement across the board in the last installment I'm feeling a little more irascible this week and have decided to take on the role of the
pugnacious little troll voice of reason on a couple of subjects. First off...
While the Suns' offense has been surging, their defense has been struggling somewhat. Dave King recently detailed some of these issues, with particular emphasis on second chance points and points in the paint disparities.
But here's the issue with picking on a team on one side of the ball. Only really good teams, mostly title contenders, tend to be upper echelon on both sides of the ball.
The above chart is a list of all teams in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating over the past five years (including the current year). You'll notice that all of these teams have excellent records and turgid point differentials. In fact, three of the previous four seasons saw the top four teams in point differential as the only four teams in the top 10 in both ratings.
The biggest outlier from the past four seasons was the Dallas Mavericks, who had the lowest point differential from those seasons... but won the title that year. In fact, three of the previous four seasons both teams that made the Finals were on this list. In 2009-10 the Lakers won the NBA championship while finishing just outside the top 10 (11) in ORtg and fourth in DRtg.
This season appears to be somewhat incommensurate with previous seasons, as the Indiana Pacers are first in point differential despite having an exiguous (19) ORtg. That is due to the scoring discrepancy being bolstered by what is far and away the best defense in the NBA. Also interesting is that the Timberwolves have managed to crack this list despite being a .500 team thus far. It is always possible that their record will improve or the rankings will drop over the remainder of the season.
Another team off to a great start this season (fifth in point differential) that is absent from the list is the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland is first in ORtg (113.7) by a hefty margin, but just #22 (107.4) in DRtg. For comparison, the 2009-10 Suns were first in ORtg (115.3) and #23 in DRtg (110.2).
What all of this evidence suggests to me is that until the Suns are back to competing for a title it is completely expected that they have weaknesses. The worse a team is the more glaring those weaknesses tend to be... but even teams with title aspirations are not without flaws. While system and coaching influence a team's ability to improve in areas, talent is the ultimate trump card.
Look at it this way. If the Suns eliminated the -3.3 second chance point differential Dave noted (in a vacuum) that would up their overall point differential (currently +2.6) to +5.9 points per game. That would put them in a virtual tie with Portland for fifth. The Suns would become a virtual statistical title contender. But team's don't improve in a vacuum. Usually improvement in one area comes at the expense of performance in another. If the Suns focus on defensive rebounding what does that do to fast break points? It's a simple ripple effect dynamic.
Teams just have failings (the Heat lack size for instance) and the best ways to address them is through coaching and talent acquisition. To be cognizant of these failings, and to attempt to improve or eliminate them, is prudent, but to be overly captious of them seems counterproductive.
What is nice, though, is to be able to pinpoint specific areas that need improvement this season as opposed to just dealing with sucking at pretty damn much everything last season.
Now for something that I wanted to discuss that as a byproduct delivers some shameless self-promotion (because that's how I roll). By using the tags of Phoenix Suns and Kevin Love I can try to drive kitten and car chase hits to my story. I will preface this discourse by emphasizing that I have no idea whatsoever whether this possibility is even remotely possible or completely unfounded. I did, however, skim through some conversation on this topic on the site over the last couple days (on top of the woolgathering on the subject for years) and was perturbed at a few viewpoints... at least enough so that I decided to address them.
There was discussion of A) people that felt that Kevin Love was bad enough defensively that it didn't make up for his offensive production and B) that the Suns shouldn't give up too much for him... e.g. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe should be untouchable.
IF Kevin Love is or becomes available AND the Phoenix Suns did acquire him it wouldn't just be some kind of happy circumstance... it's THE PLAN. Bringing in a star talent to build a championship contender around has been the mission statement of the (wildly heralded) front office. This is why they've been acquiring assets. For this.
It seems rather humorous to me that some appear to heckle a player who is easily at the very top of the NBA pantheon.
Let's start with win shares per 48 for this season - #1 Chris Paul, #2 Kevin Durant, #3 LeBron James and #4 Kevin Love. If we look at a different metric, wins produced per 48 minutes, the order is #1 Chris Paul, #2 LeBron James, #3 Kevin Love and #4 Kevin Durant. Or another? PER - #1 LeBron James, #2 Kevin Love, #3 Kevin Durant and #4 Chris Paul.
It almost seems like a pattern is starting to develop...
Then there are Love's defensive deficiencies. The same guy who has the second best DRtg on a Timberwolves team that is top 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions. The same guy who would pair with Miles Plumlee as the two best players in DRtg on the Suns to anchor an interior defense. The same guy who is third in the NBA in defensive rebounds - which would shore up the Suns dilemma with surrendering second chance points. The same guy who is sixth in the league in offensive rebounds - which would ameliorate the Suns own second chance points total. That 3.3 point deficit in second chance points would have a great likelihood of shrinking.
But Love can't help stretch the floor the way the Suns like to play. No, because he's only 11th among big men in three point % (.386) and number one among bigs in the league in three point makes... and still manages to gobble up all those offensive boards while floating around the three point line.
Weak free throw shooter? Nope. 83%. Which helps his TS% (.595) which would be right at the top on the Suns.
Love is averaging 26.1 points and 13.8 rebounds per game. If he can sustain those gaudy numbers it would be the second time he has averaged 26+ points and 13+ rebounds for a season (previously 2011-12). Prior to Love's achievement this feat had only been accomplished three times since the 1981-82 season - once by Hakeem Olajuwon and twice by Shaquille O'Neal.
Love, who just turned 25 before the season, has appeared in two all-star games and made one second team All-NBA. In all likelihood he would have one more of each without an injury last season and will add to each total this season. If the Suns were able to acquire and extend him they would lock him up through the prime of his career.
Who is even in Love's class at his position? LaMarcus Aldridge? Blake Griffin?
But there will always be those who find flaws. After all, just look at the players who made All-NBA teams last season... Maybe none of them meet the Phoenix Sun standard.
Kobe Bryant - old and a Laker
Tim Duncan - old and a Spur
LeBron James - the decision and not one, not two...
Chris Paul - almost 29 and hasn't made it to the Conference Finals
Kevin Durant - still second fiddle to LeBron
Carmelo Anthony - black hole
Marc Gasol - offensively limited
Blake Griffin - mentally weak
Russell Westbrook - selfish
Tony Parker - old and a Spur
Paul George - why is his team an offensive mess...
James Harden - maybe... but that beard
Dwight Howard - liability due to poor free throw shooting and a vacillating prima donna
David Lee - no substance to his stats
Dwyane Wade - old
So... maybe a couple of these guys meet the Suns standard. The high standard set by the likes of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Miles Plumlee. After all, the Suns shouldn't "gut" their roster by trading away pieces that have a combined zero all-star appearances for perennial all-star all-NBA top five-ten NBA talents, right? Or maybe it's just because fans tend to overvalue their own assets, sometimes to a ridiculous degree, and undervalue those of other teams... Until they become their own team's assets. Then they start to overvalue them.
It would take a nearly impossible package for me to not pull the trigger on Love if he becomes available. If Minnesota wants to swap Barea for Dragic or Bledsoe in the deal I do it. If they want Len or Goodwin... or both... I do it. Draft picks? Which ones do you like? The Morrii? Yep, they would be a good replacement for some of Kevin's minutes. Cap relief? We've got an expiring. Maybe it wouldn't be every single one of these areas, but absolutely everything would be on the table for me entering the discussion. Unless McDonough sees these guys as best case better than top 10 players why wouldn't he? Kevin Love is already the best case scenario for what any of those guys could possibly develop into.
After the Suns lost out on James Harden, which they had been involved in talks with OKC about but lacked the ammunition, they went about getting firepower so that if another opportunity presented itself they would be poised to strike. If Kevin Love became available that would be exactly the type of situation they were/are preparing for.
So find flaws if you like... I'm admiring what I hope could be the realization of the plan.