When the Los Angeles Lakers followed their Steve Nash heist with the addition of the best center in the NBA (not named Lopez or Bynum), we all felt sad. We hate the Lakers. We hate all their damn banners and rings. We hate their best player. We hate how entitled their fans have become given how many titles their team has won. Mostly though, we hate losing to the Lakers which has happened 131 times (vs 91 wins) in my lifetime.
Now here we site about a quarter of the way through the season and the Suns are sniffing the Western Conference cellar and yet are just a couple of Dwight Howard bricked free throws behind the "Lake Show". What a show indeed.
Steve Nash has played a total of 50 ineffective minutes in two games and is weeks away from returning from a broken leg type issue. Pau Gasol either forgot to wear big boy pants or has a handful of sore knees or both. He's a non-factor outside the trade rumor circuit. Steve Blake is out with his 732nd abdominal injury.
Even better, Antwan Jamison, the worst defender in the league (Michael Beasley excluded) is playing 25 minutes plus. This is a guy who was HORRIBLE last year in Cleveland and now he, along with NBA vagabonds Jordan Hill, Chris Duhon and Jody Meeks are playing big and meaningful minute. Also, Meta World Peace is still there and soon may not be the craziest person on his team if Delonte West is signed. Somewhere, perhaps in Croatia, Smush Parker is laughing his ass off.
It's a fun time to be a Laker Hater.
But there's some lessons here for Suns fans. It's not easy to win in the NBA. Learning a new system and incorporating new players can be difficult. Chemistry matters and you have to be patient.
Just kidding. There's no lessons in the Lakers struggles.
It's just pure joy which, unfortunately, won't last forever. In the mean time, if the Lakers stay in the lottery hunt, the Suns are in line to get two top-14 picks so in this case, rooting against the Lakers is actually a way to root for the Suns! I think that's called kismet.
Before we return to talking about just how horrific the Suns defense really is and if Beasley has played his last game for his third team, a quick word about Mike D'Antoni's public meltdown that's getting plenty of airtime today.
If you've not seen it yet, here it is.
When I first saw this Tuesday night, obviously I laughed and cheered. But then it became clear that Mike was responding to professional troll, T.J. Simers of the L.A. Times and I actually felt sympathy for the Mustache Man.
Simers, who likely traveled to Cleveland where he knew there would be fewer media members around to interfere with his clown act, baited Mike into that response. This is what Simers does. He did it recently to UCLA coach Jim Mora. I've been in the room several times when he pulled this crap, including this time with Kirk Gibson. I hardly think this was Mike's first encounter with this jerk.
The dude is an ass who wants only to insert himself in the story. He's a disgrace to professional media members and should never be given a press credential again. The fact that he's employed by the L.A. Times is just another reason to hate L.A.
Watching every single defensive possession during the Phoenix Suns recent seven game skid has put
suicidal murderous thoughts into my head. I am not sure about waterboarding as an effective or ethical method to extract sensitive information, yet I am absolutely positive that forcing our enemies to watch the Suns during this stretch would yield massive amounts of espionage gold!
Over the past few weeks, I have been logging torturous late night hours reviewing every single defensive possession in order to develop a deeper statistical method to measure our defensive aptitude [or lack thereof]. It is a monumental task that is taking so long that I have decided to move forward with my conclusions without tabulating all of the results, mostly because the conclusions that have surfaced are palpable and to spend additional time when the obvious must be stated would be both tiresome and criminal [and my wife is getting mad at at me].
Ok, that is a complete oversimplification, but I had to get it off my chest.
As someone who has coached over 500 games in my career [and over 1500 practices], I have seen many possessions of basketball with many players of differing ability and IQ. It has become second nature for me to quickly assess and understand the root of any particular problem that occurs during any given possession, as it is my responsibility to quickly correct whatever is going wrong. I know firsthand that you can cover strategy in your practice until you are blue in the face, only to have the players go out and do something completely contrary to what you are teaching. It happens. Yet there are times when enough possessions are performed in a specific way to conclude that the players are being coached to play that way. There are even times when there is absolutely no consistency in how those situations play out, which might indicate a complete lack of coaching [see Mike D’Antoni].
In the Suns case, there are some maddening trends that make it all too clear that Alvin Gentry and his staff lack a clear and concise defensive strategy.
While offense and defense flow together and are deeply intertwined, for this exercise I focused on the end of the floor that I believe should be consistent and keep you competitive in every game regardless of whether shots are falling. For years we have been spoiled with an overabundance of offensive firepower, yet our defense has always been suspect and pointed to as the stumbling block to any sort of real success [championship].
Yes, great offense is fun. However winning championships is more fun than that. The bottom line is that we want the Suns to compete in every game and every possession. I would be fine with losing a game because our offense wasn't there, if we were competitive on the other end of the floor. In fact, during this skid, there were times when that was the case [Memphis]. Unfortunately there are too many where it isn't.
To the tape!
Here is an interesting fact. On quick glance, opponents have run a Pick-and-Roll [PNR] to instigate offense on about 50% of their possessions. The other main offense used is what I would call dribble penetration/iso plays, accounting for 20% of all possessions. The remaining offense intiators are post play [10%], curls/picks or other sets [7%], and plays off transition [8%], and other [7% - such as offensive rebounds or broken plays].
This means that the bulk of defending requires the Suns to deal with pick and roll possessions and dribble penetration off of isolation play [guarding your man]. Yet isolation plays are the result of both quality one-on-one moves [like Rudy Gay, Dion Waiters or Rodney Stuckey put on us] and plays as a result of scrambling and forcing shots up. So the real offensive mainstay any team needs to deal with is the pick and roll. A team that can stop the PNR half the time is going to automatically drop an opposing teams scoring opportunity by 25% [don't hold me to that, but it is my educated estimate that if you stop half of the possessions that make up half of the possessions, it equals 25%].
What is completely obvious by watching the Suns guard pick and roll plays is that they far too often get beat [or another way of more accurately stating it – far too few times do they get stops]. What is less obvious are the culprits for this ineptitude.
Many have pondered that our guards/wings have played inferior perimeter defense, allowing opposing guards/wings to light them up. After watching every PNR possession, that conclusion would be flat out wrong.
The main culprits for the defensive breakdowns are our bigs [more specifically the man guarding the picker] and to a lesser extent, the other players responsible for rotating [more on that later].
The typical play has the opposing big setting a screen on Dragic [or someone else], finding our big [Gortat usually] stepping sideways [or back] in a "sag" position readying himself to attempt to guard the ball handler as that player gets a head of steam and attacks [or conversely pulls up for an unmolested jumper].
One can hardly blame Dragic for being steamrolled by a pick. In fact, on many possessions, our guard attempts to break through the picks and stay with the play. Yet time and again, the opponent is getting deep into the lane and either getting to the rim or collapsing our defense in lieu of a wide open perimeter shot, thus giving up a league leading amount of threes.
Obviously some will point to the "pick your poison" argument, stating that everyone in the league has this issue and you have to decide which way you want to play things.
Yet the issue with the Suns is that there doesn't seem to be any specific plan for how to handle the PNR, and even worse, within any given possession when they decide to play any certain way, there is a complete lack of communication between the players directly involved in the PNR and the other "rotation" guys [meaning if they sag, nobody should be helping, and conversely if they trap, everybody should be helping]. In addition, there are far too many possessions where they simply are making a half-hearted effort.
Evidence of this fact are the possessions where the Suns actually perform PNR defense to a pleasurable result. Usually the player involved with guarding the PNR with aplomb is Luis Scola. While at times, all of our other bigs have hedged nicely, Scola is the most consistent "hedger", often trapping the ball hard to measurably positive results.
One thing is for sure – when we trap hard, or even hedge hard [where it forces the ball handler to change direction or impedes his ability to get a head of steam], our defensive possession results in a "stop" more than 80% of the time. When we sag off the PNR, the numbers reverse. WOW! REMEMBER THAT!
There are two things that stand out to me. The first is the coaching staff clearly does not properly communicate a consistent and concise strategy to guard the PNR. It is entirely possible that they do not have a strategy. Yet they are paying a guy on staff to be the "defensive" coach only to have players playing this play incorrectly.
The second is that our players are lazy. The latter speaks for itself [giving up on plays, staring down the strong side while someone comes weakside to outposition us, half-hearted attempts to break through picks or close out on players, and not hustling for loose balls].
The former is much more complicated. Look, there are always situations that dictate you switch up how you play based on who you are playing. If an opposing point guard is a terrible outside shooter, you may tell your player to go under every screen and tell your big to either "hug" their man on the pick [closing the space between them so the guard can go around], or to sag allowing enough space for your guard to break through the pick. If someone is a great shooter, you do it differently. You can pick your poison and decide to let teams shoot over you, settling for the odds that shooting decreases as the game wears on. There are many different strategies and none are entirely right or wrong.
Hedging hard or even trapping the PNR can have its negatives; players are forced to make more effort thus tiring out, and there is the real possibility of getting your big in foul trouble. You also have the problem when you face a masterful point guard who can either split the hedge or sees the open floor well enough to find quick outlets putting your other defenders in scramble rotations. All of this is valid arguments against playing this way versus some teams [although I would argue that list of teams is limited].
Yet what is clear from the data is that the benefits of hard hedging/trapping outweigh the negatives. Looking at per possession numbers for pick and roll plays [during this losing streak], the Suns have hedged hard approximately 22% of PNR possessions, sagging the remaining 78% [remember that 50% of the defensive possessions are PNR plays].
Of the plays where they have chosen to sag, the Suns have stopped on only 13% of those possessions [meaning the play resulted in no score for the opposing team].
Conversely, on PNR plays where they have hedged or trapped hard, the Suns have stopped their opponent on 80% of those possessions. While those numbers might skew slightly as the number of possessions of hedging increase, it is a staggering statistic. The data clearly shows that hedging hard [and occasionally trapping] increases your odds of stopping your opponent dramatically.
Why is this?
First, hedging hard forces the ball handler to take extra dribbles in the "wrong direction", slowing his progress to the rim [or deterring it completely]. This allows the other defenders time to locate and rotate to the correct areas for help, as well as drains time off the shot clock. Many times it requires the ball handler to reset the pick, taking even more time, which creates broken plays and hurried shots at the end of the clock.
Hedging also forces the ball handler to make a longer pass, usually a skip pass, as the rotation defenders should be cutting off the closer immediate pass to the roll man. This type of pass usually takes enough time to allow the other defenders to rotate and properly close out on the play. It also gets the ball out of the prime decision maker’s hands and into the hands of guys you generally don’t want making plays [unless that guy is a LeBron, Durant or a Kobe]. Again, time comes off the shot clock and the play tends to break down at that point, forcing a player to iso create against the set defense [a low probability of success].
Forcing teams to dribble and pass around the exterior of the floor significantly increases the probability that your defense will get a stop.
Play after play watching Gortat sag off the PNR like a hockey goalie waiting for a blocked shot is excruciating. Is it because Gortat is lazy? Is it because he doesn’t want to exert the effort? Is it him wanting to pad his block stats? Or is it a result of not knowing what to do and when? What is the case for the other Suns bigs?
I believe it is a combination of factors. While Luis Scola tends to hedge hard on every play, I believe that is a result of playing for another coach [Rick Adelman] who grilled it into his head and it has now become habit.
For the rest of the players, their habits are not being dealt with, nor are they being told what to do in a consistent fashion. In fact, I would contend that the coaching staff is simply not sure what to tell them.
The latest grumblings from the Suns seems to lean toward disbelief in the poor performance and some belief that there are no answers.
The answers are pretty clear:
1] While we suffer from not having a go-to scorer, and everyone on the planet seems to want to commiserate over that fact, it isn't our biggest issue. Our biggest issue is that we cannot compete consistently because we cannot defend consistently. Yes, having a good offense helps [and I am not completely discounting offensive prowess as something that would be helpful], but we need a better defense more than we need a better offense at this point.
Playing defensive minded [and able] players does a few of things:  it increases the intensity of play, which by itself increases our ability to compete; and  it allows us to consistently be in games when our offense is not clicking; and  it gives us the opportunity to win close games in the end by getting us crucial stops.
It is time to sit Brown, Beasley, Morris and Gortat [or at least limit their play until they buy-in].
While some of you might vociferously question inclusion of Gortat, and even Morris, my observation of over 700 defensive possessions has provided me clarity. The two worst defenders on this team are not Beasley or Brown. It is easily Markieff Morris followed by Gortat.
Stat wise, Morris has a team worst defensive rating of 114.9, Gortat is fourth worst at 109.4, [Beasley 113.9, Brown 111.9]. Yet it is in results of possessions not recorded by any particular stat where it is clear that these two are failing.
Yes Gortat blocks a lot of shots, yet many of those come on baseline drives or putbacks off offensive rebounds. Few of those blocks are a result of great defensive position and hustle.
I will admit early on he was blocking many drives, but he was the main cause of allowing those players to get all the way to the rim in the first place, by sagging on PNR plays and allowing opposing guards to gain a head of steam and require Gortat to recover by blocking shots. Essentially he is making up for his mistake, but he doesn't do it enough to make up for all of the mistakes he makes.
Gortat’s main failure is his complete inability to consistently hedge on PNR plays, and recover fast enough to stay in solid defensive position. For him, I see it as a lack of consistent effort and aggressive play. On the positive, I do think that Gortat, with a clear directive, can change his strategy to be more effective and get off this list. Yet his lack of energy at times is simply deplorable for someone who called everyone out in the media. . At this point, bench him in favor of O’Neal [who by the way has a team best defensive rating of 92.5] until he starts buying in.
In regards to Morris, although we all like his promise, he is a horrid defender. Too many possessions have him playing incredibly soft, standing and watching the ball only to have guys cut behind or in front of him for a play. He too does not make the effort necessary for consistent play on the defensive end. I watched it first hand and was shocked how many times I would get pissed at Morris for his lack of effort. It was at least equal to the amount of times for Brown.
As for Brown and Beasley, both are putrid defenders. Brown will occasionally exert glimpses of defense, only to ruin them with overplaying lanes and getting out of position, or simply ball watching and allowing guys to set up for wide open shots [wow, just like his offense]. The problem with Brown is that he will linger in the middle of the court, half-heartedly playing "help" defense when no help is needed, only to leave his man for wide open threes. Despite his occasional ability to score, I would prefer to have Dudley or Tucker on the floor, or even move Dragic to the 2.
Beasley is simply lost. He plays about every 12th play on defense. I am not sure anything can be done for him.
It is time to sit them and go with guys that are going to make effort!
2] Hedge and trap every pick and roll. Send the opposite big to cut the "roll" man off, and cut off all short passes. You will get split sometimes and sometimes you will have fouls issues, but the data is clear. This is a clear strategy. Of course if you need to tweak it in game, do so then. But as a course of action, have an actual strategy and implement it with the correct players.
3] Get the ball out of everyone else’s hands and let Dragic command the offense. I know this is not defense related, but it is the case. Gentry is losing Dragic. Goran’s frustration is evident and it stems from the fact that he is tasked with saving this team from itself, yet the effort is not rewarded. If you don’t give him the keys, he will eventually quit on us, and I think you are starting to see his defensive intensity fall.
4] Despite #3 above, we need to use post play as an offense initiator more, and stop with the high post entries. The fact is, we have shooters on this team. We also have two guys that do have post skills that draw double teams. Right now in the NBA, teams haven’t focused on guarding this [thus why post plays make up only 10% of possessions]. Drawing doubles gets Brown, Dudley, Morris, Scola and Dragic open looks. Mix this into our repertoire more often and ditch the 1-4 high offense. It isn't working unless you are going to duck the opposing big into the block and pass down low from the high post entry. Just dribble to a side and post up Scola and O'Neal on occasion, would you?
5] I don’t get involved with the hiring and firing of coaches, but light a fire under someone there to start demanding more. Our effort is lax.
I will continue to log my defensive entries and develop more stats as I get more time. I apologize for not being able to provide those numbers, but I wanted to get this out in a timely fashion.
Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby remarked in October that this team is more talented than a year ago, but the results don't reflect that yet. True enough, they are only 1 game worse than a season ago (8-14 after 22 games), but the 7-game streak and despondent roster appear much less optimistic than a Nash/Hill-led team of yesteryear.
Robert Sarver gave a vote of confidence to Alvin Gentry yesterday to ESPN.com and to USA Today Sports.
"We've got confidence in our coaching staff and we're not considering making changes," Sarver said in a telephone interview Monday.
"Things can turn quickly in this league."
Neither players nor coaches have a clear plan to success, beyond playing better and trusting the system more. But it's difficult for the coaching staff to trust the players if they're inconsistent, and it's difficult for the players to trust the coaches when they're in a losing streak.
Sometimes, it's just not the best mix of players. You need players with both big time talent and consistent effort to win in this league.
Maybe that kind of player is currently on a different roster. It's Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby's job to see if that's case. And being in the last year of his contract, it behooves him and the Suns to do something this season when they still have time.
SB Nation Arizona's Kris Habbas recounted a discussion with Lon Babby after practice today at US Airways Arena.
Babby would not quantify the teams interest level in making a move, but one thing he did state is that he does not want to wait until the trade deadline to make a move.
The team would prefer to pull the trigger on a move sooner if there is a trade to make. The team is listening to inquiries and making calls however to gauge interest in potential moves with the current assets they have.
You can keep beating your head against the wall, or you can make changes.
The key is not to make change for the sake of making change. There's no point changing anything on the roster unless it gets you (a) better individual talent right now or (b) better individual talent in the future. The Suns have all the role players they could ever want.
Either commit 100% to rebuilding, or commit 100% to making the playoffs now.
Don't expect the Suns to trade Marcin Gortat for two or three more role players. If Gortat is traded, it's got to be for a better future asset than he currently is at his peak. The Suns should not sell low on Gortat. They should require teams to give up assets worthy of a 15 and 10 player on a meager contract for this season and next.
Don't hold your breath on this one. Beasley had little interest on the free agent market, and likely has even less interest now that he's proven (so far) that he can't make it work on his third NBA team. Couple that with a $6 million/year salary through 2015* and you've got the worst trade asset on the team.
*In the new CBA, a team can release a player and spread his contract's cap impact over twice the remaining years plus one - meaning that Beasley could be released at the end of the season and only count as $2.5 million per year for the next 5 years on the cap. IF that's what it comes down to, if Beasley does not improve.
You have to at least consider trading your best player when that best player is not an All-Star. Just like with Gortat a year ago or Nash three years ago, the Suns have to consider trading a guy at the peak of his value.
Dragic would be an excellent #2 or #3 on a playoff contending team, but he is not a #1. His contract is reasonable and his talent is evident. He is also young enough for a rebuilding team to acquire (ie. a team with a lottery pick to give away).
Do you consider trading Dragic for a younger potential All-Star, or a lottery pick?
For me, I keep him. He loves the Suns and is a great player to have on your team because he's always willing to give it everything he's got.
Luis cannot be traded until at least July 1, 2013. So no, Scola is going nowhere.
He's young and affordable and shows flashes of good, starting-quality talent. Just the kind of guy to package with another player to trade up, especially if your return is a better Power Forward who would take Morris' minutes anyway.
He is Mr. Average and Mr. Consistent. Everyone in the league knows what Dudley provides - 40% three-point shooting and all-around good play. Dudley has a stellar reputation around the league as a glue guy, and could bring back more future talent than he provides this year's Suns. The problem is that Dudley is most valuable to a contender and contenders don't like to give up good assets. Maybe a future #1?
All the other guys are fringe NBA players who won't bring back anything of value. Their greatest asset is being included for salary reasons.
Let's take a look at the salaries of all players for the next three years.
As you can see, the Suns have only committed $42 million to next year's books, NOT counting the cap holds for their draft picks. More on draft picks later.
The $42 million also only includes the half of Brown's contract that is guaranteed.
Items in yellow are team options or non-guaranteed salaries. Only a fraction of Scola's 2014-15 salary is guaranteed, and according to Shamsports.com the Suns have a team option on Beasley's third year. Now this is news to me. I worked hard all summer to find out if the contract was guaranteed, and all indications were that all three years were. But Shamports is generally right, so... I am putting in another query to the Suns for further clarification.
The Suns have no bad contracts, but they also have very few enticing trade pieces.
Gortat, Dragic and Morris are their most valuable assets, which makes them the least interesting to give away.
The other thing to consider as trading pieces are their upcoming draft picks.
The Suns have a very interesting set of draft picks coming up in 2013, with all kinds of conditions on them. But listed below in the most likely scenario:
That's five picks, all bunched together. Three of them in the first round. There are some conditions:
*Minnesota must make the playoffs for this pick to transfer in 2013. Otherwise, it rolls into the first year they do.
**If by chance the Lakers MISS the playoffs this season (they are 9-12 right now), the Suns get their pick outright. LOL.
Those picks, as well as their likely-lottery 2014 and 2015 picks and Laker's unprotected 2015, are good trade assets to give teams who want to meet their "I need to get a first-round pick to appease my fans" trade requirement - just as the Suns did with the Robin Lopez and Steve Nash trades and countless other teams have done as well.
There you go Suns fans.
Sarver couldn't have been more clear in saying the Gentry's job was not only safe now, but that he would be the coach all season. We know what that means...pack up, Alvin.
Not to question Robert's authenticity, but we must given how many times in sports an owner or GM made such a statement only to have the opposite happen. Sarver himself said the Suns wouldn't trade Shawn Marion only weeks before trading Shawn Marion for Shaq.
Would Sarver go back on this statement made to USA Today's Sam Amick?
"(Gentry) is not an issue for us this year," Sarver said by phone. "We're not looking to make a (coaching) change." Asked repeatedly if he was saying Gentry would be the coach at season's end, Sarver said "yes."
Regardless of how you feel about the job Gentry is doing, it's pretty important for sports teams to be as honest as they can with their fans. In other words, Sarver has now committed to Gentry this season barring some kind of mega disaster.
Amick also addressed the Beasley situation, adding this to the discussion:
The nature of Beasley's role is at the root of the problem. Despite the fact that he was added to be a leading scorer and the closest thing to a star that the post-Steve Nash Suns had, there is an internal sentiment from some that the team has played more effectively when his role is limited.
This certainly sounds more reasonable than throwing around the word "toxic" as was reported yesterday. Maybe it's just a matter of interpretation, but "toxic" is a strong word to me that implies more than just failings on the court.