There aren’t many teams in the NBA that won’t be affected by the New York Knicks’ acquisition of Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets on Monday. Be it through ensuing trades,...

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Constant Hustle + Goran Dragic = More Second-Half Wins  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

On yesterday's rosterbation post, the second most popular option selected was to STAND PAT. That's a telling selection, considering the point of the post was to induce trade ideas. Human nature tends to follow the lead, so most people picked one of the available trades.

But you all saw promise in this Suns team, just as it stands today. Why? I'll tell you.

In the past 18 games, nearly 25% of the regular season schedule, the Suns have been one of the best teams in the league with a 12-6 record. While a handful of those games were against patsies, the Suns went 6-2 against winning teams in that stretch.

That 12-6 stretch is a good sign for the second half. The "Gorpez" (Marcin Gortat + Robin Lopez) has been playing great for 45+ minutes a night. Channing Frye is averaging more rebounds than ever. Steve Nash is Steve Nash, and BAMF is BAMF. The Suns are playing top-10 defense while still fielding a top-10 offense. That's a very nice combination.

Hit the jump for some eye-popping numbers and a break-down of the second-half schedule. (hint: it's in the Suns' favor!)

(Note: if you don't enjoy reading stats in the middle of paragraphs, skip straight to the bullet points)

The Suns' Improving Defense

After giving up a near-record-setting 111.2 points per 100 possessions in their first 36 games up to and including the Denver debacle -- including 20 of 25 opponents (80%) scoring better than their season average! -- the Suns have dramatically tightened the ship.

Before going further, let's put that 111.2 rating in perspective. This year's worst defensive efficiency through the all-star break is Cleveland at 110. Last year, it was Toronto at 110.2. You have to go back to 2009 to find a worse defensive efficiency than the Suns' 36 games - Sacramento at 111.9.

Then the Suns committed to playing defense, starting with a 3-hour practice the day after losing a laugher to Philadelphia on December 29.

In the last 18 games, the Suns have held their opponents to 102.3 points per 100 possessions, a whopping 9 fewer points per contest. That would slot the Suns in the top third of the league.

The result is evident in the W-L column. The Suns' record through 36 games: 15-21. The Suns record the last 18 games: 12-6.

Before you argue that the Suns have been playing easy competition, read this: the Suns' last 8 opponents have an average offensive efficiency of 105.3, which is above the league median. A smoke and mirrors defense would fold at this point right? Not so. The Suns' defensive efficiency in that same 8-game span actually got BETTER at 101.5. That's Top-5 level, against quality offenses, and showing even further improvement along the way.

The fact is, the Suns are playing consistent, quality defense. They have held 9 of their last 15 opponents to fewer points than their season average.

Bullet points for those who prefer them:

  • "points per 100 possessions" (or, pts/100p) is an easy way to compare all NBA teams, regardless of how fast or slow they play
  • League average: 104.2 pts/100p
  • Suns defense first 36 games: 111.2 pts/100p (by far the worst in the league)
  • Suns defense last 18 games: 102.3 pts/100p (would rank top 10)
  • Suns defense last 8 games, against good offenses: 101.5 pts/100p (would rank top 5)

 

The Suns' Consistent Offense

Despite the fact that the Suns are struggling to find a go-to option late in close games, their offense is just as potent now as it was early in the season, which was just a notch below last season's record-challenging numbers.

The league average is right about 104 points per 100 possessions. In the last 18 games, the Suns' offense clicks in at 107.6, just a tick below the early-season offense with Hedo and JRich of 109.2. (Recall, that's also when the Suns defense surrendered 111 points on those same possessions).

Even more impressive: that 107.6 number has been against slightly above-average defenses (103.3 collectively), so it's not like the Suns have been feasting on bad defenses across the board.

More bullets for those who prefer them:

  • League average: 104.2 pts/100p
  • Suns offense first 25 games: 109.4 pts/100p (top 5)
  • Suns offense middle 11 games, post-trade through Denver meltdown: 104.3 pts/100p
  • Suns offense last 18 games: 107.6 pts/100p (top 7)

 

Offense plus Defense

Over the last 18 games, the Suns are fielding a Top 7 offense along with a Top 10 defense against league-average competition. That's pretty darn good.

 

Two Known Problems

Of course, we know it's not all rosy in Sunsland.

For one thing, they're still losing to bad teams. In this 12-6 stretch, 4 of the losses are to LOSING teams (Philly, Detroit, Charlotte and Sacramento). Yuck. While the Suns were 6-2 against winning teams, they were only 6-4 against losing teams. Talk about inconsistency. That needs to stop - the Suns' effort needs to be there from the opening tip to the closing buzzer.

The other known problem is late-game scoring. At first blush, you'd think this is a new problem since Amare left.

WRONG. Actually, according to this analysis on ESPN's Truehoop blog, over the last FIVE seasons the Suns are 28th in the league in clutch scoring:

Over the last five years, in the final 24 seconds of games his team trailed by a point or two, or were tied, the Hornets have scored 102 points on 86 possessions (as of a few weeks ago). That's an offensive rating of more than 118 points per 100 possession.

Remember that number. 118.

Now, consider that most of the NBA is below 85, and 27 teams are below 100. That's a blowout.

Only the Magic and Blazers are even close (at 107 and 104, respectively). The Cavaliers had LeBron James most of that period, and come in ninth, at 96. The Lakers are 14th at 83. The Celtics rank 20th at 78. Steve Nash's Phoenix Suns are way down at 28th on the list, while the Rockets are dead last, with an offensive rating just about half of the Hornets'.

It's not the final word in the crunch time debate, by any means. It's a small sample, as these situations are rare -- the Clippers have had just 71 such possessions over the five years, the Celtics top the list with 120. And there is no end of ways to tweak the parameters for different outcomes.

28th in the league, dating back 5 seasons? Really?

Well, the more I think about it the more I remember close loss after close loss. Oh well. I guess the key to this is avoiding these situation as much as possible, which means getting more efficiency from the second unit at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters.

Goran Dragic is the key to this problem. He really needs to step up in the second half. If Dragic rediscovers his effectiveness, the Suns will have more wins wrapped up by mid-fourth quarter against those losing teams and we'll all live longer lives.

 

Where do we go from here - 28 Games Left

The Suns next 6 opponents are poor offensive teams, netting a collective 101.6 points per 100 possessions (bottom third). The 9 after that are a relative buzzsaw at a collective 106.3 points per 100 (top third).

More bullets:

  • League average: 104.2 pts/100p
  • Next 6 opponents' offenses: 101.6 pts/100p (poor)
  • The 9 offenses after that: 106.3 pts/100p (very good)
  • Overall, the 28 second-half opponents numbers:
    • Suns on offense: 107.6 pts/100p; Opponents' defense: 103.6 pts/100p
    • Suns on defense: 102.3 pts/100p; Opponents' offense: 104.6 pts/100p

In terms of the schedule and winning percentages:

  • 28 games remaining, opponent winning percentage .518
  • 15 of 28 games are on the road
  • 14 games against winning (+.500) teams, 14 games against losing teams
  • 8 of the Suns final 15 road games are against winning teams (4 of those in the final 10 days of the season: SA, CHI, NO, DAL)
  • 6 of the Suns final 13 home games are against winning teams
This is an eminently doable schedule to go on a big run.
With the Suns finally figuring out how to play defense, all they need now is consistent offensive production when Steve Nash rests.




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