Finding a suitable backup for Steve Nash has been an intermittent problem for the Suns since Nash's return to Phoenix in 2004. When Nash is in the game, he wields such control over the playmaking responsibilities, and is so highly skilled in running the Suns offense, that it's difficult to find a point guard to come off the bench and replicate his style.
His one of a kind nature is both a blessing and a curse. The team is built with players intended to complement Nash's unique skills, but those same players must also play with another point guard. This requires playmaking from players who are usually only asked to finish when Nash has set them up with precision.
In years past, the Suns have had plenty of finishers who are excellent with Nash setting them up, and still effective without that advantage. The more recent editions of the team haven't had such players, and that's why the Suns have fallen from their perch as an elite team to be a lottery team.
The lack of adequate finishers has been the problem more so than poor backup PG play. That Nash is still able to lead the league in assists per game is not proof to the contrary at all, it's simply more evidence of Nash's elite skills. Can you imagine the assist numbers he could put up if surrounded by better shooters?
Let's take a look at the players who have backed up Nash and see how last season's cast compares to the current one, after the jump.
Comparisons from last season to this one have plenty of holes. The Suns are only 18 games into the season, and this will be a small snapshot of the performances of Ronnie Price and Sebastian Telfair. Goran Dragic's and Aaron Brooks' performances of last year have asterisks of their own: Dragic was playing with a different cast, with greater expectations, and Brooks had a short time to find his rhythm and comfort zone playing in only 25 games for the Suns last year. Not to make excuses, but excuses aren't the same as reasons, and there is no shortage of reasons for the poor performances of the Suns' backup point guards.
With all of those caveats in mind, the Suns' backup point guards of this season and last:
Price has moved into the starting lineup at shooting guard for the last 6 games, where he's done a decent job supplying defense and hustle, and relieving Nash of some of the ballhandling chores. But really, he's only starting there because the Suns are reaching for any effective starter at the 2-guard they can find. Starting the season with career backup Jared Dudley and then picking up an injured Michael Redd off the scrap heap are examples of this reaching.
As a backup to Nash, Price did a fair job. He isn't much of a shooter or playmaker (see his PER, true shooting % and ORtg below), but does play energetic defense and won't get you killed running the team with a good enough supporting cast. And again, there's the rub. It's been hard enough for the Suns to find players who can finish when Nash sets them up perfectly. Players who can finish on less than perfect passes, or create their own shots? (Sound of crickets chirping).
Telfair has the speed and quickness to attack the basket, but lacks the strength and body control to finish, as well as the vision and instincts to find the open man. This neutralizes what might otherwise be his best skill, and is one reason he's on the sixth team of his career and was readily available when the Suns came calling. He's no mutt talent-wise, as his #13 selection in the 2004 draft can attest.
Still, Telfair is only an adequate 10-minute/game player at best, and his production so far has been worse than Price's. On a Suns team searching for an identity and lacking a cohesive and talented supporting cast, Telfair doesn't have much chance to succeed. He has plenty of shortcomings of his own, and his teammates aren't helping him out. Did we expect anything different here?
Last season was a huge disappointment for the Suns after the spectacular playoff run of 2010, and one of the biggest letdowns was that Dragic didn't continue his ascent when he had been such a key player in that playoff run. He had become a capable backup to Nash, but last season Dragic regressed in all areas of the game with the Suns.
Dragic was expected to do more running that second team, but his backcourt partner Leandro Barbosa was gone, replaced by a player who can't handle the ball or shoot well in Josh Childress. Frye and Dudley were still there to supply spacing and scoring with their 3-point shooting, but virtually all of the playmaking was placed on Dragic's shoulders and he couldn't handle the heavy load. Dragic looked skittish, and his shooting and turnover numbers plummeted. Once traded to Houston, Dragic looked like the player Suns fans fell in love with in 2010, and continues to excel this season. This again points to an organizational failure rather than an individual one.
In a controversial trade (which it's not my intent to revisit; we've discussed it plenty), the Suns traded Dragic and the lower of their 2011 1st round picks for former league Most Improved Player Aaron Brooks. Brooks did provide an upgrade from the erratic Dragic, as he had experience leading a team as a starter, and could both create and finish.
But Brooks is a terrible defender, and a volume shooter who didn't do a lot to set up his teammates. Had he returned to Phoenix this season, he'd probably be one of the team's leading scorers, but at what cost given the other shortcomings in his game? Still, a player who can actually put the ball in the basket would be welcome right about now, wouldn't he? Brooks is currently lighting it up for the Guangdong Southern Tigers (I had to include their sweet logo) of the Chinese Basketball Association.
He remains a restricted free agent in the NBA, and could potentially return to Phoenix after the CBA season ends but that will be around March. The Suns are looking like they'll be toast well before then.
For better or worse?
When the Suns' bench was at its best in the 2009-2010 season, they had two players in Dragic and Barbosa who could handle the point, break down defenses driving to the hole and dish to 3-point shooters Dudley and Frye, with Lou Amundson cleaning up any mess. It wasn't fancy or always pretty, but the unit played enough defense and brought enough energy that the wheels didn't fall off when Nash was on the bench.
Brooks opted to play in China this year, as the NBA lockout looked as if it would swallow the season, and Dragic is filling in just fine as Kyle Lowry's backup in Houston. Telfair and Price are struggling, but not really any more than every other Suns player. Any of the four could be an effective backup PG in the right situation; the current Suns are anything but the right situation. The tough times for Steve Nash's backups aren't necessarily due to these players, though they haven't stemmed the tide of decline. Rather, they're symptoms of the franchise's failure to acquire and hold quality players overall.