Forecasting the 2012-13 Suns Season: An Advanced Statistical Approach

The Suns have seven new players on their roster. Is seven their lucky number?

The new look Suns have yet to participate in a single practice together, yet many pundits have already bemoaned an incondite roster and predicted calamity in the coming days. Some seem to do so without a firm grasp of what the existing players on the roster bring to the table and the possibilities that exist with the new additions. The prevailing logic seems to be that the Suns minus Nash equals doom.

People come to their conclusions in a variety of ways. Wild conjecture is an approach utilized by some. Others rely on intuition mixed with acumen. Sometimes the schedule can lend insight based on perilous and benign stretches. Many teams return a core, and the guesswork is limited to figuring out how a few ancillary pieces will contribute. People have written intricate computer programs that simulate the season thousands of times in advance. No matter what method a person employs, there is always a smattering of doubt. Soothsaying is not a science.

I have decided to explore an assessment that falls somewhere between tossing out arbitrary numbers and punching data into a simulator. My approach may not be accurate. It may be absurdly ineffective, for that matter, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I've at least put a little more thought into it than many experts who think the Suns win total will fall on the wrong side of 30.

Bounce to be bombarded by a brilliant breakdown brimming with buoyant belief.

On a whim, I decided to take a look at how the Suns new roster fared last season in terms of three advanced statistical categories - win shares, wins produced, and PER. These are fairly arbitrary selections, like some of the estimates I mentioned previously, but are three of the more comprehensive and commonly used performance measuring metrics. The results of my investigation are shown below.

Suns_2011-12_statistical_analysis_medium

Based on the numbers from last year, the new roster should have won between 23-31 games last year. I adjusted the total wins to compensate for for the fact that the new additions played more minutes than the departing players (66 games x 240 minutes/game = 15840 minutes). Manipulating the totals again reveals that this projects to a range of 29-39 wins in an 82 game season. Marshall and Tucker were left off since they didn't have numbers from last season.

That passes the eyeball test. I had recently surmised that I thought 30-40 wins seemed like a realistic range. Another thing this shows is that the team PER is 14.8. I weighted that number based on minutes played, so it should be representative of the total team PER. League average is 15. By that reasoning, the Suns are very close to an average team (41 wins). This is closer to the zenith of the projected range, even though many have speculated the Suns will finish closer to the nadir.

Taking this data, I ranked the players on the team based on their scores in the three categories.

2011-12_suns_rankings_medium

It was not surprising at all that Gortat, Dragic and Dudley were the top three players. Maybe we should send this table to the judges of the three-on-three competition.... Despite a steady flow of aspersions being cast in his direction, Frye was fourth. Beasley finished tied for ninth, ahead of only the pitiful Wesley Johnson. Based on this criteria, two of the Suns acquisitions this summer would have been the worst players on the team last year.

Then I decided to look through the roster and decide which players might improve (or regress) to help the Suns improve on that 29-39 win range.

Marcin Gortat - Gortat is coming off of the best year in his career. At 28 years old, this should be a prime year for him. There has been rampant speculation that there will be a noticeable dip in Marcin's overall numbers due to Nash's absquatulation, and there is probably some merit to that line of thinking (at least on the offensive end). Given those variables, I think that if Gortat can match his performance from 2011-12 it would be a boon. Hoping for an improvement here would be a stretch.

Goran Dragic - The Dragon capped off last season with a conflagrative stretch of play. Will he continue to breath fire, or choke under the pressure? I think there's good reason to expect Goran to be a dragon instead of a hatchling. Going back to the 22 games after the trade in 2010-11, Dragic has actually maintained this level of play for 88 games. His numbers for the last 22 games in 2011 were actually slightly better than last year. Goran just turned 26, so there's still hope for improvement along standard growth patterns as well. I wouldn't necessarily prognosticate a huge leap for Dragic, but an incremental increase seems to make sense.

Jared Dudley - Dudz is an orange collar worker. Like his former teammate Stoudemire, Dudley never misses an opportunity to tweet about his workout schedule, so we all know he's been assiduously applied to improving his game this summer. Despite all that effort, JD3's advanced numbers have been strikingly similar for four straight seasons. At 27, it appears that Dudley is probably already at or near his peak - and there's nothing wrong with that. Dudley would be an asset to any team, I just wouldn't expect him to increase his contribution this year.

Luis Scola - Scola set career lows for PER and WS/48 last year. He actually netted a negative WP/48 last season, meaning that he had a pernicious effect on his team according to that metric. Be that as it may, Scola was still at least an average player last season by other metrics. The question is whether last season was an anomaly or a trend. Are the career lows in shooting percentage, rebounds, and free throw attempts coupled with a career high in turnovers a result of a decline due to age? I think so. While a solid contribution from Scola would be propitious for the upcoming season, I think we will be lucky if the decay doesn't progress.

Channing Frye - Frye seems to be the type of player that isn't done justice by advanced statistics. When he is on a torrid streak shooting threes he can win games by himself. His ability to spread the defense helps leave the lane uncongested. Unfortunately, Frye has been winning less games with his shooting lately. He went from 17 games with 4+ three pointers made in 2009-10, to 16 in 2010-11, to only five in 2011-12. For a more comprehensive analysis on how Frye's shooting influences the Suns fortunes click here - do it. It's about a third of the way down in the comments. While Frye's numbers haven't been bad the last couple years, he hasn't been able to replicate his numbers from 2009-10, and at age 29, coming off of an injury, there isn't a reasonable expectation he will do so this year. Frye puts up very quality numbers for a back up big, just don't expect him to improve to the level of a quality starter.

Shannon Brown - Brown struggled last season coming off the bench before turning it on down the stretch when he entered the starting lineup. It will be interesting to see how the rotation plays out this year. Although Dudley would invariably prefer to start, his numbers have remained fairly static compared to a reserve role, so it might actually be prudent for Gentry to consider starting Brown. On the other hand, Brown's numbers coming off the bench for the Lakers the last three years were better than his totals last year. Maybe he was just struggling to get acclimated to his new surroundings? Either way, I think that there is cause to be hopeful that Brown can build on last season and be more effective this year.

Michael Beasley - Beasley is a perfect example of a breach in causality where talent doesn't equate to results. After two reasonably productive seasons to begin his career, there has been a declivitous descent. Super Cool has not been a player you would want on your team. Based on his LP/48 (that's losses produced instead of wins) last year and his $6 million dollar salary this year, Beasley has the chance to provide the least "bang for the buck" of any player on the roster. Then again, B-Easy is an intriguing, enigmatic player that could follow in the footsteps of the Phoenix for the Suns and undergo a palingenesis that resurrects his withering career. I don't expect Beasley to play like an all-star this year, but I could definitely see him steering the ship into the current and being a serviceable player who, at 23 years old, still has the chance to be a very good player in this league in the coming years.

Sebastian Telfair - After sputtering early last season, Telfair sizzled down the stretch. So which player do the Suns get this season - the underwhelming player that sojourned his way through six NBA teams with disappointing play before landing with Phoenix last year, or the impact player we saw at the end of last season? I tend to hypothesize we will get neither. I think that Telfair will be more balanced and fall somewhere in the middle. One thing to monitor will be whether Telfair will get enough playing time to get in the flow of the game behind Dragic. Bassy may have to play like a switch this year to be effective. I think that Telfair's overall numbers will be comparative to last year - he may not win a bunch of games for the Suns, but at least he won't lose a bunch for them either.

Markieff Morris - Morris's numbers last year weren't particularly remarkable, but given the circumstances and obstacles he faced, I think they actually adumbrate pretty favorably. I can see Morris making a big sophomore jump. In an ideal scenario, I would like Morris to overtake Scola for the starting position by the end of the season based on what I think may be a meteoric rise for Morris and a continuing decline for Scola. Next to Beasley, I think that Morris represents the second biggest possibility to show marked improvement.

Wesley Johnson - Johnson has basically been putrid garbage for his two seasons in the NBA. What makes this even more inauspicious is the fact that he's already 25. The story on Johnson so far is that you should only play him if you want to lose games. His PER is atrocious. He averaged six points a game last season as a starter. I don't know that there's much reason to hope that he reinvents himself this season. I would think that he would have to really show Gentry something in practice to even get more than mop up duty on the court. Then again, with Gentry's inclusive rotation, who knows? It wouldn't surprise me if Johnson becomes this year's Childress, except without the egregious price tag.

Jermaine O'Neal - Despite a noticeable dip from his most productive years, O'Neal has still proven to be a useful asset - when he's healthy. As the aphorism goes - the best players are the ones who can play. O'Neal will probably get more minutes at the beginning of the season, while Frye is completing his rehabilitation, and it will be interesting to see how the minutes are distributed once Frye is ready to go full tilt. If we are to believe Dudley's reports, O'Neal may very well be able to make a meaningful contribution to the Suns this year. Furthermore, he might provide the Suns with flexibility to make moves at the trade deadline.

Kendall Marshall & P.J. Tucker - Sorry, but I just don't think these guys will be statistically significant this season, and if they are... we're probably screwed. Besides which, neither has a track record that can be used to project from.

Then, using this astute analysis, I constructed a new table showing how the numbers might look next season if my crystal ball is properly polished.

Suns_2012-13_projections_medium

Improvements by Dragic, Beasley, Brown, Morris and O'Neal were more than enough to offset a predicted waning by Scola. My scenario also has only nine players receiving minutes. I don't favor an extended rotation. I prefer to keep my best players on the court. It will be interesting to see how Gentry monitors minutes now that the roster has had an infusion of youth. Obviously some of these other guys will play some. There will be injuries. Different players will probably succeed and fail.

What my table does show is that, with some fairly modest improvements, the new and improved Suns might be closer to a 35-44 win range. The new PER suggests that the Suns might be a slightly above average team. Is it a reason to be hopeful? I have no idea. It could be that my breakdown is no more effective at predicting an outcome than rolling dice in the three-on-three format. I would offer that I am still hopeful, but dubious...

What do you think of my approach? Where did I misstep? Which players do you think will climb the ladders and slide down the chutes next season? Is 35-44 wins a more reasonable range, or does 29-39 appear more likely?

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