Phoenix Suns experience growing pains on roster and coaching staff

Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sport

After two last-second losses in as many games, the 5-4 Suns realize that the NBA season won't come easy. They need to grow up fast, or run the risk of losing more close games than not.

The Phoenix Suns are only the 10th youngest team in the NBA this season if you count 31-year old Emeka Okafor. Without Okafor, they are in the top five.

But in terms of NBA experience, only one team (bonus points if you can find that one team!) has played fewer NBA minutes than the Phoenix Suns you're watching this season.

Last night's game against Brooklyn was a study in contrast. Kevin Garnett of the of the Brooklyn Nets began the game having played almost 10,000 more NBA minutes BY HIMSELF than the entire Suns 13-man roster (47,955 vs. 38,403, according to Nets PR). Let that sink in for a minute.

Going even a step further, Kevin Garnett has played starters minutes nearly his entire career, while the collective 38K Suns minutes are primarily backup minutes.

Only one Suns player, Channing Frye, has started at least half his team's games in more than two NBA seasons before this one. That's it. Channing Frye. Channing did that three times in his first seven NBA seasons, twice with the Suns.

Not one player on the team averaged as many as 30 minutes per game more than once in their career, and only Goran Dragic accomplished that feat last season, 2012-13.

No All-Star appearances. No All-NBA players. And only one, Markieff Morris the other day, has even had a good enough WEEK to be recognized as one of the best in the NBA for a few short days.

Compare that to the Nets, who boast a collective 36 All-Star seasons out of their starting five alone.

Remember that dichotomy as the Suns come up short in tight games. The Phoenix Suns are 5-4 on the young season, with every single game being within 5 points in the last 5 minutes. So far, the Suns have come out on top more than not. That's a pretty good start considering their experience level.

"It's a new team with a lot of new players," Dragic said of 9 new rotation players out of 13 on the active roster, adding yet another wrinkle to the inexperience. "So we still have to find each other to play as a team."

It's not just the players going through growing pains this season. The coaching staff is learning on the fly too.

Head Coach Jeff Hornacek is a rookie game caller. He knows what he wants to happen in the closing minutes and seconds of a game. He can visualize it and get that across to his team.

But he can't execute it himself. He can't make those on-the-fly decisions for his players as option one breaks down.

And he's not experienced enough to envision the downside of each option.

On the Suns' final possession of overtime against the Nets with the game tied, Hornacek trusted his players to make the right play. He had Channing Frye in there for shooting, with his lightning-rodfast point guards deciding the game's fate. What could go wrong?

"On the last one," Hornacek said in his own words minutes after the game ended. "We kicked it out and Channing had a good look at it. He didn't make it. Then we had the rebound. P.J. [Tucker] and Marcus [Morris, with 14 rebounds between them to that point] both got for it and I think P.J. said that Marcus looked like he was in front of him a little bit. So he let it go and somehow it popped up. They take off with it and Joe makes a shot from six feet out. So, you know, a bad break at the end that ended up losing the game."

An approved second or third option was to dump the ball to the team's best shooter who'd finally gotten hot after a long cold spell. At 6'11" with good extension, Frye's shot is such that even the tallest Nets player can't block it. With the Suns struggling against the Net's size all game long (6'7" point guard Shawn Livingston and 6'8" shooting guard Joe Johnson the shortest on the floor), giving it to a guy who can't get blocked a good backup plan.

Yet, Frye is a three-point shooter. And three-point shots tend to bounce far off the rim on a miss - often times all the way to the back court. When your team has the ball with 4 more seconds on the game clock than the shot clock, the last thing you should want is a long rebound on a miss.

And that's exactly what transpired. If Frye drains that shot - he was 2-for-3 to that point on threes from the same spot on the right angle - he's a hero and the Suns go home laughing and smiling.

But if he misses, the rebound would go long and chaos could ensue. The last four seconds of the game seemed to last an eternity as Joe Johnson loped down the court to time his game-winner with the final buzzer. Heart break.

It's games like this that Jeff Hornacek will file away into his mental databank as a learning experience. Maybe don't design a plan around hoisting a three-pointer with only a few seconds left on the game clock and a tie score. Force a closer shot that doesn't bounce away and you've got another overtime, at worst, or a foul call or made basket, at best. Yet a long rebound allows the other team plenty of time to score.

Hornacek will also remember the last possession of regulation, where Dragic tried to convert his patented dipsy-do stop-turnaround on Lopez. It was the same play Dragic scored on Gasol last year in a win over Memphis.

"You can't say anything," Hornacek said, careful with his words to avoid a league fine for complaining about officials, "but I'd like to look at Goran's [shot at the end of regulation]. They let things go at the end of the game so you really have to make a tough shot. You get the big guy, you drive by him and then you can't get the clean shot off."

Contact at the end of the game going uncalled. Long three-pointers bounding off for long rebounds, making for easy fast-break opportunities.

All learning experiences for a rookie coach and a team with the second-least NBA experience in the league.

"It happened so fast," P.J. Tucker said after the game. He was stewing over the last missed rebound in OT, the one that went to Johnson for the game-winner. "I should have grabbed [Johnson]. It would have been a foul or jump ball or something. Not a fast break. Happened so fast."

Tucker couldn't stop shaking his head.

"I wish we played tomorrow, man."

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