Well, here we are, a quarter way through the season, and guess what? We don’t suck. In fact, we’re pretty good. Surprise!
Some of us are less surprised than others, but when even Hornacek can admit that he’s a little surprised, I don’t think we need to be throwing "I told you so" around too much. Even so, the habits of the last few years are hard to break, and it’s a rare post game thread that doesn’t have multiple trade scenarios in it.
I don’t play the trade game much. The subtleties of the new CBA and the infinite variables of player salary and value are so liquid that proposing a trade just seems silly to me. We all know the trade machine will call all manner of unlikely trades "successful", but nobody knows what the priorities and goals of any front office truly are. I scour the Intertoobs for every clue of what McDonough might be thinking, but it’s hard to find anything beyond clichés and platitudes. But, as a Suns fan, I do wonder what we can do to get better without losing the gains that we have made between last year and this year.
In the binary fashion of BSotS, last year was bad. This year is good. And that’s true, in every sense of the word, but it’s really not that simple. Lance Blanks was trash, Ryan McDonough is a boy genius, right? Except that the moves he has made are largely predicated on moves that Blanks made. The Lakers 2013 and 2015 first round and 2013 and 2014 second round picks? Blanks. Trading Dudley and one of the Lakers second rounders for Bledsoe? Done with assets Blanks acquired. Louis Scola for Plumlee, Green, and a first rounder from Indiana? Impossible without Blanks having the cap space to wisely nab Scola off of amnesty waivers. Dragic? Blanks regime. Morrii? Blanks again. Tucker? Blanks again.
I’m not saying that Blanks was good. Nobody was more infuriated than I when he traded Dragic and a first rounder for Brooks. And nobody was more pissed when Gentry was fired and Majerle was passed over for Hunter, either. Beasley was a bonehead move. My point is, on balance, Blanks was not all bad, and McDonough isn’t incapable of bad moves, either. Oriaki has been booted off of a couple of teams now, and Caron Butler for Ish Smith and Kravtsov isn’t looking like a world beater, either. But be careful what you think. I watch people say that players are bad, all the time, but that isn’t always the case. Wes Johnson is doing quite well in LA with a fresh opportunity, Beasley is doing pretty great in Miami, and Kendall Marshall’s career isn’t quite dead yet, apparently. He’s likely to get 20 or so games to prove himself on a young, athletic team with probably the best coach and system for a young PG like him to work under – not to mention the mentorship of Nash.
This binary nature leads a good portion of BSotS to prematurely give up on players. I’ve long been an advocate of PLAYING BETTER as a solution to problems. Not here, though. If a player has a bad game – even a bad quarter – hell, one bad play – and you can guarantee that the trade machine is cranking up. I watch every game, and I watch the game threads, and honestly, I sometimes have to check that we’re watching the same game. I think part of the problem is that we are so used to watching bad basketball that when a player makes a mistake, the natural assumption is that they’re a bad player. But if you really watch basketball, you know that in every game, even the best players make mistakes. You probably won’t see most of them if you just watch ESPN highlights, But look at the Spurs vs. Suns – I’m sure if you ask Popovich how many mistakes they made against us, you’ll get an earful. But does he call the FO and tell them to get rid of Duncan? He had 5 turnovers, after all.
Yet, after 24 games, many of us profess to know exactly what to do to make this team a contender this year. LOVE!!! MONROE!!! HAYWARD!!! MELO!!! ASIK!!! WE’RE ONE PIECE AWAY!!! FRYE IS GARBAGE!!! THE MORRII ARE TRASH!!! GREEN SUCKS!!!
C’mon, man. We built a team that starts a guy at center who had 55 minutes of NBA game experience. Our PF had missed a year and a half due to injury and illness. Our SF is a D-League reclamation project, our starting 2 guard is actually a PG, and our PG had started 38 games in his three years in the league. They are backed up by the Morrii (holdovers from a "bad" team), Green, (who I was assured wouldn’t even play), 19 year old Goodwin, injured Len, and Ish Smith. Yet, after 24 games, we are ready to pronounce which of them will be stars and which won’t.
So, I got to thinking. Who will make a difference? There are some guys out there that are rumored to be available, for the right price. The consensus seems to be that PF is our biggest position of need, with SF being an area that we could improve in. Guys like Hayward, Afflalo, Jeff Green, Evan Turner, and Tyreke Evans have been bandied about, so let’s see what they could give us compared to what we already have.
At the three, we start PJ Tucker, and he’s backed up by Marcus Morris. Neither is strictly a three – Marcus often plays the PF position when we go small, and Tucker was our shooting guard last year while guarding every position. Hayward is listed as a shooting guard, as is Turner, DeRozan, and Gerald Green, but position-less basketball has blurred the lines. So…
Click on THIS LINK, and it will take you to boxscoregeeks.com, where I’ve set up a comparison between the players who might be available. You can add or remove players to set up your own comparison – it’s fun! Of course, it updates every day, so it may throw all my numbers off, but that gives you even more to talk about in the comments! This is a combination of SG's SF's, and G/F types who may be available.
As you can see from this chart, Morris and Tucker are at the top of the list in WP48. This surprised me a little bit, but considering most of the other players play on bad teams or in bad systems, I guess it’s less surprising. Tucker is at the bottom in points per 48, but 5th in eFG% and TS%. Afflalo tops the list in TS%, barely edging out Morris, who tops the list in eFG%.
Marcus Morris is more efficient than anyone else we could realistically get. He’s the best rebounder, is topped in 2FG% by only Archie Goodwin and Gerald Green, has the best 3FG% of everyone but Tucker, and he holds his own in almost every other category. The only place he seems to be seriously deficient is in assists, but that’s our system. Given that his salary is lower than anyone else on this list that doesn’t wear a Suns jersey, I’m hard pressed to see where we would see much improvement. Afflalo makes around 7.5 mil for the next 3 years, Hayward is a restricted free agent, Jeff Green is around 9.2 mil, Evans is almost 12 mil this year , DeRozan is 9.5 mil, and Evan Turner is a restricted FA with a QO of $8.7 mil, and that will certainly go higher. Marcus Morris is making 2 mil this year, 3 mil the next, and has a QO in 2015 of $4.3 mil, and he has the over-riding motive of wanting to play with his twin brother – can you say home-town discount? I knew you could.
PJ Tucker is not a box score wonder. He’s efficient, and he’s marginally behind Evans and Turner in the rebound department, is topped only by Evans in the steal department, but he tops the list in 3FG% by a wide margin. Tucker’s main value is as a force multiplier, a military term that means:
Force multiplication, in military usage, refers to an attribute or a combination of attributes which make a given force more effective than that same force would be without it. The expected size increase required to have the same effectiveness without that advantage is the multiplication factor.
PJ Tucker is the very definition of that term. When he is on the floor, nobody dares play at a level less than he does. He’s a leader, both vocally and by example, and is behind only Frye and Dragic in actual NBA experience. His hustle and timely play can’t be quantified, and while he’s an unrestricted free agent next year, I have no doubt that we have the edge in retaining him. He has made himself a very valuable asset should we want to trade him to a contender = not only has he raised himself to a Tony Allen level as a defender, but he’s better offensively, as well, is a glue guy, and is equally good starting or coming off the bench. In fact, add Tony Allen and Loul Deng to that list., and Tucker is comparable to both of these MUCH higher paid players. Truth is, until you get to the Chandler Parsons/Kawhi Leonard tier, you don’t get a whole lot better.
Deng might be an improvement, but given his $14 million plus salary compared to Tucker’s less than $1 mil, is that the best place to use our precious cap space? We could keep both, but that would relegate Marcus to the end of the bench, and lower his value as an asset.
So, OK, what about PF? Channing is a stretch 4, Kieff is a bit undersized and inexperienced, and Kevin Love. Could we get better there?
I put LeBron, Anthony Davis, and Amar'e on there for kicks.
Well, maybe. Names that have been bandied about are Love (unlikely), Greg Monroe, Thaddeus Young is reportedly available, Amir Johnson may be gettable, there’s always Amar’e, Sanders is disgruntled, Carl Landry is a fifth wheel now…
Well, again, color me surprised. Despite hearing over and over that LeMarcus Aldridge is the best PF in the game, Markeiff doesn’t fare so badly in a head to head comparison. Granted, LMA is a star, plays a lot more minutes, and scores a lot more points, but…
LMA has a WP48 of .123 – Morris is at .120. LMA gets 3.5 more defensive rebounds per 48 than MM, and slightly more assists and blocks, but is less efficient with a lower TS% and less points per shot. I realize that Morris is not as good as LMA, but for the experience and salary differential, you would think the gap would be much wider. Given the fact that Morris seems to be on the "2 steps forward and one step back" program this year, perhaps a bit of patience would be wise?
Interestingly, Amir Johnson rates pretty well in these comparisons. He tops the chart in FG%, eFG%, and TS%, is a hustle player, and even has a bit of range, but he’s undersized as well, and at nearly 27 years old, isn’t enough of a significant upgrade to either Morris or Frye. Jon leuer is another guy who’s putting up some nice numbers – kind of a hybrid between Morris and Frye. He’s not an upgrade, but might be an alternative, if Memphis could be convinced to give him up, and might be a nice project for the future, as well as insurance. He can play at C, as well, so I’m kind of betting that he’s on McD’s radar.
Yes, Kevin Love would make us better. I know all the arguments about "empty stats", but stats aren’t empty on a winning team. It won’t happen this year, though, and probably won’t happen next year, either, and it won’t happen without us using virtually every asset we have to get him, and every bit of cap space and flexibility to keep him. Besides, I don't think it's wise to ignore the other things that go into building a true contender. As Lon Babby says in the excellent podcast that Dave did with him, it takes trust and experience to build an elite team. Those things take time. Even Miami didn't win a title in their first year of the Big Three. Brooklyn is showing us all that putting names on your roster doesn't equate to cohesion, chemistry, or most importantly, wins.
The Phoenix Suns have chemistry. We've beat some pretty good teams, and we've beat them in all manner of different ways - with defense, offense, sometimes both, sometimes by raining threes - but always with hustle. We know by now that if we don't hustle, we don't win. In Dragic and Bledsoe, we have the kind of gritty, unstoppable players that can win playoff games. But in the playoffs, you don't catch teams by surprise, you don't get easy shots, and everybody hustles. We do need to get better to go deep into the playoffs, and I think we have the elements already.
Why can we beat Portland when few others can? Channing Frye. Channing plays tough D on LMA, and he keeps him away from the rim by stretching the floor. In our two wins, LMA had 4 rebounds. In our loss, he had 12, and Channing had a bad game, playing only 26 minutes to LMA's 38. Portland's other losses? To Houston, MN, and Dallas. MN and Dallas have two of the other best stretch 4's in the league, and Houston played Asik 22 minutes and Casspi 26 minutes, and LMA had 5 boards.
The best, and wisest way for us to get better is to keep doing what we're doing. Every game, our offense improves. At the beginning of the year, we won games in transition and with hustle, but our half court offense wasn't doing much. Its getting better now, and that's something a playoff team needs to be very good at. We also could and should get Len back in the next month. As good as Miles Plumlee has been, Len could be a lot better. There's time for him to develop before the playoffs, and if he hits his stride in April, he could make us a lot better team. With his ankle problems, he's still been able to shoot, and should be able to extend the range that Plumlee gives us, and improve the free throw shooting. He may not get us to the Finals this year, but he could certainly help us get into the second round. There's also Okafor, who is reported to be improving, and getting him back at any point in the season could improve us quite a bit - or, give us more options in a trade. At any rate, whether he plays or not, he gives us the cap room to add a max player next year.
Imagine, if we get into the playoffs, and could start next year with the same rotation players, a healthy Len, Archie with an outside shot, a couple of draft picks that we can keep to occupy the Ish/Kravtsov/Christmas roster slots, and a max/near max player? If we combine Okafor's expiring with a couple of picks, we have some serious leverage.
Jumping too early could land us where New Orleans is, or where Detroit or Milwaukee is, or even where the Clippers are - with structurally unsound teams built around stars, but unable to fill in the pieces they need to get over the hump. I much prefer the road that McDonough is taking - build the team, and the stars will come.