With Eric Bledsoe reportedly returning to practice in the next 1-2 weeks, barring setbacks, it appears the Suns will be healthy again before they hit their toughest stretch of the season.
The Suns play 14 of their last 21 on the road, including 9 of their last 14, while fighting for playoff position and not only trying to avoid missing the big dance altogether but also to avoid having to face the Thunder in the first round. A 15-13 record in the next 28 games gets them 48 wins and a likely 6th or 7th seed.
Can the Suns win down the stretch? And once in the playoffs, can they win in the playoffs?
The metrics say yes.
And a close look at the metrics shows that two of the most important players on the Suns are Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee. They play together in the starting lineup, but they also share the center position for much of the game as they rotate in and out of the game for rest.
Net differential on efficiency
The Phoenix Suns, as a team, have a +3.8 net differential on offensive efficiency vs. defensive efficiency, good for 8th in the league. But some of their lineups offer a much bigger bang for their buck.
The Suns have five lineups in the top-100 of the NBA:
- The lineup of Channing Frye - Markieff Morris - P.J. Tucker - Gerald Green - Goran Dragic (89 minutes) has the 17th-best net differential in the league at +20.4 with an offensive rating of 120.2 vs. defense of 99.8 (points per 100 possessions). Their assist-% is 61.3%, much higher than a usual Suns lineup.
- The second-best differential swaps Tucker for Marcus Morris with the same four guys (70 minutes), with a net +11.4.
- After that, it's the long-awaited starting lineup of Eric Bledsoe-Dragic-Frye-Plumlee-Tucker with a +10.0 net rating (247 minutes).
- The 2014 starting lineup, since Bledsoe's injury, has been pretty good too: Dragic-Frye-Green-Tucker-Plumlee is a +6.0 (460 minutes)
- The best backup lineup features Leandro Barbosa - Alex Len - Morris - Morris - Ish Smith with a +5.4 net rating (58 minutes).
Each one of these lineups is a winner, but the season is so long you can't just play those lineups and nothing else.
"As you got through the season you'd love to say you can get back down to an 8-man rotation," Hornacek says. "But if you look at our schedule in March we would be wearing guys out if we do that."
The Suns will continue to to play a 9 or 10-man rotation, especially as Eric Bledsoe rounds back into form. Ish Smith has earned minutes for the rest of the season, and Leandro Barbosa is a great sub for scoring off the bench.
Come playoff time, the Suns have the stats to show which lineups work the best. They involve basically four combinations of eight guys, with a sprinkle of a good backup team featuring Barbosa, Len and Ish Smith.
There's your primary playoff rotation: Bledsoe, Dragic, Tucker, Frye and Plumlee to start, plus Morris, Morris and Green off the bench.
Five of the top 100 5-man lineups in the NBA. The Suns won't set the world on fire when push comes to shove, but they will be competitive each and every game.
Channing Frye is a big plus
Drilling down further, Channing Frye is the only player on the Suns in five of the top seven 3-man combinations on the team. Frye is also in four of the top six 2-man combinations on the team.
"There are a lot of times I like to go with Markieff and Channing," Hornacek said. "Depending on what's going on out there. It gives us a little different look with Channing at the 5. If they have a big [center] out there, we can get Channing some looks."
It's all about spacing. Playing Frye at the center position forces the other team's biggest player to set up away from the paint and defend a three-point shooter - something those big guys are not built to do. In response, opposing coaches have to pick their poison - play a zone which allows their big to stay under the basket, bench their biggest guy, or put him on Markieff Morris who is too quick for him. Any of those options is unfamiliar to the opponent, creating chaos and running opportunities.
"They especially spread your bigs," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said this week. "They have multiple times in the game where they will go with Markieff or Marcus and Channing together at the 4/5, and now you've got two guys that shoot behind the three that big guys aren't used to getting out to. It really puts you in a tough spot."
Indiana switched other players onto Frye, but then were messed up and their top-ranked defense was run over by the Suns.
But playing Frye at the five for long minutes only works when there's a big lineup employed by the other team. The Wizards simply assigned Trevor Ariza to Frye's hip and let the game become a 4-on-4 when the Suns were on offense. The Suns didn't respond well, and lost the game.
Plumlee will remain in the rotation because he provides rim defense that most of the team lacks, and the Suns will need that when the games slog down.
Plumlee was better with the Dragic-Bledsoe backcourt because he didn't have to be an offensive weapon. He could defend the rim and flash to the basket for dunks.
Opposing coaches give Plumlee respect, so should Suns fans.
"They play nine people in their rotation (sometimes ten with Len)," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said this week. "Out of those nine, seven shoot it great and the other two are dynamite to the rim. The two that I'm talking about are [Miles] Plumlee and Ish Smith. The rest of them are very capable of going for big nights behind the arc."
But it's not all about shooting threes.
"What makes it really go, in my opinion," Stevens said. "Are those threats at the rim. So you've Dragic who can get in the paint, Ish Smith can get in the paint, Barbosa's been a great addition.
"And then Plumlee, obviously, every time he rolls you'd better think about him rolling. Otherwise it ends in a dunk. I've coached against him before in college twice, and that was the case when they played at Duke as well. Every time he rolls, that opens up lanes for the shooters."
The Suns have the firepower to play well against most teams and most lineups. Like most every other NBA team, the Suns will struggle against the likes of Oklahoma City and Miami.
But against the rest of the current West playoff seeds? The Suns have beaten all of them. Every single one. San Antonio. Los Angeles Clippers (in LA). Houston (in Houston). Golden State. Portland. Dallas.
No one is going to see the Suns as an easy out in the playoffs. In fact, many teams might dread that possibility.
And they should.