When the Suns jumped out to a hot start coach Alvin Gentry preached patience saying that he will 'know what he's got' when the team has 20 or 25 games under their belt.
Tuesday's win over the Spurs was the 25th game of the Suns' season and the team is now 17 and 8 with a .680 winning percentage. That projects out to a 56 win season.
Asked in his post-game press conference to asses the Suns after 25 games, Gentry joked that he was still not ready to say, "I'm going with 40 now. I'm changing it to 40, alright."
He went on to talk about every aspect of the team's performance, "I think we're pretty solid defensively in what we're doing. I think we're a good offensive team but we have to have an open floor game. We can't get into half court situations where we're walking it up. And I think we still struggle a little bit rebounding-wise but on some nights like tonight we're able to athletically compete with them if not size-wise."
In that statement Coach Gentry talked about the three major aspects of the game: offense, defense and rebounding. Let's see how the numbers break out.
Lead once again by a motivated, happy and obviously healthy Steve Nash, the Suns offense is setting the standard.
Phoenix leads the league in eFG% at .552 and coming off a stretch of sub-par offensive games is only .6 behind Atlanta for the best ORtg at 114 points per 100 possessions.
The Suns offense is based on quick pick and rolls that Nash likes to run with either Stoudemire or Frye early in the shot clock. With shooters like Frye and Richardson spacing the floor, Nash and Stoudemire have found plenty of room to work in the lane forcing teams to being help from the wings which leaves wide open shooters. As a result, the Suns are 1st in the league at .433 3P%. The Suns are 4th in the league in 3PA at 22.3 per game which is well behind the Magic who lead the league at 28.5 /gm which demonstrates that the Suns aren't overly dependent on outside shooting.
The Suns second option offensively typically is a simple curl play designed for either Richardson or Hill to loop baseline and use a screen set by Amare to free up curling to the basket. This basic play almost always nets an open pull-up jump shot or a good look at the rim.
The Suns rarely post up but they do often isolate Amare at the elbow and when the clock is running down either Hill or Richardson can find the ball in their hands with the opportunity to create.
When the offense isn't firing it has less to do with missing threes than the tempo and passing. Nash calls this an issue with 'mentality' where the team will become hesitant and indecisive. It is pretty easy to see when the offense is on and when it's not. When it's not the Suns end up with a lot of contested isolation plays at the end of the clock which follow quite a bit of standing around.
The big plus for the Suns offense is the development of the bench. When Nash is on the floor the Suns are a +77 in net points but are still a net +2 when he's off. In other words, the bench is holding serve while Nash is resting where as in years past we saw leads given up or deficits worsened.
The Nash-centric offense is obviously a concern for two reasons. If Nash were to be injured the team would clearly suffer but the same could be said for the loss any great player. The bigger worry is that Nash will either wear down as the season progresses or teams will find ways in the playoffs to neutralize him like the Spurs have done in the past.
Defensively, the Suns are a confusing team. They rank in the middle of the pack as far as opponents' eFG% right at .500 but are down to 27th in DRtg giving up 110.7 points per 100 possessions.
I am beginning to question the effectiveness of that statistic for a team like the Suns. We saw the same defensive profile with the Mercury this season where they were average in opponents FG% but last in DRtg. What you see with both teams is the ability to play defense and especially late in games. Neither team looks as bad on defense as that number seems to indicate and yet I can't (yet) argue with the statistic.
Regardless, the Suns are improved defensively on the pick and roll and most nights have benefited from their simplified schemes and rotations. Big post players will still have their way with the Suns but fortunately, there just aren't that many of those around these days so Frye and Amare have been able to do an adequate job in the paint.
On the wings, Hill is still solid and both Nash and Richardson look improved. The pick and roll defense has become very predictable which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Players are not confused about their assignments and the accountability has been an added plus but at the same time the better teams have been able to exploit the hard shows by the Suns big men.
The Spurs Parker and Duncan ran a side pick and roll with the other three players spaced way out including Bonner, Ginobili and another shooter. When Amare showed on the screen to stop Parker's penetration Duncan was able to roll uncontested to the rim forcing a guard to come over and provide help. This play lead to many of Duncan's 34 points.
At some point the Suns defense is going to have to learn how to adjust to in game situations and mix up their coverages. Especially come playoff time. In the meantime the effort is there and the Suns have yet to blow a fourth quarter lead which is a great sign of a team that is getting stops when it needs them.
The Suns rebounding has not been a big factor this season. The games where the Suns have gotten killed on the glass generally have been games they were going to lose anyway. In the hard-fought, well rested competitive contests the Suns have done pretty good.
Overall, the Suns have a -1.6 rebounding differential which is 25th in the league but that ranking is somewhat skewed since there are 15 teams within 2 rebounds of Phoenix. Meaning if the Suns were a +1.6 they would be 10th in the league. Going the other way however, there is a huge drop off between the Suns and the five worst rebounding teams.
Even more encouraging is the defensive rebounding ranking where the Suns are 12th overall. They are always going to struggle on the offensive glass based on the way the floor is spread but if they are keeping teams from getting too many second chance opportunities the Suns will continue to do well.
Amare is at 8 rebounds per game on the season which is .9 below his career average. He has been more consistently active and as his physical condition is improving we are not only seeing more classic Amare dunks but his rebounding numbers have increased as well.
After averaging 7.1 rpg in November, Amare is now up to 10.4 per game in December. Certainly a positive sign.
Since pre-season I've been impressed with this team's toughness and winning attitude. Coming off last season's miserable collective mood it has been quite the improvement and probably the single biggest factor to the good start.
Coach Gentry is impressed as well, "I think we're a gritty team. I think we'll compete and play hard. It doesn't always work out for us but the thing about this team is that we've had some tough losses but these guys, I think they have resolve and they'll bounce back and play hard in practice the next day and in games the next day. I think that's all you can ask for. As a coach that's all I ask for."
We agree Alvin. As fans that's all we can ask for as well and to me this is the biggest reason the Suns are the Most Watchable Team this season so far.
Overall, Gentry refused to say if the Suns were at the top of the 2nd tier of Western Conference teams but he did say this, "I just think we compete and we feel like we can play against the majority of the teams in the league."
Audio: Gentry talking about where the Suns are