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Phoenix Suns Season Preview Series, Part 5: Summary and Forecast

Can defense make a difference this year?  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Can defense make a difference this year? (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Note: This is the latest installment of a great preview series. Lightly tap your keyboard a few times with your fingertips as a show of support to the effort put in by these great writers: Looking Back at 2009-2010 (Wil Cantrell), Assessing the Offseason (Mike Lisboa), and the complete coverage rotation players: Point Guards and Wings (PanamaSun) and the Bigs (watdogg)

And now: Summary and Forecast

Writing a season forecast feels like groundhog day. I've written pieces of this post dozens of times since the summer began.

In this preview, you will see lots and lots of predictions - both educated and uneducated. Most of mine are backed by numbers, but the final one is a gut feel. Why? Because this team is entirely unpredictable.

Still, it's fun to guess.

As you read this forecast, you'll likely have negative visions of the preseason rattling around both your conscious and subconscious. You really need to put that into its proper context though. Sure, those 8 games were bad and are all we've seen of this incarnation of the Suns, but none of those counted. Nash, Hill and Gentry know this. You should too. Wait till they get beaten down in the regular season before you cry 'Uncle!'  

Now before you continue reading, promise me one thing: take a deep breath and let a little Bright Side back into your heart. Even you, Jim dear reader. It will make your cold, cold heart feel a little bit hotter, I promise. Even you said so.


Links to summer forecasts, with statistical support

Back in August, I described the difference between defense and rebounding. Last season, the Suns finished 15th overall on initial defense last season (points per play, before the rebound opportunity) and 29th on second-chance defense (defensive rebound rate). This added up to 19th overall on defensive efficiency.

On initial defense, the Suns worst areas were defending the pick-n-roll ballhandler and the isolation play, while their best areas were defending the spot-up, post-up (click the link for evidence if you don't believe me) and the cutter to the basket.

Sure the Suns lost Lou Amundson and Amare Stoudemire on the front line, but Amare was horrible on defense and Lou only played 15 minutes a game. Returning are Channing Frye and Robin Lopez. Both were very solid on post defense and basket protection, and should only get better this year. Frye is a top-10 shot blocker/minute this preseason and Lopez continues to alter shots at a high rate when he's on the floor. 

The Suns need a major upgrade on perimeter defense this season, which I wrote about on August 16. A disruptive perimeter defense can make life so much easier on the entire team, creating steals and missed shots at a higher rate than last season. Before training camp started, I showed that replacing LB with Childress, along with an aggressive attitude shift, will make a big difference here, potentially turning the perimeter D into a threat instead of a weakness. Grant Hill gushed about it just the other day. Glad they're reading my work.

With all this mumbo jumbo about "initial defense", it seems I am ignoring the elephant in the room: rebounding.

Rebounding. Rebounding. Rebounding.

The Suns will get killed in rebounding this year, right? Actually, if every player in the 10-man rotation keeps to their career averages in rebounds per minute, the Suns will pull down 41 a game. That's 2 fewer than last season, their second-highest rebound total since Nash returned.

Can the Suns win with a negative rebound differential? History says yes. The 2005-08 Suns teams all lost the rebounding battle by 2-4 per game, and only once pulled down more than 42 per game (ironically, that was the Amare-less 2006 team).

Only in the last 2 seasons did the Suns actually win the total rebound battle, and that was thanks to great offensive rebounding (Shaq, then Lopez). Defensive rebounding has been consistently bad all decade, at between 64-70% of total chances.

We all know the Suns will run faster than last year. But how fast is fast? And how successful can that be? Well, this team is deeper and taller than the SSOL teams of 2005-08, according to the tale of the tape. Better rebounders? No. Yet the best rebounding team of the Nash era was the 2006 team that boasted a starting PF who averaged 7 per game (Diaw), and a starting C who averaged 5 (Tim Thomas). Surprised? Me too.


The more things change, the more they stay the same

Here's an excerpt from Seth's forecast last year:

You can choose to see a team trying to recapture the glory years by returning to its running roots but doing so without key players (Marion, Diaw and Bell); with an older core (Nash and Hill); and with whatever Amare may or may not be able to give on a micro-fractured knee and an eye that almost fell apart.

To put it yet another (even more cynical) way, if the Suns aren't moving forward towards a championship and they aren't rebuilding for the long run then they are basically treading water in a desperate and blatant attempt to sell tickets while delaying the inevitable collapse.

This year's details may be different, but the message is still the same: If the Suns aren't getting better and aren't rebuilding the roster, then they are basically treading water.

At its best, this team may be well-oiled, supremely maintained and able to hit 60 in less than 6 seconds, but ultimately it's a cobbled-together pile of spare parts built around a 240,000 mile engine.

Gone is the apostrophe. Gone are the up-and-coming glory days of "Eyes on the Prize".

The in-his-prime all-star, beloved sparkplug and ponytailed bit-rebounder were replaced with the Turkish Jordan, do-everything wing and mini-STAT. In other words, replacing known quality with unknown quantity.

The breadth and depth of the team is better (Warrick and Childress > LB and Lou), but the top-end talent is much worse (Amare >> Turkoglu).


Switching places - or, the 180 degree turnabout

The way I like to look at a transaction, or a summer of transactions, is to put them in reverse.

I ask myself, if the opposite had happened, would I be happier or angrier?

If I take the summer as a whole, I know I'd be happy with Amare, Lou and LB for a package of Turkoglu, Childress and Warrick. The PF position would be set. Amare is a BEAST! Woo-hoo!

But there ARE some things to worry about, if things were in reverse. And if summertime BSotS fans are anything, we're a bunch of worriers.

For one, we replaced do-everything Childress with much smaller do-one-thing LB. Who's gonna play defense? JRich can't play defense, Duds is out-of-position at the 2 and Hill is turning 90. Who is going to stop Kobe, Wade, Durant, etc from getting 40 points every night?

Let's continue this bizarro world swap and look at the front line.

Amare is certainly a HUGE upgrade over out-of-place Turkoglu, and he's like Warrick times ten! Wow! Let's get this party started already.

But there would be another BSotS storyline brewing...

What if Amare gets hurt again? Who backs him up? Lou Amundson? Puh-leeez. (remember, play along... you don't know Lou yet) Who the hell is Lou Amundson?? He's never played more than 15 minutes a night, or averaged more than 4 points a game. Sure, he can rebound but he's undersized, can't score and has the smallest hands in the NBA.

Oh, woe is us. Sarver, you cheap bastard!!! Why couldn't we have kept Warrick as the backup PF for only 4 mil a year (vs. Amundson's 2.5 mil)? Beavis lots of people would be including Amundson is every trade scenario they could think of to get us a new backup PF. People would be lamenting the Warrick loss. Eagle Sun Others would be having a field day.

And this is not even starting the "why did we guarantee 5 yrs to an injury-prone PF?" and "who's going to be our backup playmaker when Nash is out and Dragic is having a bad game?" talk.

See how easy it is to turn the tables?

As I said above, I'd be thrilled if the Suns' summer had happened in reverse. But there would still be storylines, and umpteen fanpost trades trying to find a better backup SG, a better backup C and better backup PF. The Suns would be more top-heavy in terms of talent, reliant on fewer players and hoping for a perfect injury-free season.

If you don't believe me - that there would be angst if this happened in reverse - look at last year's predictions with those 3 players on the team. The consensus among Brightsiders last summer was about 45-48 wins and 7-9 seed for the playoffs. And that's from the people who love the Suns.


Back to the real world - the actual 2010-2011 Phoenix Suns

Ok, shake out the cobwebs. Bring yourself out of the daydream and back to the real world.

This Suns team may collectively be as talented as last year's, but is so limited in the power department that I find it difficult to envision big-time success.

Reasons the Suns will suck

  1. No lowpost scoring, unless Lopez is playing (and that's iffy still)
  2. No interior defense at PF. Turk is more likely to be injury-prone due to excessive banging.
  3. Health - aging Nash and Hill and Turkoglu, plus injury-prone Lopez
  4. Lack of all-star quality closer on the court alongside Nash
  5. J-Rich's expiring contract will not be as valuable as hoped
  6. Inevitable regression to the mean. Frye, Dudley, Lopez, Dragic, Hill. All exceeded expectations last year to surprise the opposition. Logic says at least one will regress, if not a few of these guys.

Reasons the Suns will prosper

  1. Smarter basketball. Hedo and Childress are smart players.
  2. 4-out offense is tough to defend. Just ask Orlando. You can't double the post because the Suns will have 4 guys hanging on the outer perimeter until someone slashes to the basket.
  3. Aggressive, disruptive perimeter defense
  4. Amare's remaining 5.7 million TPE and movable assets, along with Suns still 8 million under lux tax. Reinforcements can be had for little to nothing, if necessary (ie. lots of injuries)
  5. Depth at wing positions and playmakers
  6. Alvin Gentry will get the most out of this rotation

So, what WILL actually happen this season?

Predictions from fellow BSotS and SBNation AZ writers
As a collective Suns writers Borg, we might be able to more-accurately predict the Suns' season. I pulled together predictions from a host of 8 Suns writers. Here are the numbers.

Best Median Worst
Wins 50 46 40
The outlier predictors are Wil Cantrell and Lolly Konecky (50 wins) on the high end and Dennis Tarwood of SBNation AZ (40) on the low end. Feel free to hop on over to SBN to tar and feather that guy (or pat him on the back if you prefer that route).

Best Median Worst
Playoff Seed 7 8.4 10
Interestingly, as a whole the writers have little faith in the Suns season. Sure, they pick the playoffs, but barely. Justin Burning, Scott Howard and Lolly Konecky all predicted a 7th seed for the Suns, apparently counting on more parity in the West this season since it took 50 wins to get that seed for the past several years. Or, their guilty consciences got the better of them after predicting a sad little win total.

Let's hear some of what these guys (and gal) had to say about their predictions

Justin Burning
(predicting the best storyline of a positive nature this year)
"The emergence of Robin Lopez as a top-10 center in the league. I think (provided he stays healthy, of course), he'll average around 16 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks a game."

(predicting the biggest negative on the season)
"This might be the last year Grant Hill is an effective starter. He showed some decline last year, and it'll continue this year. He'll still be a smart role player, but won't be a starting quality 3 anymore."
Scott Howard
(on the team MVP not named Steve Nash)
"Jason Richardson. It's a contract year and the Suns are lower on go-to guys than they were last year. J-Rich is going to start taking some of those same stupid shots he used to pull on 30-win Bobcats/Warriors teams."

(using prescience, since he submitted this quote a week ago, predicting the most dissappointing player of the upcoming season)
"Earl Clark.  But not because of poor game performance per se. No, Earl's disappointment will be that he's absolutely incapable of playing well enough in practice to get on the floor.  Might not even get his option picked up."
"This season I think the Suns will be battling for the final 2 Playoff seeds with San Antonio, Memphis, Houston and the Clippers. I think Memphis makes the leap (with Mayo, Gasol and Gay all maturing and carrying them) into the 8th seed and San Antonio wraps up the 7th leaving the Suns, Rockets and Clippers as the odd teams out."

"I think there were 2 players who raised expectations last year maybe a little too high. I'm not sure if Frye can repeat the season he had last year and the other I'm not allowed to name but I question what he can do now that he won't be surprising anybody and with the added hype and expectations."
Jose Romero (SBN)
(most disappointing player)
"Goran Dragic. Regresses after decent 2009-2010. His shooting will be there but the Suns will be looking for a more true point guard when they see that Dragic is struggling to run the team and grasp offense/defense."

(team MVP not named Steve Nash)
"Jared Dudley. Minutes go up, more clutch shots go down. He'll eat into Grant Hill's minutes with high-effort play on both ends."
Lolly Konecky (SBN)
(biggest storyline of a positive nature)
"Hedo will be better than last year, which is to say he'll only drive the fans crazy 50% of the time, making the faithful have Boris flashbacks. JRich blossoms into the expanded scoring role until gut-punched by mid-season trade rumors which only result in a Earl Clark to Minnesota for 3 wristbands and half-full container of Gatorade mix (lemon-lime, of course)."

(biggest storyline of a negative nature)
"Hedo will be better than last year, which is to say he'll only drive the fans crazy 50% of the time, making the faithful have Boris flashbacks. At times fan's will have paralyzing seller's remorse on Amar'e, but will be able to counteract the break-up blues with footage of Amar'e interacting with the NY media."
Trevor Paxton
"The Suns are going to be a bubble team this year. The teams we will be fighting out for the 7 or 8 seed will be San Antonio, Memphis, New Orleans, and the Clippers. I think San Antonio has enough veteran gusto to snatch the 7 seed, so that leaves the Grizz, the Hornets and the Clips. Of those three (four including us), I think the Grizzlies will take the cake, leaving us out to dry. We will finish 10th in the Conference, missing the playoffs."

"Josh Childress. While his averages prior to leaving the NBA were already pretty solid, he is going to have a monster year. Playing in a wide open style where he is (mostly) free to wander the court, Childress will find himself with more offensive opportunities than he's ever had. On top of that, I think he has the potential to be the team's leading rebounder - whether that's a good thing or not. Overall, I feel Chilly is going to have a great season, and who knows - maybe even pick up 6th Man of the Year honors?"
Dennis Tarwood (SBN)
(regarding the best storyline of a positive nature)
"Hedo Turkoglu, inspired by freedom from Canadians and defense, clicks by late November and shoots off to an offensive run that earns him slots in most NBA scribes' column-filling All-Star team snubs list in February."

(regarding the biggest storyline of a negative nature)
"Sadly, the NBA schedule runs through mid-April.  Hedo will not."
Wil Cantrell
(regarding biggest storyline of a positive nature)
"Alvin Gentry coaches his squad through front office and locker room changes to a winning season. The season starts slow as the second unit has trouble establishing their roles. However, they recover to win 12 straight games down the stretch to gain the 8th seed and knock out the stupid Spurs. The new acquisitions: Turk, Chill, and Warrick learn the system and fit in like Suns jigsaw puzzle pieces."

(predicting the season's most disappointing player)
"Channing Frye. Cannot find his touch and proves more worthless defensively than a year ago when asked to play PF and hit the rack."

The Final Word (For Today, At Least)

There will be ups. There will be downs. By December, and every month thereafter, we will know more than we know today. The offense will be beautiful. We fans will hang our hopes on every three-pointer and catch our breath on every Lopez wince.

Expect a rollercoaster.

The Suns could fall apart and win 40 games or less. Or they could hit on all cylinders and win 55. The final tally will be somewhere in between, but I'm not stupid enough to expect a Nash demise.

I personally see the Suns hitting 50+ wins and a top-6 playoff seed. Why so optimistic? Because except for the Porter/Shaq season, 54 wins and 6 seed are the low water marks for the modern Nashian Age. The team's style is going to be so different from everyone else's that the regular season should be pretty successful, simply because the opponent will be unfamiliar with their offense.

And I wouldn't put it past Gentry to come up with equally unexpected defensive schemes. The zone was surprisingly effective against the Lakers in the WCF. Maybe they'll use it again this year. Other teams are working on the zone in preseason, citing the Suns as a successful example. Even moreso, the Suns are going to be aggressive in the passing lanes. Disruption is the key word going about lately.

Don't count this team out yet.

They're like a cat who's only used up 6 of their 9 lives since Nash returned.

They're like a Phoenix, ready to rise once again from the ashes of their latest demise.

They will soar. They will sputter. Then they will soar again.

Rise, Phoenix! Rise! Take us to the promised land!

Or at least make it a fun ride into oblivion.

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