At (just over) the halfway point of the season, it is time to asses where the 24-18 Suns stand and ways in which they can reasonably improve, given the roster at hand.
If the Suns are going to make the playoffs, it will be on the back of their defense.
For the first time since the mid-2000s, the Phoenix Suns boast an above-average defense (12th in points-allowed-per-possession) at the halfway point with an aggressive style that denies the clean shot at the expense of positioning for rebounds. In contrast, Minnesota would rather give you an open shot so they can position for the rebound. Both philosophies work, as long as you have the players to execute it.
The Timberwolves are allowing the highest field goal percentage in the league (47.1%) over the first half of the season, while the Suns are 13th in that area (45%). Yet Minnesota is 8th in rebound rate while the Suns are 18th. Overall, Minnesota and Phoenix's defensive efficiency is virtually the same (102.5 vs. 102.6) despite the disparity in style.
Let's play a Mad Lib...
The Suns defense is allowing ______ over the season's first half since the first half of ________
- lowest defensive field goal % (45.0%) allowed since 2004-05 when they blasted the competition, making teams on a nightly basis look as helpless as the Pacers did on Wednesday night.
- lowest 3-pt % (33.5%) allowed since 2002-03
- lowest FG% at the rim (56.4%) allowed since 1999-00
- lowest opponent rebound rate (50.9% of all available rebounds, offensive and defensive) since 2009-10
- fewest points allowed per possession (102.6) since 2003-04*
*Many of you fondly recall the Suns great defensive start in 2005-06 with Kurt Thomas anchoring it before going down in late January with a foot injury, but this D is slightly more effective.
Overall, the Suns boast their best defense at the halfway mark since before Steve Nash led the resurgence. That defense is helping the Suns to a winning record for the first time since 2010, and their best 42-game mark since 2007-08.
Projecting the rest of the season
But it's not how you start, it's how you finish. Under head coach Alvin Gentry, the Phoenix Suns generally played better in the second half than they did in the first half. But he did that with offensive improvements more than defensive. In fact, only in 2009-10 did the Suns defense improve in the second half of the season.
I'm not sure you can look at past Suns teams to make a projection. The coach is different. The players are different. The scheme is different. But it's pretty clear that, despite the onslaught against Indiana, this team is going to have to play strong defense to make the playoffs.
Assuming their stats hold true for the rest of the reason (8th in offense, 12th in defense), with the only variable being the schedule, two major outlets predict the Suns to make the playoffs using advanced statistical magic.
Basketball-Reference.com projects the Suns to go 22-18 despite playing a much tougher second-half schedule, for an overall 46-36 record based on 5,000 simulations. The Suns % chance to make the playoffs is 74.2%.
ESPN.com does a similar projection with slightly different inputs, and also sees the Suns with a 46-36 record when it's all said and done. They give the Suns a 63.1% chance of making the playoffs.
These projections change on a daily basis depending on unexpected outcomes. When the Suns beat Indiana on Wednesday, both models bumped the Suns to a 47-win projection with higher playoff odds. And then when the Suns lost to Washington the projections "righted" themselves. The Suns had been expected to go 1-1 in those two games, and that's just what happened.
Will the Suns improve or regress?
Those models assume status quo for each team for the rest of the season, with the only differences being toughness of schedule. The Suns second-half schedule is a bit tougher than the first half, so their overall winning percentage goes down slightly.
All else is projected equal though. Dragic must continue to play like an All-Star. Eric Bledsoe must play about half the games (or equivalent production from someone else). The Suns D must be above average. The Suns O must be pretty good.
But how do we know that?
Short answer: we don't. We don't know anything. The coach is a rookie. The players are inexperienced. The team's second-best player is a question mark for the rest of the season.
Individually, the Suns lack experience. Very few players on the roster have experience at all, let alone in the midst of a playoff run.
Only four players on the roster have more than three years of NBA experience. Let's review their playing history to get a gauge on their likelihood to stand up to the pressure.
- Gerald Green, in 6 NBA seasons, has played big second-half minutes only three times in his career, all for losers (Boston pre-Garnett, Nets pre-Deron). He has never played a big role on a playoff contender. Ever.
- Channing Frye, in 7 NBA seasons, starts for the Suns but has never been a starter on a playoff team. When he did start for a good team (2010-11, 2011-12), he got injured and the Suns came up short. On the good side, Channing has been quite consistent before/after the all-star break. He likely won't drop off in production.
- Leandro Barbosa, in 9 NBA seasons, most recently played a significant bench role for Indiana in 2011-12 and he's been a key contributor off the bench for seven playoff runs (6 with Phoenix, 1 with Indiana). His before/after stats for his career have shown consistent production no matter the time of year.
- Goran Dragic, in 5 NBA seasons, is one player who has always improved in the season's second half, but other than last year it's because his minutes have increased. 2012-13 is the only season in which he played starters minutes before AND after the break. He improved dramatically in the second half, but that was for a losing team. Dragic has never been a starter on a playoff team, but he's led late-season charges twice in a starting role (2010-11 and 2011-12 in Houston) as the best player on the 9th-place team.
That's four players on the entire 13-man roster with any significant NBA experience.
Only three of them have experience on an NBA playoff team.
And not one of them has started an NBA playoff game.
While the Suns are short of NBA playoff experience, they do have players with international success under pressure.
- Goran Dragic led Slovenia in Eurobasket the last several years, and was named to the All-Tournament team in Euroboasket 2013 as one of the two best guards in the entire tourney (along with Tony Parker).
- P.J. Tucker had several successful Euro campaigns, including 2007-08 where he led Halpoel to the league championship and won the MVP, and in 2012 when he led Bramburg to the BBL championship and won the MVP.
The great unknown
The Suns are venturing into uncharted waters as a team. Good teams get better as the season wears on, while bad teams get worse. Intensity picks up. Every game matters more. The standings change every night.
While P.J. Tucker and Goran Dragic have proven themselves on the world stage, neither has done it under the NBA playoff lights. Every player on the Suns is playing a bigger role than they've ever played.
Whatever happens in the second half, folks, will be a surprise. To all of us, including the team itself.