Last year, Alex Len was the fifth overall pick for the Phoenix Suns in the 2013 NBA Draft. The 7' 1" Ukrainian big man, by way of Maryland in college, was the first center taken in the draft, including the player who many viewed as being the top ranked prospect overall, Nerlens Noel.
The Suns saw Alex as the long term answer to their starting center position. But with a rookie year in which he was mostly sidelined recovering from ankle surgeries, it was uncertain just how good he could be.
At the same time, the Suns also received a surprise contributor last season from a trade with the Indiana Pacers that brought Miles Plumlee to Phoenix...a second year player at the time who was essentially a rookie after registering only 55 minutes in his first season.
Plumlee started out hot last season and then began to fall back to Earth as the season wore on. Meanwhile, Alex Len is now healthy and has been making a noticeable impact off the bench. Even in less minutes, Len is averaging more points than Plumlee, while shooting a higher percentage. Although Miles has remained a solid contributor, his lack of offensive production has caused many to wonder... Is it time for Alex Len to step into the starting position?
So let's take a look at the numbers thus far, and see if they provide an answer to that question
Stats: Len Vs. Plumlee Per Game Comparison
Stats: Len Vs. Plumlee Per 36 Comparison
Stats: Len Vs. Plumlee Advanced Comparison
Looking at the stats, you can see that both Miles Plumlee and Alex Len are posting fairly similar numbers per game. Of course, this changes when you look at the Per 36 numbers, and the advanced stats where Alex has a pretty clear advantage in nearly every category.
However, these numbers just compare their individual numbers, so they only tell part of the story. The real question is, what kind of impact are they having on the team when they're on the court?
Fortunately, there are stats for that too...Here's a look at the numbers comparing both Miles and Alex with the rest of the starting line-up:
At first glance, this appears as if Miles has the advantage. However, the basic stats can be a little unreliable when comparing averages with such a large minute disparity. According to this, it looks like the team performs much better with Plumlee in the line-up. But the sample sizes are very lopsided, which causes the averages to look much different from reality. In this case, the advanced stats will give us a more accurate representation.
Now we see a completely different story. The numbers you really want to focus on here are the OffRtg (average points scored per 100 possessions) , DefRtg (average points allowed per 100 defensive possessions), and NetRtg (the difference between the offensive points scored and the defensive points allowed).
Looking at the numbers from each of these line-ups, it seems pretty clear that the starting line-up has been playing better overall with Alex Len among the other four starters than with Miles Plumlee. In fact, the starting line-up with Plumlee in it has a negative net rating, meaning they are giving up more points on defense than they are scoring on offense. With Len in the line-up, that changes to the Suns scoring 17.5 points on average more than they are allowing on defense, per 100 possessions each.
However, it's also worth noting that we are comparing 173 minutes of play with Plumlee in the starting line-up, to only 42 minutes with Len playing along side those same players. It is certainly possible that those numbers could drop a bit with extended time. Still this gives us a fairly good indication of the overall positive effect of Len...not only with his individual play, but how he is impacting the team as well.
So, Should Alex Len Be The Suns' Starting Center?
Well, it certainly appears that way based on the numbers.
But here's the thing...While it's easy to look at the numbers and see that Alex is outperforming Miles in nearly every category, there are still other factors to consider.
Suns coach Hornacek is undoubtedly still toying with the line-ups and wants to be cautious before making any changes. Len is still basically a rookie, and he probably wants to see how he will respond to the increased minutes before throwing him into the starting line-up.
Hornacek actually gave a bit of insight into this the other day in an article from Paul Coro of the AZ Republic, where he indicated that he was looking to split the minutes evenly between Plumlee and Len, with each getting about five to six minutes at a time to keep them fresh and energized.
In my opinion, this is the first step to seeing how Len responds to increased playing time without changing the starting unit. If Len can continue to impress while playing more minutes each game, I'm sure the change will eventually be made.
At the moment, the Suns seem to be doing just fine as is. Allowing Miles to continue starting in the short term while Alex continues to adjust to playing big minutes, and gaining more and more confidence with every game, is working out pretty well for all parties involved.
Either way, it seems pretty clear that Alex Len will eventually take over as the Suns' starting big man this season.
It's only a matter of time.