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Going Gorilla: Does Phoenix Suns' coach Jeff Hornacek need to tighten up his rotations?

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The addition of Isaiah Thomas and the emergence of Alex Len have made the Suns one of the deeper teams in the league. This has created an interesting dilemma in terms of apportioning playing time, which raises the question - how deep is too deep?

Weighing the balance of minutes...
Weighing the balance of minutes...
Image provided by Dustin Watson

A goal for the Phoenix Suns entering this season was to become a deeper team that was more resilient to injuries. After all, the time Eric Bledsoe missed last season was a major factor in derailing the team's ambitions of making the playoffs.

The major moving components were the departure of Channing Frye and the arrivals of Isaiah Thomas (primarily) and Anthony Tolliver (secondarily). Thomas would provide depth to the backcourt and insurance against injuries. Tolliver would play minutes in the stretch four role vacated by Frye.

These moves haven't been quite as successful as hoped due to several factors. First, there is a paucity of minutes to go around between four deserving guards. Then, while Hornacek was still experimenting with the lineup, Thomas went down with a sprained ankle that sidelined him for eight games.

Meanwhile, Tolliver has struggled to find consistency, both with his outside shot and his playing time.

Adding to the lineup turmoil has been the emergence of Alex Len. The second year center is healthy and has been outplaying starter Miles Plumlee on a fairly regular basis in recent games.

The Suns may not have the elite top end talent of some contending teams, but they have a lot of good to very good players. Even when Isaiah was out there just weren't enough minutes to go around.

So just how deep is the Suns' rotation compared to the rest of the league? Let's take a look.

Depth Chart

**Through Thursday night's games.

(A) - This column is a list of the players who have played at least 15 minutes per team game.

(B) - This column is a list of the players who average more than 20 minutes per game.

For example, Alex Len doesn't qualify for column (B) because he only averages 18.5 minutes per game (less than 20), but he does qualify for column (A) because he has played more minutes (425) than 15 per team game (23 x 15 = 345).

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Per column (B) the Suns have eight players averaging at least 20 minutes per game. Only the Pacers, Thunder, Timberwolves and Rockets have more, with injuries being a major factor. Yes, Isaiah has missed time for the Suns, but when he returns the core rotation will remain largely unchanged. Len is averaging 18.5 minutes per game and that number is trending upwards.

The Suns play a nine man rotation steady minutes and that is as much as any team in the NBA.

Looking at column (A) there are only three teams that have more players averaging at least 15 minutes per team game. The Knicks, Bucks and Pacers are the only other teams giving more players steady time than the Suns.

In fact, in the Western Conference 7 of 15 teams only have seven regular rotation players by this criteria. 8 of 15 only have six players averaging over 20 minutes per game. The Suns, on the other hand, are very close to having nine.

What does this mean, does coach Hornacek need to tighten the rotation?

Starters Minutes

*Houston's totals include Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley as starters.

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This certainly suggests so. The Suns' starters are averaging less minutes per game than any of the playoff teams ahead of them. Even the Spurs are playing their starters heavier minutes (at least when they play).

This chart can actually shed some light on the minute distribution for the Suns' latest back to back set against the Clippers and Heat.

In the first game of that set the Suns' starting five logged a total of 150 minutes. That is still lower than the average of any of the teams ahead of them. That game went to overtime and the starters still played less than the average of the teams ahead of them...

The next night against Miami the starters only played 139 minutes. That's well below average for a Western Conference playoff team and even below the Suns' usual average.

Basically, coach Hornacek rested his starters against the Heat.

In that game specifically Hornacek went with the hot hand of Marcus Morris. Marcus played 37 minutes off the bench, his second most minutes in any game this season. He was also the best player on the court for the Suns that night.

Bledsoe (+3) and Dragic (+2) played slightly more than usual against the Heat, but that was likely directly related to the Thomas injury.

The bench was given more time and responded by outscoring the starters 55-42. Were the starters tired from the game the previous night? From a playing time standpoint they shouldn't have been. Perhaps it was emotional exhaustion? If so, though, then why was the bench still crisp.

But what about the frenetic pace the Suns play? Surely the starters can't sustain that playing heavier minutes, right?

Well, the Golden St. Warriors play the fastest pace in the league, have the best record in the league and play their starters more than the Suns. They are also one of those teams that gives the lion's share of minutes to six players. Astonishingly, 14 of the Warriors 19 victories have come by double digits and their starters are still playing more... despite the fact they could be rested in the blowouts.

The Clippers, Blazers and Rockets are all top all top 10 in pace and play their starters more than the Suns.

What to do?

Paring down the rotation isn't necessarily an easy task. There are many problems ancillary to the overall distribution of minutes.

The Suns have too many good guards and not enough good centers.

Neither Miles Plumlee or Alex Len appears poised to garner the majority of center minutes on a consistent basis due to their sporadic play. The production from the five has been underwhelming for the Suns this season.

The backcourt raises another dilemma. If the Suns can't play combinations of Dragic, Bledsoe, Thomas and Green where three of them are on the court together then something will have to give. It just doesn't make sense to squander resources by banishing them to the bench. The Suns have two quality sixth men and they're both guards.

Hornacek was experimenting with this in the Suns loss to the Pistons, with the four guards logging a total of 112 minutes. That's 16 more than the 96 available between the one and the two.

What Hornacek appears to have gotten right so far is limiting playing time for the younger players at the end of the bench. With just 84 minutes played on the season, T.J. Warren is still ahead of Archie Goodwin, Shavlik Randolph, Tyler Ennis and Zoran Dragic. Rookies, especially, just don't get much burn on playoff teams.

Only five rookies on teams that would currently make the playoffs have played more minutes than Warren.

Houston Rockets - Nick Johnson 113 minutes, Washington Wizards - Jordan Clarkson 126 minutes, Chicago Bulls - Gary Harris 140 minutes, San Antonio Spurs - Kyle Anderson 142 minutes and Cleveland Cavaliers - Joe Harris 193 minutes.

None of these players has averaged even ten minutes per team game or made any significant impact.

So does Hornacek need to play the best players more minutes? There's no reason they can't handle a bigger load. After all, none of Bledsoe (43rd), Dragic (52nd) or Markieff (67th) are near the top of the league in minutes played.

Just looking at point guards, though, Kyrie Irving, Ty Lawson, Deron Williams and John Wall are all in the top 10.

Or is it just a case where the roster makes the situation untenable? It is a turbid outlook for the Suns' second year coach and front office.

An enigma that must be solved, because .500 basketball is unacceptable.