After getting fat on the turkeys out East, the Isaiah Thomas-less Suns slipped into a food coma. Following a disastrous weekend that included a 25-point mollywhopping in Denver and a failure to bounce back at home against the rebuilding Orlando Magic, the Suns sit at a lukewarm 10-8.
Depending on your view, the team is suffering either from systemic issues or simply a lack of basketballs passing through the net. There is evidence to support either claim.
While the starters have struggled to jell with one another, coach Jeff Hornacek has maintained a steady hand as usual, forgoing any significant lineup changes until further notice. From our own Sean Sullivan's notes from yesterday's practice:
"We've looked at things. But it's not like we're bad at any of the spots, we're just not great at it. But that's a possibility. As of today, we're keeping the same group in there. We'll continue to discuss that. It's all going to be if we need more energy off the bench, or if we need more energy starting, we're always looking at that stuff."
After reading this quote, I wondered if perhaps the starting unit isn't as mediocre as my eyeballs have led me to believe. After all, Jeff coaches an NBA team and I'm just a dude with a laptop. And it's not even my own laptop -- my work provides it. So yeah, second-guessing NBA coaches isn't normally my jam.
According to the numbers, however, the situation is a bit more alarming than Hornacek makes it seem. While the data is culled from a sample-size of only 18 games and thus contains some radical variances, it makes it quite clear why the questions are even being asked.
The above table shows all lineups used by the Suns thus far in 2014/15 (minimum 25 possessions), listed in order of the most positive point differential. If you're looking for the starting lineup -- namely Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris and Miles Plumlee -- it's the one third from the bottom, with a difference of +0.2. For a frame of reference, last season's starting lineup of Dragic, Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker, Channing Frye and Plumlee sported a differential of +12.4.
It also shows the importance of the starting lineup in a macro sense. People are fond of opining that it's not who starts but rather who finishes, but in this case the starters have been on the court together for 220 minutes, while the second most frequently used rotation has only managed 50 minutes. The starting rotation is going to see more time together than any other group of players. Therefore, it matters.
While most criticism for the Suns' slowish start has been levied (often absurdly) at Isaiah Thomas and the triple-PG rotation, the evidence points to the starting lineup as the team's weak link. Or perhaps it only shows that the other lineups will eventually regress to the mean and the a meager +0.2 point differential is about how good this team will be.
Either way, the situation seems to be a bit too obvious to dismiss, but for now it appears Hornacek is doing exactly that. This is a man, after all, that has not made a single in-season change to his starting lineup (excluding those necessitated by injuries) in his 100 game coaching career. It begs the question: at what point is he just being stubborn?
Perhaps most vexing of all is the continued exclusion of Tucker from the starting lineup that he fit in so well last season. One can only assume it to be a result of his off-court incidents (a DUI in the offseason and an embarrassing instance of tardiness). He is outplaying the incumbent starting SF Marcus Morris by virtually any measure, is one of the team's best rebounders, has expanded his shooting range to beyond the corners, and even leads the team with a .611 TS% (albeit on a minuscule 12.4 USG%).
There is also the dynamic of the Morris twins to consider, but it is nearly impossible to offer anything remotely insightful on how important it might be for Markieff, far and away the team's best frontcourt scorer, to have brother Marcus alongside him.
Time will tell how long Tucker's sentence in Hornacek's doghouse will be -- if that is even the case in the first place. For now we can only hope that it doesn't incur damage early in the season that will be felt come April.
There is a lot to be said for stability in a coach's rotation. Dealing with the personalities of millionaire athletes is always a potentially precarious endeavor. Just like Tucker lost his starting role incidentally when serving his suspension, perhaps Hornacek is hoping to avert any bruised egos by waiting for more natural means to facilitate change.
At this rate, it might not be that convenient for him.
Roundup (click the links for full recaps)
It was an old-timey feeling matchup with the Nugs as the Suns prevailed in a rollicking, high-scoring affair. Dragic, Bledsoe and Gerald Green all scored 20+ points. I'm not going to look it up at the moment, but I'll bet the Suns don't normally lose when that happens.
Nov 28 @ Denver Nuggets, L 122-97
Amazingly, this one was even worse than the score indicates. The only good news -- young guys! T.J. Warren, Archie Goodwin and Tyler Ennis all had significant time on the floor and score a combined 29 points.
Nov 30 vs Orlando Magic, L 93-90
The Suns rallied late to make it interesting, but nothing would make up for the preceding 46 minutes of wholly uninspired basketball. A humiliating loss at home to a Eastern rebuilding team, no doubt.
On The Horizon
The Suns get one more crack at home against a bottom-feeding East team before heading to the state where positive momentum goes to die -- Texas. The Mavs are rolling and the Rockets have hardly missed a beat in Dwight Howard's absence. Just one win out of the pair would be huge at this point.
They rolled past the Pacers on their recent road trip and will be playing the Mavs and Rockets for the first time this season. Last season they went 1-2 against both teams.
The Shark Tank
The shark is always circling. Who made it out alive?
"Faster than shark, so it's not a big deal": Gerald Green is faster than sharks this week, with an electric 16-point second-half scoring barrage in a win over Denver and the highlight of the season thus far in a loss versus Orlando. He's worth the price of admission all on his lonesome.
"We're gonna need a bigger boat": Alex Len is shark chum this time around. Over the last two games the big fella has shot 0-8 from the field for 0 points and 5 fouls. Mama said there'd be days like this, and the shark is always there to oblige.
Until next time, Suns fans. Good luck