At 12-9 on the season, the Phoenix Suns have passed the 20-game milestone and we can begin identifying some of the characteristics of this enigmatic team. 20 games surely don't lend to any firm conclusions, but it at least moves discussions past the 'small sample-size' disclaimer that stymies so much meaningful analysis.
There's a lot to dig into, so join me in the nerdery (aka basketball-reference.com) and let's get started.
The 3PG rotation is a work in progress
While Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas have all produced well individually, the trio has yet to form the 48-minute blitz that was envisioned over the summer. Aside from the quick start in the first two games vs the Lakers and Spurs, there have been only two games in which the Slash Triplets have all scored in double-figures, and one of them was against the Philadelphia Asterisks, who render all data inconclusive (the other was vs. BKN). Thus far, Thomas' contributions have come in the form of shooting the team back into the game when the starters struggle. Once the little guy returns to the court, it'd be nice to see the three of them build leads together.
The Suns are mad
If you had asked me before the season started to pick a statistic that the Suns would lead the league in, technical fouls would not have come to mind. A little feistiness is always welcome, but when it doesn't yield any on-court results it just makes them look like Ben Stiller's character Mr. Furious in the mediocre film "Mystery Men", whose "superpower" was simply to get really, really mad and ... that was about it. Eric Bledsoe has led the charge with a league-leading 6 techs. Guess he's a man of more than a few words after all.
Despite the Suns' anger, they are also generous.
Scoring from the field can be difficult in the NBA, so the Suns have offered to help out their counterparts by allowing a league-leading 601 FTA. Alex Len is the leading offender with an ignominious 6.1 fouls per 36 minutes. If this issue can be curbed it would figure to pay huge dividends, because...
The Suns can defend!
Well, by Suns standards, anyway. Currently their defense is ranked 13th (going by DRtg), and they are particularly adept at defending jump-shooters, giving up the lowest FG% from 10-16 feet in the NBA (.309). They continue to excel at defending the 3-point line, only allowing 24% of all FGA to come from outside (7th in NBA) on a 34% success rate (10th in NBA). They also force turnovers on 15% of opponents' possessions (6th in NBA). If they can figure out this 'defend without fouling' thing, this could easily be a top-ten defense.
Goran is still the Dragon
After a pedestrian start to the season in which Dragic had us all concerned (whether we admitted it or not) that he had regressed from his fire-breathing 2013/14 campaign, he is back to torching the nets again. Despite not hitting a 3FG until the sixth game of the season, he is currently back to a respectable .355 3P% and is hitting 2's at a .542 clip, bested only by Alex Len. Breathe easy, everyone.
Alex Len is the best center prospect in Suns' history
Ok so this is only my opinion, but I see no reason to be modest. Excluding Alvan Adams and Amare Stoudemire from the conversation, since they would have been PF's in any NBA city other than Phoenix, there has never been a young center with this kind of potential in the franchise's history. Shotblocking? Well he's 7'1, so yeah. Foot speed? The dude can beat SF's down the floor. Shooting? Yup, getting better each game. Athleticism? His ankles are no longer keeping him grounded. Work ethic? Seems like all the guy does is train. Len has every tool that one could reasonably ask for out of the center position. His development has perhaps been the most significant footnote of the earlygoing, as we all plead to the basketball gods to keep his body healthy. After William Bedford, Neal Walk, Oliver Miller, Jake Tsakalidis and the Lew Alcindor coin-flip, they owe us this.
T.J. Warren demands your attention
The imminent return of Isaiah Thomas will unfortunately bring with it a logjam at the wing positions, since Gerald Green does too many amazing things to be kept on the bench, but rookie T.J. Warren is ready for minutes now. There isn't any point in citing statistics here since Warren has only amassed 84 minutes of court time, but watching the young gun on the floor makes it obvious that he will produce immediately. He already has a knack for generating extra possessions and we know from his days at N.C. State that he can score from anywhere. #freetonybuckets
The offense is faster, but less efficient
Swapping Channing Frye for Isaiah Thomas has led to an overall uptick in pace (95.8, 4th in NBA), but the resulting decrease in floor-spacing has reduced the overall efficiency (ORtg dropped from 109.5 to 107.7). Jeff Hornacek obviously was aware of this, recently making his first in-season lineup change (excluding those necessitated by injury) of his coaching career, reinstating P.J. Tucker and his corner-pocket shooting with the starters in exchange for the more midrange-happy Marcus Morris. Expect the team's shooting efficiency to round into form as the season progresses.
Eric Bledsoe and Gerald Green are not human
The West is stupid
During the summer I argued that no Western playoff team significantly improved over the summer, and that one or more of them was ripe to suffer a drop-off. I'll go ahead and order that humble pie now. The Mavs, Warriors, Grizzlies, Rockets and Blazers all are better teams than they were last season, plus the Spurs and Clippers are still the Spurs and Clippers. If that's not enough, the Thunder's season basically only started a few days ago when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook returned from injury. This season's playoff race is shaping up to make last year's look like a pillow fight.
To recap, the Suns are a foul-happy, defensively adept, fast-scoring, short-tempered collection of talented freaks that doesn't always blend well and have the misfortune of playing in one of the most competitive conferences in NBA history, but perhaps most importantly hey have at least two very valuable young prospects. I have seen more than a few grumblings that this season hasn't been enjoyable, yet this seems to me to be easily the most compelling and significant Suns season in years when you add up the sum, both in a micro and macro sense.
If you haven't been entertained thus far, just wait till trade season starts.
Moving on to the week that was...
Roundup (click the links for full recaps)
The second matchup of the season with the Pacers ended in predictable fashion -- with a blowout victory for the Suns. The first game with Tucker in the starting lineup seemed to kickstart the offense, as the Slash Brothers broke loose for 64 points on 35 shot attempts. The Suns have won the last 4 over Indiana by an average margin of 18 points. That is utter domination.
The signature win of the season thus far, the Suns controlled the game from the opening tip and secured a convincing win on the road against a powerful Western foe. The Slash Brothers were at it again with 47 points and 20 assists. Markieff Morris chipped in a solid 22 points and 10 boards.
Dec 6 @ Houston Rockets, L 100-95
The Suns once again were visibly drained during a B2B game. Do these guys need more spinach in their diet or what? The rims in Houston were destroyed by a 7/28 onslaught from 3, while they shot an unsightly 36% overall. The Rockets were also sluggish and short-handed, but the Suns couldn't capitalize.
Stat Lines Of The Week
The Good: Goran Dragic
The Dragon's decimation of the Pacers gets the nod here, as he needed only 15 FGA to net 34 points. He drained 5/6 3's, and chipped in 5 rebounds and 4 steals to boot for a staggering ORtg of 161.
The Bad: Monta Ellis
The only thing keeping the Mavs game from being a total blowout was the Suns' complete inability to corral Monta Have-It-All. The only blemish on an otherwise sparkling evening.
The Ugly: Markieff Morris
Kieff gets the dubious distinction with his ghastly line of 2/14 shooting, 4 points and 6 fouls versus the Rockets. Kieff has been perhaps the steadiest contributor thus far, so chalk this up as an aberration and let's all forget that it happened.
On The Horizon
- Monday, Dec 8 @ LA Clippers
- Tuesday, Dec 9 vs Miami Heat
- Friday, Dec 12 vs Detroit Pistons
- Sun, Dec 14 @ Oklahoma City Thunder
The Suns will complete a four-games-five-nights stretch with a B2B at the Clips before returning home for Miami. The petulant Clippers have already notched a win over Phoenix this season, 120-107 in LA on 11/15. The Heat have lost four of five, but haven't dropped one to the Suns since 11/3/09. Of course the dynamic is a bit different with LeBron James out of the picture this time around.
The Pistons seem to be one of the few cupcakes on the Suns' schedule for the next month plus, but have proved to be a frustrating matchup. The Suns have won two of the last three meetings, including an ugly 88-86 win on 11/19, but the combined point differential in those three games has been only eight points. Don't forget about the rivalry that suddenly emerged between Kieff and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Subplots!
The Pistons just dropped their 11th straight game in humiliating fashion, losing to the Sixers in overtime at home. It'll be interesting to see how much losing Stan Van can stand.
Finally, Oklahoma City is ready to make a push from the bottom with the returns of Durant and Westbrook. The Suns match up favorably with the Thunder, taking two out of three last year. This is their first meeting of the season.
Good luck, Suns fans. Happy Monday.