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Deep dive: Phoenix Suns depth being challenged, but starters absolutely shining

Early season results so that the Phoenix Suns starting unit has played very well, but the subs have been suspect. Coach Hornacek has been mixing and matching to find competent rotations.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns starting lineup has been together for just a few weeks, but already they have found excellent chemistry on the court. This is a nice change from the preseason where the starters regularly put the team in the hole.

Your eye test may not come to the same conclusion, but it's true. The Suns as a team still rank low on offensive efficiency, and near-worst in assist rate. Starting power forward Markieff Morris has made only 36% of his shots. New guard Brandon Knight barely cracked 40% until his outburst on Thursday. Small forward P.J. Tucker's statistics have fallen precipitously across the board. His production per 36 minutes is at a career low, and that even includes his initial time in Toronto.

Yet the Suns starters, buoyed by new center Tyson Chandler and improving point guard Eric Bledsoe, boast one of the five best starting lineups in the NBA over the first two weeks of play. Chandler is helping the Suns rank as a top-5 rebounding team while Eric Bledsoe is playing at an All-Star level with 22.4 points and 6.5 assists per game.

The Starters

Among all NBA lineups that have played 75+ minutes together this season, the Suns starting unit has the 5th highest offensive rating (110.5 points per 100 possessions). They boast 43% three-point shooting, and are 5th in effective field goal %, true shooting % and pace.

The Suns net point differential is 4th best in the league behind only the OKC, Clippers and (surprise) Charlotte starters.

Even better, they have the 3rd best defensive rating (95.5 points per 100 possessions) among units with 75+ minutes together, and their net point differential of 15 points is 4th overall behind only the OKC, Clippers and (surprise) Charlotte starters. Among all the Top 4 units, the Suns have played the most total minutes together (127).

Given that the Suns play about 101 possessions per night, these numbers equate to roughly a nightly 15-point win if they could play all 48 minutes without getting fatigued.

Small sample size, of course, but that same small sample size is the one feeding naysayers’ doubts about the Suns chances this season to make the playoffs. One cannot conclude the Suns are lottery-bound based on early season results while at the same time denouncing alternative indicators.

The starting unit's 127 minutes rank as 5th-most in the NBA so far, but even then the starters' time still only counts for about 1/3 of the team's total minutes. Why so low?

The bench

It's early in the season, and every NBA team has 10+ players talented enough to play minutes, so coaches are mixing and matching to find the best 8-10 man rotation to make it through an 82-game season. With NBA rosters at 13-15 deep, finding the right combos at the right time can be difficult.

The Suns are no different. Coach Hornacek is subbing liberally, trying to find any combination that will produce strong, or at least middling, results while the starters are alternately resting.

While the starters put the Suns up 5, every other combination of players has been a -3.5 the rest of the way.

So far, the results are not pretty. If the starters put the Suns up 5 over their 16 minutes a game, every other combination of players has been a -3.5 over the other 32 minutes.

In fact, the popular opinion that T.J. Warren would slide nicely into the starting lineup has been a disaster so far. With the same supporting cast as P.J. Tucker's +15-projected unit, Warren's substitution plunges the unit to a -28.6 rating. The minutes are much smaller though (just 23 minutes together) so the results are likely skewed. But you can see why Hornacek has not put his faith in any change to the current starting lineup.

Warren does much better with the subs. The very best non-starting unit has been an all-sub unit of Ronnie Price, Alex Len, Jon Leuer, T.J. Warren and Sonny Weems, with a plus-11 net rating per 100 possessions (on only 14 minutes together). Small sample size alert!

Recently, Hornacek has taken to giving subs more chance to succeed, by periodically benching 2-3 of them at a time for an entire game to give others a much longer leash. Devin Booker, Mirza Teletovic, Archie Goodwin and Sonny Weems have all taken the hit while others get their turn. Mirza has played every game, but at least twice hardly got any time until the fourth quarter in a blowout.

Of units that have played 5+ minutes together so far, only a handful have done better than the starters and Jon Leuer is in four of those five. But then he's in some bad ones too. Just like all the other units.

As bad as T.J. Warren has been when subbed for Tucker, Jon Leuer being the sole sub (for Markieff Morris) has been worse. And, less surprisingly, replacing Eric Bledsoe with Ronnie Price has been disaster as well.

Leuer and Warren have teamed with Tucker, Chandler and Knight for a positive five-minute stint once. But those same two (Leuer and Warren) with Bledsoe, Chandler and Knight have been awful.

And yet, Leuer, Warren and Price have all earned backup minutes with their individual play, as has Alex Len.

Long-term implications

Now maybe you get the picture on why Hornacek is still mixing and matching, sometimes in what looks like random fashion. He's got his players - now it's time to find the right combinations to succeed. Clearly, just subbing in one guy at a time with the starters has been less than ideal.

The Suns almost certainly, barring injury, have at least a nine-man rotation with starters being backed up by Len, Leuer, Warren and Price.

The depth of the rotation really comes down to who among Weems, Goodwin, Booker and Teletovic steps into that 10th man role. All are "NBA ready" but there's just not enough minutes to go around. Maybe even two of them can force minutes. But the others will have to wait for injury or trades to get a chance.

At least Hornacek is trying to give them every chance to succeed in these opening weeks before settling on a set rotation.

It's up to the players to perform now.

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