Let's get this out of the way: if the Phoenix Suns play the rest of the season like they played against the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night on national television, they might as well fold up the franchise and forfeit their wins on the season.
After the Suns took a 42-38 lead with five minutes left in the second quarter, the Warriors - specifically Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and league MVP Stephen Curry - blitzed the Suns into submission. They quite literally (no, not literally) went "flame on" better than Katniss and Peeta ever did, scoring 20 points in just over three minutes and never looking back from there.
Okay, enough. The Warriors just happen to be the league's best team for the past season and a half and it's not even close. Even more, they blitz opponents like this all the time. So, doing it to a young Suns team when they're back home in Roaracle Arena after losing their first game of the year and enjoying a 3-day rest-up period should not be a shock to anyone. And to try to parse it "how much" the Suns were blown out is folly. What's the difference between losing by 1 and losing by 50? Nothing. They are both one loss.
Let's look at these Suns from a wider perspective.
Are the Suns going to win a championship this season? No. Are they going to compete for one, with an expectation of a deep playoff run? No, again.
They are now 11-16 on the season. Not good, but not awful. That 11-16 record gets them the 10th spot in the West and according to basketball-reference.com's projection model that projects to... a playoff rematch against these Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.
Not a great outcome, for sure. And maybe not even worth the effort. But what I'm pointing out is that the season is not lost, and some tweaks and improvements could make the Suns spot in the playoff picture a little bit rosier.
That same playoff projection model says the Jazz will get the 5th seed with only 3 more wins (41) than the Suns project to have (38). The Suns can improve in some areas and change that trajectory to their benefit as the season progresses.
Again, I'm not saying this Suns team is a juggernaut. Far from it. But they are good enough - and the West is mediocre enough - that they should still be playing for the most wins they can get rather than blowing anything up.
This team vs. 2013-14
Let's compare the 2015-16 Suns to the 2013-14 Suns. That 48-34 Suns team would be a good blueprint for this current Suns season, right?
Coach Jeff Hornacek's best offensive model is an attacking pair of guards being surrounded by three point shooters. This year's team has evolved into exactly that. They are 3rd in three-point percentage, and their 10th-place ranking in three-point-attempt rate, while not quite a high as 2013-14 (5th), is higher than ever at 30.4% of all shots. Considering they make 38% of their attempts, that's a good model.
Where are these teams different? Again, by 'these teams' I am comparing the best-yet iteration of the modern Suns (2013-14) to this year's team so far (2015-16).
Depth in scoring
Where these Suns come up shorter offensively (104.7 vs. 109.5 in 13/14) is on two-point shots. That's no surprise, given the offensive woes of Markieff Morris and the lesser finishing ability at the rim of Brandon Knight vs. Goran Dragic.
While the 2013-14 team had a solid third scorer in Keef, plus two strong scorers off the bench (Green, Mook), this current Suns team has no one over 11 points (T.J. Warren) per game outside of the starting guards.
Finding a consistent 4th and 5th scorer would be a great help to the team, especially when good defenses figure out how to limit the impact of Knight and Bledsoe throughout the game.
Shot clock timing
While the current Suns are taking and making about as many three-pointers and two-pointers as the 2013-14 Suns, the timing of the shots is a bit different.
These current Suns are taking 18% of their shots in the final seconds of the shot clock, while the 2013-14 Suns took only 12% of their shots that late. This is a sign of struggling in the half-court to find good shots before running out of time.
Shooting percentages are historically much lower in the final seconds of the shot clock, and the Suns are no different. Their effective FG % (which factors in 3-point shooting) is only 43% in the final seconds of the clock vs. 55+% earlier in the clock on their other shots (82% of all shots).
Overall, the Suns are a good shooting team. They rank 6th in the NBA this season in effective field goal %, so you can see that if they could lower the number of shots taken late (ie. under duress/pressure), the Suns offense could be even better.
Making open shots
You might be surprised to find out that this year's Suns actually take more open shots this season than in 2013-14.
In 2013-14, the Suns took 53.7% of their shots with a defender within 4 feet of the shooter (18% within 2 feet) and made just 46% of those shots. This year's team takes 50.2% of their shots with a defender inside 4 feet away, making about the same rate.
Where these teams differ is conversion rate on open shots. The 2013-14 team made 46% of their open shots (closest defender 4+ feet away) but had an effective field goal % of 57%. This year's team makes just 43% of those same shots, with an effective field goal % of 53%.
That difference is huge, and quite likely to normalize over the course of the season, which will improve the Suns overall offense.
Whatever you may think of NBA players' abilities, every one of them can make undefended shots at a high rate. Especially threes. Some better than others, for sure. But still, the diffferences here on open shots should stabilize and - for this year's team - improve. The Suns' early struggles might be tied to slow starts by players like P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris from deep. Those shots are now being replaced more and more by Mirza Teletovic and Devin Booker, who are better shooters. But even Tucker will improve over the course of the season.
Defending the three
On defense, this current Suns team couldn't be much different than the the 2013-14 Suns. Yet the results, so far, are roughly the same. The 2013-14 Suns defense ranked 15th in the league at 106.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. This year's teams actually surrenders fewer scores (105.7 per 100), but ranks slightly lower at 17th overall.
Pretty similar results, but how they get there is completely different.
This current team boasts one of the league's best rebounding rates - thanks mostly to Tyson Chandler and Alex Len - which reduces easy second-chance points for the opponent, whereas the 2013-14 couldn't stop the other team from keeping their possessions alive on that end.
Where these Suns fall short is defending the three-point line.
The 2013-14 Suns were an inside sieve, but stopped opponents from taking the three in the first place (8th fewest 3s allowed) and from making them (2nd lowest % allowed).
These current Suns are one of the worst in the league at defending threes. This team allows the 4th MOST threes per game and the 4th highest conversion rate. That porous perimeter D is allowing other teams to stay in the game, and neutralizes the rebounding efforts by the bigs.
Like the conversion rate on open shots earlier, you could also surmise that the Suns can't possibly be this bad on perimeter defense. Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, P.J. Tucker, T.J. Warren and Devin Booker are likely the most common defenders this season, and they collectively ought to be at least "okay". (Before you blast Knight here, he's been bad but was also part of Milwaukee's #2 ranked D a year ago despite not having a strong interior defense).
My guess is that the Suns are adjusting their mindset a bit, and at some point will realize they can't rely on Len and Chandler to anchor the D alone. At some point, the guys will play tighter perimeter D as they get more comfortable in the rotations. Booker (19 years old), Warren (22) and Knight (24) are all new to the rotation this year, and Bledsoe and Tucker are adjusting to some scheme changes as well.
The Suns are not going to tank the season. The West is so balanced this year that there's little chance the Suns would finish lower than last year unless they trade everyone - which they won't.
So, if you're planning a playoff run, these are some of the areas in which the Suns can improve.
- Find a 4th and 5th consistent scorer behind Knight, Bledsoe and Warren
- Take earlier shots in the half-court (but not TOO early, Brandon!)
- Make wide open shots at a higher rate
- Defend the three-point line a LOT tighter
If the Suns can improve in these areas, their season could be fun to watch and we might even see them playing in late April for the first time in six years.