As the 28-22 Phoenix Suns hurtle toward season's end with a playoff spot hanging in the balance, their list of heartbreaking failures in the face of "sure" wins continues to grow.
Already this season, the Suns have lost on three different buzzer-beating three-point plays to create lose-from-ahead heartbreakers. "The Blake". "The Khris". Jeff Green. In each case, the Suns had the lead in the final seconds, only to see their opponent create something out of nothing to win the game.
Add in the James Harden buzzer-beater that decided a tie game, the double-overtime loss to Memphis where the Suns had several chances to win, the overtime loss to a Boogie-less Kings, and three early-season losses to bad Eastern Conference teams at home, and you've got a Suns team that could easily be much better than 28-22.
Yet, 28-22 is where they are.
And that means fingers must be pointed.
Who's to blame for these awful losses? The coach, or the players?
Just focusing on these games alone, you can see the Suns had plenty of chances to close out those games before the final shot by the opponent. Many times, the Suns have had untimely back court turnovers and failed half-court possessions that leave a fan base scratching their heads.
So is it the coach's fault, not putting the players in the best position to succeed? Or the players' fault, for not executing the scheme well enough in the closing minutes?
Let's start by looking at the big picture
Over the course of the season, the Phoenix Suns are 7th in the league in scoring efficiency vs. 19th in defensive efficiency, according to NBA.com, and 28-22 overall.
In the past six weeks, the Suns are 4th in offense vs. 22nd in defense, with a better overall net rating and a 16-8 record on the scoreboard.
The team is improving throughout the year as the coach finds better rotations and the players are getting more and more comfortable in their roles.
Performance in the clutch
That's all fine and good, but how are they in the clutch?
Let's look at the season in segments. One expectation of a coaching staff is that they use the best possible lineups at the right times. Sometimes, you don't know those best lineups early in the season. Some players come back worse, or better, than the prior season and other players are brand new to the scheme.
In the first six weeks of the season (12-14 record), the Suns played 12 games where the score differential was within 3 points in the final 5 minutes. The Suns were 5-7 in those games with a net rating of about +.5 points in the final 5 minutes, per NBA.com stats. This ranked right in the middle of the NBA pack (13th overall). The team scored well, but committed a lot of untimely turnovers (29th in league) and couldn't pull down defensive rebounds (25th in the league).
That 5-7 "clutch" stretch in the first six weeks includes the double-OT loss to the Kings, the bad loss to the Magic and... wait for it... "The Blake" and "The Khris", for those keeping score.
In this past six weeks (16-8), the Suns have had 14 such games where the score differential was within 3 points in the final 5 minutes (yes, they've given all of us mild heart attacks!), and are 8-6 overall in those games with a net differential of about +1.5 points in those final minutes. The Suns have improved to the league's 8th best net rating in those final minutes, including the league's 10th best defense (and 10th best offense).
What can we conclude from this?
We can conclude that (a) the Suns are getting better at winning close games overall - 8-6 vs. 5-7 - and (b) the net point differential is SO SMALL for even the best "clutch" teams that these games really are a toss-up.
When it's a three-point game in the final minutes, and the league's 8th best "clutch" team can only scrape together a +1.5 points across 14 contests, that's... well... more heart attacks waiting to happen.
Only two NBA teams have a significantly better winning percentage than the Suns in close games (8-6) over the past six weeks - the Atlanta Hawks (9-0) and the Chicago Bulls (9-2). That's it. The Warriors have gone 2-1 in such close games. The other "best" teams are comparable to the Suns. The Thunder have gone 8-5. The Hornets and Cavaliers are 6-4. The Grizzlies and Mavericks are 7-5.
But that doesn't pass the eye test, does it?
From a fan's point of view, the Suns have been handing away close games like candy.
The more accurate description is that, while the Suns are good at getting their feet under them and closing out games competitively, they have surely been on the short end of some last-second losses.
Let's look at the actual results.
Over the past six weeks, in games that were within 3 points in the final 10 seconds, the Suns are 4-6. Let's sit on that one for a bit and ruminate. The Suns have only played 24 games over that span of time, yet 10 of them have been last-possession decisions.
10 OF 24 GAMES WITHIN 3 POINTS IN THE FINAL 10 SECONDS. HOLY CRAP.
In that six-week span, only the Indiana Pacers (4-9) and Portland Trailblazers (7-4) have had more close finishes than the Suns.
Most Suns fans can rattle off all six of those losses, but maybe not all the wins because they were "supposed to happen that way".
Okay, we can see that the Suns, for the most part, are pretty good in closing minutes.
They sure know how to lose heartbreakers, though.
Sometimes, the fault in those heartbreakers is on the coach - failed lineup changes, benching of key players in key games for disciplinary reasons, bad playcalling.
And sometimes it's the fault of the players for failing to execute the plays that are called.
When a player fails to execute a called play to perfection, whose fault is that really? Is it the coach for not drilling it into them enough? Or the players for forgetting what to do, or hesitating too long?
Let's turn to Randy Hill, a long time player development guru and coach on the high school level who also covers the Suns for FoxSports Arizona.
Randy says the coaching staff is limited in its options in some significant ways. First, the personnel is geared around three point guards who are hard-wired to drive first, pass second and rarely move without the ball. Second, the Suns don't have any dead-eye shooters on the weak side to force the defense to overplay them. Third, the Suns best midpost offensive option is Markieff Morris, who has been great but not quite good enough to require double-teams. All of this serves to clog the lanes for the hard-wired drivers and limits offensive options in crunch time.
He does go into ways the Suns could improve their weak-side action:
A coaching issue is what to do on the weak side when - for example - the Suns are running side PnR. Like most NBA teams attempting to coax a D3 call that seems rare late in games, the Suns usually spot up on the opposite side, with not-great shooters waiting for opportunities at the end of a drive and kick.At the collegiate level (where defenders can load the paint any way they choose without a D3 threat), strong-side PnR action often serves as misdirection for something like a double-stagger screen for a shooter on the opposite side.
Even if you're running dummy PnR on the strong side, it has a good chance of creating an opening because defenders on the opposite side are occupied trying to work against the double-stagger action.
But NBA teams more often seem committed to exposing D3.
But it's not all on the coaches. We've talked about personnel limitations, so now let's talk about player execution.
Another player-related issue is the tardy implementation of whatever set Hornacek is attempting to run. Judging from reactions from Jeff and whoever is initiating the possession, the offensive flow often is compromised by someone not knowing the play or mistiming an action (cut or screen).
Although it's the responsibility of a coaching staff to work on precision, lack of practice time requires the players to be responsible enough to know what they're supposed to be doing.
Hero ball is also an issue, and that's not something built into the scheme.
The Suns also have been hampered by the dreaded hero-ball intentions of several players. Some of that has been created by the lack of definitive go-to scorers. With so many players of a similar offensive caliber (at least in their minds), timely swing passes often are made less timely by a deadly pause to at least explore a one-on-one move.
Every Sun you can name has had several episodes of getting shut down on an attempted maneuver, leading to a bail-out pass or forced shot.
Hornacek leans on a lot of the same half-court sets and secondary quick-hitters seen all over the league. The difference in efficiency is execution (largely based on the intelligence of the players) and the skill levels of the players you have.
Is coach Hornacek getting the most out of what he has?
Maybe, maybe not.
Are the players getting the most out of their talent?
Maybe, maybe not.
Amin Elhassan of ESPN, who used to work in the Suns front office and still attends/scouts most Suns games between hot takes on SportsCenter, has this to say of the Suns' scheme.
They are going to play to their strengths and go super small and basically take you out like the rebels trying to take out the Death Star in Star Wars: small and quick vs big and lumbering. The problem arises when the Death Star is operational!
In essence, GOOD teams like Memphis will at some point settle down and pound the ball into the post, crash OREBS and make you pay for trying to go small. They control tempo and achieve deep seals with their bigs.
The Suns roster has its limitations, as we all know. The Suns front office knows this as well, never once purporting that this is their dream team. The team is still effectively in a transitional period until they can acquire an All-Star to supplement their above-average core and stable of youth on the way.
The key is getting the most out of that available talent in the meantime. The Suns are 28-22 and getting better, even in close games, despite the obvious roster flaws.
Do the Suns have problems? Yes.
In what order would I rank those problems? I'd say it's the personnel/roster first and foremost, followed by the lack of execution by the players.
Ranking very low on the list of problems is the coaching staff.
By all accounts across the nation, Jeff Hornacek and his staff are figuring out a way to maximize the output of a ragtag bunch and are just a few unlucky bounces short of a mid-seed in the Western Conference playoff picture.
And that ragtag bunch is getting better as the season wears on too. They've improved from 5-7 in close games the first six weeks to 8-6 in the last six weeks. They've gone from 12-14 to 16-8 over that same span, overall.
And half-dozen of those losses are of the toss-up variety.
Let's watch the rest of the season play out, and maybe just maybe the Suns will get even better as the season wears on.
If the Suns can start seeing the ball bounce their way in the second half, maybe just maybe the rest of the Western Conference ought to watch their backs.