September is the time of year the basketball nerds put their heads down and run their statistical models of all NBA team and player predictions for the 2015-16 season.
They project the basics like points, rebounds and assists. They also project advanced stats like Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Win Shares, Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Real Plus-Minus (RPM) and other similar models that try to find the hidden gems beyond scoring and rebounding.
Then they add all these up and predict how the season will shake out for every team. Two years ago, they predicted 18-21 wins for the Suns, who went on to win 48. Last year, they predicted about 42-44 wins while the Suns went on to win 39. At least last year was closer, considering the Suns had 38 wins with 11 games to go.
Early predictions for the 2015-16 season have the Suns winning somewhere around 35 games next year. That's 4 wins below a year ago's actual results and about 7 wins below national projections for last season (which were laughed at for being too low at the time).
After improving the short-term outlook at center by adding Tyson Chandler ahead of still-developing Alex Len, how is it possible to get worse?
Remember, we are comparing what analysts thought of the Suns last September versus this September. The Suns have changed considerably in the span of just one year. And many of the Suns changes have been to bring in younger players (Knight, Booker) or those who've spent most of their professional careers overseas (Teletovic, Weems).
Let's first take a look at the Suns best players, year over year.
The predictive models are great for veteran players. Those who have been in the NBA for years have a predictable pattern of incremental improvement until a certain age, then a decline. The models factor in things like age and trending and playing opportunity, so someone like Anthony Davis will be projected a bit better than last year while Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan will be projected to decline.
Compared to the beginning of last season, Markieff Morris and Eric Bledsoe will project better than they did a year ago. When I say "project better" I mean that this year their status relative to a replacement player will be deemed better than a year ago. They are each advanced stats darlings. On the other hand, P.J. Tucker will see a projected decline as he turns 30.
The fun part of these models, for the modelers, is factoring in off season changes. When you replace an average player with an above average player, all else remaining the same, you can say the team will be better than last year. And vice versa, replacing a good player with a bad one lowers the team's projected win total.
Comparing the Suns this year to last year, you can see they added Tyson Chandler (10 win shares in 2014-15) but lost Goran Dragic (about the same win shares in 2013-14). They added Brandon Knight (4.5 win shares in 2014-15) but lost Isaiah Thomas (7.7 wins shares in 2013-14).
To this point, we've covered Chandler, Knight, Bledsoe, Tucker and Morris. In terms of advanced stats projections, this Top 5 is slightly worse than last year's opening night Top 5 of Dragic, Thomas, Bledsoe, Tucker and Morris.
The advantage the 2015-16 has, though, is the positional balance.
Last year's Top 5 couldn't play together unless a point guard played out of position at small forward. This year, all five can share the court together. The only question mark is Knight at the off-guard role. But Knight and Bledsoe have already been playing pickup games together for the past few weeks, so they will be able to develop a chemistry in sharing the ball throughout the next couple months until the real games start.
New point-guard-turned-off-guard Brandon Knight is better suited to play next to Eric Bledsoe in a lineup. He's bigger 6'3" than Thomas (5'9") and has periodically played off the ball throughout his career. He can defend twos much better than Thomas, and is already coming into the season ready to share the ball.
But statistically, he's a major downgrade from Isaiah Thomas. Comparing last year's best players to this year's best players highlights that Knight just isn't the stats darling that Thomas was.
*Note - some of you may wonder why I'm comparing Knight to Thomas rather than Dragic. In a stats article on the overall Suns team, Dragic compares more favorably to Tyson Chandler in terms of addition/subtraction. Knight's role in the Suns hierarchy more mirrors Thomas' from last year.
Thomas scores better (20 points per game in a starting role vs. 18), assists better (6 vs. 5) and outpaces Knight in every advanced stat.
In fact, Brandon Knight is a real dud in some of the advanced stats. He's okay in win shares (+4.5), VORP (+1.6) and Box Score Plus/Minus (2.2), but not earth shattering. By definition, half the league is in the positive on those stats. But he's a real loser in ESPN's Real Plus Minus, ranking 51st among point guards in 2014-15 with a -2.36 RPM.
By comparison, Isaiah Thomas was 21st among point guards (+1.45) in RPM and killed Knight in the other stats.
For the Suns to exceed expectations in 2015-16, they will need Brandon Knight to have a career year. He's just 23 (won't turn 24 till next spring) and he's improved every year in the league, so the potential is there. But the Suns will need a BIG jump from Knight to negate the loss of Thomas in the lineup.
The models come up short when there's not enough data available and that's basically the case for the rest of the Suns 2015-16 roster.
The same was true, except even more in the extreme, with the 2013-14 Suns team. None of them beyond Dragic had positive track records in the league. Even veteran Channing Frye was a complete unknown in August 2013 (the time of the predictions) so was likely heavily discounted in the projections.
Back to this year.
The 2014-15 team had Thomas, Marcus Morris and Gerald Green (6+ combined VORP the year before) projected as the top three guys coming off the bench.
This year's team projects to have Alex Len, Mirza Teletovic and T.J. Warren (0 combined VORP in 2014-15) as the top three guys coming off the bench.
It doesn't even help to swap in Sonny Weems, Devin Booker or Archie Goodwin into the mix. None would make much difference.
The Suns don't look so good on paper.
Assuming a positive resolution on the Markieff Morris situation, you can argue that the team is more balanced and has a better chance to succeed with each player knowing his role.
You can argue that Tyson Chandler will have a bigger impact at center than Goran Dragic did at small forward. You can argue that Alex Len off the bench is better than Brandan Wright. Or that Sonny Weems could be better than Gerald Green, who was really awful last year. Or that T.J. Warren will have a massive breakout and become, basically, the Isaiah Thomas of stats darlings.
But the statistics just don't see it. There's not enough to go on.
So let's just hope the Morris situation gets resolved in a positive way, and that the Suns come out and exceed expectations like they did in 2013-14.