It is often said that once you hit rock bottom, the only direction left to go is up. When the Phoenix Suns lost to the Philadelphia 76ers — a team that was 1-30 at the time — at home on Dec. 26, they most assuredly hit rock bottom.
Undeterred, the Suns seem to have found a jackhammer at the bottom of the hole they've been digging and are presently speeding their way through layer upon layer of pesky rock.
Since that loss to the Sixers, the Suns have lost their best player, Eric Bledsoe, for the season; fired two assistant coaches who were hardly to blame for the team's troubles; and compiled a 0-5 record that includes:
- Losing by 33 points to San Antonio, the team's largest margin of defeat since Nov. 28, 2012
- Surrendering 142 points in regulation to the Sacramento Kings, a Suns opponent point total not seen in over 25 years
- Scoring a franchise-record-low 22 1st half points against the Los Angeles Lakers, the only team in the West with a worse record than Phoenix
Quite frankly, this Suns team couldn't look more helpless if it changed its mascot to a turtle flipped over onto its shell, legs feebly flailing in the air. All the losing has NBA scouts flocking to Suns games like buzzards while Suns fans abandon hope for the season in favor of dreams of June, when one of Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, or Dragan Bender could head for the Valley as the team's next star and savior in the NBA Draft.
It's hard to blame fans for salving the pain of losing with dreams of greener pastures, but the concern during this 9-game losing streak is that the players themselves appear to be following that lead. AZCentral's Paul Coro noted after Phoenix's loss in Sacramento that the locker room contained a "curious mix of players who were upbeat and downbeat." Remember, this was after their defense exhibited the resistance of rice paper in allowing 142 points in regulation to a Kings team that hadn't scored that much since 1993.
The defensive effort put forth recently by the Suns would seem to support claims that the team has given up. During the losing streak, the Suns have allowed eight of their nine opponents to score 100 or more points with an average total per game of 109.8 points allowed, and the Suns have lost each of those games by an average of 14 points per contest. Teams have also shot 50.4 percent against the Suns' defense over that span.
"Guys haven't given up in this locker room," Ronnie Price said after the Suns' loss to the Lakers. "Guys still are affected by losing games, and that's a good sign. When people are numb to losing games, then you're in a bad place."
While this may be true, the bigger question is how many guys haven't given up in that locker room? Far too often in recent games, players have taken the ball out of bounds with shoulders slumped, walked the ball up court, and gone through the motions on offense. And as the numbers above indicated, the effort on defense has been even worse. Against the Lakers, the Suns' defensive awareness appeared nonexistent through the first three quarters. There was Alex Len falling for a Roy Hibbert pump fake from 22 feet out, followed by Tyson Chandler choosing not to challenge Hibbert at the rim. Devin Booker regularly lost contact with his man on defense to the point that at one point his man was spotting up for a corner 3 while Booker was at the top of the key watching the ball. And Brandon Knight, the highest-paid player on the team, found himself broken down so often you'd swear he was an '85 Yugo. In all honesty, the list of defensive lapses committed by the Suns that night is far too long and ugly to rehash in its entirety.
But the worst part of all this for Phoenix is that the problem isn't a lack of talent. Losing when you are simply outmatched would be one thing, but the Suns have been losing to teams they are more talented than. Getting your lunch money stolen by the cool kids in school is one thing, but when you start getting your lunch money stolen by the chess club, it is an indication that the issue is something bigger.
The bigger issues in this case are confidence and heart. The team's confidence was damaged when it went 2-4 on that 6-game road trip to start December. Then the little fissures that stronger teams weather began to build up until the team cracked under the strain. Now, with the season skidding out of control, the Suns are finding they lack the heart to turn out of it.
"We've got to find the guys who are going to put it out there and not feel sorry for themselves," Jeff Hornacek told azcentral.com.
That has to begin on defense. While teams can suffer through bad shooting nights, defense is all about desire and effort. It is the facet of the game that most demonstrates a team's heart and, not surprisingly, has been where the Suns have been at their worst.
"We need Ronnie Price effort every night, from everybody," Hornacek said, referring to the relentless effort put forth by the team's third-string point guard. "You got to get after somebody, and Ronnie Price is the prime example of guys you want to have on your team."
What is Ronnie Price effort? It is running a guy down on a fast break and fouling him to prevent an easy two points. It is harassing the opponent for all 94 feet of the court. It is poking the ball loose from the ball-handler, then diving on the floor after it before the offensive player can even react. It's looking your opponent in the eye and saying You're not going to beat me. Not today. Mostly, it's playing every minute with pride.
Every player on this team needs to adopt that mentality. It may or may not turn this season around, but it will pay dividends for the future. Losing/tanking is dangerous to player development and creates a losing culture that is difficult to shake once established. If the Suns give their best effort and still lose, so be it. That is the culture you want to bring young players into, not one filled with players who say all the right things in the media about effort and pride and focus but who don't care enough to carry those sentiments over into the actual games.
The Phoenix Suns have 45 games remaining on their schedule. Those games will go a long way towards highlighting which players still maintain a shred of dignity and exposing which players are content with being a laughingstock so long as the checks clear.