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Phoenix Suns have themselves to blame for winless start to season

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Missed free throws, unforced turnovers hurting their own cause

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s make one thing clear: It’s no surprise the Phoenix Suns are 0-4.

This is the second-youngest team in the NBA, and no matter how optimistic the players and coaches were before the season started, no matter how deeply they dug in their heels about making the playoffs and shocking the world and tuning out negativity, this was always the cold, hard reality that awaited them when the games finally started to count.

That said, struggling through a season is very different from failing to gain momentum as a program, but the Suns will never overcome their own inertia if they continue to take aim at their own feet.

Missing shots early in the season is understandable; many teams and players take time to find their rhythm. However, unforced errors are another matter. They are akin to getting pummeled by three fists in a two-man fistfight, and even the most optimistic observer (Earl Watson) will have a difficult time accentuating the positive if the players continue to actively undermine their own efforts to win.

Free Throws

One thing young teams cannot afford to do is give away free points, but entering Wednesday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Suns ranked 27th in the NBA for free throw percentage at 69.6 percent. If that number were to hold, it would be the worst free throw percentage in franchise history and a far cry from Phoenix’s franchise average of 76 percent.

It is more than likely that this free throw slump will return to the mean at some point in the season, but it is surprising to see who has been responsible for dragging down the team’s percentage.

Eric Bledsoe, who has drawn the most free throw attempts on the team, is shooting 65.4 percent. Devin Booker is at an even 50 percent. Jared Dudley has been shooting a paltry 44.4 percent. These numbers are down between 15 and 34 percent from what each player shot last season. In fact, only Brandon Knight (93.8 percent) and T.J. Warren (82.4 percent) are ahead of last season’s averages (not counting the rookies).

Four games is just too small a sample size to draw any long-term conclusions about the team’s ability to convert at the stripe, but identifying immediate consequences of such poor shooting is much easier. The Suns were 21 of 32 (65.6 percent) against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Oct. 28. Had any Sun made even one more free throw, Phoenix likely escapes Oklahoma with a win instead of losing in overtime. Against the Golden State Warriors on Oct. 30, the Suns shot 18 of 25 from the charity stripe. That’s seven free points left on the table in a game they lost by six.

Historically, the 1989-90 Boston Celtics were the NBA’s best-ever free throw shooting team at 83.2 percent, so it is unreasonable to expect a team to be perfect from the free throw line. But the Suns can do much better than 69.6 percent on their free throws — and must if they want to feature more regularly in the wins column. After all, free throws are an opportunity to put up points without the defense taking an active role in preventing it. A team like the Suns cannot allow those opportunities to slip through their fingers on a regular basis.

Turnovers

Just as detrimental to a team as leaving free points on the board is not valuing possessions, and the Suns have not done a great job of keeping possession over the season’s first four games. The Suns are tied with the Washington Wizards for 26th in the NBA in both turnovers per game (16.5) and turnovers per 100 possessions (15.6).

Only Bledsoe, Tyler Ulis, Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, Dragan Bender, and Alex Len do not have negative assist-to-turnover ratios at this point in the season.

Unsurprisingly, the Suns have paid a price for their carelessness with the ball.

Against OKC and Golden State, the Suns committed 15 and 12 turnovers respectively. Those games ended up being decided by three points against the Thunder and six points against the Warriors. Compare that to games against the Sacramento Kings (18 turnovers, lost by 19) and Los Angeles Clippers (21 turnovers, lost by 18).

The game against the Clippers was especially brutal for turnovers, with the Suns committing 11 in the second quarter alone that helped turn a 24-all score at the end of the first quarter into a 48-36 hole by halftime.

Here is the breakdown of all 11 Suns turnovers in that second quarter:

  • 11:26 Chriss offensive foul
  • 8:00 Tucker steps on sideline out of bounds
  • 7:06 Chriss ball stolen
  • 5:58 Knight bad pass stolen
  • 5:39 Chandler ball stolen
  • 5:14 Bledsoe bad pass stolen
  • 4:59 Dudley bad pass out of bounds
  • 4:21 Bledsoe offensive foul
  • 2:13 Warren travels
  • 1:16 Bledsoe bad pass stolen
  • 0:49 backcourt violation

In all, six of those 11 turnovers were unforced errors. It would be easy to blame the young team’s lack of experience for these miscues, but the veterans were just as guilty — if not more so.

Continually surrendering possession to the opponent is a surefire way for a team to bury itself fast, especially when that team ranks in the bottom half of the league for field goal percentage and 27th in 3-point percentage.

Effort

One surprising area of concern for a team that was billed as scrappy and hard-nosed coming into the season has been effort. They did an admirable job of fighting teams during the preseason en route to a successful 4-2 record but saw the shimmer of that mirage fade away once the regular season began.

“I don’t know who that team was last night,” Watson told Paul Coro after Sacramento took a wrecking ball to his Suns on opening night.

Watson should know. That was the ugly, upsetting side of this year’s Suns that he has tried to bury under a Beach Boys-sized pile of good vibrations. Between their 4-2 preseason record and spirited practices, the Suns were snookered into believing they were better than they actually were. They had spent too much time in their echo chamber, listening to each other talk about the playoffs and how much success they can have if they just stick together. They overlooked the fact that there are 29 other teams out there that believe the same things, with most of them possessing more talent and longevity than this group in Phoenix.

The Suns tapped into their feisty side and competed with greater intensity against the Thunder and Warriors in their next two games, battling both teams to close losses. Some of that closeness could rightfully be attributed to those teams looking for their footing after major roster shakeups over the summer, but Phoenix’s effort deserves its due.

But then the Suns faced the Clippers and saw that effort regress once the adversity mounted.

Effort cannot be a question mark for this team. It just can’t. If this team doesn’t play hard for 48 minutes, then it can expect to lose a lot of games. Even against equally poor teams like the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers, the Suns cannot let their guard down. Those teams look at Phoenix and see a rare chance at a victory. If the Suns insist on thinking they can cruise on talent alone, those teams will be right.

It will be interesting to see if the collective effort improves as heart-and-soul P.J. Tucker rounds into game shape after his September back surgery, but the veterans on this team should take offense that the player who has given the most consistent effort thus far has been the 5’10, 150 lb. rookie Ulis.