With the 6-14 Phoenix Suns officially at the quarter mark of the 2016-17 season, a large enough sample size now exists to start assessing the state of the team. So let’s start assessing.
The Suns own a better record than only three other teams in the NBA and are on pace for 24-25 wins, which would be a hair better than their record from last year — 23-59, second worst in franchise history — that came amid just about every problem a team can suffer through in a season.
Losing isn’t the end of the world for this team, though, especially since wins were never expected to be in high supply. But is it too much to ask that the team at least establish some sort of identity as they trudge along?
Head coach Earl Watson said that his team would be defined by hard-nosed defense first and foremost, with designs on molding Phoenix into a top-10 defense. On offense, his team would eschew predictable pick-and-roll sets in favor of quick execution and crisp ball movement. But after watching this team for 20 games, it remains difficult to see how anyone could objectively look at this Suns team and reach that conclusion based on their play.
Watson carved out a 13-year playing career in the NBA due in large part to his tenacity on the defensive end of the floor, so his emphasis on that aspect of the game comes as no surprise.
“The ultimate goal for us is to become a defensive team and have grit and be nasty and play with purpose,” Watson said as training camp opened up. “Defense gets you through the playoffs. And we have great, unique guys who can guard multiple positions.”
That defense-first message continued to be harped on in late November. “I can’t emphasize this enough: the only side of the ball that matters is the defensive side of the ball,” he told azcentral.com.
He has done a great job of imparting this ideal to reporters, but his team has been slower on the uptake.
The Suns just came off a game where they allowed the Golden State Warriors to annihilate any semblance of defensive resistance posed by Phoenix. They scored 138 points and did so by shooting 62.8 percent from the field — the second-highest opponent field goal percentage against Phoenix in nearly 20 years. The only bright spot defensively in that game was that they didn’t allow Klay Thompson to score 60 points in 29 minutes like he did last night against the Indiana Pacers.
The scoring dynamo that is the Warriors might not be a fair example to hold up, but Phoenix hadn’t exactly been a bulwark before that. Coming into today’s game against the Utah Jazz, the Suns are allowing opponents to score 113.2 points per game (29th in the NBA). Adjusted for Phoenix’s pace of play, they allow 107.5 points per 100 possessions (27th in the NBA). Those high scoring numbers are due in large part to the Suns’ poor field goal defense, which allows opponents to shoot 46.3 percent from the field (26th) and 39.2 percent from behind the 3-point arc (30th).
Every defensive number isn’t terrible for the Suns, though. They rank 10th in the league for steals per 100 possessions (8.4) and are 14th for deflections per game (15.4). And when it comes time to close out a defensive stand, they do well there also, landing at 3rd in the league for keeping opponents off the offensive glass per 100 possessions (8.8) and 7th for opponent second-chance points per 100 possessions (12.2). But then they rank 26th in the league for shots contested (59.8) and are 27th in blocks per 100 possessions (4.1).
What that says is Phoenix tries to be disruptive in passing lanes and does a good job of closing out defensive stands by securing the rebound but is woeful otherwise. Those are not the hallmarks of a team defined by a gritty defensive mindset. Despite Watson’s rhetoric about establishing a defensive identity for the Suns, the numbers do not bear it out.
(I know, shocking for a Suns team.)
The .5 offense
So if Watson hasn’t yet worked this Suns team into a defensive force, perhaps he is keeping things simple by leaning on the most basic tenet of basketball — putting the ball through the hoop?
Before the season, Watson described his vision for how the Suns would function on offense. He called it a “.5 mentality” with players taking no longer that half a second to decide what to do with the ball. “Pass it. Drive it. Shoot it. Don’t hold it. Cut to the rim. Sacrifice cuts and play with pace,” he told azcentral.com back in September.
“It’s to emphasize that the pass is more important than the dribble.”
That sounds like the Phoenix Suns the fans have come to recognize. Throughout the history of the team, Phoenix has always been known for its fast-paced, run-and-gun style of play (due in no small part to its inability to ever find that truly dominant center), so no one should be surprised to see that style has carried through to this season, with Phoenix playing at the fastest pace in the league (104.30) and averaging 16.7 fastbreak points per 100 possessions (3rd in the NBA).
That seems like good news, but there’s a hitch in Watson’s passing-centric system: the Suns don’t pass.
Phoenix is averaging 18.6 assists per game. Not only is that dead last in the NBA, but it would rank dead last in 49 seasons of Suns basketball were it to hold up.
And we’re not done yet. A league-high 52.8 percent of the Suns’ field goals are of the unassisted variety. They rank 30th in assists per 100 possessions (17.6), 30th in assist ratio (13.7), and 30th in assist-to-turnover ratio at a ghastly 1.16. Even potential assists — a measure of passes that would result in an assist if the player receiving the pass made the shot — has the Suns at 29th in the NBA at 38.3, making them one of just three teams below 40. And while the Suns may average 310.5 passes per game (11th in the NBA), that number is skewed high by Phoenix’s pace, as only six percent of those passes live on to become assists.
While creating easy scoring opportunities for teammates should be a team-wide emphasis, initiating the offense and setting the tone for offensive sets traditionally falls under the domain of the point guard. Phoenix’s point guard is Eric Bledsoe, and he is on track to become the first starting point guard for the Suns since Dennis Johnson in 1980-81 to average more rebounds than assists for a season. And there’s no Alvan Adams picking up the passing slack for this year’s squad, either.
That overreliance on isolation play has not helped Phoenix’s field goal shooting, with them hitting at 44.2 percent overall (21st) and 33.1 percent from 3 (24th). Add that poor shooting together with the team’s inability to create scoring opportunities for teammates, and you get an understanding of why the Suns rank 22nd in the NBA for points per 100 possessions (101.0) — bettering only their rates from the 2012-13 and 2015-16 seasons going back to 2004-05.
This Suns team plays fast, but they don’t seem to play with purpose offensively. Bledsoe is no passing maestro in the mold of past Suns greats Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, or Kevin Johnson, and the Suns as a unit do not hum along with machine-like precision the way the Warriors or San Antonio Spurs do. Outside of a devotion to pace that would make Ricky Bobby proud, there’s no calling card to be found on this end of the court yet.
The youth movement
Perhaps the team’s true identity this season was never to be that of a gritty defensive unit or a precision-based offensive unit but rather that of a young team trying to find its footing in the league? Well, if you’ve read this far, you know things aren’t that simple.
It is true that Phoenix is the league’s second-youngest team, but of the top eight players minutes-wise on the roster, they average almost seven years of NBA experience between them. That’s more than the Los Angeles Lakers. That’s more than the Minnesota Timberwolves. Heck, that’s more than the 14-7 Toronto Raptors or the 14-8 Oklahoma City Thunder.
Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, and Alex Len are the only players among that group still on rookie contracts for the Suns. Meanwhile, 2016 draft picks Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, and Tyler Ulis are averaging between 11 and 16 minutes per game — although Bender and Ulis don’t always see the court to receive those minutes. As for Alan Williams, John Jenkins, and Derrick Jones Jr. — more young players helping to drive Phoenix’s average age down — they are all deep bench players.
Phoenix may be a young team, but the players seeing the court the most aren’t hurting for experience.
Their true identity
So now that we’ve established what Phoenix’s identity isn’t, where does that leave us? What is their identity? Do they even have one?
Actually, yes. Their identity is that of a bad team, and Watson has his work cut out for him if he wants to see his preseason rhetoric become reality at some point over the next 62 games.
If he wants the Suns to be known as a gritty, nasty defensive team, he needs to get his players to take pride in all aspects of defense rather than merely hunting for steals.
If he wants the Suns to be feared on offense like teams from the franchise’s past, he needs to get his players to move beyond isolation/pick-and-roll basketball and learn how to move both the ball and their own feet in the halfcourt.
Until such time as any of this is addressed, however, no one will much care how loaded with potential the Suns’ roster is or how much of a family they are off the court. The Suns will continue to draw their identity from their record alone — and no one wants that.