The Phoenix Suns lead all NBA teams in total points, assists and rebounds from players 22 and under (per a graphic I saw on Fox Sports Arizona during the Suns-Spurs game) while languishing along with a 2-11 record, including eight losses by 17 or more points.
Those two facts are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are heavily correlated. The youngest teams simply don’t win many games.
To steady a rocky, unpredictable ship, a young team needs difference-making veterans to lead them through storms as they swell.
In prior years, the Suns thought they had a player like that in Tyson Chandler, but the aging Chandler brought little more than rebounding in his area and couldn’t play more than 25 minutes a game on a nightly basis. They also had Jared Dudley, but Duds lost his focus on basketball, gained a bunch of weight and couldn’t get on the floor enough to make any kind of impact on the scoreboard.
This year, they expected that steadying veteran leadership would come from ex-Rockets Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson. But Ariza has played uninspired basketball and leads the Suns in negative point differential when he plays, while Anderson can’t even make three-pointers anymore let alone defend or bring any other skills to the floor and has largely lost his rotation spot.
Maybe Ariza and/or Anderson will recover their basketball edge later in the season, but for now the Suns are better served playing them fewer minutes.
So, the young Suns are left to right their own ship, and as you can see that has not gone well for them. Games are largely uncompetitive and youthful fire is being replaced by smoldering frustration.
Even the good times are only fleeting.
Twice in the past week, the Suns have run out to a 32-13 first quarter lead against a playoff-caliber opponent at home (Celtics last week, Spurs this week) only to give it all back before the end of the night.
A week ago, the Suns didn’t lose their lead until the final buzzer, but the second half was a rising disaster like a tsunami heading toward land. No Suns fan thought the Celtics game was in the bag even with a 14-point lead as the final four minutes approached.
On Wednesday night, the young Suns threatened to break their own hearts again. They nearly blew their entire 19-point early lead before midway through the third quarter as the Spurs got within a point.
But then another veteran, the veteran-est of veterans on veteran island, stepped to the fore and steered the Suns through the growing storm.
Jamal Crawford, signed just as the season was starting to play for the league’s worst team without the benefit of offseason injury protection (contract), training camp or preseason games, suddenly reminded everyone how he thrived 18 years in the league and won three Sixth Man of the Year awards along the way.
In that game-saving third quarter on Wednesday night, Jamal Crawford scored or assisted on 17 of the Suns 25 points during a quarter-ending 25-10 run to help the Suns regain a 17-point lead on the feisty Spurs.
Listen to him talk about the win with Fox Sports Arizona after the game. I love the way this guy talks about his role and the Suns themselves.
“We found a good rhythm, good continuity,” Crawford said of the run to regain the lead.
“We’re starting to figure out where guys are more effective at,” T.J. Warren said. “I said it was going to take some time and guys are starting to learn where guys like to ball or where they can be more good at.”
Crawford been there before: it was the 534th double-digit game of his career coming off the bench.
Behind the scenes and between plays on the court, he’s enjoying being a voice the players will listen to.
“Talking player to player is totally different,” Crawford said, versus the coaching staff. “The fact that a lot of these guys have seen me all these years, through their childhood... I guess, showing my age right there...”
Deandre Ayton is one of those kids. He said he tells Crawford every day how much he appreciates the veteran. Crawford mentioned Ayton, specifically, as being a good listener and willing to apply the lessons he’s being given by the veterans.
Let’s hope Crawford makes more of an impact on these Suns, on and off the court, than any of those prior veterans who were brought in to steady the ship and teach the kids through sweat equity.