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A look back at the ‘Great Suns Run of 2019’

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What can we take from that Suns 6-4 stretch mid season to use for optimism — or pessimism — in the upcoming season?

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns have not been able to win more than 24 of their 82 games at any point in the last four seasons, so you have to savor the small stretches of competence when they present themselves.

Today, we focus on how the Suns went 6-4 this past spring from February 25 — March 16, 2019.

I’m calling it the Great Suns Run of 2019.

To you, it’s probably when the Valley Boyz moniker went mainstream.

Sure, every team goes on little runs every season. Even the lowly Suns. Most of this same group had a 5-2 stretch in December. A year ago, the 2017-18 Suns went 6-3 over the Christmas holidays after going 4-1 in the second week of season after the coach and point guard were fired. A year before that, they had random stretches of 5-4 and 4-2. In Jeff Hornacek’s final act, they went 6-3 early on before the wheels fell off in December of the 2015-16 season.

The Suns have been unable to sustain any stretches of success, so what’s the point of focusing hard on this most recent one, especially since it not coincidentally began when “fire Igor” became the alternative? Why would this most recent stretch of competence be any different than the ones that came before?

Because this time the biggest on-court ingredients are still there going into next season, even with a new coaching staff.

After every one of the prior stretches of good play, key figures in those lineups were soon disbanded. Much of that was because the Suns wanted to lose as many games as possible in order to maximize the draft pick opportunities. Why else go into a season with Isaiah Canaan and a pair of second round rookies as your point guards? But also some was due players getting old (Chandler, Ryno), or asking out (Morris, Bledsoe, Dragic and eventually Ariza) or simply getting injured (Warren, Knight, etc.).

This time, for the first time in years, the Suns have actually kept together all of the key players from a good run of basketball into the next season. And they all want to be here! And those key players are just entering their athletic primes. And, finally, they have enhanced the roster around them as well.

Today, we delve deep into the lineups that helped the Suns win six of 10 games, including wins over conference leaders Golden State and Milwaukee, before losing Kelly Oubre Jr. (thumb) and Tyler Johnson (knee) for the rest of the season due to injury.

Five-man lineups

Here’s something that might surprise you. Only eight (8) five-man combinations of players appeared in even half of those 10 games, and not one single five-man lineup appeared in all 10 games.

The lineup that played the most minutes together was the starting lineup for 7 of the 10 games: Tyler Johnson, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Dragan Bender and Deandre Ayton. That lineup was a collective minus-9 on the scoreboard in 77 minutes over seven games (or, about a minus-1 per game).

The Suns team, as a whole, played 485 minutes over those 10 games (including one OT period) and yet not one single five-man lineup played more than 77 of those minutes.

The best performing lineup of the 10-game stretch had Mikal Bridges in for Bender: Tyler Johnson, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton. This group played only 48 minutes together over 8 games (6 minutes per game), coming away with a plus-33 on the scoreboard in those minutes. A plus-33 in only 48 minutes! All five players from this lineup return for next season.

Now of course you’ll ask why the best lineup only played six minutes a game together during the great Suns Run of 2019, and I can’t give you a single answer. Part is natural rotations. Those were the best five players, so they had to be spread out over 48 minutes of game time. Part is that this is a terrible rebounding lineup, with only Ayton over 6’7”, against a team playing multiple big men at once. So that makes it a change-of-pace lineup. But really, you’d think Igor could have found more than six minutes a game for the Suns best lineup.

Digression on lineup combinations

Just like any other NBA team, a game is filled with near-constant lineup changes due to game flow, player conditioning, prescribed rests, matchups, foul trouble, and other reasons.

During that 10-game run, the Suns used a whopping 102 other various and sundry five-man combinations that appeared together in 4 or fewer of the 10 games, with none of those 102 lineups playing more than 16 total minutes across all 10 games.

Phew.

We might think that’s completely pointless to run so many different five-man combinations out there for such short bursts. How can the players possibly get comfortable in their roles if the teammates around them are always changing?

We also might think that the GOOD teams would run fewer than 110 different five-man lineups over a 10 game span.

Well, we’d be wrong.

In that same time span the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks used 188 different lineups, while the Warriors used 134 and Denver used 99. I stopped looking after those three.

Sure some of the lineups were late-game or late-quarter substitutions that might have only played a possession or two, but still that’s a lot of ins and outs.

Injuries happen

During that 6-4 run, a few regular rotation players were unavailable for one or more games due to injury. T.J. Warren missed all of them. De’Anthony Melton missed four, Tyler Johnson missed two and Richaun Holmes missed one.

Only Ayton, Booker, Oubre, Bridges, Josh Jackson and Troy Daniels appeared in all 10 games.

Who played well?

  • Points: Booker (29 per game), Oubre (20.5 per game), Ayton (15.1), Johnson (11.6)
  • Rebounds: Ayton (9.1), Oubre (6.1), Holmes (5.2), Booker (4.8), Bender (3.8)
  • Assists: Booker (7.3), Johnson (4.5), Bridges (3.2), Melton (2.7), Crawford (2.7)
  • Minutes: Booker (36.4), Oubre (31.9), Johnson (31.5), Bridges (30.6), Ayton (30.1)

Getting the drift yet on who were the Suns best players last year?

All of Booker, Ayton, Oubre, Bridges and Johnson are back this season. Those five plus Elie Okobo are the only remaining players from last year’s 19-61 team.

What’s totally interesting to me is that the Suns as a team didn’t even shoot the ball all that well during this run. Tyler Johnson made just 38 percent of his shots (31 percent on threes). Booker made only 33 percent of his threes, while Oubre only made 32 percent on threes. And those three were the leaders by far in three-point attempts per game (4.4-6.2 attempts each).

All their team numbers were up a little across the board, compared to the whole season, but only by a couple tick marks. Overall shooting up 1 percent, three point shooting up 1.5 percent, rebounds per game up 2.5, steals up 0.8, blocks up 0.2.

Still, they played more efficient basketball on both ends of the court. Their overall offensive rating shot up 4 points and their defensive rating dropped 4 points, making them about a net-zero on points per 100 possessions in those 10 games. This compared to almost a -9 per 100 possessions throughout the whole season.

They’re not world beaters here, by any stretch. But it’s clear that a healthy combination of the five or six NBA-level players last year could produce non-pukable results.

Is next year’s team better? Yes.

Melton, Crawford, Okobo and Troy Daniels’ minutes are largely being replaced by Ricky Rubio and Tyler Johnson as the primary guards in and around Devin Booker. Holmes was replaced by defense-oriented Aron Baynes. Bender was replaced by Dario Saric. The Suns added even more big-man depth this year with Frank Kaminsky and Cheick Diallo, plus a couple of first round rookies who shot 40-plus percent on threes in college to soak up the remaining guard minutes.

No, the team is not “stacked.”

But they brought back the best of 2019 and added several better pieces around those returnees.

I believe we have good indicators of future success here.