A Suns Q and A with BP's Kevin Pelton

I’m hoping to make better use of advanced statistics during this upcoming NBA season, and to start off right I exchanged e-mails with one of the foremost leaders in NBA advanced stats, Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus.

In this Q and A, Pelton discusses how great the Suns’ offense was at the end of last season and whether Nash is on the decline from a statistical perspective before offering up one statistical observation about a Suns player that just might surprise you.

Michael Schwartz: Put into perspective how amazing the Suns’ offense was under Gentry last season when they averaged about 120 points per 100.

Kevin Pelton: It’s awfully impressive, even in the context of the great offense we’ve come to expect in Phoenix. If we adjust for the fact that offense gets better over the course of the season, the Suns’ offense under Gentry was equivalent to scoring 119.8 points per 100 possessions. The league as a whole averaged a 109.8 Offensive Rating last season. That means Phoenix was 9.1 percent better than average. That puts the Gentry Suns just ahead of the first Seven Seconds or Less team (+8.6 percent) as the best Phoenix offense. Only one team in modern NBA history (we only have data going back to 1973-74) has been more efficient–the 2003-04 Dallas Mavericks, whom Steve Nash led to an Offensive Rating 9.5 percent better than the league average. Not counting last year’s split season, Nash has helmed the five best offenses the modern NBA has ever seen (his last three years in Dallas and 2004-05 and 2006-07 with the Suns). Not too shabby.

MS: At the same time, what was the biggest factor in the Suns’ defense being so porous at the end of last year?

KP: Well, the focus was pretty clearly on the offensive end of the floor. I’ve heard the theory–I think it was probably from Phoenix Stan of Bright Side of the Sun–that the goal was to restore confidence in the offense that was shaken during the Terry Porter era. I can’t imagine the Suns will be quite as porous defensively this year. However, part of it comes down to personnel. When you lose Raja Bell and Shawn Marion (and even Boris Diaw, when motivated and in shape), declining at the defensive end is inevitable. It’s hard to point to a lot of above-average defenders on the current Phoenix roster.

MS: Do you think this team can be better without Shaq?

KP: Yes, I think that potential is there. O’Neal was more a part of the problem than the solution on defense, and while the second half of last season demonstrated that the Suns could build an offense that highlighted O’Neal and still played to the strengths of everyone else on hand, Amar’e Stoudemire should be just as effective in that role.

MS: Do the numbers suggest Nash is slipping at all?

KP: Not really. In Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10, I broke down Nash’s advanced stats by coach, and under Gentry he played as well as he ever had in his career. I doubt that comes as a surprise to anyone who watched him play down the stretch. Even looking at the whole season, his free throw rate held steady, which is often an early sign of aging.

MS: Is there anything that the stats tell you about the Suns that would surprise the average Suns fan?

KP: Since the prevailing opinion of him among Suns fans seems pretty low, I’ll say the numbers’ optimism about Goran Dragic’s development. Even though Dragic wasn’t very good as a rookie, the players our SCHOENE Projection System deems similar to him developed into useful contributors, including Larry Drew, Howard Eisley and Robert Pack. More to the point, based on similar players, SCHOENE projects Dragic being a pretty good backup point guard this season.

MS: Where do you project the Suns to finish this season?

KP: I think SCHOENE’s projection is pretty close to the national consensus on Phoenix this season–a .500 record and part of the fight for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. Personally, I like the Clippers to edge the Suns out for that spot, but the West is close enough that if Phoenix gets in there’s a legitimate chance to put a scare into one of the top seeds in the conference if the matchup is favorable.

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