Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde roaming Planet Orange

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The Phoenix Suns have displayed both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tendencies this season. Copyright 2009 NBAE (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns have displayed both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tendencies this season. Copyright 2009 NBAE (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

The months of November (12-3) and December (7-9) alone were enough to make a case that the 2009-2010 Suns have a serious case of split personality disorder.

The Suns’ Dr. Jekyll is a dominant, high-energy team that looks untouchable when it puts away the NBA’s best in teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Spurs and Magic. But just when everyone is ready to finally make the jump and call the Suns an “elite” team, their Mr. Hyde side shows up and the lethargic, poor-shooting Suns lose to teams like the Knicks, Grizzlies, Hornets and Warriors.

When the Suns have got it, they have definitely got it (like 11 threes against the Spurs in a 12-point win). But when they haven’t got it, they really haven’t got it (like 40 percent shooting in a 17-point loss to the Cavs). So why is it that this team featuring more than one ultra-talented star and one of the league’s best benches can’t seem to get on the right page and stay there? A few arguments could be made:

Complacency

Suns head coach Alvin Gentry has described his team as complacent at more than one post-game press conference, especially during a streak of blown leads to the Nuggets, Spurs and Trail Blazers. But separate from their in-game complacency, the Suns seem to have displayed some game-to-game complacency.

There’s a lack of urgency right now from players and coaches. The attitude of “we’ll forget about this one and go get ‘em in the next game,” be it after a win or a loss, can’t last much longer as midseason approaches.

We have seen flashes of that sense, like Gentry’s attitude after beating the Lakers.

“It’s a great win for us, but it only counts as one,” Gentry said after the Dec. 28 home win.

The Suns then came out and topped a depleted Celtics squad to end 2009 on a high note, but promptly started 2010 with what Grant Hill called an “old-fashioned butt whoopin‘” at the hands of the sub-.500 Grizzlies.

If the Suns want to contend for 82 games and beyond this season, they can’t get content with two wins over top teams and then blow a should-win against a team like Memphis. They simply can’t afford it. The team needs to take the court night in and night out with a must-win mindset. Where that mindset comes from may be part of the problem…

Ruling: Definitely an issue; not the core of the problem.

Coaching

When the Suns aren’t being praised for what has certainly been a surprise of a season thus far, they are being questioned for a number of things. Whether it’s the aforementioned complacency, a tough schedule, inability to win on the road or injury troubles.

Gentry is doing what he can to rally the troops in a near hopeless situation. (AP/Paul Connors)

Does Gentry deserve some of the blame for his team's inconsistency? (AP/Paul Connors)

But the one thing that no one seems to question is Gentry. It’s hard to argue that Gentry hasn’t done a solid job with this team, especially given preseason expectations.

There is a theory that only a select few head coaches (Jackson, Riley, Sloan, etc.) out there actually matter to their team. That theory holds that it’s ultimately the players that matter and the coach is just kind of there. So I guess if you subscribe to that theory, then you don’t buy the argument that Gentry’s coaching has played a role in the Suns’ inconsistency.

Imagine if the Suns were playing the kind of basketball they did under Terry Porter. Fans would be calling for Gentry’s head the way they did Porter. But since the Suns have surprised and stayed in contention (currently sixth in the Western Conference), Gentry remains unscathed.

But could it be that the Suns’ apparent complacency and occasionally-missing motivation has something to do with the way Gentry prepares them? It’s hard to say unless you sit in on every team meeting and practice, but I think there is definitely something to the idea that it’s up to a coach to get his team fired up.

This Suns team does have leaders like Steve Nash and Grant Hill to get guys going, but a coach is the team’s general, drawing up attacks and motivating the troops. Again, it’s hard to throw stats or quotes behind the argument that Gentry isn’t motivating his players game after game, but many would argue that players don’t blow 17-point leads like the Suns did to the Nuggets; coaches do.

Ruling: Inconclusive, but worth watching as the season progresses.

Schedule

The Suns opened the season with 16 of their first 24 games on the road. In that stretch, they played six back-to-backs, none of which were Phoenix-Phoenix games. In the first half of those back-to-backs, the Suns went 5-1. In the second halves, they went 1-5.

Clearly, this was a reasonably sound argument through 24 games, but the Suns have now played 34 games, including eight of their last 10 at home, where they won 19 straight games before losing to Cleveland on Dec. 21. Including that loss, the Suns are 3-3 at US Airways Center since the Cavs rolled into town.

The schedule started out rough, but the Suns weathered that storm. When the schedule became more favorable (as it still is for the moment, with three of the next four at home), the Suns struggled. Could you say the team is tired from that opening stretch? Yes, you could, but it’s unlikely any member of the Suns will agree with you.

Even with the way things started, the argument that the schedule has played a role in the Suns’ inconsistency doesn’t carry much weight.

Ruling: A factor early on, but negated after compiling a rocky record during a home-heavy December schedule.

Leaning on a particular

There are a number of things the Suns do well, but there are a few things the Suns do very well. They shoot from deep better than anyone else in the NBA (41.7 percent). They make more of their taken shots than anyone else as well (49.5 percent from the field). They are also the league’s most efficient team on offense.

There are, however, times when the Suns lean too heavily on these particulars. Sometimes those are their greatest strengths, but other times they are things that are only great against certain teams. Let’s have a look.

  • Three-point shooting. The Suns feature two players in the top 10 in three-point shooting percentage (Jared Dudley, the league-leader at 50.0 percent, and Nash, 10th at 43.5 percent) as well as a third not far behind (Channing Frye, 12th at 43.1 percent). Clearly, they can shoot the deep ball. But once a team is able to contain the Suns’ deep shooting, things get a lot tougher. When the Suns shoot their current league-leading 41.7 percent or better from deep, they are 14-4. When they are under, they are 7-9. In November losses, the Suns averaged 35.3 percent shooting. In December losses, it was 35.6 percent. Clearly there is a correlation between the Suns winning and how they perform beyond the arc. In fact, some of the Suns’ worst losses of the season could almost be blamed squarely on their inability to sink the three-ball. A 27-point loss to the bottom-feeding Knicks saw the Suns shoot 23.5 percent for three and Saturday’s 25-point loss to the Grizzlies saw the Suns shoot 27.8 percent. A close loss to the Thunder at home could have easily been a win with better deep shooting. The Suns were 7-of-23 for 30.8 percent. Ruling: Definitely a major problem, possibly the core of the Suns’ two-faced nature.
  • Gang rebounding. Before the season started, rebounding was probably the number one concern in most people’s minds. But the Suns came out of the gate strong with their gang rebounding strategy that saw everyone crashing the boards. Grant Hill, a 37-year-old SG/SF, even led the team in rebounds for quite a while. Rebounding soon became a non-issue. But in all but one of the Suns’ 13 losses, they have been out-rebounded. So when the offense isn’t in juggernaut mode, rebounding becomes a lot more important and opponents have been able to focus on second-chance points. The Suns currently allow more offensive rebounds per game (13.5) than any other team. Their current rebounding differential is only -1.5, but it’s clear the gang-rebounding plan has slipped a bit since the season began. Ruling: Certainly an issue, but due to their personnel this will never be a strength.
  • Steve Nash. It’s no secret that MV-Steve is the catalyst of the Suns’ offense. He makes things go, getting everyone involved and setting up big plays. Some people would argue that the Suns rely too heavily on Captain Canada to make the team work and if he went down, it would all be over. While we can’t completely predict what a Nash-less Suns team would be like (not good, no matter what), we can shoot this one down. Nash, who always seems to be on (only one game with less than 10 points this season), is averaging 19.0 points and 8.8 assists in losses. That’s more points than his season average of 18.4 ppg, but less than his league-leading 11.2 apg. Ruling: Nash has been one of the most important parts of the Suns’ success, and they are getting quality performances from him in both wins and losses.

So there is no clear-cut answer to why the Suns can’t put the same team on the floor every night. It’s a combination of things, but the Suns might consider evaluating their over-reliance on three-point shooting.

Although opinions may differ as to why the same group of guys can go out one night and drub the league-leading Lakers and flop against the mediocre Grizzlies later in the same week, there is one thing everyone can agree on:

If the Suns want to have any shot at postseason glory in 2010, they’ll need Dr. Jekyll operating at all times.

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