Why small ball could save the Phoenix Suns

Posted by on May 21st, 1:03 am

A scrappy small ball lineup could get the Suns back in this series. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

A scrappy small ball lineup could get the Suns back in this series. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

On his way out of the interview room after the Suns’ 124-112 Game 2 defeat, Suns head coach Alvin Gentry told the assembled reporters that he’s open to suggestions ….. “even from the media.”

Well, Coach, since you asked ………

I traded e-mails with former Mavs stat guru Wayne Winston on Thursday (who’s also writing about the series on his site) to try to get a handle on what kind of lineups the Suns could toss out that could help turn this series around.

The first conclusion is that the Lakers are killing the Suns when Pau Gasol is teamed with Lamar Odom in the front court. In 53 minutes of action in which that duo has played together, the Lakers are beating the Suns by 37 points. When they aren’t together, Phoenix is actually outscoring Los Angeles by four points.

The Suns have run two lineups that are in the positives against Gasol-Odom (12 minutes of small ball, which we will get to later, and one minute of a bench unit with Richardson and Lopez), but in the other 40 minutes of Gasol-Odom the Lakers are +53. That’s largely because Channing Frye is -26 in 18 minutes against this dynamic duo.

Anybody wondering why Andrew Bynum only logged 18 minutes in Game 2 after playing 19 in Game 1 might have a better reason than his gimpy knee. Phil Jackson didn’t win 10 titles by being a stupid coach; he clearly understands the effectiveness of the Gasol-Odom combination and is exploiting it, as Odom has played 64 minutes in the series thus far off the bench.

Back to Frye. He needs to get going if the Suns are going to have a chance in this series. I think everybody’s in agreement on that. His confidence will inevitably improve at home, but it’s more than that. Frye wasn’t just bad, he was 1-for-13 atrocious, so putrid that Gentry couldn’t even play him most of Game 2 (a season-low nine minutes).

Winston suggests starting Frye so that he does not have to match up with an Odom lineup. Odom is just a bad matchup for him. His length clearly bothers Channing’s jumper and a Pau/Bynum combo wouldn’t be as effective defensively on Channing/Amare as the Pau/Odom combo has been.

The Suns aren’t likely to do that, and it defies common sense to start Frye over Lopez when defense has been such a big issue. Also, you don’t want to start changing things up this time of year, but from a lineup standpoint it makes sense to try to avoid Frye getting matched up with Odom as much as possible.

Winston also wrote that he hopes the Suns “keep Dudley on the floor as much as possible. Hope they do this or there is almost no hope, in my opinion.”

Hey, he’s not the plus-minus monster for no reason. Winston later asked me how many minutes Dudley can play, so if Winston were coaching the Suns then Dudley would obviously be playing more than the 23.7 he has averaged in the postseason.

The other major suggestion that an analysis of the numbers tells us is this: The Suns need to play small ball, even if it sounds like the absolute dumbest thing they could do in theory.

If you think about basketball using common sense, you probably think this is crazy. After all, the Suns’ biggest problems have been interior defense and rebounding. They really haven’t had a problem scoring.

However, the Suns’ lineup of Nash-Richardson-Dudley-Hill-Amare is +10 in just under 12 minutes of play this series (winning 35-25 in what’s essentially a quarter of action), and for the season its 11.4 points per 48 minutes better than an average lineup after adjusting for opponents, according to Winston’s numbers.

In theory, Odom or whoever the second big is should have a field day on the interior against Grant Hill, but that’s not the story Game 2 told when this unit chipped nine points off the Lakers’ lead in the final 7:22 of the third quarter. Of course, the Lakers could adjust to this lineup by pounding the paint, but this lineup got the Suns playing like the Suns for really the first time all series. They were spacing the floor, pushing the tempo and getting open looks like they have all year.

If the Suns want to make future games “Suns games,” this could be a lineup to rely on for heavy minutes.

According to Basketball Value, this lineup has been 33.7 points per 100 possessions better than the opposition in 34.6 playoff minutes, making it the Suns’ best lineup in the playoffs of all units that have played together for at least 10 minutes. It’s averaging a whopping 152.1 points per 100 possessions (barely second among all Suns lineups that have played at least 10 minutes in the postseason) and is yielding 118.3 pp100 on defense.

In this series, it’s also been the Suns’ best lineup of all units logging at least six minutes together, outscoring the Lakers by 45.5 points per 100 possessions. This includes a 159.1 pp100 scoring pace and a 113.6 defensive rating per 100 possessions. It’s the Suns’ best offensive and defensive lineup of all units logging at least six minutes, and all of the damage has been done against not just Gasol and Odom, but Bryant, Artest and either Fisher or Farmar as well.

And their defensive rebounding hasn’t been terrible either, boarding 72.7 percent of all defensive boards, compared to a 66.1 percent rate for the series as a whole thus far.

What’s really fascinating is this lineup was terrible during the regular season. According to Basketball Value, this was the Suns’ worst adjusted lineup that played significant time, losing 15.88 points per 100 possessions.

Unadjusted this was the Suns’ second-worst lineup that played at least 50 minutes together and just barely at that, losing 12.25 points per 100 possessions without adjusting for the opposition. This unit scored just 104.7 pp100 and allowed 117.0 in 52.5 regular-season minutes together. Not surprisingly, this was also one of Phoenix’s worst defensive rebounding teams during the regular season, boarding just 57.9 percent of the available defensive rebounds.

In summary, the Suns’ small ball lineup of Nash-Richardson-Dudley-Hill-Amare was ineffective during the regular season, when the Suns utilized it just over 1/82 of the year.

But it’s been great in the playoffs as a whole, and it’s been the only thing that’s worked in the Lakers series.

The Odom-Gasol duo has now spent two games dominating Phoenix inside, so it’s time to try something else. As counter intuitive as it sounds to match that by going small and trying to run past the Lakers like Suns teams of yore that failed in the postseason, as Stumbling on Wins teaches us, conventional wisdom isn’t always rational in sports.

So while you may be pining for more Robin Lopez, I’m pining for more small ball. After all, Coach Gentry (if you really wanted my opinion), it’s the only thing that’s worked so far.

Michael Schwartz founded ValleyoftheSuns in October 2008 and is the owner/editor emeritus of the site. He is currently working toward his MBA in sports business at San Diego State University.

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Tags: Alvin Gentry · Amare Stoudemire · Channing Frye · Grant Hill · Jared Dudley · Jason Richardson · Los Angeles Lakers · Phoenix Suns · Phoenix Suns Analysis · Playoffs · Steve Nash

24 responses so far ↓

  • 1 S // May 20, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    Nice post! I have thought about starting Frye as well. Odom is the one hurting Frye, because he has the agility to step out on Channing's shots. If we get Amar'e and Frye playing vs Gasol and Bynum, it's likely that Gasol will be put guarding Frye and that again leaves Amar'e with a speed advantage against Bynum.

    When it comes to the small ball lineup, it definitely worked in the 3. period, but it will be very vulnerable for longer amounts of time. Guys will pick up some extra fouls inside (like Dudley did in game 2), and Gasol will probably have his way inside. In my opinion this lineup should be played Nash-Richardson-Dudley-Hill-Lopez because Amar'e right now is hurting the Suns with his defense more than his offense is helping. Lopez is also the better rebounder, which makes sense with all the outside shots this lineup will take. If Amar'e is to play in this lineup, I would prefer Amundson guarding Odom and grabbing rebounds over Hill/Dudley (whoever guards Kobe worse that particular game).

  • 2 Sunslifer // May 21, 2010 at 2:06 am

    Laker fans – before you start slamming us for hopeless homers again…here is something to consider. Go suck on it. I'm sick of your Kobe worshiping, you are nothing but a bunch of rapist nut-huggers.

    I would rather be a Suns fan, to watch and follow a great team with a bunch of great players who win citizenship awards and more MVPs than Kobe will see. I've been a Suns fan since 1968 – and my team has no championships, but more heart and spirit than yours will.

    Let's go small ball and get two wins! Lakers S*&k

  • 3 bub // May 21, 2010 at 2:14 am

    Amare is all talk, but can't back it up. He can't defend, can't rebound. He has no post moves. All he does is either shoot a jumper or dunk. Nash is too old and doesn't have the quickness anymore. Those are your two best players. The guys who I'm most impressed with? 37-year old Grant Hill, and Dudley. Love the way both of those guys compete and defend. Those two singlehandly kept the Suns close in Game 2.

  • 4 Dustball // May 21, 2010 at 4:37 am

    @Sunslifer – "rapist nut-huggers" is such a classy term from a clearly classy fan.

    Here's the thing Suns fans… you are cheering for possibly the laziest team in the league, and until that infuriates you enough to stop buying tickets, that is the product you will see on the floor. Defense is about effort, and the Suns don't put the effort into the game that is required of a champion. There are no short cuts to a title and you can't just play the side of the floor that is more fun. This team and it's players are the antithesis of all the pain, sweat, blood and tears that are supposed to go into a champion. At some point, even considering them contenders is almost an insult to teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Orlando, San Antonio, Utah and Cleveland who have all committed to doing the dirty work to win a title.

  • 5 A few ideas // May 21, 2010 at 5:48 am

    1. Run some small-small pick and rolls — it would get the 7' guys out of the lane to have the bigs wide. A nash/Hill PnR could be deadly.

    2. I love the Frye to start. Both for his confidence and for the matchups.

    3. Lopez has been great — let's play him more, particularly with the small line up. Gets us a bit more interior defense to help the HillatPF lineup.

    a. Related idea — Amare with the 2nd unit more. All the shooters would give him some space to work.

  • 6 Sunslifer // May 21, 2010 at 6:20 am

    Lakerlifer – just trying to have some fun, we haven't had a lot this week…

    I'll tell you what was worse than the Suns drug scandal (which resulted in Colangelo's purchase of the team – a very good thing) was trading Gail Goodrich to the Lakers for Mel Counts. Good God!

    Dustball – Wow, no sense of humor huh? Lighten up, it's just basketball not WWII.

  • 7 tameszu // May 21, 2010 at 6:37 am

    I don't know the entire history, but while your TEAM has indeed been impressive on the court, it's not even in the least cool for its fans to come to a different team's fan blog to taunt. Seriously; LA as a city is cleaning up its act, so try and at least win with some class, OK?

    Asani, I feel your pain, although I think you may be a little off-base in targeting Nash as not having shown up this series. If the Lakers are clogging the paint, then it may make a lot of sense for Nash to try to be a lot of a distributor rather than a scorer–also, his Game 2 production of 11 pts. + 15 assists, is pretty close to a 25 pt. + 10 assist performance in terms of how point production (IE around 45 pts). Yes, his 2 4th Q TOs were decidedly unclutch, although you have to admit that he was a HUGE part of the 3rd Q smallball comeback that tied it at 90-90 in dishing out 6 assists to J.Rich and especially Grant Hill in a series of pick-and-rolls that suddenly worked wondrously.

  • 8 rtz // May 21, 2010 at 7:05 am

    Amar'e, you want max money then put out max effort. It is time to put up or shut up. Hustle and play with passion like Jared, Lou, and Grant. Stop turning the ball over, get in their faces and push back Suns.

  • 9 Rob // May 21, 2010 at 10:07 am

    Love the relevant numbers. All we need next are some cool graphs that visually prove the point.

  • 10 sparky // May 21, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Hate to say I told you so on the Frye-hype…

    It’s a shame Gentry didn’t do his homework and realize that the Lakers had mastered the art of containing the 3-pt-shooting big man. It’s quickness (e.g. playing small) that gives LA trouble.

    Granted the Suns were fishing during last year’s playoffs, but pay attention Gentry! The Suns small line-up, at times, looks a lot like the Houston outfit that took LA to 7 (although Nash is nowhere near the lighting-quick pest that Aaron Brooks is), while the Suns favored line-up looks like a Dwight Howard-less version of last year’s Magic…

  • 11 LakerLifer // May 21, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Sunslifer, it surprises me that you’ve been a Suns fans since the 1970′s and can claim that the Suns, as a franchise, are as pure as the wind-driven snow…

    I moved, as a child, with my family to the Valley in the mid-80′s from SoCal, just as I developed attenae for pro sports. Had the Suns not been a national embarassment at the time, embroiled in a nasty team-wide drug scandel, I might of spurned my family’s Laker heritage and become a Suns lifer myself, but as they say, the rest is history–I’m a Laker fan until the day I die.

    While we’re on memory lane, remember 1989? 1st-seeded Lakers versus 3rd-seeded Suns in WCF with LA up 2-0…? Deja vu, anyone? Lakers in 4.

  • 12 nobiz // May 21, 2010 at 10:36 am

    @ Sunslifer – Amare’s mom is winning citizenship awards. Have a great summer and enjoy your fishing trip.

  • 13 lll66 // May 21, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    “Laker fans – before you start slamming us for hopeless homers again…here is something to consider. Go suck on it. I’m sick of your Kobe worshiping, you are nothing but a bunch of rapist nut-huggers.”

    Haha, that was hilarious!! But, I believe wholeheartedly that if he were wearing a Suns jersey and working that hard for your team, you would be converted to the “dark” side. Especially if he led you to a championship. Four times, and potentially five.

  • 14 asani // May 21, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Amare and Steve where in the hell are you two? The Lakers haven’t gotten a taste of either one of these guys so it is easy to see why the lakers are up 2-0. It is very simple suns fans, Amare and Steve are our clear mismatches and neither one has tried to exploit their match ups. I was one of those guys who thought Amare was worth the max contract but the fact that he has tucked his tail in and basically conceded defeat in those 2 games I have to question this guy. As for Nash I don’t know what the hell is wrong with him. You have Derek Fisher on you. DEREK FISHER! Everybody destroys Derek Fisher. Nash should be averaging 25 points in 10 assists against this guy. Amare should be in the 30′s with 10 rebounds. He is the most talented offensive foward and he won’t go at these laker bigs. It isn’t like the lakers have two great defenders down there. He better stop playing like a marshmallow and get down there and bang with these guys. I don’t care that Frye isn’t playing well he always plays like a biotch but Steve and Amare have to play like stars.

  • 15 kiawe // May 21, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    Can’t Thunder Dan remember the plays that gave him the open three pointers..Two men down low to one side KJ and Chuck and three men on the other side. One of them on the top of the key..Can’t Nash and Amare do this play? Makes better floor spacing to me. Also would stop Odum from camping in the paint. No three second homer calls.

  • 16 Sunslifer // May 21, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    III66 – you are probably right. Sigh.

  • 17 john marzan // May 21, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    small ball was a last resort, last gasp move by the suns in game 2. it worked for a while, but the lakers skilled and high IQ big men were able to perform "open heart surgery" (sportsguy33) on it in the 4th.

    the reason the suns had to play small ball vs the spurs and was successful was because the spurs resorted to it first (hill, parker, ginobili, jefferson) there's no fucking way the lakers will follow the spurs tactic.

  • 18 Objective Fan // May 21, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    Nash: 2 MVPs; a billion excuses. nuff said.

  • 19 The Dude Abides // May 21, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    @15. The taunting occurred because of the classless comment regarding the blatantly false Colorado charges against the Lakers’ best player. And nothing said in those responses was even remotely as offensive as the original comment.

    This blog post makes a lot of sense, and Coach Gentry has nothing to lose by trying the suggestions put forth. Trying to defeat the Lakers using the same matchups as in Games 1 and 2 will only end up with the series ending in a sweep. I don’t know how long the small ball lineup can be effective, though, as Dudley will likely get in foul trouble pretty quickly.

  • 20 john marzan // May 21, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    The Suns aren’t likely to do that, and it defies common sense to start Frye over Lopez when defense has been such a big issue.

    so far, Lopez as starter is 0-2.

  • 21 NJ // May 22, 2010 at 9:43 am

    @SunsLifer
    Finally someone truly calls out the Lakers for what they are.

    @nobiz
    WTF does Amare’s mom’s apparent woes with the law have to do with the citizenship of Amare himself?

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