The Phoenix Suns closed the first quarter of last night’s win against Golden State up by 16 points, in large part thanks to Channing Frye’s 11 points in the period. Frye opened the night by making all three of his initial three point attempts. Though the Suns attempted to give the game to the Warriors in the fourth quarter (as they are wont to do of late), they pulled out the win, and Frye finished the night with an effective field goal percentage of 67.9.
This illustrates a larger trend for the Suns this season: As Frye goes, so go the Suns. On the surface, this is a shallow observation – of course a team’s performance will depend on one of its starters!
But scoring – both from deep and, when he has a mismatch against his defender, in the post – is one of the few things that Frye regularly brings to the table. He leads the team in defensive win shares, but that’s hardly an accomplishment on this team. He’s 6th on the current roster in total Win Shares per 48 minutes, barely edging out Vince Carter – and we all know how we feel about Vince Carter (HE’S A ZOMBIE!). When Frye is scoring effectively, the Suns play like a 50+ win team.
Conveniently enough, the line for splitting Frye’s season in half between his more accurate and less accurate shooting nights is right at .500 eFG%. In Frye’s 24 most efficient games (each of which saw Frye’s eFG% at .500 or better), the Suns are 16-8, with 3 of those losses against the Magic, Lakers, and Heat – some of the league’s most elite teams. In Frye’s 25 least efficient games (all at .500 eFG% or lower), the Suns are 8-17.
Again, this might seem like an obvious conclusion, but look at Steve Nash’s split. In his 24 most efficient games, the Suns are 12-12, and they are 12-11 in his less efficient games (Nash has missed two games on the year).* Nash’s game, of course, is infinitely more than his scoring and his amazing shooting proficiency. His passing is renowned, and in games where the Suns won and Nash shot poorly (by his standards), he often either upped his rebounding (several games with a total rebound rate over 10%) or his defense (it’s true! Though an increase from 112 DRtg to 106 DRtg is…yeah…next subject!).
*Nash has 3 games on the season with an eFG% above 100%. That’s just silly.
Why is all of this so important? Well, over the weekend, our friends over at NerdNumbers took a look at the top six players for Phoenix. Why the top six? As they say in the article,
“One of the first things Arturo did when we started working with NBA and playoff data was to come up with his Top Six theory. Essentially, in the playoffs teams shorten their bench and their top six players can decide their playoff fate.”
The article concludes that the Suns’ top six is “frighteningly strong,” even when we account for how poorly Frye is playing on the year. Watching the Suns on a night-in and night-out basis, it’s obvious that so much of Frye’s poor performance stems from his maddening inconsistency and how atrocious his shooting is when he goes ice-cold.
There is hope, however, for Frye and the Suns. It appears that Frye knows when he’s cold, and adjusts – just not on the offensive end. Frye will continue to bomb away when he’s missing in an attempt to shoot through the cold streak. Given how many plays Alvin Gentry designed for an ice-cold Vince Carter against the Thunder last week, it wouldn’t surprise me if this is sanctioned by the coaching staff.
Instead, Frye makes a concerted effort to clean up on the glass, particularly on the defensive end, when his shot isn’t falling. 12 of Frye’s top 18 rebound games (as measured by total rebounding rate) came in games where his eFG% was below .500, including some ridiculously horrible shooting numbers that look like bad batting averages.* In Frye’s top 4 rebounding games – all poor shooting performances – the Suns are 3-1.
*As an example, in a win against Memphis in November, Frye missed all of his field goal attempts but posted a 19.2 TRB%. Given how often we associate poor offensive performance with a lack of effort on the other end, I’m impressed by Mr. Frye’s rebounding efforts.
The sum of all these numbers? In games where Channing Frye either shoots well or shoots poorly but rebounds well, the Suns are 19-11. In all other games, they are 5-14. So keep crashing the boards on defense, Mr. Frye. Your entry (and success) in the playoffs depends on it.