NBA identity crisis: Part 1

When the NBA lockout finally comes to an end (be it tomorrow, Christmas Day, or June 30, 2012) every team with playoff hopes will have to ask itself, “What is our team identity?”

For the Suns, identity has long been defined by their “Seven Seconds or Less” mentality. Put simply, “we will score so quickly, and so often, that you cannot hope to beat us.” This identity was not only incredibly entertaining to watch, but also massively successful. Since Steve Nash came back to Phoenix in 2004, the Suns have made five playoff appearances, played in three Western Conference Finals, and have only missed the playoffs twice. Both misses came on the heels of a big trade that sent a player essential to the team’s identity out of town.

During the ’08-09 season, the Suns’ fast-paced offense was still being weighed down by Shaq, and the team was still attempting to patch the hole left by Shawn Marion. They rebounded quite admirably the following season by trading away the Diesel and fully incorporating Jason Richardson into the team as they became “Seven Seconds or Less” 2.0.

Phoenix missed the playoffs again last season after Amar’e Stoudemire left as a free agent and a handful of players that have yet to find their place in the squad were acquired. Whenever the Suns do take the floor again, they will have to find a way to pick themselves up once again. The path to their redemption begins with finding a new identity. To help them in this quest, let’s analyze all eight Western Conference playoff teams from last season, and see if there are any pieces the Suns could use to help build a winning identity.

Memphis Grizzlies

Despite being the 8th seed, Memphis was the team nobody wanted to face in the first round because of the Grizzlies’ style of play. They harassed opposing guards on the perimeter with Tony Allen and Shane Battier, and their aggressive defense helped Memphis lead the league in steals and turnovers forced. The combo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol dominated the paint on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. And they did all this without arguably their best player, Rudy Gay.

Identity: The Grizzlies were an old school team based around strong defense, skilled big men, and hard-working role players.

New Orleans Hornets

Although the Hornets’ current identity is a big “For Sale” sign, they were strong enough last season to earn the 7th seed. Most of their success can be attributed to their superstar point guard Chris Paul, but his play doesn’t tell the whole story. New Orleans was tops in the Western Conference in opponents’ points per game. They were also near the top in fewest free throw attempts allowed. This strong defense started with Chris Paul, who led the league in steals. Trevor Ariza was also in the top 10 in that category. Emeka Okafor and David West (before he was injured and lost for the remainder of the season) protected the paint and the rim well. Even without West, the Hornets still took two games from the Lakers in the first round.

Identity: They were a stout defensive team with a superstar at the helm.

Portland Trail Blazers

Last season, the Trail Blazers were a team who just would not die. Despite injuries to Greg Oden (shocker!), Brandon Roy, and Marcus Camby, Portland overcame and grabbed the 6th seed in the Western Conference. Much like Memphis, they were near the top of the league in steals and turnovers forced. Their staunch defense was complemented by breakout seasons from LaMarcus Aldridge and Nic Batum as well as the midseason acquisition of Gerald Wallace. These three players contributed both in the paint and on the perimeter making Portland one of the hardest matchups one through five in the league.

Identity: Portland was the most energetic team on the floor night in and night out, forcing the other team into turnovers on defense and giving opponents headaches with difficult matchups on offense.

Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are a tough team to assess from an identity standpoint because of the blockbuster midseason trade of Carmelo Anthony. The trade brought four new players to Denver to replace the five (including Anthony) who were shipped out. The fact that the team had to completely reinvent itself in February and was still the 5th seed in April is nothing short of incredible. The new look Nuggets were an offensive juggernaut. They led or were near the very top of the league in points per game, FG%, and 3PT%. In addition they were in or near the top 10 in rebounding and assists.

Identity: The Nuggets were the best scoring team in the league, but their lack of a firm identity and a strong leader is what eventually undid them in the postseason.

Join us after Thanksgiving for Part II where we’ll break down seeds 1-4 and get to the bottom of the Suns’ identity crisis.

Tags: Denver Nuggets Memphis Grizzlies New Orleans Hornets Phoenix Suns Portland Trail Blazers

  • Dre

    I don’t agree entirely with you on the Nuggets. Their problems in the playoff boiled down to three major factors.
    1. George Karl didn’t play his best players enough. The Thunder played their best players a ton.
    2. Aaron Afflalo didn’t come back strong from injury.
    3. J.R. Smith and Danillo played poorly in the playoffs.

    Also even with those three problems they played very well against a good OKC team. It wasn’t an identity or leader that hurt them it was a bad coach and injuries.

  • sun-arc

    Yeah, I’m not sure I agree with your assesment about Denver either. They were also young and athletic, and VERY energetic. More so than Portland. They didn’t have a balanced roster, but they just hustled. Though you are right that they were offensively skilled as well.

    I don’t think portland was so energetic, as much as methodical. I think their identity is just to grind it out and wear down opponents by never letting them into their game. They play a slow, tempo and defense oriented game. ie: BORING yet effective, like the Spurs’ identity in past years.

    But, yes, you are dead on about the Suns. They looked like they were having a giant identity crisis all year. Problem is, you need to base your identity on who you have. And right now, we don’t even know who that is and what they will contribute. OR even if Nash will still be there. If he’s gone, we are starting all over.

  • Scott

    @sun-arc -

    I suppose things could be worse for the Suns. At least the trades involving Barbosa and Dragic show the Suns are looking for a high quality PG.

    As for Portland, what’s impressed me the most about the teams they’ve fielded in the past few years has been awesome mental toughness. As a team they will themselves to each win. They’ve practically gotten better with each injury (and there have been a ton of injuries).

    Do the Suns do this? Not so much. Nash, Hill, Gortat, Frye, and Dudley have been the most focused, so far as I can see, but everyone could bring it up a notch. I think part of it may be that they don’t have a solid idea of what their identity is, or what to do, now that Amare is gone and they don’t have a reliable crunch time scorer. But when I compare them with the Blazers I think the Suns could do more if they simply made up their minds – as a team – to win and didn’t accept excuses.

  • Rich Anthony, (KJL)

    “I suppose things could be worse for the Suns. At least the trades involving Barbosa and Dragic show the Suns are looking for a high quality PG.”


  • sun-arc

    @ Scott:
    Yes, things could be much worse, really. We are used to see them being a winning team since Nash has been back. Mediocrity is awful to see- but there is MUCH worse. We still have a lot of talent.

    Completely agree on Portland’s abundance of will and our lack of it. Boy, it was really apparent this last year when we’d lose to all those crappy teams in the 4th qtrs. I think that was the worst part. And, really, if they’d won those games, we would have been the 5th seed or so. Meaning: yes, we have the talent, no we don’t have the will.

    So- is that a difference of coaching staff between the two teams? I mean, Portland certainly doesn’t have more talent than we do (or, at least not much more). And with all the injuries Portland went through, they were set up to be lacking identity. As much as I love Gentry as a person and player’s coach, I’m not in love with our coaching staff- and wasn’t even during our WCF run in 2010.

    So, I ask Ryan and Mike as well, what do you all think is the difference?

  • Scott

    @Rich -

    I liked Barbosa and Dragic. IIRC, Barbosa won some games for the Suns, and Dragic was awesome in that Spurs game. I didn’t like to see either player go, but Barbosa was clearly not ready to run the Suns as starting PG and neither was Dragic. Getting Brooks was a gamble, as there’s no indication he’ll be any better in a lead or reserve role than Dragic, but in a season that was already spoiled, I guess the Suns’ think tank thought it would be a good idea to test drive Brooks for the last portion of the season.

    Looking at the PG choices in the NBA, I don’t know who the Suns would favor. Beno Udrih, who started his career with the Spurs, might end up on the amnesty list for the Bucks. He’s no Steve Nash, but he’s a competent veteran who can run a team and pick and roll. In a pinch he’s a plug in replacement; assuming the Suns can get him.

    Next summer, Kirk Hinrich will be available as an unrestricted FA. Chris Paul may also be available.

    Theoretically, the Griz are looking to dump OJ Mayo. They may have changed their minds about that, but if they were up to it, I’d strongly consider trading them Brooks for Mayo. (Brooks is cheaper and might fit their system better.) Apparently Mayo can’t pass worth beans, he regularly forgets to defend his man on the switch to defense, and he lacks a quick first step, but other than that (!!!) he’s pretty good. If he can’t improve his passing skills he couldn’t start for the Suns, but I’d still consider him for the role of backup / combo guard, in the Barbosa / Dragic mold, and he’d add a little defensive toughness at PG.

    Bayless is another guy who could probably play backup guard for the Suns, so long as he can be pried away from Toronto. I like his tenacity.

    Out of the new class of PGs, Kyrie Irving was – so far as I could tell – the most likely to be able to pass and play like Nash, but the Suns didn’t win the lottery and they’re unlikely to be able to trade for him, so … eh.

    If we’ve seen the last of Nash, can the Suns get Chris Paul?

    Here’s a sticky scenario: let’s say the NBA is locked out all season, but they get their act together for the following season. Nash’s contract has expired and Chris Paul is available. Do the Suns pursue Paul? (And what if they don’t get him? lol)

  • Scott

    @sun-arc -

    I think the mental toughness comes from having the ability to fall back upon moves that will work. In Portland, the first responsibility for players is defense. If they begin with confidence in their defense, they play very well, as each player feels he can do something to contribute to team success.

    Also, in Portland they’ve specifically chosen players for fiery character and mental toughness. Phoenix has tended to choose players who are cool and level-headed, with the occasional lovable knucklehead. ;)

    Last season things didn’t pan out the way the Suns hoped. Turkoglu was to be an extra creator / facilitator, but unlike Diaw he could not play PF or C. Even though he’s played PF throughout his NBA career, Warrick was too slight to play defense as PF. Lopez was back to being 1.0 instead of 2.0. Eventually Frye was plugged in as PF, but he’s not a banger or a rebounder, and they needed him as a scorer for the 2nd unit too. It was a mess.

    Then the trade with Orlando occurred, and while the Suns fixed their center problem, they still had their PF / bench scoring problem, and they were handicapped by having a predictable offense. Defenses aimed at Nash first off, then piled on Carter. Sure, Hill and Dudley got in the occasional bucket on their own, but on most nights it wasn’t enough production to put the Suns over the hump.

    Drafting Morris helps, as he has the potential to plug the hole at PF. I could even see him playing with the first unit as a rookie once he gets acclimated. If he stays healthy, Lawal could plug the hole at PF for the 2nd unit. Both men have reasonable size and can rebound, with Morris being big enough to play some center if needed.

    If Warrick can move to the backup SF, it would help offensively and defensively, especially if he can learn to shoot the corner 3. Childress and Dudley can play SG, using their height to bother opposing SGs.

    In this scenario, Nash would have the pick and roll with Gortat as the primary option, with the ability to dish to Hill or Morris in the corners for 3 pt shots. He can also get the ball to Childress, who can drive or facilitate, or pass to Hill who can relay it to a driving Childress. This is probably a defensively sound line up as well.

    In the second unit, I could see Frye, Lawal, Warrick, Dudley and a PG. On offense, Frye would try to draw the opposing center out of the paint, opening it up for lobs to Lawal or Warrick, with Frye and Dudley being available as perimeter shooting options. Dudley could also act as a facilitator for the PG (Brooks or whoever).

    The Suns would still lack a crunch time threat and a dependable backup PG, so it’s not a perfect plan, but I think the roles would be better defined and they’d probably be in better shape than last year. Mental toughness would come with success.

    If the Suns could pick up Redd as a FA and Udrih in trade for Pietrus, that would probably be the best inexpensive solution to their remaining problems. In that case, I could see Warrick battling Lawal for second unit PF duties.

  • Daniel

    ESPN is reporting a tentative agreement to start camps on Dec. 6th. Does anyone know about the agreement? Is it the same as the one the players had originally rejected?
    At least we get to see Nash play for most of a season this year.