Last week we looked at Denver, Portland, New Orleans, and Memphis in terms of their team identity. You can read that column here. Today we’ll look at the rest of the Western Conference playoff teams and see what, if anything, they can contribute to the Phoenix Suns’ identity crisis.
The Thunder were last season’s team on the rise. Behind the transcendent play of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City grabbed the 4th seed and hosted their first playoff series. The strength of the team was their ability to score from both the floor and the free throw line. They also had a strong inside presence on both sides of the ball. Serge Ibaka and midseason addition Kendrick Perkins helped the Thunder into the top 10 in rebounding and blocks. This complemented the team’s strong perimeter defense which was top 10 in steals. This complete identity helped the Thunder to their first (but definitely not last) Western Conference Finals appearance.
Identity: The Thunder surrounded their two superstars with hard working complementary role players who made the team tough on both sides of the ball.
Basketball is the only sport where having a 7-foot tall, lanky, blonde German as the face of your franchise can be a good thing. Luckily the “B” in NBA stands for Basketball, so the Mavericks are all set. The Mavs rode Dirk Nowitzki to the 3rd seed in the West. Dirk, despite all his detractors, then carried the team to its first NBA title. Dallas’ identity was founded upon their unselfish play and excellent shooting. The Mavericks were near the top of the league in assists and FG%, and they were also among the league’s most prolific outside shooters (something to which the Miami Heat can definitely attest.) On the defensive side of the ball, they were fourth in the Western Conference in points allowed per game. Being disciplined on both sides of the ball in addition to having one of the 20 best players of all time were the keys to Dallas’ success.
Identity: The Mavericks surrounded their superstar with a Hall of Fame point guard and undervalued but still worthy role players and became a strong team on both ends of the court.
Los Angeles Lakers
There are very few things this team didn’t do well last season. Unfortunately for their fans, playing well in the playoffs was one of them. If not for the Spurs’ unbelievable run, the Lakers would have been the top seed in the West for the fourth straight season. They earned the 2nd seed by leading the Western Conference in point differential. They were third in the West in points allowed and second in rebounding. The trio of Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, and Pau Gasol helped the Lakers get into the top 10 in blocks as well. The amount of size the Lakers could play alongside their superstar shooting guard made them a formidable opponent. In hindsight, their early exit at the hands of the Mavericks may have been due to larger forces at work considering the Cinderella nature of Dallas’ championship run.
Identity: The Lakers’ size and ability to score were intimidating, but their lack of point guard play and assists ultimately did them in.
San Antonio Spurs
The last great run of the Spurs grabbed them the top seed in the West for the first time since 2006, but the fairy tale ended there as they were ousted by eighth-seeded Memphis in the first round. The Spurs’ identity was molded around their core trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, and Tony Parker. Though typically a low scoring, strong defensive team, the Spurs were sixth in the league in scoring last season, while still holding opponents under 100 points per game. The increase in scoring can be attributed to their incredible outside shooting, which led the league. San Antonio was also top 10 in assists while committing the sixth fewest turnovers in the league. In the end, the Spurs probably just wore down in the playoffs, which allowed the younger and perhaps hungrier Grizzlies to take advantage.
Identity: The addition of stellar 3-point shooting to the old standbys unselfishness, discipline, and hard-work made the Spurs a dominant force in the regular season.
The Suns still scored like the Nash-led teams of the past, averaging the fourth-most points and third-most assists per game last season. What hurt Phoenix this year and led to their first losing season in the Nash era was their abysmal lack of rebounding and defense.
Now don’t get me wrong, the Suns have never been known as a defensive juggernaut, but in years past they have worked for defensive boards and generated blocks. This year, there was no inside presence at all on the defensive end, and with the exception of Marcin Gortat, none on the offensive end either. Though he was never a defensive standout, Amar’e Stoudemire’s departure can be blamed for both lapses in the paint. On the bright side, the Suns did shoot the 3 at a fantastic rate. So where does that leave us?
Looking back over the list of playoff teams there are a few with similarities to the Suns. New Orleans’ identity, like the Suns’, is centered around their point guard. Like Dallas and San Antonio, Phoenix has a high number of assists and shoots a strong percentage from the field and beyond the arc. Like the Blazers, Phoenix has two big men who can stretch the defense (Channing Frye and rookie Markieff Morris), and like the Lakers, Phoenix has two 7-footers in Robin Lopez and Marcin Gortat who might be able to play side by side for stretches. So what will the finished product identity look like? I don’t know, but I can wager a guess.
First off, much will depend on Steve Nash. If he is traded, this whole column is moot. If he does stick around, however, the next piece of the puzzle is Vince Carter. Though not my favorite player, he is one of the only players on the roster who can create his own shot and score 20-plus points a night. Every team in the NBA needs at least one perimeter guy like this.
For my taste, Vince is too erratic and not motivated enough to fill this role the way Jason Richardson did on a nightly basis, so if the Suns trade him or buy him out, they need to bring in someone who can take over this role. The problem is that perimeter players with that kind of scoring potential tend to get vastly overpaid (like Vince is), which is one of the reasons we had a lockout in the first place. However, if the Suns can get a player like ’09 J-Rich, they might be able to make a return to the playoffs next season.
Size has never been a big component of the Suns’ roster. Now they have it in spades. Gortat has shown the ability to be a 20-10 (or more reasonably 15-10) kind of player. He works hard on the boards and has good back-to-the-basket game. More importantly, “The Polish Hammer” doesn’t seem to be intimidated by anyone. This is important in a league where he’ll have to matchup against Bynum, the Gasol brothers, Zach Randolph, Duncan, and Al Jefferson. Gortat should have plenty of room to maneuver if Channing Frye and rookie Markieff Morris can stretch the defense with their range. A team that shoots from beyond the arc as much as the Suns must have great ball movement around the perimeter to find shooters in open spots. Having a big man duo that can play inside-outside is a big plus in that department. With Lopez to spell Gortat, the Suns can have a solid front line if the team commits to defense.
Committing to defense is easier said than done, especially when the team’s centerpiece, Steve Nash, hasn’t played any since his time at Santa Clara. In order to compete, the Suns are going to have to stop their opponent from scoring at will, so my solution for a radical change is going zone.
Some might think it’s a gimmick, but if you look at Dallas’ roster and the Suns’ there are some similarities. An older and slower point guard. A big man who plays from the perimeter. Lots and lots of small forwards. Dallas used the zone to win an NBA championship, so it’s at least worth a shot. If the Suns could drop their big front line into a zone, then suddenly Nash’s inability to stay in front of anyone besides Derek Fisher won’t be an issue because there will be nowhere for them to go.
While the zone does make them vulnerable to outside shooting teams, the casual ‘D’ they played last season isn’t much better at running teams off their spots behind the arc. If Phoenix plays with size, most teams in the West will counter by going small. The zone will clog the lane, making it hard for smaller guys to get around the larger Suns’ defenders and score. The Suns could play a 2-3 with Nash and Grant Hill at the top, Gortat protecting the hoop, and Frye and Dudley along the baseline. Though no player is extremely strong defensively, as a unit they could work. And by work, I mean hold an opponent under 100.
Zone would also help get the Suns into better rebounding position. The one downside is that it’s hard to run out of the zone if your second guard isn’t comfortable handling the ball and getting out quick (Jason Terry for the Mavericks). I don’t know if the Suns have another guard like that. Either way, the fast break offense may need to go as the roster just doesn’t have the stable of speedsters it has had in years past.
I think the Suns could make the playoffs with an identity similar to what I laid out above: a team that shoots well from the outside and pounds the ball down low in the post on offense, and a team that uses primarily zone to overcome its inadequacies on defense. It may not be “Seven Seconds or Less.” It may not be all that exciting. But I think it can be successful as long as they have a healthy Steve Nash at the helm.
It’s a lot to wish for, but hey, Christmas is right around the corner.