Phoenix Suns must develop deep bench for compact season

PHOENIX — Two years ago the Phoenix Suns shocked the NBA world by riding a dynamic offense led by Nash and Amare all the way to the Western Conference Finals.

But aside from the pick-and-roll run by those two stars, that Suns team succeeded most because it went 10 deep with a defensive-focused second unit that gave opponents a completely different look than the high-octane starters.

Time and time again the bench turned deficits into advantages or extended leads built by the starters.

All of the backups understood their roles and executed them to perfection more often that not.

Aside from obvious factors like losing Amare and later Jason Richardson, one of the biggest reasons the Suns plummeted last season is they never could find any rhythm with their bench. Through the two in-season trades and a starting lineup that never solidified, players shuffled between different roles without the bench unit forming any kind of identity like they did the year before.

As the Suns prepare for this 66-game sprint of a regular season, they understand how vital their bench is if they want to become a surprise team in the West like they were two years ago.

“One thing that we’ve done around here is we’ve always tried to play nine, 10 guys,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “I think it’s going to be very important this year that you have a deep bench because there are going to be certain situations where you play five games in seven nights or six games in nine nights where it’s going to be really important to have depth so you’re not burning guys out.

“I think you’ve got to be really careful that 30 games in you’re haven’t burned players out, so we have to keep a closer eye on that and be able to use our bench and develop guys that are going to be able to not only come in and play but play effectively for us.”

With so many back-to-backs and even a pair of back-to-back-to-backs, there will be nights when the Suns will need to rest a Nash or a Hill or just limit their minutes. Even younger players like Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley must not play so many minutes that it affects them later in the season.

“We can’t be in a situation where we’re playing guys 40 minutes a night,” Gentry said. “It’s just not going to work out. … I can’t see how anybody’s going to do that.”

To this end, whereas the Suns lack blue chip talent after Nash, they do feature a slew of role players who could mesh into an effective bench unit.

If Robin Lopez is as healthy as the Suns seem to think, he should be one of the league’s better backup centers. Markieff Morris should help on the boards and in the post on defense as well as provide a floor spacing presence on offense. Josh Childress is an elite slasher. Shannon Brown (if he does not beat out Jared Dudley for the starting spot) is a dynamic presence in the open court. Ronnie Price provides defense and Sebastian Telfair can run a team although the winner of the backup point guard battle once again will represent a steep dropoff from Nash.

That’s not even counting Hakim Warrick, who has played well in training camp and could give the Suns an offensive boost on any given night.

It’s not a stretch to think the Suns will go 12 deep this season, with players like Price and Warrick providing a lift when the matchup is right.

“We’re excited, we have a little more depth this year,” Nash said. “I think for every team depth is going to be a huge part of a team trying to get into the playoffs or trying to exceed expectations, trying to make it through this schedule. We’ve tried to bring some depth in, and I think we’ve succeeded.”

Just like in 2009-10, the calling card of this bench mob figures to be defense. Aside from Warrick, every player on the bench rates as at least a solid defender.

It’s common in the NBA for teams to go only eight players deep, and when Mike D’Antoni ran the show in Phoenix he often played only seven key guys.

But with 66 games in 123 days more teams figure to emulate the 2009-10 Suns than the 2004-05 Suns, which means Phoenix’s bench will likely log more minutes against opposing bench players than they have in the past.

That could give Phoenix a major advantage if their bench can come close to reaching the level of their elite reserve corps from two years ago.

“Guys are going to be tired, a lot of minutes are going to be played in a short amount of days,” Price said. “So having a deep bench is very important, and this team has that.”

Tags: Bench

  • JT’s Hoops Blog

    Having a shorter season may benefit the Suns as it keeps Nash fresher, but they’re not going anywhere. there’s not enough talent for the Suns to make any impact. Their team is filled with no one but second stringers save for Nash and they will only look good because Nash makes it so.

  • Jonny

    JT that is a little harsh, if the Suns dont do well this season it will not be because of their talent level it will be because of their chemistry ,and willingness to play defense and rebound, sure they might not have a supper star but they do have skilled players who can score, Gortat is probably a top 5 center in the league, allong with him you have 2 other 7 footers who will play every game (Lopez and Frye), they have a plethra of shooters. I think in many ways chilli is the key, he is athletic and can make plays by himself (or at least he was able to before last year) if he can do that we will be fine; the Mavs last year we about the same Dirk and then a bunch of has been’s and roll players, its all about execution, that being said im not holding my breath.

  • Drew

    I’ve noticed a recent trend here, Jonny. JT just comes on here and says something he knows will rile up Suns fans. I honestly think it’s an attempt for us to click on his name and check out his sub-par basketball blog.

    I agree with you, the Suns are deep and seem to be free of headcases that bring down a locker room. Here’s hoping for chemistry and team play beating raw talent.

  • steve

    Drew is right (and same with Rich on the last string JT posted in).

    Don’t feed the troll.

    If our bench puts in the work required to get better (think 2011 Cardinals defense), the Suns have a chance to make some special things happen. I think anything up to the 5 seed is attainable (all the way down to bottom 3 in the West if they don’t put forth the necessary effort).

    But I do think it’s fair to say a lot of this will ride on the bench. Our starters aren’t good enough/young enough to compete with the best of the West during this short season. Our bench is going to have to annihilate the second units (and even have the ability to pull away from first units).

  • Scott

    A lot of this season will weigh on pacing and injuries. I can see it being difficult on a team like the Heat. If Wade gets his usual injury, it will have an even greater impact with the compressed schedule.

    The Suns paid a heavy price last season for lack of chemistry. They should do better this year.

    The player I’m most concerned about, at this point, is Telfair. It appears from interviews that he may have been Gentry’s pick. When I watch the game on the 26th, one thing I’ll be watching is how well he does at running the team in Nash’s absence.

  • Tony

    The biggest problem the second unit for the Suns have is lack of scorers. The only player with any potential offensively in the second unit is Brown, and even his best offense comes from spot up shooting. This is a season Arron Brooks would have really helped the Suns because of his offensive abilities.

    We have to remember that a huge part of the reason the Suns were so successful in the 09-10 season was due to Goran Dragic’s breakout season. He not only played great perimeter defense, but in addition was pretty successful at creating shots for his teammates and taking opposing guards off the dribble. Thus, although it helped quite a bit having Dudley come off the bench, Dragic’s contribution was just as much a key.

    This season, the team’s backup pgs are D-Leaguers so I just cannot see how this second unit will score. The only way I can see the Suns having a winning season is by the starters having a comfortable enough lead to where the second unit can at least be effective defensively and by time for the starters to rest and come back in. Unfortunately, the Suns starting lineup is also pretty awful, with only Nash and Gortat as legitimate starters at this point. I do not include Hill just because in this condensced season, he will probably have his minutes cut dramatically. He’s already had a knee issue so Gentry will probably be very cautious with him. But hopefully he’s good to go.

  • sun-arc

    Tony- I agree with most everything you say, with a little difference:

    I think we have 5 legit starters in Nash, Dudz, Hill, Frye, and Gortat. However, for contending teams, more than Nash would be a real star- and we only have one. So- not great on our part. But they are all legit starters, I think. Dudz is the only one that shouldn’t be a starter- but he was playing so well at the end of the year last season, I think he could start on most teams- unless they have a star 2-guard.

    And, maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I think we have a good bench. Sure, the PG situation is scary- but Brown, chill, Warrick/Morris, and Lopez could be quite good. Nearly starters for Minnesota good (he he). I mean, they have the potential (key word) to outplay nearly every opposing bench. And, Warrick and Brown ought to be able to provide enough offense, with Price, Brown, and hopefully Lopez providing defense.

    One other slight disagreement, regarding our super 2nd unit in ’09-’10: Dragic did not have a breakout year until the end. He was roughly ok offensively. The unit got its identity through defense, rebounding, toughness, and being completely different from the starting unit, which confounded teams. Dudz, Lou, and Dragic pestered opposing teams like crazy. It was awesome to watch. Personally, I don’t think it was all Dudz or Dragic- but rather the three of them together- and with Frye often playing with them and hitting 3′s. And Barbosa occasionally as well. Anyway- I think it wasn’t Dragic’s offense so much. But, still, his ability to set people up was their offensive saving grace, and he was good at that capacity more often than not.

    I wonder if we will have a true 2nd unit this year like that one. I love the concept- but not sure it still works for us, as we have so many players, and with the quick season. We may have to rotate people in and out a lot, and it would probably benefit us to have the same chemistry with all kinds of combinations- the way Dallas did last year. Not sure if that can be planned/coached. But it might be a survival necessity.

  • sun-arc

    wow- that was long. Sorry.

  • shazam

    michael…sorry for being off topic but i just wanted to mention that your contributions over at espn today are fantastic

  • Scott

    @Tony -

    I agree that it’s not clear to me where the bench scoring is going to come from.

    If Dudley, Frye, and Hill are all going to be in the first unit, it doesn’t leave any 3 pt shooters in the 2nd unit aside from Brown. So all defenses would have to do is put a guy on Brown and then pack the paint.

    Probably the best simple solution is to have Frye be the primary center for the 2nd unit. That gives the 2nd unit another perimeter scoring option, and Frye can pull opposing big men out of the paint for better penetration by slashers.

  • sun-arc

    @ Scott:
    Potentially Morris can be a 3 pt threat for the bench, if they go that route.

    But, yeah- Frye would be good on that unit. Personally, I’d like to try starting Brown and Morris, and have Frye and Dudz come in after about 8 minutes and work with the starters and then the bench. It would help those two develop, and I think they’d thrive much better being on the court with Nash. Frye and Dudz can handle producing more on their own off the bench.

  • Michael Schwartz

    @shazam Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated!

  • Scott

    @sun-arc -

    It’s my hope that Morris gets minutes this year, but Gentry’s been downplaying expectations, so we’ll just have to wait and see. I picked Morris for the Suns back in February, IIRC, and I still think he’s a great fit for the team.

    As I’ve noted in a more recent comments section, apparently Warrick is has been practicing for play at SF and has been hitting 3s (presumably from the corner). That’s great news, because if you envision a 2nd unit where you have Lopez at C, Morris at PF, and Warrick at SF, along with brown at SG, then you are starting to talk about scoring potentials as well as defensive ability.

    If Childress has stopped jumping forward and/or to the side when he shoots (as amply illustrated in the VotS improvement video), he’ll be a more accurate shooter as well. I noticed that in practice video he is still jumping forward a few inches, which is not great, but it’s an improvement over what he was doing last year, where he’d land a full foot away from where he started his shot. And it’s different when you’re in a game, have your adrenalin going, and have a defender rushing you. We’ll have to see if he’s regained his shooting poise in actual games.

    • Michael Schwartz

      @Scott I kind of think Gentry is downplaying expectations on Markieff just so as to not put much pressure on him. I believe he has done that with past rookies as well, although maybe that’s just because the Suns have rarely had a rookie worthy of expectations the past several years. In any case, if he’s productive I have no doubts that he will get serious run.

  • sun-arc

    I think Warrick knew when the team drafted Morris his spot at the 4 would be in jeopardy. My guess is, he’s been training himself to play the 3 to get minutes there. I hope he does. I still believe in him, but he really needs to bring his best every night, particularly with rebounding and shooting.

  • Scott

    @sun-arc -

    I would prefer to believe Warrick was practicing handling and perimeter shooting because I told him to … on the internet … on a forum like this …

    Well, maybe he came up with the idea on his own. ;)

  • JT’s Hoops Blog

    First of all, I am no troll. I just tell like it is. Even former Phoenix Sun Charles Barkley believes the same thing. Phoenix is not that good. Before Nash was surrounded by talented players like Amare, brois Diaw, and Shawn Marion to name a few. No who does he have now?