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.”