External expectations for Phoenix Suns unusually low

The national media and computer projections sleeping on the Suns has become an annual tradition, but never have the predictions come in so low during the Nash era.

In years past the above statement meant picking the Suns just outside the playoffs or at the very bottom of the West playoff picture.

This year it means picking the Suns at the very bottom of the West, period.

That’s where ESPN’s John Hollinger has predicted the Suns to finish, 14th to be exact, just above the CP3-less New Orleans Hornets. It’s understandable that expectations are low but such a prediction must be a bit jarring for Suns fans so accustomed to at least competing for a playoff spot, especially considering where Hollinger sees the franchise heading:

“It took the Suns just two offseasons to completely dismantle a championship contender, although 2010 was the big one. By chasing away Steve Kerr and David Griffin, letting Amare Stoudemire walk, and then spending the money on Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick, they sealed their fate. A year from now, after Steve Nash and Grant Hill flee for Gotham, they’ll be a 15-win team with virtually no young talent. …

This looks like the inverse of the Hornets: a team that will finish maybe 12th in offensive efficiency and in the bottom five defensively. I can’t see them getting back to the playoffs.”

This year’s edition of The Basketball Prospectus, written by Kevin Pelton and Bradford Doolittle, does not inspire much confidence either. (Editor’s Note: I contributed a paragraph in the Suns section, and you can buy the book for $9.98 here.)

Their projection system called SCHOENE thinks only slightly better about the Suns, estimating a 27-39 season that would put them 13th in the West. TeamRankings.com‘s projection is similar, placing the Suns 12th in the West with 29.4 wins and 36.6 losses as well as a 36.1 percent chance of reaching the postseason.

Moreover, SCHOENE projects the Suns’ offense to decline from ninth last season all the way down to 16th with an offensive rating of 108.7 and it sees their defense dropping from 25th to 28th thanks to a pitiful defensive rating of 111.7. Clearly SCHOENE does not believe in Elston Turner’s game plan.

During the summer I wrote that during the Nash era the Suns have only had to feature a top-20 defense to be a playoff team. However, that was only true because before 2010-11 a Nash-led offense paced the league in offensive efficiency for nine consecutive seasons. Even more astounding, Nash has led the five best offenses of the last 20 years when comparing his team’s offensive efficiency to the league average, three of which have come in Phoenix.

The Suns could win and win big (maybe not playoff big, but regular season big if nothing else) with a mediocre offense when they could score at a historic pace. The Suns’ offense has looked anything but historic during the preseason.

The StatsCube article said this has nothing to do with a Nash decline since the Suns’ 111.1 points per 100 possessions with Nash on the court last season would have led the league. Yet the Suns scored just 99.9 points per 100 when Nash sat, which would rank fourth-worst in the league.

Considering that was done with Goran Dragic and Aaron Brooks as the backup point guards and this year the Suns are looking to Ronnie Price and Sebastian Telfair, it’s no wonder Hollinger is so pessimistic.

I fully expect the Suns to improve defensively, potentially back into the top 20, but it’s the offense that must prove SCHOENE wrong and remain elite for the Suns to make these predictions look silly.

Suns’ offseason earns D+

ESPN’s Chad Ford liked the Suns’ offseason about as much as Hollinger likes their chances this season, as the professor handed the Suns a D+ for their effort, largely blaming owner Robert Sarver:

“The sun continues to set in Phoenix. Steve Nash, the heart and soul of the Suns, is still plugging away at age 37, but the rest of his mates from the original run-and-gun Suns are long gone. The 39-year-old Grant Hill is back to provide support and big man Marcin Gortat was a very good pickup last season.

The rest of the team, however, is a mess.

Owner Robert Sarver made most of the quagmire himself. When he wasn’t ripping up a successful roster, he was alienating players this summer with his hardline stance during the lockout. Sarver has since come out claiming he was actually a dove — a reversal that only a politician could pull off with a straight face.

The Suns’ free-agent haul this year won’t do much to inspire Suns fans. It consisted of Shannon Brown, Ronnie Price and Sebastian Telfair. Of the three, Brown is a legit pickup, albeit a role player. Their draft pick, Markieff Morris, is big and can shoot, but the chances of him being a starter in the NBA, let alone a franchise savior, are slim.

At some point the Suns will get around to realizing they should have traded Nash two years ago when he still had enormous value. At this point, with Nash in the last year of his deal, they won’t get much. When he leaves, the team will likely be among the worst in the NBA.”

But there’s some good news

ESPN Insider David Thorpe tabbed Gortat as one of his five breakout players along with James Harden, Ty Lawson, Tiago Splitter and Patrick Patterson.

Hollinger’s 2012 projection for Gortat has him scoring 14.7 points per game, grabbing 12.5 boards per contest and compiling a 16.66 PER.

Here’s what Thorpe has to say about The Polish Hammer:

“Gortat could make a case that he’s the most underrated center in the NBA. But now that he’s the full-time starter in Phoenix, he’ll get his chance he is a top-10 center. His numbers could stagnate if Steve Nash is traded, but other than that, I see a steady diet of pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop with him. He’s one of the few centers who can do both.

And if given full starter’s minutes, he should rank among the top defensive rebounders in the league. It makes sense for Phoenix to feature him for two reasons: The Suns can see if he’s, indeed, the center of their future. Or perhaps he’s someone who can be traded to a contending team needing a center in exchange for a bevy of young players and picks. Either way, it should be a second straight ‘career year’ for Gortat.”

And 1

Even the sports books are sleeping on the Suns.

The over/under line on Phoenix regular season wins was set at 28.5 in the NBA future odds section of SportsInteraction.com. The site also tabs the Suns as 75:1 underdogs to win the NBA championship and 40:1 underdogs to win the West. Only five West teams face longer odds than that. …

Marc Stein’s NBA power rankings rank the Suns 22nd, fourth worst in the West.

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