Phoenix Suns notes: Historically healthy (until now), Gentry on Lopez foul and Nash MVP case

PHOENIX — Suns head athletic trainer Aaron Nelson would be the first to tell you that luck has played a role in the Phoenix Suns’ unprecedentedly healthy 2011-12 season.

As he said in my recent feature on the innovative methods the Suns’ training staff utilizes, the Suns do all they can to eliminate preventable injuries (and they do a superb job at that) but at some point “it’s a matter of keep your fingers crossed and hope nothing bad happens.”

Well, something bad happened yesterday when Channing Frye suffered a subluxed right shoulder, and now facing their game of the season the Suns might enter Utah short two starters depending on if Grant Hill is ready to return from his knee injury.

These injuries could not have come at a worse time at the tail end of a season that Basketball Prospectus’ Kevin Pelton described as “one of the healthiest seasons in NBA history” in his recent analysis of NBA health. When Pelton published the story before Thursday’s Clippers game, the Suns had missed a mere 18 games to injury, fewer than 55 individual players league-wide!

Pelton wrote:

“Consider that Phoenix has lost just 521 player minutes (calculated by multiplying minutes per game when healthy by games missed) compared to the league average of 2,245. That’s an average of 28.7 minutes per game the Suns haven’t had to call on deep reserves rather than rotation players.

From a bottom-line standpoint, Phoenix has lost just 0.3 Wins Above Replacement Player to injuries. That’s not the league’s best mark because some teams (including the New Jersey Nets, who have lost more games and minutes to injury than anyone else in the NBA) have actually benefited in some sense from having below-replacement players sidelined. Still, it’s 2.5 WARP below league average. In a tight battle for the last seed in the Western Conference, those two and a half games count. (The Houston Rockets, for example, have lost 2.8 WARP to injuries, right at league average.)”

Pelton goes on to explain that usually there’s no correlation between a team’s health from season to season but that the Suns are the exception to the rule as over the past three seasons the Suns have lost 189 games to injury while only two other teams (Philly and Atlanta) have lost fewer than 250. The Suns have ranked first, ninth and fifth in that department the last three seasons, making them the only top-10 team in all three seasons.

As Pelton concluded, “What Phoenix is doing doesn’t appear to be a fluke.”

But as the Suns learned this weekend, even possessing a superior training staff does not make them immune to a key injury at the most inopportune time.

Gentry: Lopez foul on Blake not ‘that big of a deal’

Alvin Gentry has not always been quick to defend Robin Lopez.

After earning a one-game suspension for glaring and brushing up against a referee in late January against Toronto, Gentry made it a two-gamer by not playing Robin in the next game.

When the Suns’ coach was asked about Lopez after that Raptors game, he said in a perturbed manner, “I don’t know, and I don’t really give a s–t to tell you the truth. You’d have to talk to him about that.”

But Gentry was singing a different tune when asked about Lopez’s takedown of Blake Griffin on Thursday, a play that earned him a flagrant-2 and subsequent ejection (but no suspension) that Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro described as being “dirty.”

“I didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” Gentry said. “He went for the ball and he changed hands with it, he ended up hitting him across the chest. He didn’t hit him in the head, he didn’t try to hurt him or anything. Contrary to what anyone’s saying about it was a cheap shot or a cheap play, I disagree totally with that.

“First of all, that’s not what we are. We’ve been called a lot of things, but a dirty, physical team is not one of them. To say that all of a sudden we’ve become a dirty team in the last week, it was a hit that the guy tried to make a hard foul, that’s all he tried to do was keep him from getting a layup.

“Is he supposed to back off so that he can be on SportsCenter? Or is he supposed to try to just make a hard foul? That’s all he tried to do. We don’t have guys who go out and try to hurt somebody. That I do know.”

Del Negro predictably sees things differently, as he told ESPN LA’s Arash Markazi, “I have an issue that Blake got hit that hard and he is in pain and he is still in pain and the player that did that played yesterday. I have a problem with that. I don’t know how the league wants us to deal with that because then it will get out of hand.

“To me it doesn’t make a lot of sense when a player gets a flagrant-2 and he’s able to play and the other player is still in pain. To me what makes sense is that player doesn’t play until that player is healthy and playing. … The league needs to step up and do something in terms of making a statement, not just for Blake but for any player.”

Yet Griffin played tonight, the Clippers’ first since facing the Suns, and dominated the Hornets for 21 points and 15 rebounds while logging 38 minutes. I understand the gist of Vinny’s argument and perhaps it would make sense for World Peace, but it doesn’t seem to hold much water in this situation.

Does Nash deserve MVP votes?

The NBA MVP race appears to be down to LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. If I had a vote it would be cast for LeBron thanks to his overall superior stats for one of the best teams in the league, but in his recent mailbag Bill Simmons brought up an interesting point: If the Suns make the playoffs, where does Steve Nash belong in the MVP hierarchy?

While also touting Kobe, Tony Parker and Rajon Rondo as the next cut after the top three, Simmons writes:

“Anyway, there’s a dropoff after those first three guys … which leads us to Mr. Nash. If Phoenix sneaks into the playoffs in THAT conference with THAT team (basically, a 38-year-old point guard setting up a slew of role players, none of whom had ever been regular starters before except for Grant Hill, who, by the way, is 39 years old) after THAT start (they were 12-19 at one point), it could have only happened because of teamwork/chemistry/efficiency, and if that’s the case, then gee, I wonder who made that possible?”

Nash has not exactly put up MVP stats. He’s averaging “just” 12.5 points and 10.8 assists a game while shooting his usual 53.4-.399-.890. He ranks 34th with a 20.39 PER, and he also boasts a 0.272 WP48 that has led to 10.82 Wins Produced as well as a 12.67 adjusted plus/minus that ranks eighth league-wide.

In other words, Two Time has enjoyed a stellar statistical season but not one that typically would be deserving of MVP votes in a vacuum.

However, as we’ve learned many times (including in 2004-05 and 2005-06), MVPs are not awarded in a statistical vacuum. For the Suns to make the playoffs with a roster void of any front line talent save for Marcin Gortat (who is not exactly an All-Star himself and does indeed rely so heavily on Nash to score), it would be quite the accomplishment.

If you are an MVP voter who asks where would a team be without Player X, then you can certainly make a case for Nash for a top-five MVP finish if the Suns make the playoffs.

Rockets eliminated, Suns control their own destiny

The Phoenix Suns officially control their own destiny with two games to play after the Houston Rockets were eliminated from playoff contention by losing at Miami today.

If the Rockets had won out and the Nuggets and Jazz lost out, the Suns could have been left on the outside looking in even if they had won out.

The Jazz will clinch a playoff spot if they beat Phoenix on Tuesday, and the Suns need a win Tuesday and then either a Suns win or Jazz loss Wednesday to reach the postseason.

Entering the day the Hollinger Playoff Odds gave the Suns a 21.5 percent chance of making the playoffs, and Basketball Prospectus’ Playoff Picture has the Suns at 19.2 percent. The latter model takes into account a 58 percent chance of Utah winning on Tuesday.

However, it may be overstating the odds of the Spurs beating the Suns on Tuesday since San Antonio now leads OKC by 1 1/2 games with the tiebreaker after the Thunder lost to the Lakers today and thus if the Spurs beat the Tank Blazers on Monday they will clinch the conference before heading to Phoenix.

There likely will still be homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs at stake with the Bulls a half game up on the Spurs, but San Antonio has preferred rest over such a distinction all year although perhaps ripping the Suns’ hearts out and ensuring they don’t match up in the playoffs will be a motivator.

A journey back in time

My favorite part about John MacLeod’s Ring of Honor induction was the fact that the franchise’s history took center stage.

When I covered the Dodgers in 2008, nearly every day you would see a different legend milling about, and they would host events to celebrate the franchise’s past on a regular basis.

This was the first time in my four years writing this blog that I felt that connection to the Suns’ past with all those Suns greats sharing the floor together, and it’s something I wish the franchise would do more often for events less significant than a Ring of Honor ceremony.

And 1 

  • The Suns don’t plan on rushing Hill back in the least bit. Said Gentry: “We’ve just got to make sure he’s healthy. Taking a risk and putting him out there and having something bad happen is not what I’d like to be known as.”
  • The Suns’ locker room whiteboard on Saturday included this motivational line: “Pressure?? Its what turns coal into diamonds.”
  • Gentry said Saturday that Sebastian Telfair is still a bit sore but overall fine after taking a shot from Russell Westbrook in Wednesday’s game.

Tags: Aaron Nelson Alvin Gentry Channing Frye Robin Lopez Steve Nash

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