Phoenix Suns season review: A coming of identity

Posted by on April 27th, 3:50 pm

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns’ 2011-12 season will be remembered for a frustrating start, a team meeting following the All-Star break and a hopeful push for the playoffs that came to a sudden halt in the second-to-last game of the season.

The lockout reduced, 66-game run was a detriment to all teams, especially those without continuity on their rosters from a season before. Alvin Gentry’s team fell into that category, and their challenge for the final spot in the playoffs and 33-33 final record might indeed be due to the parity caused by the lockout.

Then again, the Suns’ 12-19 start didn’t do them in until they lost against the Utah Jazz in the 65th game of the year, and that stems from a team that, while not rich in pure basketball talent, found its identity and improved.

“The key was, we had a lot of … new guys coming into a system that was very different from a lot of systems,” third-string point guard Ronnie Price said. “So when you have new pieces coming into something a lot different, it takes time. And I think that first part of the season was a learning experience and also a chance for our team to come together and find out what our identity was.”

A lack of cohesion was how Steve Nash often put it. It affected the bench and the starting unit, and Gentry juggled both in the first half of the year, meanwhile implementing assistant coach Elston Turner’s new defensive philosophies.

But those struggles developed into chemistry that turned Phoenix into a competitive team. The Suns’ returned to some resemblance of the offensive identity they’d had branded upon themselves in the Nash era but molded a new defense with it.

“The first (half) of the season, we had trouble scoring 90 points but I thought our defense was really good,” Gentry said. “We did a good job of winning games based primarily on our defense. As the season went on, we started to shoot the ball more — our defense was still pretty good — but we shot the ball and played a little bit more up-tempo, and I think that’s where the success that we had in the second part of the season came.”

In the end, it wasn’t quite enough. Injuries to Grant Hill and Channing Frye might spark what-if scenarios of making the playoffs, but even with that alternate ending, the 2011-12 season can be defined as, potentially, the last of the Nash era.

Pre-All-Star break record: 14-20 (at 13th place in the Western Conference)

Post-All-Star break record: 19-13

Overall record: 33-33 (at 10th in the Western Conference)

The turning point

The Suns held a player-led meeting after All-Star weekend that refocused the starters and bench players alike to form a common goal — make the playoffs.

Backup point guard Sebastian Telfair was a perfect example of a newfound attitude. The winner of the Dan Majerle Hustle Award cemented his role behind Nash and in front of Price, leading the second unit with pesky defense, vocal leadership, and at the very least, a fiery attitude.

While the starters began hitting shots that led to the second-half flurry, the second-unit of Telfair, Markieff Morris, Robin Lopez and Michael Redd and Shannon Brown found confidence playing with one another.

“I think the second half, when we had the goal to make the playoffs after our team meeting we had, I think I got a lot better,” Telfair said. “I think it was playing for something, I think that helped me come out play with some fire up under myself.”

What changed?

Much of Phoenix’s second-half revival came because of the immense offensive jumps in efficiency that NBA.com’s John Shuhmann detailed three games before the season ended.

Of course, those statistics can be credited to coaching decisions and that cohesion Nash had been looking for.

I thought (Gentry) made the right adjustments,” Dudley said. “He switched the starting lineups up, back and forth. We took more days off, trying to rest our bodies for the older men. Defensively, we held ourselves more accountable. Watching film was a lot more intense this year, obviously with the lack of practice time you had to have that.

“Elston Turner did a good job also, just getting everybody, the logistics of how to play defense and the right rotations,” Dudley added. “Igor handled the offense a lot better the second half of the year, when he really took over offensively at practice. You have to give credit to Alvin to making adjustments, letting his assistants coaches help him out.”

The X-factor

Channing Frye was often thought to be the key for the Suns. Whether he was frustrating Blake Griffin and Kevin Love, or raining three-pointers from the outside to stretch the floor, his good games usually ended with a Phoenix victory.

Of course, it was fitting that he injured his shoulder just before the Suns faced the Utah Jazz in a true must-win game. Against a team he’d burned for a season-high 26 points earlier in the season, the Suns couldn’t combat Utah’s big men on either side of the floor without Frye, and there went Phoenix’s playoff hopes.

If not for Frye, however, the Suns wouldn’t have been in that position at all.

The MVP

Who do you think it is? Steve Nash, at 38 years old, made a patch-work of role players into legitimate competition on a nightly basis against all but perhaps three elite teams in the NBA. He combined with Gortat to become the most dangerous two-man game in the league this season, and that helped the Suns’ center end the year with team-leading averages of 15.4 points, 10 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.

Nash finished with averages of 12.5 points, 10.7 assists (second in the NBA) and 3.0 rebounds per game in his contract year. He also — although with fewer shot attempts — hit 53.2 percent of his field goal attempts, which ties his career high.

Final numbers

Points per game: 98.4 (Eighth in the NBA)

Opponent points per game: 98.6 (21st in the NBA)

Offensive rating: 106.2 (Ninth in the NBA)

Defensive rating: 106.5 (24th in the NBA)

Pace: 92.6 (Eighth in the NBA)

** Numbers from Basketball-Reference.com

Kevin Zimmerman is the lead blogger and editor for Valley of the Suns. He is also editor of AZDesertSwarm.com, an Arizona Wildcats\’ blog, and a contributor at SB Nation and Pac-12.com.

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Tags: Phoenix Suns · Phoenix Suns Analysis

13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Marley // Apr 27, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    Screw the Suns … Go Coyotes!

  • 2 sun also rises // Apr 28, 2012 at 12:05 am

    Marley’s back to watching NHL because he knows the Mavs are a first round out and that VC isn’t getting anywhere near the Finals this year. What happened to all that static about him getting his ring before Nash? lolol

  • 3 Scott // Apr 28, 2012 at 12:39 am

    Mmm … didn’t VotS begin the season with the prediction the Suns would play better this year because they DID have continuity on their roster?

    In the first few games, Gentry could have fielded a first and second unit featuring more veterans from the previous season. The only position he needed to concede to a newbie was 2nd unit PG.

    If he’d done that, maybe the opening of the season wouldn’t have been so catastrophic.

  • 4 steve // Apr 28, 2012 at 8:48 am

    I agree, Scott. I’d put the bad opening on gentry as much as anyone else. He tinkered far too much and never really seemed to get into a rhythm with his substitution timings.

    That awful brand of basketball could have been caused by a lot of things, but I believe gentry was a huge contributor to that mess.

  • 5 Rich Anthony, (KJL) // Apr 28, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    That “mess” was the roster, plain and simple.

    Keep in mind, Gentry didn’t have Michael Redd available to him in the first half. Having Redd made all the difference in the world. Also, Channing Frye was absolutely horrible in the first half of the season.

    Also, Telfair was behind Price, and when you have so many new faces, it simply takes time.

    All of that said, the team is what the team was. A collection of 1-year contracts and restoration projects who weren’t good enough to be one of the top 8 teams in the west. Simple as that.

  • 6 steve // Apr 28, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    Players have to play, I agree, but the coach isn’t completely blameless when it comes to getting guys to play well. I understand the roster wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough to be one of the top few teams in the west after the break. Roster is one aspect, but not the whole story.

  • 7 Ty-Sun // Apr 28, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    Well, it was roller coaster season of ups and downs… unfortunately ending on a down. Loosing Hill and Frye at the end of the season obviously hurt but the lockout hurt even more. It caused a very short free agent signing season, a very short training camp, an almost nonexistent preseason and a very condensed, fast paced regular season schedule that taxed all the players physically. Hopefully the NBA will never have another season like this one.

  • 8 Tony // Apr 28, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    @Rich,

    Finally, you’ve posted something absolutely true. Blaming Gentry for the poor first-half start is just more ignorance. First of all, the Suns had to incorporate many new players, particularly since the roster was not exactly full of talented players and so these new players had to be depended on from the get go. The fact that training campt was so brief also made it difficult for them to develop chemistry and when you’re on a team with such little talent as the Suns had, having team chemistry becomes especially vital. And chemistry takes time to develop, it’s not something that instantly happens.

    To claim the roster wasn’t perfect is the biggest understatement of the century. This Suns roster had basically no legitimate talent outside of Nash and Gortat. Nash’s age required Gentry to carefully limit his minutes and the same goes for Hill. So it wasn’t as if the team could have depended on those two leaders to play 35+ minutes per game. While Gortat has talent and athleticism, we’ve all seen what happens to him in pressure games and/or going against aggressive centers. Who else on this team had the sort of talent to make this team a playoff team?

    This is not to say that Gentry didn’t cost the Suns some games because his in-game adjustments were often too late. But, overall, considering how close the Suns came to making the playoffs with such a pathetic roster put together by the Three Stooges, Gentry should really get some COY votes. Even Scott Skiles praised Gentry and said he should be selected as the Coach of the Year. We all have to remember that the Suns overachieved. On paper, this was arguably in the bottom 5 least talented teams in the NBA and playing in the western conference with a generally more competitive conference, this team had no business even being in 10th place.

  • 9 steve // Apr 28, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    To add a little to my comment… The suns had to have had one of the least changed rosters from season to season this year. That’s why I place a lot of the blame on gentry for the early season struggles. Also, I’m not positive how long the “roster” or “talent” excuse can be used. Parcells always said you are what your record says you are. If that’s true, the suns were an average team. The definition of average. I realize that’s not what every fan wants, but that’s a far cry from what some doomsday fans make it seem.

    Here’s to hoping for better times, that way the bandwagoners can stop whining and we can just get back to talking about hoops.

  • 10 Scott // Apr 29, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    We’ve talked a lot about what we might want the Suns to do in the off-season to get better. But we haven’t talked much about what we might think Lance Blanks would do to improve the team.

    So here’s my prediction, putting on my Lance Blanks basketball shoes and staring deep into my crystal ball …

    First comes the draft. Blanks drafts the best remaining big on the board, whether PF or C. If the Suns pick around #14, at the moment it looks like it could turn out to be Meyers Lemon. (Err, Meyers Leonard.)

    Consequently, Lopez is released to whoever picks him up in free agency. Blanks gives a comment to reporters about how Lopez is a good kid who has a lot of energy, but he lacks focus and fails to harness his energy for basketball purposes. (Portland picks up Lopez, and like Dragic he begins to look more impressive as an opponent, picks up the nickname “Big Nasty,” and he becomes a fan favorite in Rip City.)

    No one is released on amnesty.

    Whether we hear about or not, Blanks checks into the possibility of getting Deron Williams, with the idea of him either replacing Nash if he leaves, or playing alongside Nash at starting SG. Williams declines, because he wants the kind of contract only a fanatic billionaire owner can offer. (Blanks is okay with this, as this is something that came out of ownership, and is not his idea.)

    Blanks signs Aaron Brooks to a 2-year deal at $3.4 million per year, second year at player option. Now he’s set in case Nash leaves, and if Nash stays, his backup PG situation is settled.

    The team picks up the remaining year on Telfair’s contract.

    Unable to get any star free agents, Blanks signs Dahntay Jones to “bring toughness” to the Suns’ defense. He is billed as being expected to fit into the lineup like Raja Bell. The Suns sign Jones to a 4 year contract at $3.7 million per year.

    Blanks tells the press he’s “always liked Dahntay’s game” and he “expects Jones to contend for a starting spot.”

    Nash and Hill and Redd are re-signed, and along with Brooks and Jones they use up all the Suns’ free agent money. Brown and Price are not re-signed.

    Blanks explains his strategy was, to some extent, “addition by subtraction.” “We had too many players with similar skills, and not enough players with complementary skills. By changing our lineup just a little, but in important ways, we’re keeping our chemistry, and we’re in a position to build upon what we were able to do before.”

    When asked why he decided to return to the Suns after such a lackluster draft and free agency period, Nash tells the press, “It’s disappointing. But when I looked around at all my basketball opportunities, I decided Phoenix is my home. Management was willing to give me a 3-year contract, which is what I asked for. And when you’ve got management behind you, and the fans are cheering for you, what more would a player want?”

    When asked about winning a championship, Nash says, “Obviously that’s what all professional players play for. I would still like to win a championship. But a lot of this game has to do with luck. Maybe we’ll get lucky. Maybe there will be a mid-season trade that gets us the pieces we need. I’m not going to worry about it. We’re just going to go out there and give it our all.”

    The result is that next season the Suns’ roster is: Nash, Dudley, Hill, Morris, Gortat, Brooks, Jones, Redd, Warrick, Frye, Telfair, Childress, and big rookie X.

    When Frye is asked about being moved back to the bench, he responds, “You know, I’d like to remain a starter. But with Robin gone, and big rookie X not ready yet, we needed someone to secure the basket for the 2nd unit and rebound.”

    When asked about not being amnestied, and thus getting his $21 million dollars over the next 3 years instead of in one lump sum, even though he’s looking at spending his 3rd year with the Suns buried deep on the bench, Childress responds, “All I can focus on is what Josh needs to do, and what Josh needs to eat for lunch. I might take up sudoku.”

    And how does this play out in the season? Turns out this edition of the Suns gets into the playoffs, because even though the starters keep their flaws, the bench unit plays well from the start, and the team is able to keep down the minutes for Nash and Hill. Also, of the 6 games either Nash or Hill misses due to injury, the Suns happen to win all 6.

  • 11 Daniel // Apr 30, 2012 at 2:01 am

    @Scott, I would honestly see that situation as a good (maybe not best) case scenario. Even if its not a complete rebuild to Championship contender. After the last 2 years, I’d be happy to see the Suns return to the playoffs and be competitive.

  • 12 grover // Apr 30, 2012 at 11:09 am

    Great post. This is amusing, yet very possible. I’m simultaneously hopeful (as on paper this is an improved roster from what we had this year) and scared sh!tless for the future as this does little to improve the Suns long term outlook.

  • 13 Michael Schwartz // May 6, 2012 at 10:48 am

    We did seem to think all the returning players would make the lack of training camp time a positive for Phoenix compared to other teams. Obviously, that did not end up being the case, and I think you need to look to the bench as the reason why. The Suns’ starters actually were pretty good from the get-go and guess what — they all ended last season as starters!

    But the bench was a disaster zone the first half of the year because there were so many new bench players and it took half a season for them to get accustomed to their roles and integrated into the way Phoenix plays basketball. In those preseason predictions, we were just thinking of the mainstays and the continuity among the Suns’ top guys, but for a team that relies so much on chemistry and bench play I see why we were wrong.

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