PHOENIX — A .500 season generally tells the tale of a mediocre team, yet the Phoenix Suns were anything but that this season. Instead they almost seemed to be two completely different squads based on their first- and second-half performances.
The first-half Suns finished 14-20 and lost home games to the 21-45 Cavs, 21-45 Hornets, 22-44 Nets, 23-43 Raptors and 23-43 Warriors. They won three games in a row just once.
Meanwhile, the second-half Suns tore off a 19-13 run, with 12 of the losses coming against playoff teams and the 13th against a Minnesota squad that was in the hunt at the time. They lost three in a row just once, the final three of the campaign.
So what was the difference between these seemingly disparate teams?
To head coach Alvin Gentry, it all started with the three practices in a row the team held following the All-Star break.
“We never had that situation and there were things that we felt we really needed to work on but the time wasn’t available,” he said. “We had a situation where we had three really good practices, our coaching staff made some decisions as far as rotations and we were going to live with those guys and let them know they were going to be the ones playing, and I just think it started to gel for us.”
Gentry lamented the fact that the Suns played an easier schedule early in the season before his squad had gelled and such a brutal slate later. After all, when the Suns were invincible against losing teams late in the year, it surely stands to reason they would have taken down the crew of patsies they lost to early at home whereas they would have lost the tough games against playoff teams at any point in the year.
In a season in which they came one win short of the playoffs (the Suns think the Spurs would have rested their starters in the finale regardless of what was on the line for Phoenix), that many early season home upsets loom large.
“We were playing teams that we were better than, but we weren’t ready to play them, and guys weren’t in great shape at the beginning,” said president of basketball operations Lon Babby.
On top of that, as Kevin Zimmerman wrote, the Suns lacked continuity and cohesion at the beginning of the season. To me this was a surprise for a squad that returned the starting lineup that finished the previous season along with a few bench players, and I wasn’t alone as Grant Hill thought the Suns’ continuity could actually be a strength at Media Day.
It wasn’t … at least in the early going, yet after the All-Star break the Suns morphed into the prototypical Nash “little engine that could” kind of team.
Some like Shannon Brown feel the Suns would be a playoff team if they had enjoyed the benefits of a full training camp and an 82-game schedule, but they weren’t the only team subjected to such a crazy start.
Things really turned around during a stretch of 12 home games out of 14 total contests beginning in late February. Phoenix ripped off 10 wins in US Airways Center and by the middle of March they returned to .500 and were back in the heart of the race.
Marcin Gortat proved to be a reliable pick-and-roll partner for Nash all season, and Channing Frye and Jared Dudley both picked up their offensive games in the second half.
Overall, the Suns’ starters (Nash-Dudley-Hill-Frye-Gortat) played very well together all season, outscoring opponents by 12.5 points per 100 possessions (10.5 before the break, 15.6 after). After an abysmal first half, the bench unit of Bassy-Redd-Childress-Keef-Lopez was actually a positive 22.9 per 100 in the second half.
“What was the change?” Gortat asked, repeating the question about the difference between the two halves. “I think more guys started finally playing well. We started hitting shots and we became more serious about everything that we do. Some guys finally had that basketball rhythm. I would say the schedule was easier, we had more games at home, and we had better matchups, so that was the crucial thing. We kind of understood it was about time to start playing better.”
Yet because the Suns took too long to do just that, they were left home for the playoffs instead of playing the role of sacrificial lamb taken on by the Utah Jazz, who have already been eliminated by a determined Spurs team.
As for the positives to glean from the season, Gentry feels the Suns improved their screen and roll defense, defensive rotations and rebounding, although he admitted “that’s an area where we have to have improvement.” Indeed the Suns improved from 29th to 22nd in rebound rate so there’s much improvement yet to go even if Phoenix is no longer at the bottom of the league in that department.
Babby said that when the Suns assessed the team after the lockout, he believed they were good enough to reach the playoffs, “and so in that sense, the season was a disappointment.”
Yet he also cited the many positives of the year, including the second-half resurgence, Nash’s brilliance and the camaraderie and trust the Suns developed that nearly led them to a come-from-behind playoff berth.
“It’s great to have top talent,” Babby said. “We didn’t have top talent, but if you can’t have top talent there’s nothing better in sports than the sum being greater than the parts.”
Well, except for winning, yet in the end the second-half surge could not make up for the first-half stumble.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.