A tale of two seasons for the Phoenix Suns


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.

  • Tony

    I might be reading too much into Babby’s comment, but it really annoys me. He said, “…but if you can’t have top talent…” Excuse me Mr. Babby, why is it that the Suns “can’t have top talent”? Is the organization legally prohibited from obtaining elite talent? You see Michael, Babby’s very clever in controlling the message. First he wants us to believe that it is actually a net positive for the FO not to spend money this off season because it will show they are committed to fiscal discipline so as to have the cap space to sign a franchise player down the road. Now he’s indirectly claiming the organization was somehow prohibited from obtaining top talent and that therefore, we should forgive the FO for bringing in players like Brown or Telfair because they could not sign or trade for elite players. I have to give Babby credit for being a very capable spokesperson despite the awkward tone of his voice.

    I know I said it before, but I will say it again since Michael mentioned it in his piece; the idea that this roster was capable of making the playoffs in the western conference, makes me seriously question what Babby considers a championship roster to be…Which team did Babby expect the Suns to beat out for the playoffs, the Jazz or Rockets? Both teams have far more young talent and athleticism than the Suns and had Rubio not torn his ACL, the Timberwolves also would have likely finished with a better record than the Suns.

    Other than that, I don’t know why anyone should be surprised about the poor start the Suns had this season? We have to remember most teams didn’t exactly come out of the gates playing very well and this was just a natural consequence of the lockout. Players didn’t know there would even be a season until basically the very last minute and training camp was only a week I believe.
    Furthermre, although some people don’t understand the importance team chemistry plays in success, it is indeed a vital component. Chemistry isn’t instantaneous, it takes time to develop.
    So, between the lingering effects of the lockout, the lack of a full training camp, and the lack of team chemistry all doomed the Suns early on in the season. This is why teams’ with exceptional talent, such as the Thunder, were able to overcome the lack of a full training camp and lack of a high degree of team chemistry, because their superior talent level was able to compensate. In contrast, the Suns were dependent all season on team chemistry because of the lack of talent. Therefore it was no surprise that they struggled early on as they needed time to develop a sufficient degree of chemistry to achieve some mediocre success.

  • http://ValleyoftheSuns John Potis

    Yours is a well written and persuasive “response”, Tony.

  • steve

    Until the day comes when NBA teams can literally force players to play for them, it will never be completely in control of the team to acquire the player they want. Players get to pick where they play (even traded players, and to my knowledge drafted players, are not forced to play for whatever team trades for them or selects them).

    It takes more than wanting a guy to get him to play for you, and every franchise has more off years than on years when it comes to major acquisitions (including teams like the Lakers).

  • steve

    I guess I could just have left that first post at this:

    “he’s indirectly claiming the organization was somehow prohibited from obtaining top talent”

    That’s a completely false statement and an obvious straw man.

    Now onto another point.

    “the idea that this roster was capable of making the playoffs in the western conference…”

    What is “capable?” You believe the 2007 Suns were “capable” of winning the championship, yet they didn’t. They were 2 games short of beating the Spurs in the 2nd round. The 2011-12 Suns were 3 games short of being in the playoffs. Were they “capable” of getting to the playoffs? By your logic that another team was “capable,” but fell short because of misfortune, you would then be compelled to argue that, had things gone well for the 2011-12 Suns, they were certainly more than “capable” of making it to the playoffs. You argue that the T-Wolves probably would have finished with a better record than the Suns if they hadn’t lost Rubio… Did losing Hill and Frye have no effect on the Suns? If Hill and Frye had not gone down, is it not possible that the Suns might have got one or two or three more wins, vaulting them into the playoffs? If one or two bounces or one or two calls in a couple of games had gone the Suns’ way, could they not have won a few more games? When you get into saying “if this” or “if that” for any team, you can say the same thing for every other team. Every team faced injuries. Every team had bad calls against (and for) them. Every team had some bad bounces. Every team goes through the same things, and at the end of the day, the teams that deserve it most will come through.

    I obviously don’t subscribe to the idea that things could have ever been different than they turned out, or that arguing about them is beneficial to anyone at all. It’s obviously not beneficial to anyone because it’s pure conjecture and there is no way to prove any argument that is hypothetically situated in the past. However, if you (or any other fan) are willing to suggest that a good bounce here or there could have helped ONE team, then you are bound by reason and logic to believe that ANY team coud have been helped by a good bounce here or there (and vice versa). It doesn’t follow that circumstances could have changed the fate of one team and not another.

    I’ll repeat that. It doesn’t follow that circumstances could have changed the fate of one team and not another.

    Again. It doesn’t follow that circumstances could have changed the fate of one team and not another.

    One more time for good measure. It doesn’t follow that circumstances could have changed the fate of one team and not another.

    I don’t ask that you (or anyone else) agree with me. However, we agree on one thing: The 2011-12 Suns were not good enough to make the playoffs. What I do ask is that people be reasonable. I know I’m going to receive a flamebaited response to this telling me how ignorant I am and how I know nothing about basketball, but will you please view this statement one more time: It doesn’t follow that circumstances could have changed the fate of one team and not another.

    You are being completely unreasonable in your assumption that circumstances could have helped team X but they couldn’t have helped team Y. And why argue about that in the first place? It’s fruitless. No one can “prove” any thought more than another thought, yet you come out and attack anyone who stands against you as if you can recollect past occurrences that never actually happened better than they can.

    Read that again and tell me you still think this is worth discussing.

    No one can “prove” any thought more than another thought, yet you come out and attack anyone who stands against you as if you can recollect past occurrences that never actually happened better than they can.

    Can you really teach a history lesson that never happened better than I can? Better than Michael can? Better than Shannon Brown can? Better than X can?

    Please, for the love of all that is good, don’t make me regret that I tried this.

  • Scott

    I see no mention of how Gentry started the season with a 2nd unit that – aside from Lopez – didn’t know the system. Maybe Gentry had his reasons for doing that, but it’s clearly why the Suns did so poorly in the first half. The starters played much the same right through.

    IMO, Gentry underestimated how long it would take his new players to learn the system, and he underestimated how well Warrick and Childress could play.

  • Scott

    @steve -

    You are familiar with the fable of the scorpion and the frog?

  • steve

    Indeed, I guess I just like to hold out hope that not everyone is a slave to his own skin.

    Things were certainly much easier for that short while when I wasn’t referencing his remarks though.

  • Scott

    BTW, ESPN reports that Nash is now a GM. That is, the GM for Canada’s Olympic basketball team.

    I guess that means he picks the roster?

  • Tony

    @Steve,

    I really do not understand what point you are trying to make. I never thought this past Suns team had the ability to make the playoff. They overachieved in terms of where every objective analyst ranked them. The injury to Frye was very unfortunate for the Suns playoff chances but Hill’s injury was to be expected. At both his and Nash’s age, it was remarkable both were able to play so much of the season and prior to the season, my biggest concern was them getting hurt overextending themselves due to the lack of talent on the roster. The fact that the team was so dependent on everyone staying healthy should also be an indication that the roster doesn’t have enough quality depth. Look at the Grizz for example. What did their FO do when Randolph was injured? They immediately went out traded for Speights who the Sixers had been trying to trade for a short while. You’re telling me that the Suns FO couldn’t have prepared better for an injury to Frye or Hill by adding more depth to the roster? The fact that everything had go perfectly for this Suns team to just sniff the playoffs demonstrates that the Suns did not have the capability of making the playoffs because things never go perfectly.

    It does not make any sense to argue that circumstances have no effect on the outcome of a team’s success. And when did I say that different circumstances that could have helped Team “X” couldn’t also be applicable to help Team “Y”? Rubio, as Coach Aldelmann said, was the heart and soul of the Wolves. The guy was playing great and the team was winning. When he went down to a freak injury, are you claiming his injury played no relevance in the Timberwolves struggles after he went down to injury? How can you even argue that when comparing their record with Rubio as compared to following his injury? It’s not even close to how much worse the team played. So are you saying that it’s not feasible to claim that the Timberwolves would have finished with a much better record had Rubio not gone down to injury? Just as apt, the 07 Suns team would have likely won that series if not for the suspensions to Amare and Diaw. I don’t understand why you are so committed to an outcome-determinative approach? Unless I’m mistaken, for you Steve, all that matters is the final outcome and everything else is just immaterial. If you are always focused on the outcome, there’s a tendency to not appreciate the process which led to that outcome. In otherwords, focusing on the outcome that the Spurs eventually beat the Suns in that 07 series misses the whole point on how and why they beat the Suns. Again, the Suns had the momentum and had taken home-court from the Spurs in that series. Horry’s cheap shot on Nash exemplified that the Spurs were frustrated and their mindset wasn’t good following the shock to them that the Suns actually beat them on their home-court. By suspending the Suns 2nd best player and key secondary playmaker, it was the Suns who in fact lost all the momentum as a consequence of the suspensions. Thus, it is absurd to argue that the Spurs were the better team that series because they didn’t beat a Suns team at full strength.

    This is not to say that I am positive the Suns would have won the 07 series had Amare and Diaw not been suspended or that the Timberwolves would have finished the season with a much better record had Rubio not been injured, but considering how well the Suns were playing before the suspensions and how well the Timberwolves were playing pre-Rubio injury, it’s definitely logical to argue that the circumstances would have likely been different had both those events not taken place. These situations were not simply a bad bounce or just one minor occurrence either. These were circumstances amounting to both the Suns and Timberwolves losing their second best players and for the Suns losing their only other playmaker on the team. Hence, these events were material to the outcome of both the Suns-Spurs series and the Timberwolves record to finish the season.

  • steve

    Insert Futurama meme pic here:

    *not sure if yanking my chain

    or actually thinks he understands what I was saying*

    Either way, I’ve given up on being a frog.

  • Tony

    @Steve

    “I’ve given up on being a frog.” That’s good Steve because your arguments should drown in the truth of which I speak! ;)

  • Tony

    @Michael,

    Just wondering if you have any updates on whether the Suns FO are likely to offer Alonzo Gee a multiyear contract at $4 mill? I haven’t heard anything since news of the Suns’ interest in him first broke a few days ago. Personally, I don’t know why the Suns FO would want to overpay another role player unless they were primarily focused on retaining Nash and being a mediocre team for the third straight season next year. Gee is only a 42% career shooter and this Suns team desperately needs shooters. But then again, nothing this FO does surprises me anymore.

  • http://www.valleyofthesuns.com Michael Schwartz

    @Tony I saw some of those rumors but haven’t heard anything concrete about that. My personal opinion is that it sounds insane and the exact opposite of the “disciplined” approach Babby spoke about. A multi-year deal for Gee starting at $4 mil is the exact opposite of that word. Maybe if they go into “save their powder for next year” mode signing Gee for one year like they did Brown could make sense, but under no scenario does a multi-year deal make sense for Gee.