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Something to shoot for: Statistical goals for the upcoming season

The 2012-13 NBA season kicks off in 12 short days, and optimism is swirling around the new-look Phoenix Suns. New faces always seem to breed optimism in and around a franchise, especially when that franchise has been on the treadmill of mediocrity for two straight seasons.

No matter how excited Suns fans might be for the Dragic/Beasley/Scola era to begin, however, some expectational temperance may be in order. Fans and analysts alike must keep in mind that nearly every player on the Phoenix roster is adapting to a new role. Though the team has had a very productive training camp and preseason thus far, adaptation is a process that takes time and repetition. The process cannot be cheated or artificially accelerated.

The Suns’ success this year will depend on how quickly each player in the rotation embraces his new role. But how do we evaluate their progress? The Suns may very well struggle out of the gate. If they’re 12-16 at Christmas, I wouldn’t be shocked. Consequently, wins and losses may not be the best way to judge individual player progress.

Instead, there are some individual statistics that might gauge success more accurately. The following are statistical benchmarks for the players in the main rotation on which they can be evaluated independent of the team’s overall success. My goal was to find a stat for each guy that captured the essence of his role or expected level of production for the upcoming season.

Goran Dragic – 8.0 assists per game

Like Steve Nash before him, Goran Dragic has been given the keys to the Suns’ Ferrari offense. It’s a machine that thrives on both speed and precision handling. It provides great opportunity for production provided the point guard at the wheel is up to the challenge. Phoenix’s front office brought Dragic back to the desert because it believe he has what it takes to drive this potent offense. If he can pick up where he left off last year, that belief will be greatly rewarded.

If you look at last season’s assist leaders, the truly elite point guards all averaged at least 7.7 assists per game. Over the final two months of last season, Dragic averaged 8.3 assists per game. As the point guard for the Suns, Goran should have better weapons and more possessions than he did in Houston, so he should have no problem continuing or increasing that level of production over a full season. At the end of the year, I expect the Dragon to be talked about as one of the game’s elite distributors.

Jared Dudley – 12.5/4.0/3.5 FGA/3PA/FTA per game

Dudley showed last season he could maintain solid shooting percentages while playing starter’s minutes. Now it’s time for him to up his shot attempts and really assert himself as a scorer. The Suns will need their starting two guard to shoot the ball and be a player defenses have to worry about. There’s no way Dudley can fit that bill shooting less than 10 shots per game like he did last year. The shot attempt figures above represent a 25 percent increase over his stats from last year. To get up that many shots from the field, Jared will have to have the ball in his hands more. That in turn will lead to more free throw attempts. Dudley is the de facto leader in the Suns’ locker room. Now it’s time for him to be a leader on the court as well.

Michael Beasley – 17.0 points per game/45% FG

Beasley requires two stats in tandem. The Suns’ coaching staff may want Michael to lead the team in scoring, but without a doubt, they want him to do so efficiently. If Beasley averages 20 points per game, but shoots 40 percent from the floor, the Suns will end up with a high lottery pick. Phoenix’s system has always relied on a strong FG% to drive its offensive efficiency. A volume shooter who takes 20 shots to score 20 points doesn’t fit that system at all. I would prefer Michael to shoot 48-50 percent from the field, but he has yet to do that in his four years in the NBA. Baby steps.

I set the scoring figure at 17 points per game because every 2012 playoff team except Philadelphia had at least one player who averaged 17 ppg or more. The Suns have gone two seasons without a player summiting 16 ppg. They’ve also gone two years without making the postseason. Coincidence? I think not. Phoenix needs Beasley to end this streak.

Luis Scola – 17.00 PER

Scola is the only starter whose intended role and expected production are still uncertain. Phoenix will rely on the big man from Argentina to score in the paint, rebound, and be more than a warm body on defense. But how much he’ll be asked to contribute in each of those categories is unclear. If his scoring drops off because other players are carrying the load, then Luis will need to grab more rebounds or dish out more assists. If his rebounding production doesn’t return to previous levels, then the Suns will need more scoring from him.

Whatever his role ends up being, his total contribution is what’s most important. Scola needs to be the guy whose line stands out not because of huge numbers in one category, but because of the numbers put up in several different categories. Scola had an average PER around 17.00 over his first four years in Houston. That dropped to 15.50 last season. All I’m calling for is a return to previous form, which should not be too difficult with the weapons around him and the confidence the coaching staff has in him.

Marcin Gortat – 50 Double-Doubles

I know this is a very tall order (pun partially intended.) Gortat was seventh in the league last year with 31 double-doubles. That number translates to about 39 over the course of a full 82-game slate. I firmly believe Marcin can do better. Of the players who averaged at least 10 points and 10 rebounds last season, only Kris Humphries posted fewer double-doubles than Gortat. There are players, like Kevin Love and Dwight Howard, who post a double-double nearly every night. I believe Gortat can be that kind of player. I chose this stat because it’s, in a way, a measure of consistency. Gortat needs to bring it as a scorer AND a rebounder every night. The Suns can’t afford for him to take a night off in one area. Marcin needs to record a double-double in 60 percent of Phoenix’s games to meet this goal. Anything is possible for the Polish Gazelle.

Sebastian Telfair and Kendall Marshall – 2.5:1 Assist:TO ratio

I wanted to stress efficiency with these two. I don’t know who will end up with more playing time this year, but whoever is backing up Dragic must take care of the ball. Telfair maintained a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season, but I think he and Marshall can do better this year. The second unit should be more potent and effective scoring the ball this time around. Markieff Morris and Wes Johnson are both capable scorers. So is Shannon Brown. Defensively, the reserves might need work, but they should have no trouble putting the ball in the basket, so long as the point guard running the show plays within himself, doesn’t try to do too much, and takes care of the ball. Phoenix can’t afford turnovers and inefficiency this season.

Shannon Brown – 45% FG

What I said about Beasley above goes for Shannon Brown as well. Brown averaged 10 shots per game last season, the most of his career, but he shot only 42 percent from the field. He has scoring ability, but he also has a tendency to over-dribble and fall in love with his jumper. Neither of those practices is good for his FG%, which means neither is good for the Suns. Brown needs to attack the basket instead of settling for perimeter jump shots. He has the quickness to get by most defenders and the athleticism to attack the rim even amongst 7-footers. He’s more of a slasher than a jump shooter. The sooner he realizes that, the better off Phoenix will be.

Wesley Johnson – 150 3PM

While I stressed efficiency with the other reserves, I’m advocating pure production for Wes Johnson. He’s been great from long range so far this preseason, and I think the outside shot will be a big part of his role this year. 150 3PM will put probably put him among the top 10-12 3-point shooters in the league. In the SSOL era, the Suns always had at least one guy in the top 10, if not two. Johnson should bring about a return to form in that respect.

I declined to put a percentage on his 3-point shots because coach Alvin Gentry will take care of that. If Johnson is playing with confidence and shooting the ball well, he’ll get more playing time. If he comes out cold or tentative, Gentry won’t hesitate to sit him down. I’m not worried about Wes shooting Phoenix out of games. This is a lofty goal, but for Phoenix to be successful, the team needs Johnson to be a weapon. Beyond the arc is definitely where he’s best deployed.

Markieff Morris – 45/38/78 FG%/3pt%/FT%

Markieff can play at this level. There’s no doubt about it. Sure he had his ups and downs last year, but over the course of the season, he made a believer out of me. I think he’s going to be a big part of this franchise for the next several years, but with that said, he has to shoot the ball better this season. Morris shot 39.9 percent, 34.7 percent, and 71.7 percent from the field, the arc, and the free-throw line, respectively, last year. Those numbers are acceptable for a rookie, but they won’t cut it for an NBA sophomore trying to earn more minutes. His scoring production will increase because his minutes are going to go up this season. But if he wants to be on the floor in crunch time or legitimately battle Scola for the starting job, he’ll have to be more efficient and focused on improving his shot.

Jermaine O’Neal – 12 rebounds p48/65 games played

Jermaine gets the dual stat tandem treatment, just like Beasley, because how much he’s on the court is just as important to the Suns as what he does on the court. Over the last four years, O’Neal has missed 125 games due to injury. He came to Phoenix, like so many ailing veterans before him, because the legendary training staff provides the possibility of a career renaissance like the one experienced by Grant Hill. Phoenix will be relying heavily on O’Neal this season, especially with Channing Frye lost for the year. I set the goal at 80 percent of total games on the schedule. The training staff has worked bigger miracles than that before.

As for his on-court production, O’Neal will be relied upon for rebounding and blocks. His shot blocking has never been an issue, so I chose instead to focus on rebounding. I’m not sure how many minutes he’ll get per game, so I went with per minute rebounding instead of per game. All the Suns need from O’Neal is efficiency and aggression on the boards. Everything else is just gravy.

So there you have it. If you agree, disagree, or have a better idea, please let us know in the comments section.

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