PHOENIX — They might not lead the league in plus-minus as last year’s starters did for a portion of last season, but the Suns’ starting lineup figures to be good enough to keep the team in most games this year.
It’s anybody’s guess whether the bench will keep pace.
After the Suns’ 2009-10 bench played a pivotal role in the team’s Western Conference Finals run, the unit has been a disaster area for the better part of the last two seasons aside from the brilliance of the Telfair-Redd-Childress-Morris-Lopez lineup that outscored opponents by 11.5 points per 100 possessions in 19 games late last season, per the NBA’s stats tool.
Before that the Suns’ bench had been a constant stream of changing parts that did not fit together particularly well, be it the ill-fated Dragic/Hedo Turkoglu experiment, playing Redd and Brown together or Bassy’s general ineptitude early last season.
The beauty of the 2009-10 bench was that everybody developed roles that seemed to just snap into place. Goran Dragic pushed the tempo, Jared Dudley brought shooting and defense, Leandro Barbosa scored in bunches, Channing Frye spaced the floor and Lou Amundson’s motor never stopped.
“In 2010 we were in conference finals and we had a really solid bench,” said Dragic, now a starter along with Dudley. “The first unit came out, the second unit came in, it was not a huge difference. I think that’s going to be a huge factor for us this season.”
Dragic’s right, the bench will most certainly be a huge factor this season, but it’s unknown at this point whether that will be a positive or negative factor.
As things stand now, the Suns’ primary bench unit figures to consist of point guard Sebastian Telfair, wings Shannon Brown and Wes Johnson, power forward Markieff Morris and center Jermaine O’Neal. P.J. Tucker could find some time at the wing in place of Johnson, and Kendall Marshall could always take over the backup job from Telfair. O’Neal figures to solidify the defense while Brown should be the go-to scorer.
The unit should be aided by the fact that Telfair, Brown and Morris spent so much time together last season, although it’s not so good that the Suns were outscored by 10.3 points per 100 possessions in the 311 minutes the group played as a trio.
I asked head coach Alvin Gentry what kind of identity he wants this unit to create and first and foremost he said he wants them to bring the energy.
“I think we won’t have that much of a problem with that if we’re bringing in Sebastian and Wesley Johnson, Tucker,” Gentry said. “I think Shannon Brown’s an energy guy, so we’ll have energy, and then I think we’ve got to be a unit that’s got to be really solid defensively. That’s kind of where we want to get to, taking advantage really of running off of steals and missed baskets.”
The 2009-10 bench was famous for extending leads and making comebacks on the rare occasions that the Phoenix starters stumbled, and when the Suns hit their stride last season their bench was a big reason why.
It took all season as well as an injury to Grant Hill that elevated Brown to the starting lineup for the Suns’ bench to find the kind of groove that the 2012-13 bench hopes to discover.
“After the All-Star break we started playing for the playoffs,” Telfair said. “It was one of the first times in my career that close to the playoffs, so night in and night out it felt like a playoff game. You had reasons to really go out there and win games and definitely helped me step my game up.”
Added Morris, “Just keep the same spark we had last year. I think we had a pretty good spark off the bench last year. If we keep that and play hard we’ll be OK.”
The point guard dynamic may play a major role in how this bench ends up playing. Telfair seems primed for a career year building off his stellar April, but if the Suns fall behind in the standings it would behoove them to give Marshall a shot, which could take some adjusting to for all involved. Of course, that would likely only happen if Telfair and the bench don’t produce to even get to that point.
For now, all the bench players can worry about is competing and injecting the game with energy to give opponents a different look. If they can do that and play a little defense in front of O’Neal, they will have done their job.
“The opportunity there, guys that we have and the character of the guys that we have we’re going to go out there and compete and give it our all,” Telfair said.
At Thursday’s media lunch, general manager Lance Blanks made an interesting point concerning one of the biggest reasons he took the job two years ago.
“When I was analyzing the opportunity to be here, one of the biggest motivations is this organization hasn’t won a title,” he said. “For me that’s what the pursuit is, to one day raise a banner in this city. The commitment is to every single day take this thing to a level where very few teams go, and that’s to ultimately raise a banner and have you guys scrutinizing us even more.”
He’s got a ways to go for that but certainly a noble reason to ultimately take the position.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.