Fool's good: Suns' bench still seeking to be greater than sum of its parts

Sebastian Telfair has been the catalyst of the Suns’ strong bench efforts of late. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

PHOENIX — Shannon Brown’s six fourth quarter three-pointers pace the Suns to a win in Charlotte.

Sebastian Telfair’s 10 second quarter points against the Cavaliers help right the ship for Phoenix during the team’s largest home comeback in franchise history.

Markieff Morris’ complete effort gives the Suns a much-needed win over the Nuggets.

These have been the headlines during some of Phoenix’s brighter moments through eight games. They speak to bench players unafraid of shedding their scrub labels; players who aren’t just doing what it takes to help the team but who are doing things to lead the team to victory.

The Catch-22 of course, is that because guys like Brown, Telfair, Morris and even P.J. Tucker may be called upon on a given night to help support the starting cast, the second unit as a whole has looked rather incomplete.

Granted Phoenix still has 74 games remaining on its six-month schedule, but through the early portion of November, the jury is very much out on how effective the bench can be as a united group.

For now, the whole is definitely not greater than the sum of its parts.

Gaining the trust

With nine new faces on the roster, growing pains — from the starting lineup to the final three roster spots — were expected heading into 2012-13. A one-month camp and a handful of games just isn’t a lot of time to earn a coach’s trust. Brown and Tucker have called upon late in games because of their consistent contributions, but outside of Friday night’s fourth quarter, rarely have the two been joined by their brethren off the pine.

In 2011-12, the Suns’ third-most-popular lineup consisted of Morris, Telfair, Josh Childress, Robin Lopez and Michael Redd (net rating of 11.5, per the NBA’s stats tool). Their fourth-most-popular lineup was the exact same, except with Brown on the court instead of Childress (net rating of -17.1). Gentry didn’t just rely on his bench, he used them time and time again as a five-man group. With a more-talented starting unit, maybe that wasn’t always a good thing. But the point is he trusted them.

He doesn’t have that same luxury so far this season, because most nights the starting five has fallen into an early hole. In seven of eight games in 2012-13, the Suns have trailed by at least 10 points at some point in the contest. In each of the last three games, that double-digit deficit has come in the first 12 minutes of play.

“I think we’ve shown in spurts that we can come in individually and contribute,” forward P.J. Tucker said. “But as a unit it’s tough because each game dictates a different situation. And we all do different things. Sebastian is more of a coordinator, Shannon is very aggressive on offense and me, I just try to stop people defensively and get after it. It’s different for everybody, so when we come together it can be difficult.”

The truth of the matter is, Tucker’s right.

This season after the first few minutes Gentry has relied on feel rather than some sort of traditional script on managing rotations. If Tucker is providing a spark defensively, he usually has played over a disinterested Michael Beasley. If Morris is being aggressive on the boards and is helping to space the floor offensively, he has seen playing time ahead of Luis Scola — case in point the Suns’ last two home victories. The same can be said about Brown shooting his way to minutes over Dudley, and Telfair serving as an extended replacement for Dragic — as was the case for the entire second quarter against Denver.

“Our substitutions so far have had more to do with how the first unit has been doing than anything else,” Telfair said. “If they come in and play well, Alvin will sub in one way. If they come in and don’t play well and we are down 10 to 15, he will go a different way, usually looking to a sub here or a sub there to try and spark us.”

Discarding the notion of separate units — as Gentry did Monday night with an almost exclusively seven-man rotation — only really works when one or two bench players step up every night in the absence of contributions from a starter/multiple starters. It’s been wildly successful during each of Phoenix’s four wins, but to win long-term in this league, mixing and matching 82 different times in the hopes of benefiting off some unexpected performance won’t get the job done. Going with the hot hand, if there is one, makes sense but only to a degree. If a team wants to form some sense of stability, rational thought suggests that it be done through two fully-functioning units.

It starts with obviously not getting into holes every night, but really it begins with earning trust not as individuals but as a group.

“I’m not exactly sure how we [gain Gentry's trust] as a unit,” said Telfair. “All I know is over these next few practices and games, we have to earn his trust that we can go out there and handle our business. It’s important to the success of this team that we go out and do that. These last three games we’ve been doing that, but we need to stay consistent.”

Just getting by without Jermaine

Jermaine O’Neal has now missed five straight games dealing with a personal matter — which Gentry alluded to Monday night as a death in the family — so the question really is: how much can we evaluate the second unit off of a small sample size?

In reality, the so-called “first five off the bench” have played just two games together as a unit, spanning a grand total of 12 minutes. That’s virtually nothing and yet in that minute period of time they have outscored their opponents by 2.7 points per 100 possessions. Sure those sparse minutes together have a lot to with Gentry looking for any sort of individual help he can find to dig the team out of an early deficit, but logically having O’Neal absent for the better part of the season has had an influence on the lack of unity currently plaguing the unit. It’s hard to build chemistry if not everyone is suited up to play.

“His absence definitely hurts us,” said Telfair about O’Neal’s recent inactive streak. “Our second unit is a defensive unit, we like to bring our energy to the defensive end of the floor. He is the guy that protects the rim for us, so not having him definitely changes things. But, it’s not just on the court but also with our rotations on a given night. We would prefer to have Markeiff Morris at the four and not the five, because he is our four. So not having Jermaine out there also makes our offense more stagnant.”

But is having a 16-year veteran, who has missed 99 games over the last two years, back in the fold really the difference maker for the second unit in terms of building chemistry?

His teammates want to believe so.

“Once we get Jermaine back tomorrow against the Bulls, I think we will be able to see what we can do as an entire unit,” Tucker said. “In practices all season long and during camp, the second unit has been great. Getting a couple of games with JO back will go a long way toward helping us take our game to the level we need and aspire to be at.”

Same as it ever was?

There’s a line at the end of the chorus in the popular 1981 song “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads that continues to echo over and over again. It reads “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was…”

It’s easy to get a little lost in those words, as they sort of bring back memories of Phoenix’s bench during an unlikely run to the Western Conference Finals in 2009-10.

That unit was only 10th among benches in the league in points per game (33.4), but with Dragic, Dudley and Channing Frye leading the way the drop off from the first five to the second five was often times not that noticeable.

According to hoopstats.com, the 2009-10 Suns’ bench ranked tied for fourth in the NBA’s efficiency recap stat among second units in the league (with a 38.0 rating) and was the best in terms of three-point shooting percentage (39.9). Among units comprised entirely of bench players that played at least 100 minutes together, the combination of Dragic-Leandro Barbosa-Dudley-Lou Amundson-Frye had the highest plus/minus rating (9.1).

But as the days have gone by — and Dudley and Dragic have moved into starting roles — it’s not quite the same as it ever was. And, it probably won’t be for some time.

“We just had more firepower back in 2009-2010,” said Dudley. “Channing Frye was our backup center, Lou Amundson was all energy, Barbosa could score at will and we had Goran. Now, [our bench] is a little bit more feisty with P.J. leading the way defensively, but offensively we scored better than the starters some games.

“You know they’ll come along. They need to find an identity of who they want to score and when. We knew Goran would do pick-and-rolls, and he would swing it for Channing and myself to shoot the ball. It’s a different team, but they can be effective in their own way.”

This unit will likely never get to the level Dudley and Co. reached during the apex of their run in 2009-2010 so making comparisons at this point, or frankly any point this season, is largely unfair.

It’s been awfully refreshing to see that “next man up” mentality during Phoenix’s wins this season, but it needs to be shown collectively rather than individually. There will be future games when the starters build a lead. It may not seem like it now, but those days will come. The real concern is when those leads come to fruition, will the loose parts of the second unit actually come together to sustain success?

“I think we’re at a pretty good place as a unit, I really do,” Telfair said. “We need to get better, sure, but I really do believe our bench is one of the strong points for this team.”

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