Luis Scola: A misspent veteran bargain

Luis Scola’s first season in the desert didn’t go the way he or the Phoenix Suns had hoped. Throughout the year, Luis did everything he was asked and more, but it wasn’t enough to keep the Suns competitive. The team stumbled to one of the worst records in franchise history. Scola had his lowest scoring season in four years. However, despite fluctuating minutes and a coaching change, Scola provided veteran leadership, rebounding and paint scoring to a team sorely in need of all those things. His many contributions failed to help Phoenix in the win column though. Knowing the type of competitor that Scola is, he is probably the person most disappointed with his own performance this season. But he has absolutely nothing to be upset about. He gave this team everything he had. The Suns’ season was doomed from the start.

Scola landed in Phoenix seemingly out of nowhere last summer. In mid-July, the Suns were firmly in rebuilding mode, just a few days away from signing Goran Dragic to replace Steve Nash. The Houston Rockets were looking to make room on their roster and salary cap to steal Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin from Chicago and New York respectively. The Rockets, for whom Scola had played five years, were not unhappy with his production. They just needed to go in a new direction as a franchise and thus, Scola was amnestied. Phoenix’s winning bid was the coup which sparked a summer of optimism in the desert. Scola was only one season removed from averaging 18 and 8. He was set to star for Argentina in London at the Summer Olympics. By all appearances, the Suns had miraculously found a frontcourt partner for Marcin Gortat and solidified their power forward spot. When Dragic signed on a few days later, everything was looking great in the Valley of the Sun.

But all that optimism was misplaced. Aside from Scola and Dragic, none of the new faces really panned out, and the Suns struggled mightily all season. Constant lineup shuffles and a mid-season coaching change ensured the Suns never really developed any chemistry. The team’s poor performance and failure to improve as the season went along led to questions of toughness up and down the roster. When asked, interim head coach Lindsey Hunter was quick to identify Scola, along with P.J. Tucker and Goran Dragic, as the players he’d “climb in a foxhole” with. Scola, being the oldest and most experienced of that group, did his best to be a leader on this team, but his voice failed to rise above the din of all the on and off-court distractions facing the Suns during their miserable year. Despite his obvious frustration, Scola never mailed in a single game and was a key part of the Suns’ offense.

Scola was the Phoenix’s second most reliable scorer. His best weapon was the pick and pop jumper from the free-throw line extended area. Scola hit 45% of the shots he took from 16-23 feet. Among power forwards, only LaMarcus Aldridge and Dirk Nowitzki did more damage from that range. He served as a solid partner for Goran Dragic in the pick and roll. Because Scola preferred to pop instead of roll, Dragic had more space in the lane to operate and get to the hoop. The Suns’ offense was often most effective this year when Scola operated at the high post.

Luis’ other weapon was his diverse set of crafty “old man” post moves. As compared to other NBA power forwards, Scola is not athletic by any means. But that didn’t stop him from being a potent scorer when he caught the ball in the paint. Scola has absolutely incredible footwork which allows him to get defenders off balance and find narrow windows to get his shot off. With Marcin Gortat regressing and the Morris twins failing to meet expectations, Scola was really the only post scorer the Suns had this year.

On the down side, Scola did post the worst field goal percentage of his career this season. Part of this is likely due to Scola being a year older and a bit slower, but part is also due to fewer opportunities. Normally when a player ages, their field attempts get further away from the basket, and they stop going to the rim as much. This was not the case with Scola. His average attempts at the rim did drop from 3.6 to 3.2 per game, but his attempts from 16-23 feet stayed the same. Scola simply got fewer shot attempts in the paint this year and as a result, he shot a lower a percentage. The Suns never really figured out their offense this season. So while there were games when Scola got 15+ shots and a chance to establish himself in the paint, there were others where the team was so perimeter oriented that he never got a chance to really contribute. With a more defined role and some rotation stability, there’s every reason to think Scola could shoot 50% from the field again.

Defensively, Scola was this season what he’s always been: willing, smart, tough, and painfully slow. Hunter’s endorsement I mentioned earlier would not have been given if Scola was not a committed defender. Unfortunately for the Suns, commitment does not always translate into results. In the paint, Scola is a decent defender who doesn’t often get abused, even when guarding larger players. But on the perimeter, Scola was disappointing. Against stretch 4’s, Scola, like most of his teammates, was very slow to close out. This allowed talented shooters to get open looks which was the downfall of the Suns’ defense all year. Scola is not going to improve as a defender at the age of 33. But if he keeps his desire and commitment, he could be useful in the right defensive system.

So what does the future hold for Luis Scola? His production has dropped off two years in a row which would seem to indicate that he is slowing down. But there are some facts which seem to contradict that way of thinking and suggest an alternative explanation.

What if Scola simply does not perform well in tumultuous situations? As I said previously, he averaged 18 points and eight rebounds just two years ago in Houston. That was also the last year the Rockets had any sort of stability on their roster. Since then, Houston has had more turnover than Phoenix, and thus, Luis has basically played with a brand new set of teammates each of the last two seasons. His production has slipped in those years (though his PER did rise slightly with the Suns.) But I don’t believe he has started an irreversible decline as a player. Look at his production with Argentina at the 2012 Olympics. On a team filled NBA players including future Hall of Famer Manu Ginobli, Scola was incredibly productive. He carried the Argentines through pool play and put them in position to win a medal (though they eventually fell short, losing to Russia in the bronze medal game.) Playing alongside guys he’s played with for nearly a decade, Scola was viable and efficient, not old and declining.

Another fact that might indicate he has something left in the tank is his end of season production. Over the last six games of the year, Scola averaged 18.8 points and 11.3 rebounds. Unfortunately, Scola’s trade value is somewhat depressed, like most of the Suns’ roster. The Suns’ biggest failure this year is not their record, but the amount they allowed assets like Scola to depreciate this season. Whether or not he’ll be moved this offseason remains to be seen. What is clear is that he can still provide value to this team if surrounded by some modicum of stability. Stability, however, may not be in the cards. Next season may be another year in the lottery for this franchise which is still in the infancy of rebuilding, and I’m not sure a rebuilding team is the right place for Scola.

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