PHOENIX — What first looked like a tanking plan leading into the 2013-14 season also turned out to be a release of pressure for the Phoenix Suns. The team traded the competitive personalities of Jared Dudley, Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola, all veterans who likely came into the season skeptical of their environment.
The ticking clock of age can make an NBA role player antsy, especially while playing for a team expected to challenge for the most lottery balls.
The Gortat trade to Washington just before the season-opener was the final straw, the tipping point.
“I saw it,” said forward Channing Frye, “and this is no knock on the guys that got traded – after they got traded I saw that everything opened up for everybody. You know, it was kind of like a breath of fresh air. I saw what had come out of Miles and Markieff, I seen Gerald kind of flourish a little bit.”
Here was the thing about that: Frye had even found relief himself.
“Being with these younger guys taught me to re-love this game even more,” he said.
To understand why Frye was closer in temperament to the young, anxious and unproven players can be explained by his laid back personality. But it also makes sense that the 2012-13 season put basketball into perspective for the forward. Sitting out the year with a heart ailment diagnosed as dilated cardiomyopathy, Frye didn’t know if he’d ever step onto an NBA court again.
He knew he might have to walk away.
So there wasn’t pent-up frustration spewing from the team’s elder statesman. A year of yoga and golf left Frye hungry to find his place if given the chance, and he officially got the all-clear at media day. And when Markieff Morris was suspended in the preseason for elbowing Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka, Frye secured his place in the Suns’ starting lineup on opening night.
He never left.
“After making it through the first day I just appreciated the opportunity to be out there and I just kept amazing myself because I had no expectations,” said Frye. “I start the first day and (Jeff Hornacek) never took me out so I figured I did something good.”
Frye was the only Phoenix player to start from start to finish, and he averaged 11.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. His 37-percent three-point shooting at the power forward spot opened the driving lanes for the backcourt duo of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, and he played a key role in one of the NBA’s best five-man units.
Even when his shooting tailed off as the year grew old — Frye shot 40 percent from three prior to the All-Star break and 32 percent after it — the forward acted as a decoy on the floor. Throughout, he was loose. Maybe it was the yoga or maybe it was thanks to a no-pressure attitude. Frye’s best scoring outing, a 30-point outburst in a January 19 victory against Denver, said it all.
While he hit five threes, Frye exhibited his in-between game, taking one and two dribbles to get his midrange opportunities because of his threat behind the arc.
“They’re running at me like crazy,” he said afterward. “It’s not like I’m crossing anybody over, anything too fancy. For me it’s really just progressing, getting better and making sure when I dribble I keep my head up and look for open guys.
“This is kind of like ‘screw it’ type stuff.”
Screw it, because he was happy just to be playing. Screw it, because there’s no point for the St. Mary’s High School product to grow worried about winning titles. He said it at his press conference before media day — this was just about playing ball.
The success puts Frye in an intriguing situation heading into the summer. He said he wants to remain in Phoenix longterm, and he’ll discuss working on an extension with the Suns this summer. If an agreement isn’t reached, Frye can also pick up a contract option that would pay him $6.8 million in 2014-15.
At the end of the year, Frye promised he needed time away from basketball to think over his future.
“Of course, anyone would like a longer term deal,” he added. “You have to allow (the Suns) to make an assessment of what they want and what I want, and you just have to be professional about it.”
ESPN Insider’s Amin Elhassan places Frye’s average annual value around $7.4 million, and that’s where many critics of the 30-year-old forward raise the red flags. Is a power forward that can’t make a big impact rebounding or score in the post or defend the bigger or more athletic forwards in the game worth the asking price?
The market would say yes, and the numbers do, too.
Frye had the second-best plus-minus on the team (3.6) behind Goran Dragic (4.0), according to NBA.com. Even more staggering is Frye’s Real Plus Minus. ESPN’s shiny new statistic ranks Frye ninth in the entire NBA with a 5.22 RPM — that puts him above two of the best power forwards in the game in Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Even when Frye wasn’t clicking, he was helping the Suns as a forever decoy.
Though the Suns employ two of the best pick-and-roll ballhandling scorers in Dragic and Bledsoe, it was Frye making big men focus more on recovering on the wings than making sure they’re stopping drivers on hedges and help.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Suns scored 0.88 points per possession on pick-and-roll drives, the third-best mark in the NBA.
Phoenix ranked second overall by scoring 1.16 points per possession when the ball went to the roll or pick-and-pop man — a lot of times that was Frye. On 24 percent of the Suns’ possession where the pick-and-roll play put the ball in the screener’s hands, a three-pointer was taken, and Phoenix shot 44 percent on 117 of such plays this season. Guess who was the main target?
Nearly half of Frye’s total shot attempts this year came above the three-point break. He took 89 three-point attempts out of the pick-and-roll and shot a ridiculous 46 percent on those plays. In total, he scored 1.18 points per possession out of pick-and-rolls. It’s probably a bigger shame that the Suns didn’t find the screeners all that often, as they only found attempts for the big men on 5 percent of their offensive possessions on the season.
Frye might be passing his prime, but there’s reason to believe the Suns have to think mighty hard about extending him, even though it’s clear they need a low-post threat.
He said that he hasn’t entered an offseason without a significant injury to rehab in five years. As his contract situation unfolds, he’ll likely be resting. Once the summer gets cranked up again, getting back into shape — before his enlarged heart was discovered Frye said he was in the best shape of his career — will be priority No. 1.
“Some games may not have looked pretty but I was giving 110 percent, and I think this year I can look back more than any other year and say I tried more than I ever did,” the old man of the Suns roster said.
Frye thrived without pressure for himself or the team this year. So if he’s back with the Suns next year, expect more of the same — but maybe Frye starts off in better shape.
“We are still an underdog, we didn’t do anything,” he said after cleaning out his locker. “We are not in the playoffs.”
No pressure to change that at all.