The Phoenix Suns, members of a league ruled by stars, thrived this past season as teamwork helped them to 48 wins. Even with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe quickly turning in a dynamic backcourt tandem, Phoenix was a well-balanced team build not to rely upon one player carrying the weight, even though its guards sometimes seemingly did.
The Suns’ lack of superstardom was the reason for the bad projections to begin the year and then the thought that they were sunk once Bledsoe went down with a significant knee injury.
But the balance already there when Bledsoe injured himself was the reason they didn’t sink.
According to the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, the Suns had the fourth-lowest scoring imbalance rating, which was only greater than teams in Denver, Detroit and Washington. The Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Bobcats, on the other hand, were the least-balanced teams in the NBA.
Though it’s unclear how Bledsoe’s injury altered that final statistic for the Suns — one would assume it made Phoenix a more balanced team by allowing more point distribution to Gerald Green and others — it generally proves a point. The Suns showed it’s possible to win without a true superstar, and they weren’t so fragile once their starting shooting guard went down for months with an injury.
From the study:
… there is a positive correlation between winning percentage and standard deviation of scoring. The correlation coefficient is 0.132 over 562 team-season. An OLS regression on winning percentage returned a coefficient on the metric that was significant to the 1% level, strongly suggesting that directing scoring towards your top scorers does indeed boost your chances of winning.
Still, it’s possible that this relationship is driven by top players contributing to both imbalance and success. Superstars not only make teams good, but also do a disproportionate amount of scoring, so it stands to reason that the link should be strong.
When I remove each team’s top scorer from the data, the correlation coefficient drops down to 0.047, which supports the idea that leading scorers were exacerbating the relationship between imbalance and winning.
When Bledsoe went down, Phoenix survived for quite a long while until the final stretch of games; then it became clear Jeff Hornacek’s team needed someone else to help Dragic carry the load. The Suns went 17-16 without Bledsoe, and things began to catch up to them as that stretch wore on.
The correlation between winning and standard scoring deviation is complex, but the study proved that having a dominant scorer isn’t the worst problem to have. The bigger issue, of course, is identifying who should be such a player.
The Suns didn’t have any missteps identifying how best to utilize any of its players, but it made it easier that both Dragic and Bledsoe were talented and willing to share.