No More Groupthink!


With the Suns and Lakers starting up this evening, there are “Western Conference Finals” Preview posts everywhere you look.  And just about every single one of them includes phrases such as, “It lulls a team into a sleepy rhythm the Suns can’t afford.  The Suns need speed.” (AZ Republic) or, “…a paint-to-paint game will be all in the Lakers’ favor.” (B/R) or “But to sum up – the keys are the bench play, Jason Richardson and the pace of the game.” or “Meanwhile Nash and the Suns’ speed will give the Lakers a few problems.” (RCS) or “‘You have to control the pace and control the turnovers and control the glass,’ said Kobe Bryant, when asked what the keys to the series were.” (ESPN) or “The Suns will win some games on speed.” (Basketball Preview).  Everywhere you look, the general consensus is that the Lakers are so much better than the Suns that the Suns might be able to “steal” a game or two if they are able to push the pace and impose their will on the Lakers, but otherwise, they’re screwed.

Um…no.  I’m not shocked by all of this, really, but I am just a bit surprised that we’re still having this same stupid conversation about the Suns.  In the mid-to-late 2000s, the “book” on the Suns was that they were all offense, no defense, and they could never survive in the playoffs because the pace slows down dramatically and defense wins championships.  It didn’t matter that the Suns were middling in Defensive Efficiency (points per 100 possessions), just that they ranked low in points per game.

So now it’s now.  And the Suns are having ridiculous success (over the last 45 games, for example, the Suns are 36-9 [and just for fun, the Lakers are 29-16]), but people continue to insist that they can not possibly be successful in the playoffs because all they ever do is outscore teams and if they can’t outscore teams they can’t win and in the playoffs they can’t just outscore teams.

Sure, if you just keep saying it over and over and over again, it makes sense.  And if everybody says it over and over again, it must be true, right?  Right.

NO! (Pounds on table.)  NO, DAMMIT!

One of the things about a lot of these “analyses” is that it involves dudes (or chicks, or whatever) making wild claims that either cannot be backed up by fact–or the writer just doesn’t bother to look at the actual numbers.  For example (and yeah, I’ve been saving this one up), here’s another juicy little item I read at Bleacher Report:

"Well, the Lakers are not the Spurs, and although Phoenix has upped their defensive intensity as of late, Los Angeles is a good defensive team the majority of the time, and have been the best defensive team this postseason."

Ok, what?  By what measure?  By an objective measure…say, Defensive Efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions), the Lakers are 5th in the NBA during the Playoffs.  So…no.

"In fact, it’s ridiculous to assume a team who was the second worst defensive team during the course of the regular would somehow transform into a defensive juggernaut in the postseason."

Again…what?  The Suns were 19th overall in Defensive Efficiency which, while surely not spectacular, is certainly decent–and a damn sight better than the 29th overall claimed by this author (which was their actual position for the first half of the season…meaning they really had to turn it on to get to 19th at season’s end).

And [a defensive juggernaut]’s what Phoenix will have to be in order to beat the Lakers, because Los Angeles will be the one team the Suns have faced who will be able to impose their will.

That imposing-their-will thing is funny, because some people (me, for example) talked about that before the first round started–that the Suns would need to impose their will on the Blazers and play at their faster pace to be able to beat the Blazers.  Here are the Pace numbers for the six games of the Suns-Blazers series:

  • 91.2
  • 86.3
  • 86.8
  • 85.9
  • 82.2
  • 88.5

Huh.  Every single one of those games is slower (and many are significantly slower) than the Suns’ season-long Pace Factor of 97.9.  So…the Suns played at the Blazers’ pace (or slower!) and won.  How about against the Spurs?

  • 97.8
  • 93.1
  • 90.7
  • 96.3

Well, now that’s even weirder, right?  I mean, the Suns are the team that pushes the pace, and the Spurs are the team that slows things down and controls tempo.  Gosh, I don’t know.  I guess if you ask me…I see two series played at two very different paces–with both won by the Suns.  I guess what I’m saying is…


That’s right.  Say it with me, people.  PACE. DOESN’T. MATTER.  Now the Suns fans…now the Laker fans…alright.  These are different Suns.  This is a Suns squad that is more than happy to play with anybody at any tempo.  You wanna run?  Hell yeah, they’ll run.  You wanna slow things down and prevent points in transition?  Fine, the Suns have got that too.  In fact, however you’d like to play, the Suns would be more than happy to play that way.

So if pace doesn’t matter (and it doesn’t), what does?  Well, the other talking point for this series is that the Lakers have too much size inside that the Suns just will not be able to handle.  Well, what the hell…I’m just gonna go ahead and dispute that one too.  The theory goes that the Lakers have such a big man advantage that the Suns will be powerless to do anything unless they can do lots of running.  Just for fun, let’s look at a couple of stats for comparison:

Now, those are from the regular season.  The numbers in parentheses are the NBA ranks.  Let’s just focus on the last 5 categories.  The Suns were not far behind the Lakers in Rebound Rate, dominant in the two shooting categories (and Off Eff).  They were a ways behind in Def Eff during the season, but again, that involved a jump of about 10 places over the second half of the season.  Now, for a little more fun, let’s look at the Suns compared to the Lakers–and their second round opponent, the Spurs:

Well, looky there…the Spurs were better than the Lakers in four of those last five categories over the course of the entire season, with the lone exception being Defensive Efficiency (in which the Spurs trailed the Lakers by .8 points for the season).  So where does all this talk of the Lakers being so much better than San Antonio (and, of course, the Suns) come from.  Well, I guess people keep saying it because…people keep saying it.  Face it–the Lakers are not dramatically better than the Suns.  In fact, I think any objective analysis of their statistics would say they’re pretty even.  Let’s look at one more set of stats…let’s compare the Suns to the Lakers for the postseason so far:

Well, looky there.  Not only are the Suns playing at a slower pace in the playoffs than the Lakers (see above), they’re also better in Rebound Rate, Eff FG%, True Shooting %, and Offensive Efficiency.  Oh, hey…and they’re only three-tenths of a point behind in Defensive Efficiency.  Now, if the Lakers were so much better than the Suns inside, wouldn’t they be much better than the Suns in categories like, say…Rebounding and Shooting Percentage?  I guess that would be what I’d think, but what the hell do I know?  I just looked at the numbers.  I didn’t just say what everybody else said.

Suns 4, Lakers 1.