Nash angry
Something's wrong in the Valley of
the Sun. And Nash is pissed about it.

The Suns suck. Relatively speaking, of course. I mean, they're still one of the league's elite teams. At 24-10, they have the best record in the Western Conference, and the third best record in the NBA, behind only Boston (29-3) and Detroit (26-8). In truth, they're only a couple victories off last season's 61-win pace; after 34 games last year, the Suns were 26-8, en route to the league's second-best record. But there's something wrong, something off about the team. I really believe that.

I'm no John Hollinger, but I decided to do a basic statistical comparison, determined to find the smoking gun:

Suns stats

Well, okay. Wow. No smoking guns there. The Suns' scoring and shooting numbers are nearly identical to last season. Their assist and rebounding numbers are up slightly, as are their steals and blocked shots. Alrighty then, let's look at what the Suns' opponents are doing this season:

Suns foes

Now we have something to go on. Teams are scoring and (especially) rebounding better against the Suns this season. Just for the hell of it, let's look at the Suns' differentials:

Suns diff

So the Suns' biggest problem (and I'm not the first person to mention this) seems to be rebounding, where their negative differential has dropped from -2.3 to -5.6. And in case you were wondering -- and even if you weren't -- the answer is yes: The Suns have the worst rebounding differential in the league. Only the Golden State Warriors (-5.3) are nearly as bad on the boards; the next closest team is the Clippers (-2.8).

The Suns really miss Kurt Thomas. And not just his numbers. They have rebounders; Shawn Marion is pulling down 10.1 rebounds per game, and Amare Stoudemire is grabbing 9.1 per. What they miss is a big man who plays solid interior defense, who's willing to put a body on people and mix it up in the paint. Stoudemire may be averaging 2.3 blocked shots per game, but he's a paratrooper; he likes to fly through the air and send shots into the crowd. He's not a physical player. Every team needs at least one big man who likes the rough stuff, even if that player doesn't contribute in obvious ways. Take Portland's Joel Przybilla. His 4.6 PPG and 6.9 RPG aren't going to get him onto the All-Star team, but his toughness inside the paint is a game-changing element for the Blazers.

The Suns don't have that toughness inside. Physically or emotionally. We all know Shawn "I think it's time for me to move on" Marion wants more money and more acclaim, preferably elsewhere. It's as if his $16,440,000 salary (good for 12th in the league and 1st on his team) isn't real, and his four All-Star appearances and two All-NBA Third Team honors never happened.

Stoudemire, as everybody knows, wants to be The Man in Phoenix. He leads the team in PPG (22.0) and FGA (14.0), but he also gets visibly frustrated when he isn't getting his shots. Amare claimed that he missed the Suns' 45-minute practice on Sunday because his kids were ill, but the reality seems to be that Stoudemire himself was sick about only getting 11 shots in Saturday's tough 118-113 loss to the New Orleans Hornets. In that game, Stoudemire went shotless in the third quarter, and then went shotless again for the final six minutes of the game until a last-second three-point attempt. After the game, he punched his palm and told reporters, "We've got to all get on the same page!"

Steve Nash is still Steve Nash, the best point guard in basketball (although Jason Kidd is still a triple-double machine, and young guys like Chris Paul and Deron Williams are hot on Nash's heels). But he doesn't command the respect, or fear, of other great players have. Scottie Pippen might have secretly hated Jordon, and envied his position as the Bulls' Alpha Dog, but he never seriously tried (or expected) to supplant him, just as Kevin McHale and James Worthy had no misconceptions about their respective places in the pecking order behind Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. For whatever reason, Nash's teammates -- Marion and Stoudemire at least -- don't have the same level of reverence for their two-time MVP. After Stoudemire's missed practice, Nash said, "If that stuff is going on, it needs to be stopped or else we can kiss it goodbye, because you can't win at this level if you don't have great chemistry and you don't pull for each other. If you're worried about your shots or about yourself or making excuses and pointing fingers at other players, that's for losers."

Bird, Jordan, and Magic used to say stuff like that, and their teams (usually) responded. After the Celtics lost to the Lakers by 33 points in Game 3 of the 1984 NBA Finals, Bird called his teammates (and himself) "a bunch of sissies." The next game, Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis, Bird hip-checked Michael Cooper into the stands, and the Celtics beat the Lakers in overtime (after which Bird, assessing his team's improved performance, said, "Yeah, we [only] played like a bunch of women tonight."). I just don't see the Suns reacting the same way to Nash's sometimes frequent critiques.

I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the Suns did respond to Nash's tough love. After all, they came out on Monday and dropped 137 points on the Nuggets. Marion hit five three-pointers on his way to a season-high 27 points. Stoudemire got 13 shots and had 20 points and 10 rebounds. Even the much-maligned Marcus Banks got into the game, and into the act, scoring 23 points (7-for-8) in almost 20 minutes of action.

The question is: Will it last? Are the Suns chemistry issues over? I doubt it. Marion will become a free agent at the end of this season. The Suns clearly haven't decided what they want to do with him, and he knows that. Marion doesn't know whether he wants to remain loyal to the Suns or seek more money and glory somewhere else, and the Suns know that. Stoudemire wants to be The Man on his team and one of the best centers in the league, but he doesn't want to to the dirty work (blocking out, getting physical inside, laying the wood on the opposing team's big men) that centers are supposed to do. And Nash, well, no one really knows how long he's going to hold up. Meanwhile, Raja Bell's health has been spotty and his numbers are down. Leandro Barbosa has taken a small step back this season, and Boris Diaw has taken a huge leap back. Nobody knows how long Grant Hill's body is going to hold up (although the Suns are no doubt praying for a miracle "Bill Walton in 1986" season from him). And nobody knows whether D'Antoni will ever feel completely comfortable utilizing his bench.

I know I might be overreacting. The Suns are still good. Really good. Maybe my expectations are too high. Maybe seeing them get mandhandled twice by the Lakers got me too worked up. And maybe seeing the chemistry and joy in Portland reminds me of how much fun the Suns were having during their big winning streaks last season, and the season before that, and the season before that. I guess, in the end, I just want a little more fun in the Suns. Is that too much to ask?

Quick fixes: Personally, I think Kerr should trade Marion (before he bolts in the off-season) for a sturdy, defense-oriented big man, and move Stoudemire to the power forward position (which is his natural position). Then you can slide Grant Hill to the small forward (as long as his body holds up), and play Nash and Bell at the guard spots. Play Brian Skinner as much as you can, even if he isn't putting up big numbers. And D'Antoni needs to develop a set rotation.

Update: Is Shawn Marion just too good for the Suns? The gentlemen at Hardwood Paroxysm think so. And you know what? They may be right.

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Blogger dickey simpkins said...
I've had the same observations as you, this team seems really pouty and moody, which is odd considering they play in a fun, up-tempo system, and they play alongside Steve Nash, who by all accounts is a great teammate and leader. My opinion is that the players take after D'Antoni, who is quickly becoming a big asshole who complains A LOT about stuff. I remember earlier in the season when he had a little spat with Phil Jackson, I mean honestly who does that? Then he had his little ego battle with Kerr. Coach's influence is sometimes overrated, but I think the attitude and mental makeup of a team is very indicative of how the coach is. The team is no longer a feel-good story, now they are being criticized everyday for being chokers and lax on defense.

Blogger Unknown said...
Excellent write up!

You can attribute alot of Phoenix's problems to Robert Sarver and lack of influence from the Colangalo family. Ever since Brian had us set up, then left, its been one bad move after another. Marcus Banks signing, getting rid of Kurt Thomas, not keeping Luol Deng, complete disregard for draft picks, etc... Sarver is slowly turning into the NBA's version of fellow Arizona sports team owner, Bill Bidwill. Dark days are ahead if Robert doesn't stop messing with the organization.

The Suns are the Colangalo family, and have been so since the beginning. Having grown up in Phoenix and been a lifelong Suns fan, I have the utmost respect for them, and pray that Brian finds his way back to the Valley of the Sun.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Good write up Mr. Basketbawful. I think you bring up some good points. What I believe may be the problem for the Suns are players who have been playing out of position for the past 4 years and opposing teams are starting to realize their weaknesses. Marion is in no way a power foward, Amare is. I just dont understand why he is being played as center in this league. As you said, Amare is not a banger, he is a offense minded power foward who does occasionaly pull down the rebounds and get the blocks. Have you seen hm match up against the other centers in the league? D Howard makes him look tiny, and Amare is a big dude. Marion is a natural small foward who can match up with almost anyone in the league, but his obvious weakness is that he couldnt create his own shot if his life depended on it.

Its true, what the Suns need is a banger down low. Brian Skinner is decent, but we need someone with more size. We tried to get PJ Brown, someone who could help with the inside, but he is far too busy enjoying his retirement couch. We need to look somewhere for a player with size and the desire to do just two things: defend down low and grab the defensive boards.

If Marion is indeed going elsewhere next year, how about a trade of him for a big. Why not??

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I also think you missed something big. These are season numbers. At the beginning of the season, the Suns were as hot as their namesake. NOW, they chemistry has fallen way off the beam. While season numbers should of course be considered, I bet you find more significant statistics if you took a look at both the most recent 2-week and 4-week periods.

I also think the Suns should re-sign Stacey King. When Nash gets fouled, send him in for the next to trips up and down the court. He'll remove someone's head, and then he can go back to broadcasting with Tom Dore and Johnny "Red" Kerr for Comcast. Hell, don't even give him a uni. Just have him unclip his tie and go drop a few elbows.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I hope you realize that it's mostly the ownership's penny pinching that did that. and that colangelo was involved in most of those trades you mentioned

and clearly bryan is not coming back when he was allowed to leave mid season to the raptors

it's just clear that the ownership wants to disassociate itself to the colangelo name as much as possible

Blogger ummd said...
The thing I don't understand about getting "this physical defensive centre" is it would totally screw with the suns offense. The offense is predicated around keeping the lane clear for drive and kicks and pick and rolls with the centre (Amare), a slasher off-side rebounder coming off the corner (Marion) and two shooters to spread the floor. Where does a big defensive centre fit in that picture? Certainly not in Amare's role, nor Marion's, and he can't shoot... The suns simply don't run many isolation post-ups where that big centre can stand on the opposite side of the lane and bang around.

Don't you guys remember what happened when Kurt Thomas went into the game last year? Watching him run the pick and roll with Nash against the Spurs was excruciating. The offense basically came to a complete stop losing all of its fluidity.

I say let them play it out. We know they can play defense if they want to.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Don't you guys remember what happened when Kurt Thomas went into the game last year? Watching him run the pick and roll with Nash against the Spurs was excruciating. The offense basically came to a complete stop losing all of its fluidity.

I do remember because the Spurs are a team that can slow down our fast break so we needed a player to play the pick and roll with. Kurt was a player who could set solid picks and hit the open 15 foot jumpshot. Thats Amare's job now, but we need someone else in the middle to get the offensive rebounds.

You can keep the lane clear with another center in there, just have them roll to the basket for the easy pass when someone drives. They dont need to isolate a play for the bigman, just have him in for defense and rebounding. Also, have him in to inbound the ball after a score so Amare and whoever the wing player is can sprint down the floor for the break.

We havent won in 3 years, why not go for a change?

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I have a deep respect for Marion's skills, but I think the guy seriously overvalues himself. He's not a franchise player, and he shouldn't get franchise player money. Put him on a team without Nash, and he will likely disappear. He'll still be good, but nobody will know who he is anymore, because it's not HIM that makes the team great.

But we've gotten used to the pro athlete who puts equates paychecks with respect and puts that above all else. Looks to me like it will drag the Suns down. And that makes me sad.

All true with the Kurt Thomas loss.

Just think. Odds are they were on Robert Horry hard foul away from a title. Again, Horry proves that he always makes the optimal play.

Blogger Unknown said...
Just think. Odds are they were on Robert Horry hard foul away from a title. Again, Horry proves that he always makes the optimal play.

Pretty much... Phoenix would have perforated the Cavs.

Blogger starang said...
Good post...

Even the most loyal Suns fan like starang and manic have felt the mentioned sucking sensation, most recently in the sucksational suckfest against the Hornets. Mother suckers. Now, C Paul is still improving, but he is a force now...and we let him single handedly beat us (14pts in 4th)...and not one person had enough heart to play a little lock down D. It was embarrasing and fru-suck-trating

Chemistry is more important to the Suns than other teams, because The Stash lets Nash run like a retarded kid chasing a popsicle in order to stimulate an overall offensive style...although I wouldn't call it a true run-and-gun style a la Westhead coached Layola Marymount (who to this day ran the offense to perfection). I've asked The Stash, via a call into "ask the coach" on KTAR in Phx about Layola Marymount's offense and defense (which complimented each other for a complete "system") and why we don't up our tempo even more (full court press), and his answer was the professional player can't make it 82 games playing that way without tiring out or getting hurt. I disagree...but I was hung up on before I could rebut with "I'll slap the stash right off that face." Its called using your bench...maybe you should try it. I truly beleive we have very capable players that are not getting enough PT right now.

But our "almost" run and gun style needs the same mechanics and chemistry to work properly. Some games it does (last Denver game), sometimes it doesn't (when we got smoked by the Lakers...twice!).

We've had our flashes of greatness. I called it earlier this year, but only to jinx the Suns into a losing skid...but it was there, and it was a beautiful when you take a dump in one long continuous 4-foot makes you want to call and tell a freind and take a picture with your phone. Our issue is consistency with this...and that only comes with more games and more practice with the same guys. I predict the consistency will be there by year end.

The big picture is rings for everyone. The small picture is the little ego's that have developed. Stat want's to be the man. Marion want's to be the man. Nash IS the man because he makes this team click. That doesn't mean they don't have a ring on their mind...I just wish it was the ONLY thing on their mind (like Nash, and myself, and manic, and my dog Goose). Plus, it would just be a cryin shame if Nash didn't get one.

But all in all...I have no problem with where we are at. I've lived through much worse..the 80's, getting pooped on by birds, and some of this:


No Words

Sadest day of my life

What could have been