Thursday, 26 April 2012

Reviewing the 2011-12 Phoenix Suns...

Back in December, I wrote about three different scenarios the Suns could find themselves in at the end of the season. That post is here.

In that post, I mentioned that it's most likely the Suns will finish in the 7-10 range, which has absolutely turned out to be true. In that, I refute the notion this Suns team has overachieved - they're exactly where I, and many other Suns writers and fans expected them to be.

To get the best picture of the past 66 games, it's best to split this season in two - pre-All-Star break and post-All-Star break.

Leading into the break, the Suns sported a 14-20 record, hovering around 13th place in the West. The only consistent Suns during this time were Steve Nash and Marcin Gortat. Nash played well enough to earn his eighth All-Star selection, while Gortat received some backing from the media as a candidate for the reserve center spot. Everyone else struggled, to the point that coach Alvin Gentry resorted to starting the one dimensional defensive specialist Ronnie Price for a short stretch. The offense was stagnant outside of the Nash-Gortat pick and roll, and the defense was even worse. Pre-All-Star, the Suns were massively underachieving.

All-Star weekend treated us to four minutes and four assists from Nash, and allowed the rest of the Suns to get some rest. It was around this time that backup point guard Sebastian Telfair, seemingly out of nowhere and at the time, somewhat questionably called out the coaching staff and asked for more trust in he and the rest of the second unit.

As a result of this, or more likely Gentry thinking "Why the hell not?", the Suns bench started to see more minutes. With minutes came confidence, and eventually chemistry, resulting in pretty-good-for-backups play from Telfair, Michael Redd, Shannon Brown, Markieff Morris and Robin Lopez. Many will point to this as the turning point in the Suns' season, to which I have no objection. It was well established that the Suns starting five had no problems building leads, as their league-best plus-minus showed. Now with a functional bench, the Suns found themselves winning more games, leading eventually to a 19-12 post-All-Star record and finishing just three games shy of the playoffs, in a race that lasted until the second last game of the season.

The Suns threw together a rag-tag collection of role-players, prospects and has-beens on mostly one year contracts, hoping to compete while maintaining an eye (and the necessary flexibility) towards the bigger prize of 2012 free agency.

Before I delve into results at an individual level, I'll give your eyes a rest and offer you the following highlights of the 2011-12 Suns:

Steve Nash Birthday Game Winner

Markieff Morris Poster on Blake Griffin

Jared Dudley Gets Fired Up (What's Up?! What's Up?! WHAT'S UP?!)

Hakim Warrick, Dunker

Steve Nash Passes Oscar Robertson For #5 All Time Assists

Hit the link to keep reading...

So, now for individual recaps. First, the point guards:

Point Guards
Name: Steve Nash
Age: 38
Role: Team Captain
Grade: A+
Notable Achievements: 2nd in assists per game at 10.71; selected to his 8th All-Star team; averaged a double-double for the 7th time in his career

Details: Some predicted this would be the season Nash finally relinquished his spot among the best point guards in the NBA - they couldn't have been more wrong. Certainly, Nash's shooting percentages declined slightly this season, but most insiders believe it's a result of ongoing back pain than an actual drop in ability. With that in mind, I fully expect Nash's percentages to bounce back next season given the less frenetic schedule and an off-season of rest.

There's no doubt about it, this season was one of Nash's greatest yet. Back in 2009, as a fan I was spoiled. Nash had Amare Stoudemire, Jason Richardson and a plethora of long-range threats to pass to and chalk up assists. If you had told me then that Nash would still be averaging more than 10 assists per game passing to Marcin Gortat, Channing Frye and Jared Dudley as his first options, I probably would've laughed and called you an idiot. He's good, but not THAT good. How I was wrong. I now firmly believe not only would Nash average 15 assists a game playing for the Celtics, he'd still manage close to 10 assists playing for the Bobcats. He knows where to find his teammates in the spots they want to be found, when they're ready to be found. That's a skill that Nash will take to the grave.

Name: Sebastian Telfair
Age: 26
Role: Backup Point Guard
Grade: B
Notable Achievements: The catalyst for Phoenix's second half run
Telfair was signed to be Nash's backup, bringing speed, aggressive offense and tenacious (if not always successful) defense. Put simply, for the first half of the season, he failed at all of the above. His offense consisted of dribbling, dribbling and more dribbling, before panicking and shooting a desperation jump shot or throwing a wild pass. He was terrible. Then, something miraculous happened - out of nowhere (as I described earlier) he asked for more trust, and when it was given to him, boy did he deliver!

Telfair's improved second half play was visibly better. Confidence brought aggression, and aggression worked. In a nutshell, Telfair gave a damn - not only did it reflect on his individual performance, but it rubbed off on the rest of the bench crew, too - hence the crown as the catalyst for the second half revival.

Name: Ronnie Price
Age: 28
Role: Reserve Point Guard; Defensive Specialist
Grade: C-
Notable Achievements: Managed to start a handful of games
 Price has a limited skill set. He's tremendous defensively, but has few natural point guard skills. At times, Price tried to force the issue on offense, but for the most part played within it - and considering his skills, usually consisted of standing outside the 3-point line watching somebody else create.

Price couldn't overcome his offensive limitations, but gave it his all defensively and for that, he's rewarded with the slightest of pass marks.

(Note: merge Telfair and Price and you have one helluva backup point... if only!)

Shooting Guards

Name: Jared Dudley
Age: 26

Role: Glue guy
Grade: B+
Notable Achievements: Posted career highs in points per game, field goal percentage, rebounds and assists
 It's hard to fault Dudley's 2011-12 campaign. His career highs are a product of increased minutes rather than improved skill - while he still works hard on his game, it's clear he's approaching his ceiling.

Dudley filled in admirably as a starter, and has shown he's a capable starter, though probably best suited to a reserve role, where his hustle and skills outmatch opposing reserves.

The only knocks on Dudley's season are no fault of his own - he was simply asked to do too much.

Name: Shannon Brown
Age: 26
Role: Scorer
Grade: B-
Notable Achievements: Stepped up big time as a starter, averaging 15.79ppg - averaged 9ppg from the bench
Like Telfair, Brown's early days as a Sun were bad. Brown's shot selection, temperament and skill level all came into question. He was putting up bad shots and in combination with Telfair, completely stagnated the second unit's offense.

Something must have clicked in Brown, because his shot selection slightly improved, and he started making shots. Plenty of them. Without Brown, the Suns would have stood no chance of overcoming Grant Hill's knee injury. With him, they managed to stay afloat, almost until the end.

Take away that 17 game stretch of good play, and Brown gets a D. Credit to him for turning it around.

Name: Michael Redd
Age: 32
Role: Shooter
Grade: C+

Notable Achievements: Played in 51 games - 10 fewer than his total for the three prior seasons combined
Details: The Suns took a chance on Redd, investing in his rehabilitation with the hopes he could regain some of his former glory. Redd was far from a revelation, taking his time to get up to speed with NBA conditioning, but by the end of the season his confidence in his body was back and his shot was falling.

He won't average 20ppg again, but Redd still has something to offer an NBA team. More than that, he's further reinforced Phoenix's status as the go-to destination for career revivals. Aaron Nelson and co. will be a serious factor in the decisions of any free agent with a health concern - something he didn't necessarily control, but absolutely contributed to - which absolutely buffers his grade in my books.

Small Forwards

Name: Grant Hill
Age: 39
Role: Team Captain; Defensive Stopper
Grade: B+
Notable Achievements: Scored his 17,000th point; continued to play a high level of defense

Details: Grant Hill. He's a fan favourite, and for good reason. He's one of the nicest, most genuine guys in the game. His defense, despite what some detractors might say, has been and remains excellent. Not only that, if it weren't for his knee injury, he would've played his 1000th game this season. Who, after the Orlando debacle, would've predicted that?

Age is starting to catch up with him, as his offense suffered this season, shooting below his career average as a Sun for the first time. Hill's injury put a dent in the Suns' playoff hopes, but if it weren't for him they wouldn't have been sniffing it in the first place.

Name: Josh Childress
Age: 29
Role: Bench Warmer

Grade: F
Notable Achievements: Nil
Details: Plain and simple, Childress does not have a skill set ideal for the current Phoenix Suns team. That's not his fault. It's also not his fault that, acting as General Manager, Robert Sarver offered him the full MLE. When Childress does get playing time, he usually hustles, plays defense and brings plenty of energy.

He's not as bad as his playing time and stats suggest, but it's clear now, after two seasons, that Childress doesn't fit and it would be in the best interests of both team and player to move on. (Only options are a buyout, trade or amnesty... amnesty seems most realistic option)

Power Forwards

Name: Channing Frye
Age: 28
Role: Stretch Four
Grade: C+
Notable Achievements: Banking a turn-around, no-look 3 pointer in the clutch
Details: Frye is sometimes a terrific outside threat, capable of dropping several bombs from long distance. Sometimes he's terrible. This season for the most part, he was terrible. It was the worst he's shot as a Sun, and his unreliability on the perimeter definitely hurt the Suns offense.

To his credit, Frye often found ways to be effective when his shot wasn't falling, by hitting the glass hard, blocking shots and occasionally shutting down his man with improved post defense - including rendering Blake Griffin ineffective in the Suns crucial win over the Clippers in the middle of a back-to-back-to-back without Nash or Hill.

The consensus seems to be that Frye is best as part of the second unit, and when comparing his production and contract to other backup bigs, seems to be pretty good value (for comparisons' sake: Amir Johnson earns similar money. Tyrus Thomas earns more. I know who I'd take).

Name: Markieff Morris
Age: 22
Role: Stretch Four; Glue Guy
Grade: B-
Notable Achievements: Will likely be named to one of the all-rookie teams; dunked on Blake Griffin (see above)
 Joining a new team, as a rookie, in a condensed season with a near non-existent training camp led many to believe Morris wouldn't be able to contribute much in his first year. Clearly, all of these were factors in the performance Morris delivered, but he comfortably exceeded most people's expectations simply by finding a way to matter.

He hit a bit of a rookie wall in the middle of the season, suffering a pretty terrible shooting slump that some would say he never quite worked out of. However, he puts effort in on the defensive end and rebounds well, and has shown some versatility (if not consistency) offensively. His rookie campaign lacked polish, but the future is bright.

Name: Hakim Warrick
Age: 29
Role: Bench Offense/Warmer
Grade: F+
Notable Achievements: Nil
Hakim Warrick is an entertaining guy to watch on the basketball court. He'll go through stretches where he looks nearly unstoppable offensively, but at the same time being an absolute sieve defensively. Sometimes he tries, but effort isn't enough. He's listed at 6'9" and 219lbs, both are generous - he simply doesn't have the body to defend NBA power forwards, nor the speed to defend NBA small forwards. Which is unfortunate, because every now and then he'll try to dunk it from the 3pt line.


Name: Marcin Gortat
Age: 28
Role: Paint Presence
Grade: A-
Notable Achievements: Posted career highs in every category except percentages and assists; earned some All-Star consideration; led the Suns in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots

Details: Gortat had a very good season. Excellent, in fact. He copped his fair share of criticism for being more of a finesse finisher than a power finisher, but that's to be expected from a fan base used to Amare's thunderous dunks. He also failed to live up to his billing as a defensive center at times, especially when matched up with bigger, more skilled opponents.

Gortat, like every other NBA player, has his strengths and weaknesses. He's not athletic in the traditional sense, in that he doesn't get far off the ground and he's not explosive. He does possess good agility, though, and he's at his best when using that to beat his man at both ends.

Gortat has shown that he is a starting caliber big man, but will be best served in the future focusing mostly on his defense and rebounding, while offensively contributing wherever he can without having his number called on a play - that means offensive boards, finishing at the rim and hitting open jumpers.

Name: Robin Lopez
Age: 24
Role: Backup Center
Grade: B-
Notable Achievements: Played well enough in the second half to seriously challenge Gortat's starting spot

Details: Robin Lopez, enigma. Which version is the one NBA fans will see for the next 10 years - defensive anchor and strong finisher at the rim, or lumbering, flat-footed personal foul? Time will tell. Improved play from Lopez in the second half of the season was crucial to the Suns' success, with his defensive prowess and toughness allowing the bench some freedom in their play and providing Gortat with some much needed rest.

There's no hiding from the fact that though that yet again, we saw the good Lopez and the bad Lopez in a season. If Lopez had come out of the gates in the same form he ended the season, maybe it's a different story for the Suns - but enough with the what-ifs. Lopez played well enough to regain some value, and on a team with few assets, that will always be a plus.

As one final note, I'd like to add that I think for the most part, Alvin Gentry and his staff did a fabulous job in playing their part in turning the Suns' season around and in the end, getting the most out of this team that they could.

So now, looking ahead, the big moment for me will be hearing Nash's decision - if he re-signs, then the front office has done its job and the team will be significantly improved. If he leaves, then it's the end of an era for Phoenix, for Nash and for me as a fan, but for all of those it will also signal the start of the next.

For what it's worth, I think he'll be back. And on that note, that's all there is. It was a fun season while it lasted!


  1. Excellent blog. Agree with just about everything. I'm with you. Good stuff.

  2. Hey Keith - sorry for the late reply, been having hardcore internet issues the last few days.

    Appreciate the feedback, glad you liked it!