Connect with us


NBA Saturday: Suns’ Playoff Hopes Dimming

The Suns have failed to build off of last season’s success.

Jesse Blancarte



The Phoenix Suns were the biggest surprise team in the NBA last season. With a new head coach and a young roster, the Suns were expected to be one of the worst teams in the league. Instead, the Suns made a big trade for point guard Eric Bledsoe, and placed him in the starting lineup next to fellow point guard Goran Dragic. Despite a knee injury that kept Bledsoe out for almost half the season, the Suns finished with 48 wins and nearly made the playoffs in the stacked Western Conference.

Then, last offseason, the Suns made one of the more interesting, and what many NBA analysts considered to be savvier acquisitions of the offseason. Phoenix acquired point guard Isaiah Thomas from the Sacramento Kings via a sign and trade (four-year, $27,000,000). With Bledsoe and Dragic already on the team, the acquisition seemed redundant, but last season Thomas put up numbers that rivaled Kyrie Irving’s, making Thomas a potential steal at roughly $6,750,000 per year. Thomas was also insurance in the event Bledsoe went to another team this offseason (as a restricted free agent), and/or Dragic potentially leaving Phoenix after this season (as an unrestricted free agent*).

*Note: Dragic was considered a near lock to re-sign with the Suns as recently as September of this year, but Sean Deveney of reported in November that Dragic now plans on having an “open” free agency, with teams like the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers lined up as potential suitors.

But the addition of Thomas, along with retaining several key players like the Morris Twins, P.J Tucker, and Miles Plumlee, has not resulted in a significant improvement on last season’s performance. Last season, the Suns went 48-34, and finished eighth in in the league in offensive efficiency (107.1 points per 100 possessions) and 18th in defensive efficiency (103.8 points allowed per 100 possessions), which was good for a 3.3 net rating (tenth best in the NBA).  This season, through 27 games, the Suns are 12th in offensive efficiency (105 points per 100 possessions) and 17th in defensive efficiency (103.9 points allowed per 100 possessions), resulting in a 1.1 net rating. This isn’t a huge statistical drop off and the season is still young, so there is time to improve. However, in the West, if you aren’t improving, you are falling behind (as we saw this week with the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets upgrading their rosters via trades for Rajon Rondo and Corey Brewer) and the Suns are currently at risk of losing pace to the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder, who are each currently jockeying for the eighth seed.

One of the main issues for the Suns so far this season is their lack of an impact big man, and heavy reliance on Miles Plumlee and Alex Len. The Suns are getting outplayed by opposing power forwards and centers on a nightly basis, and are grabbing just 48.2 percent of all rebounds, which is fourth worst in the NBA. In addition, the Suns lack an elite rim protector and as a result are allowing the most made field goals at the rim per game in the league (13.8) and 61.1 percent opponent shooting (seventh highest) within five feet of the rim on 31.3 attempts per game. This was an issue for the Suns last season as well, as they allowed 12.6 made field goals at the rim per game, which was the second most in the league. This is an area that Phoenix did not address this offseason, which makes the Thomas signing appear even more problematic (though it is not all that easy to acquire a good rim protector either in free agency or via a trade, as we currently see with the Cleveland Cavaliers).

The inability to protect the painted area is a fundamental flaw with this Suns team, which can only be truly addressed by adding a more effective defensive big man. This is especially true considering that Len is allowing opponents to shoot 57.8 percent on 6.1 shot attempts at the rim per game, while Plumlee is allowing opponents to shoot 54.7 percent on 8.3 attempts. To put these numbers in perspective, among all players that guard against at least six field goal attempts at the rim per game, Len surrenders the fifth highest shooting percentage, while Plumlee surrenders the ninth highest.

However, it should be noted that there are more things to consider on the defensive end than just interior defense. In fact, the Suns only allow opponents to make seven three-pointer per game, fifth lowest in the league (tied with the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers), on 34.7 percent shooting (eleventh lowest percentage in the league). But NBA offenses more than ever before are geared towards generating shots at the rim and beyond-the-arc and the inability to defend both types of shots effectively limits the potential of any team. A good example of a team that does both is the Golden State Warriors, who allow opponents to make 6.6 three-pointers per game on just 30.8 percent shooting, and holds opposing teams to a league best 54.3 percent shooting within five feet of the basket. The ability to guard against both types of shots is one of the fundamental things that makes the Warriors a true contender and arguably the best team in the league. Considering this, until they upgrade their interior defense, the Suns will have to hope they can simply outscore their opponents each night (like the Cavaliers); an approach that will likely result in another season outside of the playoffs.

This is an especially problematic approach since the Suns offense is currently not firing on all cylinders, despite the return of most of last year’s key players and the addition of Thomas.

Part of the problem is that despite having three very good point guards, the Suns aren’t generating a lot of points per game off of assists. In fact, the Suns are only averaging 289.8 passes per game (20th), 20.9 assists per game (18th), 42.3 assist opportunities per game (20th), and 50.5 points created by assists per game (14th). The fact that the Suns are not rated particularly high in any of these categories does not mean they don’t or can’t have a potent offense. Many good offensive teams generate points out of isolation situations, such as the teams that have a dominant big man that can score buckets with his back to the basket.

But these numbers are indicative of a team that is not moving the ball as well as it should be, especially for a team that purposely tries to spread the floor and create catch-and-shoot opportunities for its perimeter players. Jeff Hornacek recently addressed this issue.

“These guys are all very good offensive players,” Hornacek said recently to Paul Coro of AZCentral. “They think they can take their guys at all times. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. They should be good enough offensively where they can create something for a teammate.”

Until the Suns are able to ramp up their offensive output to overcome their defensive deficiencies, they will likely keep slipping further and further away from the eighth seed in the West. Head coach Jeff Hornacek will have to find creative ways of maximizing the talent on his roster, which is something he did a masterful job of last season. One potential option is to play Thomas, Bledsoe and Dragic together more often, as they have posted a scorching 114.6 points per 100 possessions in the 44 minutes they have played together this season. When these three play together, the Suns are surrendering 106.6 points per 100 possessions, which is more than their overall season average (and would be the 24th worst in the league), but is offset by the scoring output (8.0 net rating). The sample size is small, but it shows potential and should at least be explored further.

Another issue Hornacek has to deal with is the Suns’ inability to close out close games. Through their first 27 games, the Suns have lost eight games by six points or less. A big part of the issue for the Suns in clutch situations, especially during their recent six game losing streak, has been tied to a heightened reliance on three-point shooting, as explained by Dave King of Brightside of the Sun. During the losing streak, in the closing minutes of the game, the Suns shot 62 percent of their field goals from beyond-the-arc, but only made 23 percent of them. This is something that Hornacek will need to address, otherwise the Suns will take the place of the Timberwolves, who last season lost an inordinate amount of close games in the first half of the season.

Another solution is to trade away one of their point guards in exchange for a decent big man. Ideally, that big man could score inside, find open shooters when double-teamed, and protect the rim effectively. Those types of players are hard to find, however, and it’s not likely that any player aside from Bledsoe could net such a big man (especially considering Dragic will be an unrestricted free agent after this season). The best case scenario would likely be dealing Thomas, as part of a bigger deal, for a player like Greg Monroe, who many believe will leave Detroit after this season as an unrestricted free agent. But again, even Monroe doesn’t address the Suns’ interior defense issue since he isn’t much of a shot blocker himself. But at least he offers interior scoring, rebounding, and passing.

What is clear is that the Suns need to figure out their issues as soon as possible. The Oklahoma City Thunder are streaking (winners in eight of their last ten games), and are currently tied for ninth in the West with the Suns. There are still a lot games left to play, and anything can happen between now and end the of regular season, but the Suns missed an opportunity to distance themselves from the Thunder while Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were out nursing injuries.

In a Western Conference that only seems to get deeper and deeper, the Suns may find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture again this season. There is still a chance to turn things around, but the necessary changes need to happen sooner rather than later.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.


Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson

Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.

Ben Nadeau



Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?

Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.

“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”

Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.

While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.

Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.

“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”

Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.

“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.

Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.

Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.

But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.

“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”

When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.

And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.

“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”

One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.

“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”

And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.

Continue Reading


Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?

Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.

Shane Rhodes



The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.

With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.

It couldn’t get worse, could it?

Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.

In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.

The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.

Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.

The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.

Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.

Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?

If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.

Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.

Continue Reading


NBA Daily: Houston Has It All

Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.

Lang Greene



It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.

So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.

As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.

Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.

One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.

Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.

Floor Generalship

Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.

This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.

Small Ball Ready

Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.

At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.


When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.

Shooting, Versatility and Experience

All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.

Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.


Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.

With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.

Continue Reading

The Strictly Speaking Podcast


Trending Now