Earlier this week, Robert Sarver went on a miniature rant claiming that “millennials” were to blame for the poor results faced by the Phoenix Suns. Outside of the fallacious reasoning — all teams have young players, why did they hurt Phoenix? And why did Phoenix not bring in more veteran leadership? — this seems to obfuscate real dilemmas facing the franchise.
On January 4, NBA TV’s The Starters asked this same question and narrowed the possible answers down to coaching, players, and/or management. I believe the answer is slightly different, and was posited by ex-Sun Goran Dragic. He stated:
“It feels like they’re always changing something, They’re not like Miami, San Antonio, those teams that are really loyal when they find something.”
So how does this look statistically? Why should you, the fans, listen to what a disgruntled ex-Sun has to say about the failures in Phoenix?
Let’s begin with simple analytics. In 2013-14, Phoenix had 48 wins and was looking like a future championship contender. Following a chaotic mid-season, where Isaiah Thomas and Goran Dragic were traded, the Suns won 39 games. This season, they started 12-16 before losing nine straight. Over the past half-month, Phoenix has been the worst team in the NBA.
So what roster changes did Phoenix make over the course of that time period? The big names that were moved and/or moved-on are Marcus Morris, Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas, Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, Marcus Thornton, Tyler Ennis, Zoran Dragic, and Shavlik Randolph. In fact, only seven players are currently on the team that played at all for the Suns last season.
Moreover, per NBA.com’s stats page, none of the top-five lineups from 2013-14 to 2014-15 remained the same, and only one of the top-five lineups from 2014-15 to 2015-16 remained the same (Bledsoe, Knight, Morris, Tucker, Len).
Statistically, this rapid roster turnover hampers Phoenix’s offense. This is seen when looking at the percentage of passes that are assists, free throw assists, or secondary assists: NBA.com’s stats page suggests that the Suns are the eighth worst in the NBA at this category. That number is even more terrifying when you look at teams that play with a pace greater than 100 possessions per game. Let’s examine this below:
This is startling. The Suns, just like the Warriors, Kings, Wizards, and Celtics, shoot the majority of their shots with more than twelve seconds left on the shot clock. But, Figure 1 suggests the Suns aren’t generating these shots off of passes. This number is even more staggering when examining these same teams time of possession per individual touch:
What we see in Figure 2 is, of the “high-pace” teams studied, a single player on the Suns holds the ball for the second longest amount of time. This results in a severely more sluggish Phoenix offense than an “seven-seconds-or-less” team can survive.
Furthermore, Phoenix’s lack of continuity also effects its team defense. Per Synergy, Phoenix gives up the eighth most points per possession on transition opportunities, the second most points per possession on pick-and-rolls, and the fourth most points per possession off of cuts. These horrendous defensive statistics are reflective of bad team defense. Most frequently, these plays all occur against motion offenses, which require good team defense to stop. The Suns’ abhorrent statistics against the aforementioned plays is reflective of a lack of familiarity necessary to having an above average team defense.
Finally, the high frequency of player removals has resulted in said players not having time to develop in Phoenix. The biggest name here is Isaiah Thomas. Thomas has become the Boston Celtics’ star player. Let’s first examine his improvement in the passing game since leaving Phoenix
What Figure 3 shows is that, in every passing metric, Isaiah Thomas has improved. Could part of this be his role on the respective teams? Thomas plays as a true point guard for Boston, whereas he was a combo guard for Phoenix. The answer is yes, partially. Especially in regards to the statistic about passes made. But in terms of his significantly improved assist-to-turnover ratio, and assist-to-pass percentage, Thomas’ new role alone would not have had such a drastic effect.
Moreover, more general numbers show Thomas’ holistic improvement. His average speed of movement in miles per hours has increased from 3.98 while in Phoenix to 4.17 this season in Boston. Thus, he is absolutely not quick, but he is much better than the 279th fastest player he was for the Suns. Moreover, his points per game has increased from 15.2 to 20.9 over the same time period.
While nobody is suggesting that Isaiah Thomas would have Phoenix currently playing playoff caliber basketball, his dramatic improvement suggests the Suns’ strategy of rapid player turnover carries roster risks, especially in regards to losing quickly developing players. This season, had Thomas still been in Phoenix, his post-trade developed distribution skills would have aided the “sticky ball” Suns’ offense. Moreover, his quick scoring off the bench would be a solution to Phoenix’s scoring woes when Brandon Knight and (before his season-ending injury) Eric Bledsoe went to the bench.
I’ll be honest, when I first watched Phoenix this season I thought to myself, “here is the team nobody really talked about all summer that is actually a competitor.” Clearly I was incorrect. They have been one of the worst, if not the worst team in the NBA this season. This is because the complete lack of roster continuity has resulted in a sluggish offense, poor team defense, and dismissal of developing star talent that management could not see. Thus, because of the rapid roster turnover, Phoenix has forced itself to rebuild a team, which a mere two years ago, everyone believed was developing into a championship contender.
Have a disagreement? Think the sun is still bright in Phoenix? Let us know in the comments section!