Monday, March 10, 2008

Suns-Spurs In Retrospect

If you care about the NBA and had access to a television on Sunday, you likely watched the Suns hold off the Spurs and end a three-game home losing streak. It was an intense, physical contest that felt very much like a playoff game and left Phoenix fans feeling quite pleased. After all, the only thing better than ending a rough stretch is beating the Spurs, right? I mean, it's all about San Antonio!

Of course, that is the problem this year in the West. It's not all about San Antonio. Sure, the Spurs are looking like a favorite. But so are the Lakers. And the Jazz. And, heck, even the Rockets and Hornets. Who isn't a favorite in the West this year?

The Suns problem is no longer beating San Antonio. That won't be an easy task in and of itself, but with Shaq guarding Duncan and these two aging squads going after each other, it seems like the odds are about 50/50 for once. No, the problem for Phoenix is beating everyone else.

The landscape of the Western Conference has changed, folks. A year ago the only true threat to a Suns title was, in fact, the Spurs. This year, all eight playoff teams (and even one non-playoff team) can beat any other team in a series. I honestly believe that. Which means that Phoenix is going to have to fight tooth and nail just to play the Spurs (unless it is the first round).

In my opinion, the biggest problem for Phoenix - brace yourself for this - is team speed. Yes, the team famous for picking up the pace is in danger of being run out of the gym by half the teams in the West.

To better analyze the Suns' postseason chances, lets break down the Western contenders into two groups: the teams that play faster than the Suns and the teams that play slower (based on Phoenix's post-Shaq pace numbers compared to the rest of the league).

Golden State
L.A. Lakers

New Orleans
San Antonio

Obviously, one of those teams won't make the playoffs (unless that team is the Suns themselves), but it is worthwhile to consider them all. We can start by looking at the teams in the "slower" category. From that group, I see two teams that Phoenix can handle (Dallas and Houston) and two that they might struggle against, but could still come away with a series win. Houston is obviously on fire and the loss of Yao actually makes them faster and more athletic, but I expect them to come back to earth by the postseason and the Suns actually match up pretty well. Dallas is cooked and Dampier would last about 14 minutes before fouling out against Shaq qnd Amare. The Spurs, we already discussed. Only New Orleans seems like a real problem, given the way the Hornets have handled Phoenix this year (4-0). A closer look, however, suggests that a postseason matchup might not follow the existing script. For starters, New Orleans hasn't seen the new-look Suns. I realize that probably isn't scaring anyone, but Shaq should at least slow down David West a little bit. Furthermore, New Orleans won three of those four games by less than five points (including a double overtime thriller). Finally, the Hornets are woefully short on playoff experience in a league famous for its dues-paying history. The biggest problem for Phoenix against N.O. is the Chris Paul Factor. As in: who will guard him and how will Nash keep his turnovers down against him? Call it another 50/50.

To summarize, here are the loose odds I would give Phoenix to beat those four teams:
San Antonio (50/50)
New Orleans (50/50)
Houston (75/25)
Dallas (80/20)

Not bad, all things considered. Which brings us to the far more problematic area: playing against the fast teams. I know it is hard for people to wrap their heads around this, but Phoenix isn't the thoroughbread in this race anymore. Just look at their current starting lineup from last year to this year:

PG - Nash/Nash (slower - due to his body breaking down, which is becoming painfully obvious)
SG - Bell/Bell (probably the same)
SF - James Jones/Grant Hill (slightly faster, which shows how slow James Jones was)
PF - Shawn Marion/Amare Stoudemire (slower - Amare's a gazelle, but not nearly as fast as Marion)
C - Amare/Shaq (much, much slower)

60% of the Suns lineup is slower than last year, while the 20% that has gotten faster is marginal.

This is coming at a time when the rest of the league is getting faster, particularly the teams listed in the "faster" column above. Utah's pace keeps getting quicker as Ronnie Brewer has added speed at the 2 and now teams with Williams, Boozer, an Kirilenko to provide four solid athletes in the starting lineup. The Warriors and Nuggets are blurs, as everyone knows. And the Lakers - who have always given Phoenix trouble - are now playing just as fast, in addition to playing just as well, as the Suns.

The matchups against these four teams don't bode nearly as well. Utah is a ferocious home team and the Suns have no answer for either Williams or Boozer. Remember what those two did to Alston and Yao last year? The Suns are going to have to put Amare on Boozer, which is going to result in fouls galore. The Lakers are clearly going to present a problem. They've played the Suns tough for years and now have the horse up front with Gasol (and that's without even considering Bynum) to cause real problems. I think the Suns can score big on the Lakers, but they won't be able to stop them. And in a shootout, it comes down to pace considerations and possession creation - ironically, the Lakers have out-Phoenixed Phoenix on this front. Denver probably won't make the playoffs, but they are 3-0 against the Suns and look like a mortal lock to beat them in a series. Phoenix has no answer for Melo, no answer for Iverson, and can barely even contain Kenyon Martin. Yikes. [Update: Fire the research department! Denver is 1-1 against Phoenix. I am adjusting the odds accordingly.]

Then there's the Warriors. Even last year they looked like they had passed Phoenix as Baron Davis and Jason Richardson bullied the Suns out of the building on two ocassions. Now GSW has added Version 2.0 of Monta Ellis to the equation and has no one for Shaq to guard.

Here are the odds:
Golden State (25/75)
L.A. (25/75)
Utah (40/60)
Denver (50/50)

Hopefully you are still with me here, because the good stuff is on the way. What we can gather from these two sets of odds is that the Suns might indeed have turned a corner on Sunday and that Shaq is working out ... but only in regard to the teams playing at a slow pace. They are still in big trouble against fast playoff teams from the West.

So what can they do?

Simple: put Barbosa into the starting lineup. This accomplishes a variety of things:

1. It adds speed. Duh. This is the obvious benefit, as Barbosa is Phoenix's fastest player and the one guy on the roster that is likely to have a speed advantage against his counterpart. At this point in his career, that raw speed hasn't translated into defensive prowess, but at the very least he can keep opposing guards busy chasing him around on the other end of the floor. There is real value in forcing a guy like Allen Iverson or Monta Ellis to sprint all over the court paying D. Not only that, but Barbosa gives Phoenix their best possible option to get out on the break and take advantage of Nash's incredible ability to throw long lead passes. Currently, only Amare is a true weapon on this play, as Raja runs to the three-point line (effective, but not quite as good as a layup), Grant Hill is only able to get deep enough for mid-range jumpers, and Shaq is still on the other side of the court.

2. It should help Barbosa break out of his slump. I am aware that my man Leandro is struggling right now, so it probably strikes you as strange that I would highlight him as the key guy on the Phoenix roster. But if recent history is any guide at all, nothing will help the Brazilian Blur get back on track faster than hearing his name introduced by the public address announcer. In seven games as a starter this year, Barbosa has played out of his mind, averaging 25.6 points per game on 55% shooting (including a whopping 28 threes on 50% shooting). If nothing else, putting him in the lineup for the opening tip might prompt a return to form.

3. It keeps Raja Bell rested and out of foul trouble. Many people feel that Barbosa can't start because it takes Phoenix's best defensive player off the floor. I disagree, for a couple of reasons. The first is that Bell is running out of gas. Too many nights spent guarding Kobe and Melo and McGrady are taking its toll. Plus, Bell is getting in early foul trouble because - wait for it - opposing teams also know that he's the best defender and so they attack him to get him off the floor. Waiting eight minutes to bring him in will enable them to avoid this early onslaught, keep Bell rested, and likely allow them to have their best possible defensive unit on the floor in the fourth quarter.

4. It makes it easier to go small. One of the keys to success for Phoenix is going to be their ability to play with a small lineup. Putting Barbosa at the 2, Bell at the 3, and Hill or Diaw at the 4 will help them regain some of the lost speed and allow them to get out and run more (regardless of whether Amare or Shaq is at the 5). Right now though they seem to be locked in to this trend of rotating Nash, Barbosa, and Bell in the backcourt and Hill, Diaw, Amare, and Shaq in the frontcourt. Starting Barbosa and playing him 35-40 minutes a night will force D'Antoni to rediscover the joys of playing Raja Bell at the 3 and going small more often.

Who knows, maybe this just wouldn't work, or maybe they can beat "fast" teams without making any changes. All I know is that I will be watching the nationally televised game against the Warriors this Thursday to see how the Suns fare when the pace picks up.


Brandon said...

I don't understand why the Suns felt the need to go get Shaq. They were one bogus suspension away from beating the Spurs last spring... no need to blow it up and start over, Steve.

jsuns1 said...

brandon, the suns this year were 6 and 15 against the top teams in the west, and it could've been worse. Simply said, the league has changed too much and the suns needed to make a change also.

I'm a suns fan, and after the boston game, and now the spurs game, I'm hopeful of the suns chances, but also think like Adam, any team in the west can beat each other right now, really and amazing race.

Marion publicly called out to be traded, only the center of the team can come back from this (kobe), number 3 and above players normally don't come back from this. Marion has a huge ego, he actually thinks he's worth 20 million a yr, look at Miami since the trade, they still suck, (even though I was pulling for them, and now with wade out..),

The suns now have some serious chemistry, between bell, nash, hill , and shaq you have 4 players that really want to win plus the athletic amare. The suns have a fair shot at coming out of the ashes and winning. N.O. is the team
I'm afraid of most, then detroit as a suns fan, anyone else, I think we'll win. But, if the lakers do get a healthy bynum in time, that changes things, bynum was really playing great before the injury,

And yes, getting a 36 yr old, shaq was a big risk most wouldn't have taken, but I've been watching every game, and to see a 7ft 36yr old dive into the stands, and dive onto the floor for loose balls every game is really exciting. Shaq is playing motivated for the first time in years. One of shaq's best friends is G.Hill, and Shaq is getting the ball passed to him. Something with Kobe and Wade didn't happen as much, since wade and kobe tend to be selfish, even if they are great

Anonymous said...

Denver is 3-0 versus the Suns? I think the season series is 1-1 at this point with two games still to be played. The Suns beat the Nuggets 137-115 earlier in the season.

Of course, Shawn Marion had a huge game in that win so that game isn't really reflective of the current situation between these two teams......

I would also like to see LB start and Raja come off the bench...I just don't think D'Antoni will do it.

Adam Hoff said...

You are right. I must have fell and hit my head before jotting down those Denver numbers. I updated the post.

Garry Shuck said...

As usual, a great post Adam. And Brandon, if you just look at the win-loss before and after the Shaq trade, then yes, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that the Suns got the big fella. But if you followed them closely and looked a little deeper at the record, it was becoming clear that this year’s version of 7-seconds or less just wasn’t going to get it done in June, and maybe not even in May. That 1st place record was largely a result of getting fat off the weak sisters of the East, there were very few quality wins in there, and more than that, they no longer had that dominating swagger to them. Game after game you could watch mediocre players post season (and often career) scoring highs against the Suns—they lost twice to Minnesota, and once to Miami—at home! Even the wins they got were tainted with dissapointment at the big picture of the reality oof how the team was playing. That home loss to the Spurs without Parker in the line-up sealed the Shaq deal, I think.

The timing of the trade was not ideal, as the Suns had to play shorthanded after dealing Marion and before Shaq was ready for several games, and then his first three were the peaking Lakers, Boston, and Detroit, with Utah thrown in a few games later, but by the Portland game, and even the Utah game, you could see the schemes coming together. Any other year a couple weeks of .500 ball by a team with the Suns record would not be that big a deal, but this year the race is a bit too tight for that.

I’m not so sure Nash is breaking down (maybe a little, but not too much), but Bell has certainly been slowed by injuries this year. Boris Diaw’s inexplicable inconsistency is also a major weakness for this squad, although it looks like he is trying to be more aggressive of late. Unfortunately this is translating into numerous travelling violations per game. Last night’s dismantling of the Grizzlies, coming on the heels of the victory over Los Spurs, is a very encouraging sign—not just that they found a way to beat one of the owrst teams in the league at home, but that they absolutely crushed them, dominating from the opening tip and never letting of the gas, getting that lead up to almost 40 nearing the 4th quarter—that’s the swagger and will to win that we have not seen all season from this squad.

Hard to say what the best post-season matchup would be for the Suns, but I don’t think they really need to fear Denver or Golden State—as great as that upset was last year, I think Dallas paniced a bit, and the disciplined Utah squad made short work of them. Tomorrow’s game will be telling, but if the Suns can let Shaq guard the paint and then stay at home on the shooters and not turn it over, that should get it done against the Warriors.