Posted by Neil Paine on April 9, 2009
As you're no doubt aware of already, something notable happened last night: with the Dallas Mavericks' 130-101 blowout of Utah, the Phoenix Suns were officially eliminated from playoff contention for the first time in the Steve Nash era. Now, I can't speak to what kind of changes will be made by the Robert Sarver brain trust over the offseason (I'm sure there will be more than a few), but it's safe to say that this date sadly marks the end of a rather entertaining era in recent NBA history.
There are plenty of excuses for the Suns' decline in '09 -- Amare Stoudemire was injured, and they struggled through various coaching and personnel changes -- but no matter what happens next year, the Suns as we knew them are officially gone forever (some would say they've been gone since the Shaq trade last season, but we'll give them the benefit of a doubt because they still made the playoffs that year). Odds are, Nash will not be a member of the next Suns playoff squad; heck, you might even say the same thing about Stoudemire. So here's a retrospective of the Suns team abilities and tendencies during the Nash era, from a statistical point of view. It's more a data dump than a true appreciation of their exciting offensive style of basketball, but we can also see what made them a good team at their peak, and where they went wrong toward the end of the run.
At their peak, there haven't been too many teams in NBA history that could match the Nash-led Suns offensively. As you can see, the key throughout the run was jump-shooting, specifically from the 3-point arc but also from midrange. Even in 2009, the culmination of their Steve Kerr-induced slide that began in 2008, they had the league's 2nd-best offense, ranked 1st in eFG%, and had the best 2-point FG% of any team for the third consecutive season. The offense morphed away from its assist-heavy 3-point shooting ways over the past several seasons, but the rumors declaring the demise of the Suns' run-n-gun tendencies were vastly overstating things -- PHX still ran the 4th-fastest tempo in basketball, and were in the Top 10 even under Terry Porter.
No, it was actually the defense that led to Phoenix's downfall in 2009, as the Suns fell to 26th after hovering around the league average throughout Mike D'Antoni's tenure as coach. What's especially ironic is that the mainstream media's biggest criticism of the D'Antoni Suns was a perceived lack of defense on their part (an illusion of the Suns' breakneck pace and proof of the fallacy of looking at points allowed per game to assess defensive ability), and that Porter was largely hired by Kerr to "fix" Phoenix defensively. Instead, the Suns declined in literally every defensive metric, save for a slight increase in the % of opponent possessions on which they recorded a steal (and they still ranked just 23rd in that category).
Porter was fired, though it wasn't exactly his fault that Kerr expected a defensive improvement from a team with no real defenders (shockingly, trading Shawn Marion and Raja Bell in the same calendar year will hurt your D! Who knew?). And after a brief resurrection under interim coach Alvin Gentry, the team lost Stoudemire for the year and it was essentially over. Last night was simply a formality, confirming what everyone knew weeks (if not months) ago.
But the memories and the numbers will always be there for the Nash-era Suns, even if the Larry O'Brien Trophy always exceeded their grasp. And, most importantly, the excitement and fun they brought to the game when they were at their peak is something that not even Sarver and Kerr's mismanagement can take away from them.