There's a dangerous game basketball analysts play this time of year, one that's even more troublesome than normal during this unusual lockout-shortened season. When teams have played just a handful of games, it can be tricky to spot meaningful trends amidst the overwhelming noise of randomness.
Besides the schedule, I find myself more wary than ever before because I happen to be reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman at the moment. Naturally, the book isn't about basketball--though Kahneman's longtime research partner, the late Amos Tversky, was one of the co-authors behind the famous first study of the "hot hand" in basketball, which is mentioned. Still, I can't help but feel that much of the content explains to the way we understand basketball. For example, Kahneman points out that even highly trained professors tend to underestimate the sample sizes they need to conduct reliable studies. That's an excellent reminder to be cautious.
The preponderance of blowouts early in the season also makes me hesitant. John Hollinger's research on the trouble portended by the lopsided home losses the Dallas Mavericks have suffered is impeccable, but I wonder if this year's results can really be compared to non-lockout seasons on a one-to-one basis.
Despite all of this caution, there is one team I feel comfortable judging early in the schedule: the Phoenix Suns. The problem isn't that Phoenix has started 0-2 at home, including a blowout loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. Instead, the issue is that I started out believing the Suns were certain to end up in the lottery and nothing that has happened so far has disproved that notion.
Phoenix has unexpectedly struggled to score, ranking 27th in the league in Offensive Rating. The culprit has been shooting. The Suns have shot an effective .426 and .425 from the field in their two games. Last year, they had just three games all season where they shot so poorly. Phoenix has scored less than a point per possession both games, something that happened in consecutive games once in all of 2010-11.
Because of the lockout, we can expect offensive numbers to be down this season, but that's also sort of the point. The Suns have relied on dazzling shooting more heavily than almost anyone else in the NBA, so in a league where shooting is down everywhere Phoenix lacks the other tools to compensate. The Suns are unlikely to grind out many victories.
Most troubling is how much Steve Nash, who will have to play at an All-Star level if Phoenix is to have any hope of competing in the Western Conference, struggled in the loss to Philadelphia. Nash had more turnovers against the 76ers (six) than points (four) and assists (one) combined, missing nine of his 11 shot attempts. In his career, Nash has had just six games with more turnovers than points with at least five turnovers. In most of those games, his poor shooting has been offset by good passing, including an 18-assist game last season. Wednesday night's game stands out as statistically the worst of Nash's current tenure with the Suns.
Not long after Wednesday's loss, Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic reported that the Suns would sign veteran shooting guard Michael Redd. Bringing in Redd makes some sense, as a renowned athletic training staff remains one of Phoenix's organizational strengths. If anyone can get Redd back on the court and contributing after his pair of ACL injuries, it the Suns.
Still, Redd is 32 and on a one-year contract, so the endgame is uncertain here. Signing Redd to shore up the bench and add shooting is the kind of move a contender would make, and there's ample evidence Phoenix doesn't belong in this group. Redd's addition means fewer minutes for Shannon Brown and Jared Dudley, the Suns' lone wing players with long-term futures with the team. If Phoenix runs out a wing unit of the 37-year-old Nash, Redd and 39-year-old Grant Hill and it doesn't translate into immediate success, what exactly is the point?
In the wake of Wednesday's loss, the message in Phoenix has been not to panic. Ordinarily, this would be sensible. But it was more or less the same response the Suns had to last year's lottery season, which was followed by no significant changes. Phoenix continues to stay the course, believing in the formula that has resulted in so much success during the Nash era. If not these losses, what kind of results is it going to take to convince the Suns the plan isn't working?
I've never entirely bought into the notion that the worst place to be in the NBA is the middle. That's easy to say from the comfortable distance of objective analyst; it's a lot less fun to actually live through rebuilding. The promise of a better future can't always make those seemingly endless defeats any easier to tolerate. I understand why the Phoenix organization is concerned about losing fans who have grown accustomed to a certain standard of winning.
Still, there is something worse than being an aging .500 team, and that's being an aging team that's not even good enough to compete. That's where the Suns look like they're headed, and I'm not sure Steve Nash's presence will be sufficient to keep fans turning out if the team keeps playing like this. It's overdue for Phoenix to accept the reality of the situation. If the Suns want to keep hope alive for a playoff run through the trade deadline, fine, but stop signing players in their 30s and start giving what young talent is on hand extended opportunities. The run is almost certainly over and it's time to start preparing for a new one.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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