When the Phoenix Suns officially announce a two-year extension for Steve Nash--a deal whose completion Nash's agent, Bill Duffy, has already confirmed--it will further solidify Phoenix GM Steve Kerr's decision to sweep the last 18 months of his reign away. Kerr can't bring back Mike D'Antoni or Shawn Marion, but by retaining Alvin Gentry as head coach, re-signing Nash and unrestricted free agent Grant Hill and dealing Shaquille O'Neal but not Amar'e Stoudemire, he has committed to giving the Suns another chance to win with the up-tempo, offensive-minded system that was so successful for the Suns from 2004-05 through the midpoint of the 2007-08 season.
The question now is whether, in the wake of a season that ended with a trip to the lottery, there is enough talent for Phoenix to contend in the immediate future with a team built around the 35-year-old Nash.
To begin to find an answer, let's start by taking a closer look at the final two months of the 2008-09 campaign. Against the backdrop of the All-Star Game held at the US Airways Center, Kerr fired Terry Porter after barely 50 games on the job, replacing him with former D'Antoni deputy Gentry. The positive vibes and optimism lasted precisely two games. While the results--back-to-back wins over the lowly L.A. Clippers by a combined 63 points--were positive, the second victory was costly. Stoudemire detached his retina in the second game, requiring season-ending surgery.
When Stoudemire went down, the Suns were largely written off in their quest to secure one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference. They managed to hang on until the final week and a half of the season, when an embarrassing 140-116 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on ABC essentially finished them off.
Despite the way the run ended, the second half of the season was a qualified success for the Suns. Playing without one of the league's top big men, Phoenix went 16-13 over the season's final 29 games and actually improved its point differential (+1.4) from what the team had done under Porter (+0.9), even discounting the lopsided wins over the Clippers.
What might be more interesting is how the Suns did it. Gentry's succession was portrayed as a return to the D'Antoni principles (I'm pretty sure I did so earlier in this space), but in some ways it actually went further in terms of extremity. Check out Phoenix's Offensive and Defensive Ratings, broken down by coach:
Period G ORtg DRtg
Porter 51 112.5 110.4
Gentry 31 120.9 117.2
Gentry no AS 29 119.6 117.8
From the All-Star break onwards, the Suns averaged more than 120 points per 100 possessions, a staggering figure even for a record-setting offense. At the same time, equally stunning is the efficiency with which Phoenix opponents scored. Over the course of a full season, no team has ever topped or even threatened a 120 Offensive Rating; 117.0 is the best Offensive Rating since the NBA began tracking possessions, a mark achieved by the 1986-87 L.A. Lakers, the 1987-88 Boston Celtics and the 1991-92 Chicago Bulls. However, only the 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks (they of an 11-71 record) have defended so poorly on a per-possession basis.
Add it up, and even accounting for the fact that offenses tend to get more potent over the course of the season, the Suns were the most offensive-minded team in modern NBA history. Relative to league average, Phoenix's offense was 16.5 points better per 100 possessions than its defense was under Gentry. Previously, the most offensive team had been the 2003-04 Dallas Mavericks, also led by Nash, who were 13.6 points per 100 possessions better on offense.
As I've touched on extensively in the past, the Suns' fast pace and efficient offense obscured the fact that under D'Antoni Phoenix was much more an average defense than a poor one. The Suns' most offensively-biased D'Antoni team, the 2004-05 squad, was 9.2 points better per 100 possessions on offense than defense. Back then, Phoenix had Shawn Marion to battle with much bigger power forwards and supply blocks and steals. The following season, the Suns added stopper Raja Bell. Both of those players have been dealt by Kerr, and Phoenix--despite a stated effort to improve on defense--now has no starters I'd describe as anything better than average defensively.
If the Suns are to succeed, then, it will be by piling up the points at an historic pace. During the second half of last season, it was apparent that strategy was much more successful against bad teams than against good ones. Under Gentry, Phoenix went 12-2 against sub-.500 teams playing out the string, but just 6-11 against playoff teams. Therein lies the concern for the Suns. True contention doesn't seem to be in the cards. With Houston and potentially Utah taking steps backward next season, a playoff berth is a realistic possibility, but Phoenix would have to take an enormous step forward to compete with the West's best teams.
The Suns' best hope for that leap comes from the return of Stoudemire, who will step in for O'Neal in the middle. If Stoudemire, who struggled in Porter's system, responds to a floor that is better spaced by improving his field-goal percentage, Phoenix's offense could be even more dangerous. Nash's age is something of a concern (as is Hill's), but he played excellent basketball under Gentry, posting a .664 True Shooting Percentage in March and April and averaging 13.8 assists per 40 minutes in the season's final month.
If everything comes together and rookie Earl Clark fills Matt Barnes' role as an athletic, floor-spacing power forward, the Suns may be able to recapture much of what made them such a special team in the D'Antoni era. That's a lot of ifs, however. While a full season under Gentry figures to be an entertaining one for Phoenix fans, it will likely ultimately be no less frustrating than 2008-09 was.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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