Even with their loss to their Lakers on Thursday night, there is no denying that the Phoenix Suns have been the NBA’s biggest surprise in the early part of the season.
The Suns are 8-2 a year after missing the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Most analysts felt the Suns would miss the postseason again this season, but they are playing at an .800 clip in the early going. Suns point guard Steve Nash was always an optimistic. In fact, he shocked many by signing a two-year extension to stay with the Suns rather than testing the free-agent market next summer. It seemed only logical that the 35-year-old would go elsewhere in an attempt to win his first NBA title.
“I was a free agent and it was natural to explore my options,” Nash said. “Some people said I was a little crazy going back to Phoenix because I wouldn't have as good a chance to win. I liked the team and coaches and I was comfortable.”
Nash’s decision is looking wise. The Suns have gotten back to playing the up-tempo offensive style that made them successful earlier in the decade as they are second in the NBA in offensive rating (115.4) and third in pace factor (97.3).
“They're a totally different team,” Hornets point guard Chris Paul. “They're like the Phoenix Suns of my rookie year and my second year in the league. I give them a lot of credit. They did a great job of putting those pieces back together.”
Nash is making the offense go as he has an NBA-leading 56.4 assist percentage. His 126 offensive rating is second on the team to shooting guard Jason Richardson’s 133.
“I don't know what to say about the guy,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said of Nash. “I love the fact that everybody thinks he's getting older and a step slower. We should all be so lucky, as players, to get older and be a step slower and still do what he does.”
While Nash runs the offense, six players are averaging at least 12.5 points a game, topped by Richardson’s 19.3.
“I don't think anybody even looks at the stat sheet,” center Channing Frye told the Arizona Republic’s Paul Coro. “Each person has done something to help this team win. We don't rely on just one person. Everybody has to do their part and that's what makes it fun.”
That team-first spirit also spills over into off-court activities. It is common for nearly the entire team to go out to dinner on the road, something nearly unheard of in the NBA.
“We felt good about our team but we were not quite sure what to expect,” Suns general manager Steve Kerr said. “We have a group of guys who like each other and play hard for each other.”
The Suns’ hot start played a hand in the first coaching casualty of the season. The Hornets fired Byron Scott on Thursday, a day after they lost to the Suns to fall to 3-6.
Scott was the NBA Coach of the Year in 2007-08 when he led the Hornets to a franchise-best 56-26 record. They slipped to 49-33 last season and lost to the Nuggets with one of the defeats coming by 58 points, which matched the most lopsided margin in NBA post-season history.
The slow start this season convinced the Hornets a change was necessary. General manager Jeff Bower will now also serve as head coach and brought former Hornets head coach Tim Floyd back to the franchise as an assistant while retaining the rest of the coaching staff.
“I think identifying the strength of our players and putting them in position to use it is a challenge of coaching,” said Bower, who has never been a head coach at any level. “I think that’s something that allows players to be successful and that’s what we’ll be working hard at over these initial days.”
Hornets president Hugh Weber said he felt the team was not even competitive in most games and hinted that owner George Shinn felt the players had quit on Scott.
“The commitment wasn’t deep enough,” Weber said. “You can’t halfway do this with philosophy and style; the whole process has to work. If you are executing your game plan and your players are performing at their highest level and it’s not good enough, I can live with that. I think everyone understood what this team should do and how you do it and make it happen, I think there was some disconnect. Obviously you look for progress and trends and improvement for the goal and objective but the gap was getting bigger.”
Hollins on the Hot Seat?
The next coach to go might be the Grizzlies’ Lionel Hollins.
His team is 1-8 and Allen Iverson’s complaining about having to come off the bench and then eventually leaving the team for what has been described by the team as a family matter has been a major distraction. Iverson claims Hollins never told him he would be used in a reserve role once he recovered from a partially torn hamstring suffered in training camp.
Hollins got some words of encouragement and advice earlier this week former NFL coach Tony Dungy, who was in Memphis to receive the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl’s distinguished citizen award. Hollins and Dungy discussed the Iverson situation.
“He told me to be myself and do what I felt was right,” Hollins said. “He said ‘You have to be stubborn.’ Chuck Noll told him that being stubborn is a virtue if you're right. So you've got to believe. Hey, you never know. You have to believe you're right. If you're not right, then you know.”
Hollins has also been thinking back to his playing days with the Trail Blazers and the words of a legendary NBA coach.
“I remember Jack Ramsay used to say we can't be concerned with who's not here because they can't help us,” Hollins said. “You guys have to go out and do your jobs because you are here. And that's the way it is.”
Milwaukee Winning with Defense
The Bucks are also an early-season surprise at 4-2. A primary reason for the fast start is that they lead the NBA with a 93.1 defensive rating.
The Bucks were the only team to hold their opponent under 100 points in each of the first five games this season. That is quite a difference from last season when the Bucks ranked 15th with a 107.9 defensive rating.
Bucks center Andrew Bogut credits the improvement to coach Scott Skiles.
“His defensive principles are very sound and very simple but vary from game to game,” said Bogut, who has helped the defense with a 4.9 block rate. “Obviously, we’ve got some good personnel to go with those principles but he sticks by those principles through thick and thin.”
The Bucks overhauled their roster in the offseason and Skiles believes that has made a major impact and let his team survive the early-season knee injury of Michael Redd. The Bucks clearly miss Redd’s scoring as they are 26th with a 98.8 offensive rating.
“We got a better commitment from the guys, that's the first thing," Skiles said. "We got a more energetic group, guys who have a lot of energy every day. You hope (the good defense) continues because it's a way we can win right now.”
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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