Watching the Phoenix Suns this year has been a bizarre experience. In some ways, they parallel last February's Hollywood train wreck, Valentine's Day. The film featured every big-name performer imaginable, but still ended up as a mediocre pile of dog-doo. The lesson learned: oftentimes team efforts are not equal to the sum of their parts.
Back to the Suns, a squad that can go twelve deep, with ten guys who deserve 20+ minutes each. Sure, most coaches make the claim that they would love to have this "problem," thus inferring that it is not really a problem at all. Yet, if the first seven games of the season are any indication, the Suns might actually have a legitimate dilemma on their hands, clichés be damned.
Despite having so many highly-capable parts, the Suns stubbornly continue to play an unconventional lineup. You win in this league with an inside presence. This is a fact and has been proven throughout the history of the NBA. Garnett, Duncan, Gasol, Stoudemire (sorry); unless you have Michael Jordan at the 2, you cannot succeed without some sort of force in the paint.
Hedo Turkoglu is a good basketball player. He has an unusual skill set that can greatly help a team given the right situation -- the '08 Orlando Magic, for example. But if there is one thing he is not, it is an inside presence.
By starting Hedo at the power forward position, Phoenix essentially lets opponents know before the game even starts that any control of the paint will be relinquished for the opening eight to ten minutes.
It just doesn't work. Don't get me wrong -- this is not an indictment of Turkoglu. I appreciate the effort he is putting in, because you can absolutely tell he has committed himself to it, but science is a cruel beast. There is no way around it; Hedo simply can't guard the Zach Randolphs or Jason Thompsons of the world, let alone Chris Bosh and Kevin Garnett. He just doesn't have the athleticism or strength. Physics say that he will always be overmatched.
His quote after Sunday's game -- in which he picked up three first half fouls in his five minutes trying to defend the power forward position -- is telling.
"This is new for me. I have to do a better job against bigger guys," Turkoglu started, finishing, "They say I'm pushing too much behind them. I tried to explain, ‘Listen, they're bigger than me.' So I have to fight."
Do not think for a second that opponents can't understand this. In five of the first seven games this season, the Suns have lost the first quarter. Simple logic says that this avant-garde starting lineup just doesn't match up against the other conventional lineups of the league. Always starting from behind is never a recipe for success. Simply put, with the current patchwork group of starters in place, the Suns ceiling is lowered dramatically.
Of course, with a squad this diverse, there will always be other options.
Hakim Warrick, the man chosen by the front office to be a Stoudemire-like replacement, has shown flashes of brilliance. Coming off the bench, Warrick has been a human highlight reel, ripping off Earth-shattering dunks, showing outlandish explosiveness, and leaving a trail of posterizations in his wake. He has provided a spark in almost every contest and has been a one of the more reliable contributors on the team.
(Warning: Advanced Metrics coming) Hak is also second on the team in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes, a stat that estimates the number of wins a player contributes to the team per 48 minutes played. With the league average hovering around .1000, Warrick's fantastic 0.156 rating is only trailing that of Jason Richardson's -- a feat made more incredible coupled with the fact that the Syracuse product only plays 26 minutes a game.
The reason for his success? You already know, loyal Suns enthusiast.
The pick and roll. Phoenix's money play for years. Warrick can run it, and he can run it well.
Scoring at the Basket
As of Tuesday, Hak is shooting a tremendous 81.5% at the rim with an average of almost five attempts per game. While I'm not trying to say he is on the same level as STAT, these early numbers actually eclipse Amar'e's 2009-2010 campaign in which he shot at a 67% clip with seven attempts per game.
In comparison, Turkoglu is shooting a respectable 66.7% at the rim, but is only averaging a paltry one attempt per game. One. I repeat, a starting power forward averaging one shot at the rim. Above all else, Warrick provides the threat of an inside scoring presence that Hedo cannot.
Getting to the rim has the added bonus of drawing fouls. Warrick leads the Suns with 36 free throw attempts. Turkoglu has 10 on the season. On a per 36-minute basis, Hakim gets 6.9 free throw attempts, which compares well with Amare's exceptional 8.0 rate.
It doesn't stop there. Offensive Rating -- a stat that articulates the number of points a player produces in one-hundred possessions -- is a viable indicator of an individual's impact on the offensive side of the ball. Surprise, surprise ... who leads the team in Offensive Rating? Hak does, and by a pretty wide margin at that.
Rebounding has killed the Suns for years. This isn't some kind of revelation.
We all knew Turkoglu was a poor rebounder coming into the year. We accepted it, spitting lines about gang rebounding, regurgitating reports about Robin Lopez improving to make up for a certain player's ineptitude. Still, I don't think we understood the depth of the problem at hand.
At this point, Turkoglu is averaging 3.1 boards per game, with a game-high of six. He has ripped down two offensive boards the whole season. Three times the forward has ended a contest with a single rebound. In terms of Total Rebounding Percentage -- a stat that estimates the percentage of available rebounds a player claimed while on the floor -- Turkoglu is ranked eighth out of eleven Suns players, barely placing ahead of Steve Nash. Yes, Hedo is bad on the glass. But after seven games, he may actually be worse than previously imagined.
That's not to say Hakim Warrick is the second coming of Dennis Rodman, because he most definitely isn't. Still, Hak is averaging 5.1 boards per game and ranks third on the team in rebounding. Against Utah and the powerful frontline of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, Warrick stood his ground, hustled, and pulled down a respectable eleven boards. Like a certain fellow we used to know, when he stays engaged, works hard, and uses his natural athleticism, Hak can hold his own on the glass.
The Definition of Insanity
At a certain point, the Suns need to try something different. This experiment has failed in the past, and will inevitably fail in the future. Change is necessary.
This situation is not without precedent. Last year's mid-season starting lineup switch from the perimeter-oriented Channing Frye to the paint-adept Robin Lopez reignited the team, remedying several problems and propelling them to the Western Conference Finals. While admittedly this is a completely separate situation, several parallels can be made between the two.
Worst case scenario: it doesn't work and the Suns staff adjusts the lineup accordingly.
Best case scenario: the Suns reestablish the pick and roll, develop better offensive cohesiveness, and show some improvement defending the paint and getting on the glass.
It's worth a shot.