In the NBA, it is normal for most teams to play with an eight-man rotation. Some teams play with nine or ten, but it is very unusual to see a situation like the Phoenix Suns have, with 11 or even 12 guys who the coach feels like he can and should be playing on a regular basis. This was a potential challenge for the Suns going into the season, but has only gotten more confusing with the addition of Earl Barron to the starting lineup.
On Friday, in a close game against the Indiana Pacers, the Suns played 11 guys at least seven minutes each and that was with injured starting center Robin Lopez on the inactive list. The signing and insertion of Barron in the rotation was made necessary by the horrible rebounding and defense the Suns were getting with Hedo Turkoglu and Hakim Warrick sharing the power forward position.
"To be honest with you, we stuck Earl Barron in there because we have to get better defensively. I think the last two games we have been better. You look at Earl Barron's lines and they're not very impressive (four points and three rebounds as a starter) and they don't say a whole lot, but if you look at the tape, what he does says an awful lot," Coach Alvin Gentry said about his new seven-footer.
In his two starts, Barron has completely negated the play of centers Andris Biedrins and Roy Hibbert. Those two normally average nine and ten rebounds per game respectively, but combined for only four with Barron in the lineup. Not only has Barron's own play been solid so far, but he allows Frye to play his more natural power forward position and pushes Turkoglu back to playing small forward, where he's much more comfortable and effective. But that creates a domino effect down the roster that the Suns are still trying to figure out.
Having talent and depth and versatility on the roster is a good thing, but Gentry is still searching for the right combination of players to put on the floor together, which has led to Warrick playing less than 10 minutes in the last two games after averaging closer to 25 per game before Barron was added to the mix.
Gentry needs to keep the right combination of shooters, rebounders, and guys that can roll and attack the rim on the floor together and he's essentially given Hakim's minutes to Barron while Frye is having to play more so that he can provide spacing to both the first and second unit while also having his size and defense in the game.
"With (Warrick) on the floor, we've got to have spacers so when he rolls to the basket there's not five, six people in there and if he's going to roll to the basket, we're going to get open shots. We've got to try and find a way to get him back with a group where he's going to be the roll guy and we've go spacers out there," Gentry explained.
"It's taken longer to figure this out than I anticipated. It's been kind of a roller coaster. He's had some really good games and he's struggled in some games and we've had other guys that have played."
Two other guys that add to the quandary for Gentry are Josh Childress and Earl Clark.
The challenge with Childress is that he's not naturally an outside shooter despite playing the wing positions, which is why Gentry has been experimenting with him playing the power forward position in certain situations recently.
"(Spreading the floor) is not his natural game and we've got to try and put Josh in a position where we play to his strengths and his strengths are to be around the basket, being a post up guy, getting his hands on offensive rebounds and things like that. We've got to try and find a way to use him to best take advantage of that, too. In certain situations, he has to spread the floor, but we still have to play to his strengths."
Childress also hasn't given the Suns the lock-down perimeter defense they were hoping he would bring.
Clark has been working hard enough in practice to earn more floor time and he played significant and important minutes against the Pacers in part because of his ability to defend Danny Granger on the perimeter (the Suns held Granger to 2-13 shooting by crowding him and making him into a creator instead of just a shooter/scorer).
"I though Earl Clark did a good job the other night and that just adds another guy to the mix. I would still rather have it this way than look down there and have no one. We'll get it figured out," Gentry said.
For the time being, I would expect we are going to see a lot of fluctuation in minutes between Barron, Warrick, Turkoglu, Childress and Dudley. It will depend on who's got the hot hand and most energy and on the size of the opponents front line and reserve bigs.
In games like tonight, where the Wizards don't have any quality size off their bench, Gentry can probably afford to play Warrick and Turkoglu together more, but he will still want to have Barron and Frye playing any time Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee are on the court together.
When Robin Lopez does return, Gentry can keep Frye in the starting unit at power forward and rely on a bench that includes Warrick, Turkoglu, Barron, Childress, Dudley, Clark and Dragic, but there simply won't be enough minutes for all of those guys to play and so the shuffle will have to continue with somebody always sitting out. Gentry is very much aware that he needs to find established roles for his players so they know what's expected of them on a regular basis, but right now, that's still a long way off.
It's a real embarrassment of riches for the Suns, with all of the gems deserving time, but none playing at a high enough level to truly out-shine the others.