The two Pacific division competitors meet Sunday afternoon in Phoenix in what should be another awesome affair. In the meantime, I sat down with Dave King from Bright Side of the Sun to discuss each team. Below are his answers to my questions.
Justin Russo: Among lineups with at least 100 minutes played this season, the Phoenix Suns current starting lineup of Bledsoe-Dragic-Tucker-Morris-Len ranks tied for 11th (out of 67) in Net Rating with a +12.7 mark. This is up from the +4.1 Net Rating they had with Miles Plumlee in there instead of Alex Len. I know we talked a while back about how much better he's looked this year than last year but it it really cannot be understated. Can you talk just a little bit about the overall impact, even far beyond this lineup in particular, that Len has had on the Phoenix Suns this season?
Dave King: Much like the impact a young Robin Lopez had on the Suns in the spring of 2010, the same appears to be happening with Len. When Len is in the starting lineup, the Suns have been pulling down as any overall rebounds each game as their opponents, getting a respectable percentage of defensive boards. He's a man child and allows the other players to play their roles better. However, neither the point guards nor Len know what to do with him on offense so he's been only producing about 7-8 points per game. But that's okay. In that span, the Suns are #1 in scoring and shooting in the league. They just need Len to help make the team respectable on defense and rebounding. And he's good with that.
JR: Since starting the year 12-14, the Suns have gone on a 14-5 run and now sit in the 8-seed with a record of 26-19. In that time, they've had wins over the likes of the Wizards, Bucks, Mavericks, Cavaliers, and Blazers. What ultimately led to the turnaround that this team has found themselves on?
DK: The players have always had the talent to win games. They just didn't know how to make it work for a while, and were more interested in their own minutes and touches than much of anything else because they figured the wins would come easily. This is the youngest playoff-contending team in the West in terms of age and experience together. They don't know what it takes to win 50 games in the West. You can't just roll the ball out there and play like it's a park. So, it took that 6-game losing streak, that dropped them to 12-14, to get the players to stop thinking about selfish things and focus on winning as a team. That's been the biggest change. Focus on team over individuals.
JR: The improvements that Markieff Morris from year-to-year has been pretty incredible. He came in and averaged 7.4 points per game in 19.5 minutes per game during his rookie year. Every single season, though, he's seen an increase in minutes and rewarded that trust with an increase in points and field goal percentage. He's good around the rim, really good in the mid-range, and can shoot the three a little bit. While he does shoot the three better than the guy I'm about to mention, do you see any similarities between his game and LaMarcus Aldridge's game or have I been in the sun too long?
DK: Sure, there are similiarities in terms of them liking the midrange and being killer effective there. But Markieff will never be quite the same level of player because Aldridge is a lot longer and taller. Aldridge took a few years to learn how to bang down low on D and grab those rebounds that don't just fall toward you, and Markieff is still learning that. But Aldridge has the advantage of being taller than most, with longer arms. Kieff's ceiling is likely 18 and 7 as 30-32 minutes/game player, but those 18 points will be difference making points offensively. Kieff has been money in the closing minutes of games, finding ways to score when the team needs it the most. And he just turned 25 this year.
JR: The HYDRA lineup of Bledsoe, Dragic, and Isaiah Thomas has played 143 minutes together this year but done so in just 24 games. Their Offensive Rating is an insane 119.9 and their Net Rating is +15.3. Over the last 15 games, though, they've played 85 total minutes and played in 12 of those 15 games. During that stretch, they've posted an Offensive Rating of 120.6 and a Net Rating of +17.7. While coach Jeff Hornacek isn't using them a ton, an average of just under 6 minutes per game when he actually decides to play them, it does seem like he's recognizing their value more and more. I know he said he'd use it sparingly, but could you see him going to this group a lot more in the second half of the year?
DK: After that 6-game losing streak, the skeptical Hornacek decided to go ahead and close every game with them for a while to see what would happen, despite his misgivings about being killed on D and the boards. They rewarded him from day one, which sparked that 14-4 run. And you illustrated, they are very effective on the floor together because the opponent generally doesn't have enough quick guards to control them on the offensive end. And as Mike D'Antoni always said, the best D is a good offense. Hornacek still won't play them long minutes though because he knows that if he shows the lineup too much, other teams will figure it out and get it on tape.
JR: P.J. Tucker is widely loved among the Phoenix fanbase. We here in Clipper Land tend to hold some disdain for him because of the run-ins he's had with Blake Griffin. But it should be mentioned that his influence and impact has been very far-reaching for that team. I always see him competing harder than everyone else, diving on the floor for loose balls, and defending his tail off. Would you classify him as the "glue guy" or would that be doing him a disservice?
DK: P.J. is a crazy mother Tucker. He will battle hard and generally make game saving plays on defense when no one else can on this team. And his energy is infectious, helping make the late small lineup of the Trips PGs, Kieff and Tucker highly effective despite their obvious size disadvantage. We love him here, and we're glad he re-signed in the off season. He loves it here too. He's not the most talented small forward out there, but he works harder than any player on the team.
JR: Your upcoming schedule isn't easy. You played Portland and Houston already, you get the Clippers on Sunday, and then you have games against Washington, Chicago, Golden State, Memphis, and Portland after that. And it's not like it gets much easier from here on out after that. So, I'm putting you on the spot. Yes or no; do the Phoenix Suns hold on and make the playoffs this year?
DK: That's a real tough question because I think the answer is no. The Thunder are only 3 games back (but played fewer contests, making the gap really 2 games) and they are more likely to win more second half games than the Suns. I'd like to see the Suns win 3 of the next 4 before I crown them ready for the playoffs. The Suns season ends with 5 of 6 on the road against tough teams, just like last year's schedule ended. And they came up short because of that tough road.
If you would like to talk with Dave King more, you can head on over to Bright Side of the Sun or even tweet him @DaveKingNBA. As always, be courteous and respectful. Dave's an awesome guy and willing to engage with anyone. Play your cards right and he might even respond to a question posted in the comment section on here. I'll post the link that has my answers to his questions once they go up on their site.
You can find my answers to Dave's questions right here.