The Big Picture:
While they both play in the Pacific Division and the loaded Western Conference, the L.A. Clippers and Phoenix Suns have hardly ever been rivals and likely won’t be any time soon. During the entire Lob City era, the Clippers have gone 13-7 against the Suns. The only time they’ve ever faced each other in a postseason series ended in a Game 7, 127-107 Suns win during the 2006 Western Conference Semifinals. Though the Clippers wouldn’t even reach the postseason again until 2012, they have been to the Playoffs every year since. The Suns, who have made numerous, sometimes-deep, Playoff runs led by all-time greats like Charles Barkley, Steve Nash, and Jason Kidd, haven’t played postseason basketball since 2010.
Over the last several years, the Clippers have been consistent and competitive. Since 2013, the Clippers have been coached only by Doc Rivers and have maintained a highly-talented core of players who have continued to demonstrate statistical and mental growth as a unit. The Clippers’ identity is clear, and every season that doesn’t end in a championship has been accepted as nothing other than failure.
Since 2013, the Suns have had four different head coaches: Alvin Gentry, Lindsey Hunter, Jeff Hornacek, and now, Earl Watson. Ryan McDonough has served as General Manager the vast majority of that time, yet the direction of the organization and its overall vision have appeared to shift every year. A combination of major injuries and positional logjams certainly haven’t helped, but in today’s win-or-bust era of basketball where one team can lose as many as 72 games and another can win as many as 73 games in the same season, there is nothing worse than that middle-ground of NBA purgatory. The Suns have been in that territory most of the last several years, and it wasn’t until last season that they finally took a massive dip in terms of wins and losses.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what the identity is, or even will be, for the likely lottery-bound Suns. What is perhaps most unclear is exactly what impact head coach Earl Watson will make on this young squad. Last season, per NBA.com, the Phoenix Suns ranked 4th in the league in Pace (100.86), the only metric in which they ranked favorably. After Jeff Hornacek was relieved of his head coaching duties by the Suns back in February, then-assistant coach Watson took over for the remainder of the 2015-16 season. The team ranked 4th in the league in Pace regardless of the head coach (100.24 under Hornacek, 101.25 under Watson), and they ranked middle to bottom-third in just about every conventional and advanced statistic for the entire season, regardless of who was the head coach. All hope is not lost, however, for the Suns.
This team is very young, very athletic, and has just enough veteran presence to aid in the development of its future core of players. Devin Booker is a star in the making, displaying his rapid progression in shooting prowess in last season. The Suns landed two top-ten draft picks this year in Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. They still have two versatile young guards in former-Clipper/fan-favorite Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan-dunk-victim Brandon Knight (a name Clippers fans everywhere will never forget). T.J. Warren looks to be their small forward of the future, and Alex Len still has hope due to his size and shot-blocking/rebounding potential. Tyson Chandler is an experienced, defensive-minded center with much knowledge to impart on his younger counterparts, while Leandro Barbosa can provide tutelage for a team with many guards willing to slash and shoot; and it doesn’t hurt that both have been integral components of championship teams. Jared Dudley, a high-IQ player with a strong sense of teamwork, returned to the Suns over the summer after making his way around several NBA rosters over the last few years. This year, if nothing else, the Suns will be a very entertaining, uptempo team.
Playing With Pace
The eye test alone indicates that this Suns team loves to run. Their overall combination of youth and athleticism is comparable to only a few other teams in the league. Bledsoe, Knight, and Barbosa are all highly-capable downhill guards, and Booker can certainly keep up with them often enough to get good open looks from drives/kick-outs. The Clippers need to prevent the Suns from scoring in transition.
The Clippers starting unit has appeared to favor long, predictable half-court offensive sets that run largely through Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, mainly via pick-and-roll plays. This is a great opportunity, in front of a Halloween home-crowd, to focus-in defensively in an effort to convert turnovers into transition offense. If Jordan and Griffin can rebound effectively, and if they can force the Suns into turnovers, we have the opportunity to witness Lob City in full effect.
It Takes Everything
The Clippers and Suns are both playing the second night of back-to-back games. Fatigue may be a greater factor for the Suns than for the Clippers since it’s a road game. The Suns, already a turnover-prone team, give the Clippers a clear advantage if L.A. is willing to capitalize upon it. The Clippers’ second-unit has been sharp through the preseason and its first couple games of the regular season even when the shots aren’t falling; they have been especially deft at getting deflections and steals in passing lanes and converting that into easy transition offense. Expect major contributions by Jordan, Austin Rivers, Raymond Felton, and Wesley Johnson at both ends of the floor.
Due to the stark contrast in trajectories for these two teams, don’t expect any subtext or implications based on the outcome of this game. For the Clippers, it will be an opportunity to exercise rotational tweaks and find ways to improve their overall rebounding, as they continue to further-develop some offensive rhythm.