The Suns Look to Extend the 2010-11 Season By a Few Days

The big story this weekend was the two trades made by the Orlando Magic.  Much of the discussion of these transactions focused on the Magic.  And that discussion – at least around the Wages of Wins Network (and I also think, in many other places) – concluded that the Magic didn’t help themselves. But what about the Suns?

To answer that question, let’s look at where the Suns are at after 26 games.  So far the Suns have won half their games. The team’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency – minus defensive efficiency), though, suggests the team is not quite a 0.500 team.  On offense the team is scoring 109.o points per 100 possessions, a mark that is only bested by the San Antonio Spurs.  However, on defense this team is giving up 110.7 points per 100 possessions.  This is easily the worst defense in the league (the Warriors are giving up 108.4 points per 100 possessions for the second worst defense in the league).  If we put both efficiency marks together, we see a differential of -1.47.  This mark ranks 11th in the Western Conference.   So although the Suns currently are tied for the 8th spot in the Western Conference, Phoenix –after 26 games – doesn’t look like a playoff team.  And that means this team’s season — if no changes were made — would probably end at the conclusion of the regular season.

When we move from efficiency differential to Wins Produced we can see the source of this team’s struggles.

The above table indicates that the Suns are being led in Wins Produced by Steve Nash, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, and Josh Childress.  All four were above average last year (Childress was above average in 2007-08, or the last time he played in the NBA) and all four are above average this year (average WP48 – or Wins Produced per 48 minutes – is 0.100).

As we move down towards the bottom of the list, though, we start to see problems for this team.  The team has employed four players who have apparently spent all their time at the center position.  All four have been below average this year.  And Channing Frye, Robin Lopez, and Earl Barron have all declined from what we saw in 2009-10 (although Frye and Lopez are not tremendously different from what we have seen in past years) . 

Had this trio maintained what they were last year – when all three were still below average – the Suns would currently be on pace to win about 47 games.  In fact, if just Earl Barron maintained what he did last year, this team would be on pace to win 43 games.  Yes, Barron – in just 183 minutes of playing time – has significantly hurt the Suns this year.

Why is Barron such a problem?  He is currently hitting only 23.5% of his field goal attempts and he is below average with respect to every statistic except steals.  Consequently, his ADJ P48 is currently in the negative range.  It is not very uncommon for a player’s WP48 to be below zero.  But to post a negative ADJ P48 – when an average center posted a 0.433 mark last year – is quite an accomplishment.

To fix this position, the Suns have sent Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Earl Clark to the Magic for Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus, and Marcin Gortat.  The focus of this trade for Phoenix fans might be Carter.  But given the team’s problem at the center position, Gortat is the player who can make a substantial difference.

This season Gortat has posted a 0.172 WP48.  If Gortat just replaces Barron the rest of the season (and Gortat doesn’t play any more minutes than Barron was projected to play) the Suns projected wins rises to 42 wins.  Obviously if Gortat plays even more minutes – and maintains what he did in Orlando this year – the Suns are even better.

What of the other pieces in the trade?  Carter’s ADJ P48 this year has been 0.301 while Richardson has posted a 0.300 mark.  So exchanging Richardson for Carter is not going to change much.  At least, on the court this year this move doesn’t change much.  Carter is more expensive than Richardson.  And he is older.  So in terms of money and the team’s age, Richardson for Carter is not a fantastic move for the Suns. 

As for Pietrus… well, he is not nearly as productive as any other small forward or shooting guard the Suns employ.  So if Pietrus takes minutes from anyone else on the roster…. well, that won’t help either.

So for this year: If Carter can maintain his per-minute performance and Pietrus stays on the bench, the acquisition of Gortat – and the decision to keep Barron firmly on the bench — might be enough to move the Suns more firmly into the playoff picture.

Let me close by noting that this move does not transform the Suns into a real threat in the Western Conference. The team is probably still well behind the Spurs, Lakers, and Mavericks.  And that means that if the team cannot get to at least the 5th seed in the West, a first round playoff defeat seems likely.  But this trade does increase the probability that the fans in Phoenix can at least see a few playoff games this year (as opposed to waiting on lottery balls when the season ends).  

- DJ

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