The Phoenix Suns finished their 2013-14 campaign with a 48-34 record, which is certainly admirable considering the low expectations originally placed on the team.
And yet, they still missed the playoffs in an incredibly tough Western Conference by just one game, coming tantalizingly close but ultimately missing out.
In a three-team race for the eighth seed with the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies, the Suns were not always in control of their own destiny. They had to not only win their own games, but also hope that the other two teams would lose many of theirs down the stretch. Unfortunately, that didn't happen.
But there were aspects of the playoff push that the Suns could have controlled. And while hindsight is 20/20, finding out what went wrong can be a useful exercise before the offseason.
Soon, GM Ryan McDonough will enter the summer with a plan. He has to start targeting specific players in the draft, in free agency and potentially on the trade market. And ideally, those players will be brought in to alleviate some of the on-court problems that the roster struggled with this season.
So, what are the biggest areas of improvement? Where did the team go wrong?
Just by looking at the statistics, one might conclude that the Suns were a solid rebounding team this past season.
They ranked 13th in total rebounds by grabbing 43 per game, and they were able to maintain an average rebounding differential of +0.2 over their opponents. So at least, on average, they weren't out-rebounded every game.
But also keep in mind that the Suns were ranked eighth in pace. So while they were grabbing plenty of rebounds, they were also receiving more opportunities to do so by maintaining quicker possessions throughout the game.
But overall, the rebounding wasn't absolutely terrible. After all, the Suns weren't like the Los Angeles Lakers, who were second in pace only to Philadelphia and who still only managed to average 41 rebounds per game—good for 25th in the NBA.
Still, it's an area that must improve if the Suns want to compete in the West. Just look at some of the intimidating and imposing frontcourts that some Western Conference playoff teams have.
Compare that to the Suns' PF/C starting combo of Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee, who averaged 18 rebounds per 36 minutes.
The Suns had one of the best perimeter offenses this season, but they always struggled when they had to play physical teams that would grind the pace to a halt. For example, they dropped four games to the Memphis Grizzlies, two to the Chicago Bulls and two to the Brooklyn Nets.
Perhaps the Suns didn't have the internal talent to completely solve the issue, but the rotations could have been adjusted more.
Rather than giving so much playing time to Channing Frye and the Morris twins, Jeff Hornacek had two great rebounding options on the bench that he rarely utilized.
Rookie center Alex Len and veteran power forward Shavlik Randolph.
The two only combined for a total of 457 minutes played this season, and neither one appeared in more than 45 games.
But when they were given minutes, they produced numbers. Randolph averaged 9.5 rebounds per 36 minutes, 2.7 of which were offensive.
Len averaged 9.8 rebounds in that time frame, with 3.9 coming on the offensive glass.
Compare that to Markieff Morris, Channing Frye and Marcus Morris, three players who would routinely play at power forward or center. Markieff was the only one of the three to average at least eight rebounds per 36 minutes.
The question is, how much would cutting Channing Frye's playing time have jeopardized the offense?
Not too much. After all, Frye shot 31.5 percent from three-point range after the All-Star break, and he was outperformed by Markieff Morris in almost every way. Surely some more playing time could have been reserved for Len and Randolph to be physical.
Live by the three, die by the three, some say. It's a statement that truly does apply to the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns.
The Suns were a pretty good three-point shooting team this year. Goran Dragic seemed to evolve into a sharpshooter as efficient as Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard. Channing Frye made plenty of threes (for the first half of the season, at least) and P.J. Tucker was one of the best corner specialists in the league.
And of course, Gerald Green was one of only four NBA players to make at least 200 three-pointers. That's quite a resurgence after falling out of the rotation with the Indiana Pacers.
But at the same time, the Suns shot 37.2 percent from deep as a team, which is only eighth in the league.
I say "only" because it's hard to justify taking as many threes as they did unless you have an elite group of sharpshooters. Which the Suns did not.
The Suns attempted 2056 threes over the course of the season, which amounts to 25.1 attempts per game.
In recent years, even while Alvin Gentry was coaching the team and Steve Nash was playing, the Suns couldn't come close to matching that number.
In 2009-10, the Suns shot 41.2 percent from deep because of players such as Steve Nash, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill, Jared Dudley and Channing Frye. They led the league in three-point percentage, and that was also the best percentage in the franchise's history.
That team attempted only 1770 shots, or 21.6 per game. Considerably lower than the current team despite being more successful from beyond the perimeter.
Right now, the Suns rely on the three-point shot way too much. And when it isn't falling, they struggle.
The team went 9-15 in games where they made seven threes or less.
Compare that to their 15-5 record in games where they made at least 12 threes.
Part of the problem is that the roster lacks a consistent, go-to scoring option from the post. Miles Plumlee, Alex Len and Shavlik Randolph aren't particularly adept in the post, at least not for now.
The team does have a couple of great half-court offensive weapons in the Morris twins. Those two are quickly becoming two of the best mid-range shooters in the league, and that isn't an exaggeration.
Below is a list of NBA forwards known for taking mid-range shots. The Morris twins are compared to elite forwards scorers such as Anthony, Durant, Aldridge and Nowitzki. Of course, because the Morris twins are bench players and aren't primary scoring options, they have a smaller sample size of shots.
|Morris Twins Mid-Range % vs. Other Forwards|
Dirk is on another level, shooting an insane 50.4 percent from mid-range. It's part of what makes him a legend.
But after him, we see that the Morris twins shot as well as or even better than Aldridge, Durant and Carmelo Anthony. They have become two extraordinarily consistent mid-range shooters.
And when the pace slows down, and the Suns are working in a half-court offense, the Morris twins become very valuable.
But other than those two, the roster simply can't survive without pushing the pace and shooting threes.
Is this a problem that truly could have been fixed by trading for someone like Pau Gasol at the trade deadline? Potentially.
But at what cost? Future assets such as draft picks for an expiring contract that couldn't push the team past the sixth seed? A strong case can be made that it wasn't worth it.
Even so, this must be an area of focus going forward.
The Suns were quite sloppy as a team, finishing 26th in the league in turnovers.
And while that can be expected from a fast-paced team with an inexperienced starting point guard, it is also a huge problem.
The Suns rely on forcing turnovers defensively to make their offensive effective. They need to force turnovers in order to create transition opportunities.
The same applies for other teams. The more turnovers a team can force against the Suns, the more they neutralize the Phoenix speed advantage.
Eric Bledsoe should take care of the ball better as he continues to develop. However, he also turned the ball over 3.6 times per 36 minutes. He can often be too aggressive on offense, and this leads to wild circus shots and careless last-second passes that create turnovers.
Surely Hornacek can promote a fast-paced brand of basketball that is more cautious on offense.
Why were the mid-2000s D'Antoni Suns so successful? In part because they took care of the ball, and they didn't allow other teams easy opportunities.
From 2005-2007, the Suns ranked in the top 10 in turnovers per game each year. During the 2005-06 season, they committed only 13.2 turnovers per game (as opposed to 15.3 this season).
Now, Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic are not Steve Nash. Nor should anyone expect them to become like Steve Nash on offense.
But becoming an offensive juggernaut in the future will require not only forcing turnovers on defense, but also taking care of the ball on offense.