It’s not that the Phoenix Suns lost to the Washington Wizards 101-95 on Friday night at US Airways Center in Phoenix. It’s how they lost that highlights a major problem — a fatal flaw — that has been looming all season. The Suns can get away with being overmatched in the paint when they’re taking care of the ball and are able to get out in transition. That’s just not what happened Friday night.
The Suns fell back into their old habits with 21 turnovers, many of which were just careless mistakes from a team that looked out of sorts. They’d continue to dribble to the corner, only to get double teamed and forced into a bad pass back into the middle of the court. Trevor Ariza and Bradley Beal both came up with four steals, which helped lead the Wizards to 20 fast break points.
One of the biggest differences between Lindsey Hunter and the previous coaching staff and the current staff backed by Jeff Hornacek has been the ability to put each player on the team in position to succeed. There’s a reason that nobody on the team is getting much All-Star love. Goran Dragic may deserve it, but the other players are playing close to their maximum potential, again, because they’re put in a position to maximize their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses.
Friday night was different and we need to look no further than Miles Plumlee to see that. With his back to the basket, Plumlee is serviceable. He can get his little baby hook shot off against just about anyone. He does a good job finishing around the basket and his athleticism allows him to change a lot of shots on the defensive end.
One thing Plumlee is not — is a ball handler. Yet, he found himself late in the shot clock, with the ball, far away from the basket. He was forced to put up a bad shot or attempt a bad pass, which resulted in four turnovers (and no assists).
The last part of any defensive possession and the hallmark of a good defensive team is successful defensive rebounding. Unless you’re forcing 30 turnovers a game, you need to gain possession of the ball off of missed shots. The Suns simply don’t have an above-average defensive rebounding big on the roster. Alex Len could get there someday but is far too green to be counted on. Plumlee is athletic enough, but doesn’t have the technique nor strength to become a dominant defensive rebounder. Channing Frye simply isn’t that kind of player.
When the Suns are doing well, it’s in large part because the guards are falling back to help secure the basketball. The major problem with that is it stunts the fast break. If the Suns had an elite defensive rebounding center that could throw decent outlet passes, they’d be nearly impossible to stop offensively.
Against the Wizards, this problem continued to crop up. The Suns would play solid halfcourt defense and would force a tough shot, only to see the ball tipped out or fall into the hands of a Wizards player. The Suns were outrebounded 44-30 for the game and allowed 19 offensive rebounds. Those extra possessions are enormous. The Wizards took 15 more field goal attempts than the Suns. It’s awfully difficult to win that way.
Well, the easy solution is to turn Emeka Okafor‘s contract into a veteran big, but that’s also very short-sighted. The Suns have been a terrific story and while they’ll have a chance to sneak into the playoffs, the overall goal should be improving the team so that they have a chance to win a championship.
The panic move would be to do something drastic to try to win this season. While it would be fun for the fans to see a trade for a big name like Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love or even Rajon Rondo, it’s going to come at the expense of building a solid foundation. Those assets (in the form of draft picks) can be used for players to fill specific needs on the team.
The best move here is to use Okafor’s contract to go after another asset. Not necessarily somebody that will help this year, but somebody (or a pick) that can help plug the holes down the line. The Suns are in great shape for the future. Don’t forget how bad we all expected this team to be and how long we expected to rebuild. Be patient, stay the course and go after specific needs in the offseason.
Michael Dunlap is an NBA credentialed writer who is also the Founder and Editor-in-Chief for the Sports Illustrated/Fansided NBA site HoopsHabit.com. He also covers high school sports for The Arizona Republic. Follow me on Twitter @DunlapNBA.