The frequently co-opted philosophies of basketball sage John Wooden include his recommendation to avoid confusing activity for achievement.
That drags us directly over to the Phoenix Suns, whose big thinkers were extremely active last summer. But staying busy truly made sense for a franchise that had missed the playoffs in two consecutive seasons despite having a veteran roster.
With a sample size of 14 games (they are 6-8, putting them one game ahead of last season’s pace), let’s perform an early examination of how those moves have fared.
By far the biggest “get” was point guard Goran Dragic. In his return to Phoenix, “The Dragon” isn’t exactly making the locals forget about the guy Kobe Bryant now refers to as “Gatsby,” but he appears to be worth every penny the Suns lobbed his way.
For unbiased context, let’s check in with an advance scout employed by another NBA team.
“He (Dragic) got a pretty nice contract for, what, about 20 or 25 games as a starter in Houston last year?” The scout said. “So that’s always a bit risky, especially with the pressure of taking over in Phoenix for (Steve) Nash. But so far, it looks like a good move. The guy plays really hard all the time.”
And even though the Suns haven’t broken .500 through 14 games, Dragic is putting up solid numbers. As the league’s sixth-most-efficient point guard (30th among all players, according to NBA.com), he’s giving the Suns 16 points and 7.1 dimes per game — stats that are quite comparable to the 18 and 8 he posted down the stretch in Houston.
Dragic is making 47 percent of his shots from the field (including a reasonable 36 percent from 3), but his free-throw shooting remains disturbingly inconsistent (73 percent).
Although he and the Suns also are inconsistent and inefficient in their ball-screen-defending technique, Dragic provides Phoenix with more resistance on its first line of defense.
“It hasn’t really translated into better team defense,” the scout said, referring to the league’s 27th-most-efficient unit, “because they still have some guys who aren’t focused at that end.”
Poor angles from the helper in screen-roll – plus considerable culpability from Dragic – have enabled Greivis Vasquez and Jrue Holiday to rock the Suns for huge numbers the last two games.
Before Sunday’s loss in Philly, Dragic appeared to be gaining more command of the Suns’ offense.
“They’re using more screen-roll on offense lately, and Dragic is better than Nash – at least the older Nash – at turning the corner. But he’s not close to Nash — who is? — at recognizing what occurs behind him after that corner’s been turned. His vision is good, not great.”
But overall, giving Dragic $30 million over four years certainly seems like a swell move.
Up next, we look at the Suns’ decision to cough up $18 million over three years for lightning-in-a-bottle candidate Michael Beasley.
Through 13 games, we were still waiting for those bolts to appear. During the 14th game, however, the young man I often refer to as “Teasley” gave the Suns 21 points (on 8-of-13 shooting), including several driving buckets to lead a rally during a rare fourth-quarter-closing work shift. But he also contributed only one rebound.
Sure, there have been other flickers here and there, but 12.4 points per game on 37 percent shooting (26 percent from 3) has provided little cause for celebration.
Beyond the offensive inconsistency, we’ve seen demonstrations of inconsistent focus on defense. Working at small forward (as he did with the Minnesota Timberwolves), Beasley has difficulty locking and chasing his matchups around screens and off the dribble. As a help defender, he’s hardly part of five players attached to the same string.
This lack of attention to detail that reportedly has defined his off-court life since entering the NBA as the league’s No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 draft keeps Beasley on the bench during almost every crucial fourth quarter.
Although three seasons at $6 million a year seems difficult for fans to embrace, Beasley’s (cough) potential as a shot maker/creator didn’t seem like an unreasonable gamble. But for a coach whose contract hasn’t been extended, potential means little when the game is on the line.
“I think he has to continue to try to get a rhythm and try to fit in to what we are trying to do offensively and things like that,” Alvin Gentry said of Beasley. “I think we’ve tried to put him in a situation where he can be successful. But I think in this case, he has to adjust and understand that some of that stuff that has to happen … he will have to create it.”
Despite probably standing at least an inch shorter than his listed 6-foot-10, Beasley – according to several NBA insiders I’ve talked to — seems to have more opportunities to be productive working as a power forward. True, he has difficulty defending longer fours, but ball pressure and effective help-side rotations (granted, that doesn’t sound like the Suns) might make his defense at the four more viable than what we’ve seen at small forward.
His level of skill and versatility (the guy has excellent vision as a passer, but his decisions and delivery remain suspect) would make him a greater face-up matchup for a four than his marginal post-up efforts have been against threes.
Unfortunately, two Suns consistently outperforming Beasley – Luis Scola and Markieff Morris – are pretty locked in as power forwards. Scola could, on occasion, butt heads against shorter centers, but that would take minutes from newcomer Jermaine O’Neal.
With a greater need for production at small forward, Beasley – as Gentry said – will have to figure it out. Besides, he does have the physical chops to handle the position at both ends of the floor; if the Suns are to be more than a team that flirts with .500, Beasley’s focus will have to reach another level.
With Scola and O’Neal now on the table, let’s go ahead and give the franchise an early nod for the separate acquisitions of these veterans.
Scola, who was escorted to the amnesty train by the Houston Rockets, is the Suns’ second-leading scorer (13.1 on 48 percent shooting) and rebounder (7.2). Now that Morris has moved into the starting lineup and has played well, Scola’s minutes and numbers may drop.
While not blessed with the bounce, speed or lateral quickness possessed by many great defenders, Scola does have enough pluck to make some plays when the opposition has the ball. In reasonable minutes – and for about $14 million over three seasons – he’s a good guy to have around, even without contributing to the highlight reel.
The same can be said for 17-year veteran O’Neal (one year, $1.35 million), who has given the Suns a combined 51 points, 23 rebounds and two blocks in the last four games.
Even more important is his vocal leadership in a locker room that could have had issues after starting center Marcin Gortat chirped about his role in the offense last week.
In a recent interview with the Arizona Republic, Gortat – who had an 18-point-game going in Philly but sat in favor of O’Neal during the fourth quarter – said he’s offered to pay for J.O.’s next contract.
O’Neal has plenty of miles, but – in the short term – his presence more than makes up for the loss of Robin Lopez. Keeping Lopez, who now works as the starter in New Orleans, would have reduced the Suns’ hard-fought cap flexibility. And having O’Neal eases a bit of the disappointment following the acquisition (Lopez trade) of seldom-used three man Wesley Johnson.
Even less playing time is afforded first-round pick Kendall Marshall, a point guard who doesn’t seem anywhere near challenging backup Sebastian Telfair, let alone Dragic. By the way, the Suns were wise to cut ties with Aaron Brooks no matter what he may accomplish in Sacramento.
Our last reviewed newcomer is Euroleague escapee P.J. Tucker, a former Toronto Raptors draft pick who is parlaying his strength and willingness to mix it up into an NBA career.
As the versatile small forward capable of guarding hotshot opponents at various positions, Tucker makes saying goodbye to Grant Hill (who has yet to suit up for the L.A. Clippers) look like another good move.
“I can’t say enough about P.J. Tucker,” Gentry said of the former Texas standout who has supplied his team with a combined 26 points (on 10-of-15 shooting), nine rebounds and nasty defense in the last two home games. “He epitomizes what we want our entire team to be, really. That is a hard, grind-it-out worker that never quits on any play.
“To have him on your team and to have him play like that night in and night out — and at practice, too — I think is a credit to the professionalism he brings to our team.”
It’s also a credit to the Suns’ personnel staff.
In the opinions of many fans also keeping score of Beasley and Johnson, it puts the Suns 1-2 in acquisitions at small forward.