The Last Night of the Suns Quasi-Dynasty

As you’re no doubt aware of already, something notable happened last night: with the Dallas Mavericks’ 130-101 blowout of Utah, the Phoenix Suns were officially eliminated from playoff contention for the first time in the Steve Nash era. Now, I can’t speak to what kind of changes will be made by the Robert Sarver brain trust over the offseason (I’m sure there will be more than a few), but it’s safe to say that this date sadly marks the end of a rather entertaining era in recent NBA history.

There are plenty of excuses for the Suns’ decline in ’09 — Amare Stoudemire was injured, and they struggled through various coaching and personnel changes — but no matter what happens next year, the Suns as we knew them are officially gone forever (some would say they’ve been gone since the Shaq trade last season, but we’ll give them the benefit of a doubt because they still made the playoffs that year). Odds are, Nash will not be a member of the next Suns playoff squad; heck, you might even say the same thing about Stoudemire. So here’s a retrospective of the Suns team abilities and tendencies during the Nash era, from a statistical point of view. It’s more a data dump than a true appreciation of their exciting offensive style of basketball, but we can also see what made them a good team at their peak, and where they went wrong toward the end of the run.


Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Lg Avg
Efficiency 114.5 1 107.1 17 106.1
Pace 95.9 1 90.9
eFG% 53.4 1 47.8 10 48.2
TO% 14.2 3 14.3 27 15.8
Orb% 27.5 22 31.7 29 28.7
FT/FGA 22.2 24 17.9 1 24.5
3P% 39.3 1 33.5 3 35.6
2P% 51.2 2 47.2 16 47.0
FT% 74.8 22 74.4 5 75.6
Block% 6.9 8 7.5 15 7.5
Steal% 7.9 9 7.2 26 8.2
3PA/FGA 28.9 1 19.7 16 19.6
Ast/FG 57.5 22 52.3 2 59.2


Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Lg Avg
Efficiency 111.5 2 105.8 16 106.2
Pace 95.8 1 90.5
eFG% 53.7 1 49.0 17 49.0
TO% 13.7 2 15.3 23 15.8
Orb% 22.1 30 27.9 19 27.3
FT/FGA 16.6 30 20.4 2 24.8
3P% 39.9 1 36.3 20 35.8
2P% 51.1 2 47.7 14 47.8
FT% 80.6 1 73.1 1 74.5
Block% 5.6 1 7.2 16 7.5
Steal% 7.4 9 6.9 29 7.8
3PA/FGA 29.3 1 19.9 11 20.2
Ast/FG 63.5 4 47.7 1 57.5


Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Lg Avg
Efficiency 113.9 1 106.4 13 106.5
Pace 95.6 3 91.9
eFG% 55.1 1 49.2 12 49.6
TO% 15.0 4 15.7 23 16.3
Orb% 22.7 29 28.1 20 27.1
FT/FGA 21.5 27 20.2 1 24.6
3P% 39.9 1 36.3 22 35.8
2P% 53.2 1 48.0 11 48.5
FT% 80.8 1 76.7 27 75.2
Block% 6.2 5 6.9 22 7.3
Steal% 7.1 3 7.0 29 7.8
3PA/FGA 28.7 2 19.6 9 21.3
Ast/FG 62.6 3 47.8 1 58.3


Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Lg Avg
Efficiency 113.3 2 108.1 16 107.5
Pace 96.7 4 92.4
eFG% 55.1 1 48.8 8 49.7
TO% 14.9 11 13.8 27 15.2
Orb% 22.4 29 29.1 29 26.7
FT/FGA 22.8 14 19.2 3 23.1
3P% 39.3 1 35.3 7 36.2
2P% 53.8 1 47.9 10 48.4
FT% 78.3 4 74.9 9 75.5
Block% 6.2 3 8.6 3 7.5
Steal% 7.5 10 6.7 26 7.8
3PA/FGA 26.0 5 18.0 3 22.2
Ast/FG 64.5 3 47.7 1 58.4


Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Lg Avg
Efficiency 113.7 2 111.8 26 108.2
Pace 95.9 4 91.7
eFG% 54.7 1 51.2 22 50.0
TO% 14.4 25 12.7 22 13.3
Orb% 27.5 13 28.1 22 26.7
FT/FGA 24.8 9 23.5 17 23.6
3P% 38.4 5 38.4 26 36.7
2P% 53.9 1 49.2 21 48.5
FT% 74.7 25 77.6 21 77.1
Block% 6.9 8 7.8 15 7.6
Steal% 8.9 28 7.4 23 7.9
3PA/FGA 21.7 18 23.4 19 22.4
Ast/FG 56.2 13 53.2 5 56.5

At their peak, there haven’t been too many teams in NBA history that could match the Nash-led Suns offensively. As you can see, the key throughout the run was jump-shooting, specifically from the 3-point arc but also from midrange. Even in 2009, the culmination of their Steve Kerr-induced slide that began in 2008, they had the league’s 2nd-best offense, ranked 1st in eFG%, and had the best 2-point FG% of any team for the third consecutive season. The offense morphed away from its assist-heavy 3-point shooting ways over the past several seasons, but the rumors declaring the demise of the Suns’ run-n-gun tendencies were vastly overstating things — PHX still ran the 4th-fastest tempo in basketball, and were in the Top 10 even under Terry Porter.

No, it was actually the defense that led to Phoenix’s downfall in 2009, as the Suns fell to 26th after hovering around the league average throughout Mike D’Antoni’s tenure as coach. What’s especially ironic is that the mainstream media’s biggest criticism of the D’Antoni Suns was a perceived lack of defense on their part (an illusion of the Suns’ breakneck pace and proof of the fallacy of looking at points allowed per game to assess defensive ability), and that Porter was largely hired by Kerr to “fix” Phoenix defensively. Instead, the Suns declined in literally every defensive metric, save for a slight increase in the % of opponent possessions on which they recorded a steal (and they still ranked just 23rd in that category).

Porter was fired, though it wasn’t exactly his fault that Kerr expected a defensive improvement from a team with no real defenders (shockingly, trading Shawn Marion and Raja Bell in the same calendar year will hurt your D! Who knew?). And after a brief resurrection under interim coach Alvin Gentry, the team lost Stoudemire for the year and it was essentially over. Last night was simply a formality, confirming what everyone knew weeks (if not months) ago.

But the memories and the numbers will always be there for the Nash-era Suns, even if the Larry O’Brien Trophy always exceeded their grasp. And, most importantly, the excitement and fun they brought to the game when they were at their peak is something that not even Sarver and Kerr’s mismanagement can take away from them.

About Neil Paine

I work for I've been a freelance writer for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and Basketball Prospectus.

Posted on April 9, 2009, in Analysis, History. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. What a GREAT article! I love it when people do some actual (and deep) research to enlighten us.

    You could almost hear Kobe Bryant’s sigh of relief from Los Angeles when he heard Raja Bell and Shawn Marion weren’t with the Suns any longer. Nice move, Steve.

    Perhaps the reason Steve Kerr thought people could learn to play defense is because he learned to. In his playing career, Kerr was a shooter and never known to be a great defender, but he had to pick it up to some degree to get off the benches of the Bulls and Spurs.

    Defense can be taught; the problem was finding a good teacher and probably willing students.

    At any rate, my stomach flips when I read about Shaq flirting with Mark Cuban. What does that do to the team chemistry of the team he is actually on? If Shaq leaves Phoenix, you can bet he’ll leave behind plenty of scorched earth, just has he did in Orlando, Los Angeles and Miami.

    Don’t call Shaquille O’Neal the “Big Aristotle,” with the earth he scorches only the “Big Arsonist” really suits him. :-(

  2. Nice, thorough assessment of the Suns “dynasty” .. it’s a shame that such an exciting team had to be torn apart by an idiot GM (I rarely criticize people but it’s warranted here) who couldn’t appreciate what made Phoenix great in the first place.

  3. Something interesting I noticed all throughout was just how low Phoenix ranked in offensive rebounds and ft per fga. I knew they weren’t the leaders any of those years, but didn’t expect to see it that low.

  4. The Suns should just trade Shaq for someone who can actually run up and down the court. Maybe like defensive specialist or something. Then with Amare coming back, and Nash still playing great, I think they could easily make the playoffs next year.

  5. D’Antoni’s defense:

    1. Defend the easiest shot your opponent takes- free throws. Average rank for FT/FGA the first 4 years of this study with D’Antoni- a bit less than 2nd best in the league with 2 firzt place finishes.

    2. Defend another efficient shot – the 3 pointer. Went from 16th to 11th to 9th to 3rd lowest opponent 3pt attempt / FGA

    That is enough to make you average on defensive efficiency, which is decent when pair with great offense. Not enough to beat all the other elite teams though, most with better defense, better balance.

    Weak defensive rebounding and forced turnovers and probably weak inside shot defense means you aren’t going to be better than average on D. Kerr / Porter did not fix any of these and lost the good factors with the trades and the coaching / system change.

  6. Big suns fan here. I am saddened by the end of the dynasty and the dumb moves preceeding it. When I reflect on why the Suns missed their window for a championship during their recent run of great success in winning a couple of things jump out. Here’s the list:

    – Jerry Colangelo sells team to Sarver who then lowballs Bryan Colangelo and Joe Johnson and sells multiple first round draft picks. Also attempts to second guess and circumvent authority of head coach Mike D’Antoni (“You’re doing great Mike, but why don’t you bring in a defensive coach, because you need to change what you do….” was the tip of the iceberg) Mike leaves for New York where he can have authority over the team.

    – The suspension of Stoudemire and his sometimes talented backup Diaw in 2007 playoffs as a result of a cheap shot by Robert Horry. Are you f^ASkxing kidding me? Robert Horry pulls a punk move and his team benefits??!@$ David Sten was way off on that one. The game in which this happened, the Suns seemed to finally have figured out what it takes to beat the Spurs (after losing to them so many times) and were calm cool and taking care of business until that cheap shot. They never recovered from the supsensions.

    So that being said, Kerr was brought in. I’m not a huge Kerr fan by any stretch but I think he had to do something as the Suns window was already darn near closed after the San Antonio debacle mentioned above and the aging and decline of Suns core players (see Nash, Bell). By aging and decline, it may not show up so much statistically, but they had definitely lost a bit of fire in their eyes and passion for the game required during playoff times.

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