The Last Emperor – West
The East isn’t the only conference that is signaling a change in the guard. Two afterthoughts in the West are breezing along to the league’s best records. Right now, there may not be a bigger surprise in the NBA than the Seattle SuperSonics. How bad was Seattle suppose to be? Let me quote from some of their team previews for this season:
In the past two years, the Sonics are 77-87, ending a 15-year run of .500 or better. This season Coach Nate McMillan faces a tough, but not impossible, challenge to get Seattle back to its wining ways…The trend is troubling in Seattle, where two straight losing seasons are already in the books. A third could arrive in ’04-05 if the shots don’t fall and the big men don’t improve.
This is a team that needs a new direction. The Sonics’ roster is not equipped to win in the West and the time to completely rebuild has arrived. Allen could be sacrificed to help Seattle get draft picks along with some new blood, and it would not be surprising to hear Lewis’ name pop in trade talk as well. McMillan could be on the hot seat, as the Sonics will miss the playoffs for the third straight season with less wins than a year ago.
The Sonics are in a bit of a rebuilding mode… Look for the Sonics to have yet another long season. If their young player develop well, the Sonics will be a contender in the near future.
For a rebuilding team, the Sonics are doing awfully well. They sit atop the Northwest division with a staggering 17-4 record, ahead of Minnesota who had the league’s best record last year. Seattle’s biggest change might be Nate McMillan and the coaching staff finally getting the team to play some defense. Last year the Sonics allowed 109 points per 100 possessions (pPTS), 3rd worst in the league. This year they are ranked 20th, with 101.9 pPTS. For most teams that would be a mediocre improvement, but consider that Seattle has one of the most potent scoring machines in the league (108.9 pPTS – ranked #2). Their high powered offense only requires an average defense to sustain them (or in this case not one of the league’s worst).
It’s no secret that the Sonics’ offense lives off a barrage of three pointers. Just look at the volume & percentages of their best guys:
NAME……….. 3PM/G 3P%
Ray Allen…… 2.6 41%
Rashard Lewis.. 2.1 39%
Vlad Radmanovic 2.0 41%
Antonio Daniels 0.9 33%
Luke Ridnour.. 0.9 41%
What people might not know, is that Seattle has two other major offensive weapons in addition to their sharp-shooters. They sport one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league (32.6% 2nd), and are the best at creating scoring opportunities at the line (29.5FTM/FGA 1st). Fortson (51.7 eFG, 1.36PSA, 21.96PER), despite limited minutes has helped in both areas. In less than 20 minutes a game, he's 1st in the league in rebounding rate (23.7), and he's is second on the team with 5 free throws a game. Whatever rebounds Fortson can't get to, Reggie Evans (51.9 eFG, 1.06 PSA, 12.01 PER) probably does. In fact Fortson & Evans rank 1-2 in Hollinger's rebound rate in the league.
Fortson's ability to get to the line is quite unique. Danny has made 1.10 free throws for every field goal attempted. If this number means nothing to you (and unless you're lucky enough to write for the Sonics it probably doesn't), let me put it in context. Consider most teams don't have anyone over .60 and Michael Sweetney leads the Knicks with a .54 ratio (and Knick fans know how often Sweets gets to the line). So Fortson is getting to the line at a rate of twice the best player on most teams. The ratio is boosted by the fact that Fortson doesn't shoot many shots, he's a great offensive rebounder (easy opportunities), and he's hitting 86% of his free throws. For a guy with a limited offensive skill set, Fortson does quite well for the few minutes he's out there.
While the Sonics mediocre defense and lack of a post-up player might be their undoing in the playoffs, it's hard to find anything to dislike about the Phoenix Suns. The Suns have the best record in the league and rightfully so. While it's obvious that they have the best offense in the league (111.5 pPTS), what may be deceiving is their defense. While they rank an unimpressive 11th in points scored against per game, they're actually 6th in the more accurate points per possession (98 pPTS).
A lot of people have singlehandedly credited Nash (59.4 eFG, 1.26 PSA, 23.58 PER), who is one of the league's best passers (3rd in Hollinger's assist ratio 40.9), for the Suns turnaround. The logic might go something like this:
Suns (last year) =35% win%
Suns + Nash = 86% win%
Nash's contribution = 51% win%.
Well not exactly. While it doesn't take a genius to figure out that Nash was a major upgrade from Leandro Barbosa (55.4 eFG%, 1.16 PSA, 14.32 PER), he hasn't been the only improvement. Just like Cleveland's improvement has coincided with King James' ascent into the league's best, I think the Suns have become a powerhouse with the appointing of Amare the Great (57.3 eFG, 1.24 PSA, 27.74 PER). Stoudemire ranks 4th in offensive PER, only behind Duncan, Garnett, and Nowitzki. His defense is a bit above average at center (14.8 oPER), despite being the smaller player most nights. I'm going to go out on a very long limb & say that Stoudemire, Nash and Marion are the best three man lineup in the NBA right now.
The Suns main weakness is their bench. The Suns 5 starters are averaging 37 minutes a game, because they don't have good options coming off the bench. If one of their starters hits the IR, the team will loose a good amount of production. Phoenix still has a few chips to cash in. Although they owe a future first to San Antonio (protected), they also own the Bulls first round pick (protected top 3). The way the Bulls are playing it would be a waste to trade that pick for only a bench player or two. Luckily for Arizonians, the Suns also have a pair of European prospects with the teenage Maciej Lampe and the rights to Milos Vujanic, who's still enjoying his European Vacation. Before the trade deadline is over, Bryan Colangelo might have to make that tough decision to sacrifice some of that youth for a better bench for a championship run, because the Suns are in a good position to win one this year.
With so many teams that could vie for the title, the era of the 2 star dynasty in the NBA may be over. Most of last year's top teams, the Pistons, Pacers, TWolves and Spurs are on the outside looking in. San Antonio has a great looking record, but the upstart Sonics have already beaten them twice this season. Come June, we could easily see a Finals where neither of the participants have won a championship in more than 20 years.