If the Suns aren’t finished now, upon news that Grant Hill may miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his right knee, they may be finished if they don’t sweep their next two games against the injury-depleted Hornets and the Kings.
Phoenix is 25-26, two games behind the Rockets and Jazz in the race for the final playoff spot, and it has the league’s fourth-toughest remaining schedule. Once those two cupcakes are out of the way, all but one of Phoenix’s last 13 games (a home contest against the Trail Blazers) will come against a Western Conference team either competing for a playoff spot or assured of one.
Even if Hill returns in mid-April, the timetable under the best-case scenario, he’ll have missed games with crucial tie-breaker implications against the Rockets, Nuggets, Jazz and Timberwolves. All of those tie-breakers are still in play, but Phoenix is ahead in just one of them, with a 1-0 head-to-head record against the Jazz and two games remaining.
Losing Hill is especially painful for a Suns team that has struggled with depth issues until the last couple of weeks. The Suns’ normal starting lineup — Hill, Steve Nash, Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley and Channing Frye – has logged more floor time this season than every five-man unit in the league except one (Indiana’s starting five). It also happens to be the only lineup among Phoenix’s half-dozen most-used combinations that has played better than average defense this season; the other five have allowed a points per possession mark worse than the league’s average, and most of them have been much worse that.
How good has that starting lineup been? It has outscored opponents by nearly 14 points per 100 possessions, making it one of the best lineups in the league — better, in terms of scoring margin, than the starting units of the Heat and Bulls, for instance.
Losing Hill means Dudley becomes the Suns’ de facto go-to defender on the wing, and while Dudley is a fine, hard-working defender, especially on the ball, he is not Hill. Dudley can occasionally lose track of his man on off-ball cuts and other movement, and he doesn’t bring Hill’s positional versatility on defense. Against most teams, Hill can defend every position from point guard through power forward, and though the Suns have basically never played true small-ball with Hill at power forward this season, his presence allows them to switch assignments on the fly and spare the team’s weaker defenders from some tough covers.
It’s possible the Phoenix offense, still very prolific so long as Nash is on the floor, can continue at its current level without Hill. His replacement, Shannon Brown, provides more floor-spacing as a league-average three-point shooter, and of late, he’s shown more comfort coming off screens on catch-and-shoot plays. Hill has never become a three-point threat, but he can still work as a productive spot-up player by catching kick-out passes and driving by defenders trying to close out on him. Brown doesn’t have much of an off-the-dribble game in that sense, but perhaps his three-point range will allow Phoenix to maintain its scoring level. As Rob Mahoney of Bleacher Report pointed out this week, Brown hasn’t gotten to play much with Nash this season, but when he has, the Suns’ offense has generally done well.
Beyond Brown, there is of course the trickle-down effect of more playing time for guards and wings further down in the rotation, particularly Michael Redd and Ronnie Price. Each have had their moments, but both are shooting under 40 percent from the floor, and Price’s turnover rate skyrocketed when the Suns tried him as Nash’s backup earlier this season. Sebastian Telfair has since “won” that role, though he shoots too inaccurately (36 percent overall) and too often to work as a consistently productive player. Josh Childress, totally lost since his return to the NBA from Greece, may get an opportunity at some point, especially if and when the Suns fall out of realistic playoff contention.
And at that point, it will be time for Phoenix to shift 100 percent of its focus to the future. The Suns could have about $25 million in cap space this summer, and they’re slated to have about the same amount in the summer of 2013. Nash, Hill and Robin Lopez will become free agents after this season, and for Phoenix to actually get all that cap space, it’ll have to renounce its rights to all three guys. That would seem to be a fairly easy call, since Nash, who carries a giant cap hold thanks to his $11.7 million salary for this season, is apparently willing to play on the cheap going forward. He mentioned the Heat as a possible destination in an interview with Dan Patrick earlier this week, and Miami will have only the $3 million-plus mini mid-level exception to offer Nash.
It’s possible Phoenix will hold onto Lopez’s rights, since his cap hold is small enough (about $7 million) that Phoenix could keep that number on its books and still have max-level cap room. Lopez’s market as a restricted free agent will be interesting. He has regressed this season as Gortat’s backup, and Gortat is in Phoenix on a fantastic contract for the next two seasons. But Lopez is a legit 7-footer who has displayed decent scoring touch, and there is always a market for that sort of player.
Phoenix can of course work its way to more cap room by using the amnesty provision on Childress, who has $21 million and three years remaining on his deal. Getting an extended late-season look at him might play into that decision, though Robert Sarver’s record of selling off draft picks suggests he might not be willing to pay Childress simply to go away.
This is all premature, since Phoenix is still in the playoff race. But the odds were against them already, and they just got longer.