Bottomless Bench Keeps Producing for Suns

Barry Gossage/NBAE

If Goran Dragic has broken a sweat in the fourth quarter recently, it’s from jumping up and cheering too much on the sideline.

The Slovenian point guard doesn’t mind. He’s not sitting key minutes because he’s playing poorly or suffering through foul trouble. He’s still getting his numbers. The Suns are winning.

All of that is because of a bench that is playing so well, they’re not only swinging games, they’re clinching them. According to hoopsstats.com, Phoenix ranks fourth in the league in bench scoring (37.1 ppg).

"It’s nice when the team that you’re playing against, they’re down by 20 and we can just watch from the bench," Dragic said. "We’re so excited and happy for our teammates. They’re doing a great job so far."

“They” includes as unlikely a cast as could be assembled.

There are the Morris twins, who still confuse opponents and reporters alike, but bring skill sets and chemistry that complement each other perfectly.

There’s Ish Smith, an undrafted point guard playing on his sixth team in four years. For those keeping track at home, that’s five teams that decided to pass on a guy that has Kevin Durant questioning who’s faster: Smith or likely All-Star point guard John Wall.

Leandro Barbosa has been on the team for two weeks and had roughly as many practices with the team. That hasn’t stopped him from slashing to the rim like it’s 2007. Nineteen of his 22 made field goals through 22 games have come in the paint. The Brazilian guard is now the ninth player on the roster to average at least nine points per game this season.

Finally, there’s Alex Len, a 7-foot-1 center who has overcome a double dose of foot surgeries to become one of the best offensive rebounders in the league at 20 years old.

Head Coach Jeff Hornacek has no problem unleashing any and all five of them at any given moment.

“When they’re playing well, we try to keep them out there and let them go,” Hornacek said. “That’s the same group that plays all the time in practice together, so they’re pretty comfortable with running stuff.”

Bench production appeared to take a hit following Eric Bledsoe’s knee injury and Gerald Green’s move to the starting lineup. Green is the team’s third leading scorer, and was the key perimeter threat among the reserves.

Phoenix adjusted on the fly, signing Barbosa to his second stint in Phoenix. Len began seeing game action at the same time.

Suddenly the bench was acting as a second wave of energy and production, which disheartened the Lakers, Nuggets and, most recently, the league-best Pacers.

Marcus Morris credited Hornacek for adjusting the length of his leash for the reserves if/when they are playing well.

“Coach gives us a lot of confidence by letting us stay out there and play,” Morris said. “We’re not going out there and playing the wrong way. We know we’re going to share the ball, make the right passes and play hard.”

The decision-making is often the difference. It’s not uncommon to see Hornacek shake his head after a made contested shot, but clap encouragingly after a missed attempt after a smart pass or hustle effort.

“Coach gives us a lot of confidence by letting us stay out there and play. We’re not going out there and playing the wrong way. We know we’re going to share the ball, make the right passes and play hard.”

— Marcus Morris

Versatility also comes into play. Smith is the designated prober and passer. Barbosa drives and looks for his own shot. The Morris twins can post up or face up depending on their matchup. Len is a constant presence in the paint.

“We all bring different things to the table,” Marcus Morris said.

Because of that, the starters can often be taken off the court. It’s a much appreciated rest for the first five. Nearly the entire team is in their twenties, but the current starters’ average age is 27.4, compared to 24.8 from the first five reserves.

Dragic is of particular concern when it comes to rest. With Bledsoe out, there were concerns that the Slovenian playmaker would be forced to play 38-40 minutes a game in order to keep the Suns afloat.

Instead, he’s playing less, averaging 34.6 minutes per game since Bledsoe was hurt compared to 34.9 before.

“He had a long summer with the summer play that he did,” Hornacek said. “We’ve put a lot on him, especially since Eric’s been hurt, to play bigger minutes…That’s huge for us to get these guys rested, especially at this part of the season when it gets a little long.”