Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 4/10/12
This is the time of year and type of issue that defines the quality of an NBA coaching staff. On its surface, the situation seems, well, splendid. According to reports, Grant Hill has been cleared to resume playing duties for the Phoenix Suns. The veteran small forward has been out of the lineup since March 25, due to a meniscus tear in his right knee that required surgery. Although the Suns' current road gauntlet -- the next stop is Memphis on Wednesday -- ends in Texas with games in Houston on Friday and San Antonio on Saturday, the 39-year-old Hill might wait until Monday's home game with Portland to make his return. With a realistic shot of barging into the Western Conference's elite playoff eight by regular season's end, having his best individual defender available seems like quite a bonus for Coach Alvin Gentry. But sliding a key player back into a rotation that's been flowing smoothly is no picnic for any coach. "Coaching up" a short-handed squad often is easier -- from a strategic standpoint -- than finding minutes, chemistry and rhythm for a larger group of players. The quality of Gentry's juggling could mean the difference between playing in May and finding the proper talisman for someone to drag along to the NBA Draft lottery. On one hand, having Hill in the starting lineup (if he's physically capable, that's a safe bet) means the Suns will have someone with a chance to battle Kevin Durant when the Oklahoma City Thunder hit town next Wednesday. The L.A. Clippers will be here the following night, giving Gentry the opportunity to try Grant on point guard Chris Paul (again) or switch back to last season's tactic of assigning Hill to check power forward Blake Griffin. Although returning from knee repair suggests limited doses for any of these matchups, it certainly can't hurt having someone who can make those guys work harder for their numbers. Hill's list of victims with wrecked field-goal percentages is long again this season. It might get tricky, however, when we look at the recent salvo of Suns' offense. In Hill's absence, Shannon Brown has stepped into the starting lineup and averaged 17 points per game. With Jared Dudley moving over to Hill's three spot, Brown has found enough operating space to create off the bounce or make basket cuts that are rewarded with dimes from Steve Nash. The former triangulated Los Angeles Laker -- who had been struggling to find comfort with the relative freedom afforded in Gentry's offensive system -- is making 47 percent of his shots from the field during this stretch. But moving Brown back to the second unit isn't that simple, because Michael Redd is working at shooting guard for the bench crowd and has been on a similar roll. Brown's 20-point third quarter in last Saturday's triumph over the Los Angeles Lakers was preceded by Redd's 17-point effort in the second period. Redd, who is averaging 8 points per game and shooting 41 percent on the season, has given Gentry an average of 17 points and shot 46 percent over the last five games. With Brown as the perimeter go-to temp of the first unit and Redd as option No. 1 on unit No. 2, the Suns are first in the league in scoring and second in offensive efficiency over a modest, last-three-games sample size. For context, let's check in with an advance scout currently employed by a Western Conference team: "I think there's more offensive balance with both the starters and that second group now," the scout said. "When they're on the floor together, Brown and Redd both spend most possessions hunting shots. The Suns need that from them ... when they're playing separately. But together on the second team, the ball sort of dies with two guys in the same, super-aggressive scoring mode and Nash not on the floor to keep things more organized. "That said, I think (Sebastian) Telfair has really picked it up at both ends as Nash's backup. It just seems that their offensive identity is pretty well defined with the lineup they've had recently. But you have to make defensive stops, so having Hill back will help with that." Dudley, who was working as the first-unit shooting guard until Hill left the lineup, could be an option as the small forward with the second unit if Gentry chooses to take the who's-hot route. JD -- averaging almost 13 points per game this season -- has dipped to 10 points per game over the last eight, including a combined nine points in the last two Suns victories. While Brown's outburst as a starter has captured the short-term imagination of Suns observers, it should be noted the long-term starting lineup of Nash, Hill, Dudley, Channing Frye and Marcin Gortat still leads the NBA in plus-minus. Whenever Hill returns to the lineup, Gentry -- who has done a remarkable job of keeping this team focused on the playoff goal when the goal seemed a bit Quixotic -- will simply add another ball to the others already in the air.
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