Attempting to Understand Why I Was Wrong About the Phoenix Suns (longish)
And then a funny thing happened. The Suns started winning. And winning. And now we're almost 30 games into the season , they are 17-10, tied for fifth in the stacked West, and are closer (2 games) to having first round HCA to out of the playoffs (3 games). And it's not like they've been beneficiaries of an soft early schedule having played only 5 Eastern Conference opponents and having a strength of schedule smack in the middle of those of their Western Conference peers.
Part of the reason I decided to do the series on Phoenix's failures indefending of the pick -and-roll was that it didn't seem real to me. Much like the Sixers have done and the Celtics perpetually seem on the verge of doing, they were going to fall off a cliff when the lack of talent caught up to them. Except the opposite seems to be happening. They've missed both Bledsoe and Dragic for long stretches, but managed to stay afloat and even climb the standings. What the hell is going on here?
#1 These Guys Are Better Than We Thought
Eric Bledsoe - Obviously there were high high HIGH hopes for him coming into this season. He'd always been sort of a tantalizing prospect for the Clippers, but never really blossomed into more than a change of pace/defensive pest presence in a Nate Robinson-like role. It seems highly probable that he was being misused by the Clips (never a terrible starting assumption considering Vinny Del Negro was his coach). The worry about Bledsoe as that he would forever be a tweener because of his size and relative lack of ability to run a team. Of course, compared to Chris Paul, most players would look like poor floor leaders. But in the case of Bledsoe, a team built around Paul's style could not be less well-suited for Bledsoe's talents. He is not and will probably never be a quarterback-type who probes and makes multiple reads. He's best attacking, playing fast and loose. And Phoenix's offense allows him to do just that in a manner reminiscent of when an NFL coach talks about stripping down a play book to take best advantage of his young QB's (such as Cam Newtons) abilities. If I new the first thing about cars or engines, I'd make a crack about using some kind of fuel in some other kind of engine at this point.
The bottom line is this, not only is he more of just about everything with his increased minutes and role, but he's doing them better. Looking just at his offensive production, Bledsoe has upped both his usage and his efficiency (as measured by TS%) considerable. It is very unusual for a player playing significant minutes to increase both markedly at the same time. In most cases the two are inversely correlated as the higher proportion of a team's shots one is taking, the worse each marginal shot is. For players on the upswing, the more usual pattern is to have one or the other increase - either the guy gets better at making the shots he's taking, or finds ways to get more shot as good as the ones he is already taking.
Gerald Green - Just shooting the hell out of the ball, whether in spot starts for Bledsoe and Dragic or as the first wing off the bench. Nice bounce back season after never cracking the rotation in Indy last year.
Goran Dragic - After being a first team empty stats all-star on last year's woeful post-Nashian Suns squad, he's maintained similar production on a team that actually matters. Faster and quicker than his somewhat odd build and wispy, Casey Affleck in Good Will Hunting like mustache would lead you to believe, he basically lives in the lane, and might be the guy in the NBA who takes best advantage of the difference between a "travel" and an "NBA travel" with his array of step backs, pivots and shimmies. Not a great season shooting from 3, but shooting well enough that it has to be respected, much like Bledsoe (more on their 3-point shooting below)
Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, the Flying, Shooting, (Non-Defending) Morrii - I've had a bit of fun at the expense of the Morrii in terms of their (lack of) pick-and-roll defense nous. And this hasn't gotten much, if any better. And neither is an especially good rim defender either (Markieff being the second worst player in terms of rim defense over the sample through last week). But what they give away on defense, Markieff especially makes up for on the other end. Interestingly, their improvement has come in different ways. Marcus is just playing better than he has before in his career. He's shooting the ball better, while settling into a hybrid stretch 3-4 role. As with many of the players listed here (Bledsoe, Green, his brother) he has appeared to benefit greatly from Hornacek's streamlined and simplified system after playing under the more regimented Kevin McHale and Alvin Gentry.
Markieff on the other hand has changed his style completely. After trying to be a 3-point shooting stretch 4 his first two years, he has found his sweet spot as a kind of LeMarcus Aldridge -lite, operating from the left midpost area in an extremely efficient manner while largely eschewing the longer shots which appear slightly out of his natural range:
#2 Speed Kills
But Phoenix doesn't just speed the game up on offense. They seem to have a teamwide philosophy of injecting pace into the game on defense as well. The tendency I noted in Plumlee to get too far up into ballhandlers appears to be their general strategy. They very aggressively run teams off the 3 pointer, currently allowing the 6th fewest attempts at the lowest % of any team in the league (tied with the Clippers in terms of holding opponents to 32.4%. Though they defend the P&R poorly, they do force the ball-handler to try and beat them by scoring. Relative to other teams, they allow the ballhandler to score efficiently (ranking 23rd currently) BUT this remains a relatively inefficient shot which they are forcing at well above league average rate.
This aggression comes at a cost as only the Knicks give up more FTAs/GM, and you would like to see them force more turnovers if they are going to be that pressure heavy (a middle of the road 14.3/gm forced). But They are still between 12th and 17th in the league in defensive efficiency depending on the metric. In other words, they aren't terrible on this end despite giving heavy minutes to some questionable individual defenders.
The practical affect of this pressure is to speed the other team up. Portland runs a very intricate offense which relies on precision movement on and off the ball. If one of Portland's perimeter players is forced/allowed to penetrate because of some overly aggressive on ball defense, it gums up the works a bit. And this is born out by the Suns being the only team to beat the Blazers twice (against one last second come-from-ahead loss.)
The Suns rely on their depth and athleticism to allow them to contain or at least contest this penetration. In other words, they may get broken down, but they rarely get blown by completely. Some opponents thrive against this defense, some don't. Take for example Dallas. In a recent game against Dallas, Monta Ellis was very effective because this high tempo style suits him perfectly. On the other hand Jose Calderon was decidedly less happy. He was certainly able to get by his man, but that game is outside of Calderon's comfort zone (Ellis had a usage rate of 27.8% while Calderon's was 6.9% for the game).
The Suns are probably willing to give up a little in terms of per possession defense in order to inject the added pace into the game, as they calculate their superior depth of athleticism will make an up-and-down game to their advantage.
#3 Mismatches Go Both Ways
Via completely unscientific observation, I think that teams which force their opponents to adjust rather than vice versa have an advantage. A recent case in point is the Pacers-Miami rivalry. Though Miami pulled out the victory in round 2 of the season series, the Pacers can take a great deal of heart in the fact that Spoelstra felt he had to give away one of the Heat's main advantages (speed) in order to combat the Pacers' brawn, playing Bosh and Anderson together for about the first time this season. A counterpoint I talked about on Tuesday is in Sacramento, where Mike Malone continues to start Jason Thompson. Against teams that start a smaller 4, this means the Kings are conceding a mismatch without being able to take advantage of it on the other end, as I think teams would be ecstatic of they decided to take the ball out of Boogie or Lil Zeke's hands and give it to Thompson on the block to "exploit" a "mismatch".
Bringing this back to the Suns, they seem perfectly willing to let the 2s of the league try and post up Bledsoe at the expense of their normal offense as long as Bledsoe or Dragic are allowed to attack the same mismatch on the other end. And it's working, as those two are living in the lane.
Part of the reason this has been so effective is the Suns are analytically smart about using these speed mismatches. All too often when a guard gets a chance to iso against a big man, he gets this shot:
#4 He So Horny
In the near term, I think Phoenix is destined for a post season which will disappoint those who completely "buy" this year's success. The things which give them an edge stem from the uniqueness of the speed of their play at both ends. As with the little wrinkle in the Hawks offense I looked at early this week, the newness and surprise value of this unusual approach can easily disconcert teams in the every other night grind of the regular season. But give a good coach and team some time to prepare, focus on one opponent and execute those adjustments over a 7 game series and suddenly the weaknesses which can be hidden to a degree (pick and roll D, lack of structure on both ends, size of the backcourt) can suddenly be exploited to the fullest.
Despite finishing on a note of caution, I'd say that a disappointing first round exit would have been an outcome any and every Suns fan would have bitten your hand off the accept at the start of the year. After all, for the exit to be disappointing, their play over the course of the season would have had to create expectations. And that's the biggest compliment I can give, as for a team that was picked to finish about 29th, they now have expectations.