Phoenix Suns using analytics to get the most out of their shots

Stephen Dunn

The Phoenix Suns are enjoying unexpected success in a season where they abandoned the safety of their tank in favor of a swarming ground assault. Reminiscent of the 88-89 or 2009-10 Suns, they have surprised while remaining firmly under the radar. Why? Game plan. Execution. Teamwork. Strategery.

This is not an accident. As Thomas Jefferson said,

"I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it."

The Suns have earned this with hard work, hustle, and trust. Exactly the way McDonough drew it up. We are a good team - a very good team. But we aren't "there" yet. There are some things we need to do better, and many things we can (and will) do better.

The first thing that jumps out from the stat sheet is the improved play of Goran Dragic. Our leading scorer last year, he's increased his scoring by almost 5 points per game. A big reason for that is the improved outside shooting, fueled by the return of Channing Frye, the upgrade of Gerald Green instead of Shannon Brown and Wes Johnson, Marcus Morris in place of Beasley, and the massively improved shooting of PJ Tucker. But the across the board improvement in shooting can be explained, to a certain extent, by statistics.

New this year to the NBA fan is a limited look into the tracking of data from the innovative SportsVU cameras now hanging in every NBA arena. Originally possessed by just a few teams, (including the Suns) the NBA saw the value in the system and provided it everywhere. They even made some of the data available to the general public, although much of the data is still hidden behind the veil of secrecy maintained by front offices that have built entire departments to analyze and interpret the raw data as they see fit. The cameras can track distance travelled on a play or in a game, shots and rebounds that are open or contested, efficiency from different spots on the floor, how defense affects shooting - any number of things that aren't measured in a traditional box-score. Each team has access to mountains of raw data, and they aren't likely to let anyone know how they are crunching it, but even so, we can take the nuggets they toss us to draw some better conclusions than we have in the past.

One thing that most every fan of the NBA knows by now is that shooting threes - particularly the (shorter) corner three - is generally better than shooting long twos. This is something that Miami, San Antonio, and Houston most notably have adopted. The Suns have changed from the Gentry/Hunter strategy of "being aggressive, no matter where the shot is taken from" to Hornacek's more informed strategy of "shoot close or shoot far". To this point in the season, it's working - the Suns have cut their mid-range shots by 5%, increased their threes (and the three percentage) to the point where we are second in the association in threes attempted and made, and are 10th (and climbing) in 3FG%. We have cut down the less efficient long twos (partially by shipping off Beasley and Brown), Markeiff is playing and shooting closer to the basket, and having two attacking PG's and an effective center is getting us more looks at the rim.

Even more important, though, we are taking more open shots. There is not much statistical data available for the layman to work with, but a very good article called "Hand down, Man down" explains that there are seven different categories of shot defense that are being tracked by the author's company, CAC.. They are:

OPEN (no defender within 5 feet)

GUARDED (defender within 3-5 feet)

PRESSURED (defender within 3-5 feet, but no hand up)

CONTESTED (defender within 3 feet and hand is up in front of the shooter)

ALTERED (defender within 3 feet, hand is up, and shooter is forced to change shooting angle or release point)

BLOCK (defender blocks shot)

FOUL (defender fouls shooter)


As you can see, closer is better, open is better than contested, and that the progression is logical.

What the chart doesn't show is how much difference it makes to just have a hand up. On POST shots, a pressured shot averages 54.3%, where a contested shot is only 42.3%, A contested screen and pop is 37.8% on average, compared to 50.5% when the shot is only pressured. Putting a hand up can make a 10% difference.

The Value of Contesting Shots

Another thing that these articles tell us is that contesting shots can make them occur later in the shot clock - where they have less of a chance of success. The deeper into the shot clock, the more likely it will end up either being blocked or ending up in a foul. I think this is a big reason that Hornacek wants to get into our half court offense earlier, and why Bledsoe has less success when he is running the team solo.

Having two attacking point guards on the floor at the same time gives the Suns the ability to drive and kick, drawing the defense in toward the hoop and away from our three point shooters. In our starting line-up, that can be as many as three (one of Bledsoe or Dragic), PJ Tucker, and Frye. This is the key to the Suns offense, and the reason that a traditional banger PF is not desirable in our system.

Spacing is important. If you can get your player more space to shoot, even by one foot, it can make for a dramatic increase in efficiency. It also affects other aspects of the game, like rebounding, particularly offensive rebounding.

So having Frye on the floor as our PF means that the opposing PF has to come out to the three point line to guard him - or, they switch, and have a smaller player guard him. If the PF guards him, and the corresponding others are guarded by their contemporaries, that leaves Dragic and Bledso to attack against the opposing PG and SG, and maybe the center. We know by now how good Dragic is at going against big men - it's his favorite thing. And we have learned that it takes two to guard either one of these guys when they attack - both of them can extend laterally very well (like a Parker or Ginobili), which makes their layups very hard to block. But this scenario almost guarantees that one of Tucker, Frye, or Bledsoe/Dragic will be open for a three - and open is better. Subbing in Marcus for Tucker, or Green for a PG doesn't diminish that threat much, and even Kieff, despite shooting less of them, is still a viable threat from the arc.

And while it's true that a PF living on the line means that he won't be getting many offensive rebounds, it also means that the opposing PF won't be getting defensive rebounds, as well. As an example, in our two wins against Portland this year, LaMarcus Aldridge has gotten four rebounds in each game - and he's averaging 11 for the season.

One area in which the Suns can and need to improve is that, besides Dragic and Bledsoe, we don't have a lot of drive and kick options. But the answer isn't necessarily in getting different players - I think it lies in the continued development of Goodwin and a change in focus from Green and Marcus Morris. Archie and Marcus both have very good handles, but Archie needs to improve his control and court vision (which will come with time and experience), and Marcus needs to learn to share more with people on the floor who don't have the same last name as him. Gerald is a little loose with the ball, but he's good at straight line drives, and needs to get to the rim more. The Suns also have a lot of room for improvement on back-cuts and screen cuts.

I started a comprehensive analysis of our backcourt, and I've found that Dragic and Bledsoe are among the league leaders in this category - but the team is still toward lower middle of the pack. Miami has 5 players in the top 50 in drive and kick success, and it's a key for their "Pace and Space" philosophy. So, even though Bledsoe and Dragic are better than just about everybody (including LeBron and Wade or Curry and Thompson or Parker/Ginobili) we need more guys to do this.

Miles Plumlee has been an unexpected revelation this year - even more so since he really has shown no range at all. I have great hopes that Alex Len will be back soon, and will work himself into a contributing role by the end of the year. The extra few feet of range that he would add could give our backcourt a foot or two extra to operate in, and pull the opposing center farther away from the basket, which should net in improved offensive rebounding and more points on putbacks. I am well aware of the concept of "out of sight, out of mind", but as good as Miles has been, Len was drafted because he's better. Maybe not right now, but soon...

The upshot of all this is, we are taking the philosophies of the most successful franchises, and incorporating them into our system. Miami and San Antonio were in the finals last year based on these principles, and we are building a team that is very consciously modeled after SA. It may sound ridiculous to compare Len to Duncan at this point, but I believe he was drafted to give the Suns exactly the kind of fundamental production that Duncan gives the Spurs - range, rim protection, rebounding, mobility, passing, and indefensible moves to the basket. The fact that we are getting quite a bit of that from Miles is just an added bonus and extra insurance.

Another factor that creates space is versatility. Having a player on your team that can make shots from anywhere obviously creates space, because he must be guarded everywhere. LeBron is the prime example of that. In a study compiled by Harvard Professor Kirk Goldsberry, he divided the section of the floor where 98% of field goals are attempted into 1284 separate one-foot squares, put over 700,000 of those shots within those squares, and asked the following two questions:

1. Who has attempted at least one shot from the greatest number of squares? In other words: Who is confident he can score from basically everywhere?
2. Who can actually score efficiently from the largest number of those areas?

Turns out, Kobe has taken shots from 83% of them. Dwight Howard has attempted shots from less than 25% of them.

The rest of the top 10 after Bryant consists of eight wing players with range and one power forward. The wing players, in order from top to bottom: LeBron James, Vince Carter, Joe Johnson, Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala, Ray Allen, Kevin Durant and Danny Granger.

Not on this list are three names from recent championship teams - Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitski, and Rashard Lewis (?). These guys top the efficiency charts, even though they didn't appear on the shot-distribution chart's top 10.

The league's top shooter? Steve Nash. He has scored at least 1 point per attempt from 406 of those 1284 square foot blocks, or 31.6%, covering the span from the 2005-06 season to the 2010-11 season.

We need to understand that this is the kind of analysis that front offices around the league are using now. I have supreme confidence that Ryan McDonough and the Suns are at the forefront of this wave. There are similar studies for rebounding:

Another paper looks at hundreds of thousands of rebounds to see where they go, who snares them and how high the ball is off the floor when someone finally grabs it. One little nugget from that paper: It appears the conventional wisdom that corner three-point attempts are more likely to rebound over the opposite side of the rim is incorrect. Corner threes have a seemingly random rebound distribution, like any other three-point shot.

How these things affect what we see when we watch a Suns game will remain a mystery for a long time. But from a layman's perspective, we can learn to recognize that :

McDonough knows what he's doing

Hornacek know what he's doing

The Suns are having success because they are putting themselves in a position to succeed. Better shots, more open shots, more options, more space. I've said for years that Goran Dragic was going to be a star. Amazing how much better he's gotten when he's on the floor with 4 other legit scoring options. The return of Frye, the radical improvement of Tucker, the acquisition of Bledsoe, Plumlee, and Green, and the improved utilization of the Morris Bros have made Dragic more effective and successful player. Add to that the draftees Len and Goodwin, and we have the core of a really, really good team for years to come.

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