There’s been a lot of discussion around The Bright Side about the recent acquisitions and the future makeup of the Suns. The inevitable line-up lists, the minutes distribution, the laments that Dragic will surely be traded, that Marshall is worthless now, and the incessant listing of "measurables" to prove one case or another. So I took it upon myself to research some of the historical and recent trends in the NBA to see what answers I could find. And what I suspect we’ll all find out this year is: This ain’t your Steve Nash Suns.
This is based on my theory that Ryan McDonough and Jeff Hornacek (hereinafter referred to as "McHorn") have a particular affinity for point guards, and have even demonstrated an aversion to the traditional catch and shoot two guard. This is evidenced by passing over a very good one in Ben McLemore, with the sweet, pure stroke of Ray Allen, but without any demonstrable ball handling ability. I believe it’s also demonstrated by passing over Nerlens Noel, in favor of Alex Len – a guy, who, if he reaches his potential, will be a perfect and necessary partner for the law firm of Dragic, Bledsoe, Marshall, and Goodwin, the "point guard gang".
It’s also evidenced by McDonough’s experience and influence in Boston. Largely credited with being the loudest voice in the room on the subject of drafting Rajon Rondo, he also was instrumental in the acquisition of Courtney Lee and Jason Terry, and their use in a "dual point guard" system in Boston in the absence of Rondo due to his ACL injury.
Historically, the Dual Point Guard concept is not new. It started with Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars in their 1988-89 championship season. This tandem combined for 14.0 assists that year (8.3 from Thomas and 5.7 from Dumars). They won two consecutive titles, but the two PG set wasn’t given credit – that went to their vaunted defense (arguably the best defensive team in history).
Other examples include Hornacek and Kevin Johnson for a time in the pre-Barkley Suns era and with Kenny Smith and Clyde Drexler for the 1995 Houston Rockets. Jason Kidd and Jason Terry teamed up for a ring in 2011, but again, while unique, it wasn’t their greatest strength, so it wasn’t given much credit.
The Dual Point Guard concept was used quite a lot last year. It’s been growing in popularity, and was tried with Nash and Kobe in LA, in MN with Rubio and Shved, in NY with Kidd/Felton, GS with Curry/Jack, ATL with Teague and Devin Harris, and in Memphis, with Conley and Bayless, Harden and Lin in Houston, not to mention that the Spurs have been doing it with Parker and Ginobili for years. We even have a decent sample size with Bledsoe and Chris Paul. It’s yielded varying degrees of success, and seems to work best with a more traditional PG (who can play defense) in combination with – what else – a "combo guard". You will sometimes hear that term used interchangeably with the NBA specific word "tweener" – but maybe not so much anymore. Tweener is a pejorative term often used to describe a player who can play two positions – neither one well. Players like Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, and James Harden have removed a lot of that connotation from, at least, the combo-guard position.
What I believe the Suns and "McHorn" have embarked on is a quest to design a team from the ground up that employs two point guards, possibly all the time. With Dragic, they have a guy with nearly prototypical SG size, but with PG level ball-handling skills and basketball IQ. Last year, Dragic often guarded the SG position, even while playing point guard, under both Gentry and Hunter. And with Bledsoe, who is but 6’1" (albeit a very strong and extremely fast 6’1") guy with unreal vertical leaping ability and a very long wingspan for his height, they aquired a guy renowned for his drive and high BBIQ. McHorn also drafted Archie Goodwin, who is 6’5" and also has a long wingspan and blazing speed, and they inherited Kendall Marshall, who has good size and elite passing ability to go with his court vision and playmaking abilities. All 4 of these players share many common traits – good ball handling, high BBIQ, and sub-par pure shooting ability, and I think that this is all by design. Given that Dragic and Marshall are left-handed, and Bledsoe and Goodwin are right-handed, it becomes an intriguing set of possibilities.
Diving back in history once again, I want to visit one more example of multiple guard implementation that I found in my research. A quick excerpt from 1992:
Send guards Johnny Dawkins, Hersey Hawkins and Jeff Hornacek out to start the game with center Andrew Lang and forward Clarence Weatherspoon and what happens?
A seven-game losing streak ends. A five-game losing streak at the Spectrum ends. The Sixers shoot 53.6 percent from the floor, their third-best performance of the season, outrebound an opponent (45-35) for only the third time and record their fourth victory.
Go figure. Hawkins was announced as a forward and reveled in it. He scored a team-high 25 points, knocking down four of five three-point attempts.
"Power forward, too," he said. "I like that. I think I sort of fit that role. Maybe I'll take Charles Barkley's place."
In reality, though, it was the slimmer Hornacek who drew Seattle's 6-9 Derrick McKey as a defensive assignment.
"If Hersey's a power forward at 6-3, at 6-4, I must be a small center," Hornacek said after contributing 20 points.
Hornacek said this in the aftermath of that game in ‘92:
"One thing the small lineup does is, it makes everybody alert," Hornacek said. "Everyone has to battle. You can't say, 'He'll get the rebound.' Everybody has to try. It also guarantees that we'll at least try to run. In the past, we could have two of five running, and when you do that, the fastbreak's not there. If three of us run, the fourth and fifth guys start to see openings, and they run, too."
This would apply to the two PG set, as well. If it is to work, it has to be used in a specific way – to increase the pace of the game enough to give the Suns a distinct advantage. Phoenix became somewhat notorious in the pre-draft workout period for running players to the point of exhaustion. I think it’s safe to draw the conclusion that speed and endurance was something of a priority. That has been a theme of the practices leading up to summer league, as well. I think there is evidence that we are planning to unleash a new version of the Suns on the league next year, one that promises to be as up-tempo as is humanely possible, and one designed to give us a distinct advantage, particularly late in games.
It…just…might…work. It would certainly be exciting. But there’s still that part about not just getting the ball TO the basket, but putting it through… and I think they’ve thought of that. Hornacek rather famously arrived in the NBA with a "broken shot", and fixed it, going on to become one of the best shooters in NBA history. He has demonstrated no lack of confidence that he can make this team better shooters, and for the moment, that’s all we have. But the advent of advanced statistics and analytics hasn’t only brought us new ways to look at players and what makes them good players or valuable to a team…it has also brought to the league a new awareness of what makes a player or team successful. Most NBA fans now know that corner threes are the most productive shot in basketball. The study of data from the new SportVU cameras (newly implemented in Phoenix) has given us a lot of data about spacing and what can make a player more successful in different situations. Open shots are better than contested shots – but there are different kinds of "contests". It has raised the awareness that NBA basketball isn’t played in just two dimensions – that lateral quickness might be more valuable than height, and that getting 12 inches closer to a shooter may have more to do with his ultimate success or failure than two inches of vertical size. We are re-thinking how the game is played, and "McHorn" seem to be on the cutting edge.
I’m not going to go into a lot of statistics – rather, I’m going to provide links to the articles that I found in my research, and let you draw your own conclusions, and hopefully, share them in the comments section. But I’d like to leave you with this:
"As a coach, you have to figure out the best way to use the guys you have," Hornacek said. "With us, it obviously wouldn’t make sense for us to be a slow team. We’re going to utilize the strength of our guys which means getting up and down the court."
I can’t wait.
Dual-point-guard lineup could be tempting for Suns (FoxSports Arizona, 7/8/13)