I will begin this examination, aided by feedback from Jeff Hornacek, by giving mad props to the Phoenix Suns organization for the way they interact with the media and community. Within minutes of sending my interview request they had Hornacek lined up for an exclusive interview the next day, less than 22 hours away, which was also the day before he left for vacation. The Suns are really a paragon in the aspects of maintaining an open dialogue, providing media access that not all teams do and being very gracious in the process. Hopefully this excellence will translate to on court results in the very near future.
The rest of this article will not be as glowing at times, but I figured I'd start with the good news first.
Why did fast break basketball die?
For those of us old enough to remember, the ferocious Detroit Pistons' squad of the late 80's allowed 100.8 points per game during their 88-89 championship run (2nd in the NBA). Last year the Memphis Grizzlies only allowed 89.3... In fact, 18 teams in the NBA allowed fewer than 100 points per game, demonstrating the offensive futility of the league even further.
What is the culprit for this declivitous descent? As with many complex situations, there are several.
We started by discussing the beginning of the chart.
"How many of those top 50 players that have been voted on played in that decade? That first dream team had some fantastic players that could really put the ball in the hole," said Jeff. "I think we still have a handful of those players now, but I think overall around the league there were just more star players back then."
The original Dream Team consisted of Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan,
Christian Laettner, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson and John Stockton. Many people consider this the greatest collection of talent ever compiled to represent the US in the Olympics. It's not a stretch by any means to suggest that group is better than the top NBA players today.
"When did the additional teams come into the league?" queried Hornacek. "When I first came in the league there were only 23 teams in the league. Then Miami, Orlando, Minnesota... all those teams came in."
Charlotte Hornets 1988-89, Miami Heat 1988-89, Minnesota Timberwolves 1989-90, Orlando Magic 1989-90, Toronto Raptors 1995-96, Vancouver Grizzlies 1995-96 and Charlotte Bobcats 2004-05.
"When I first came into the league in 86 every team you played had three or maybe even four all-stars per team. It was like playing all-star teams. The additional teams kind of spread out the players."
Dilution of talent through expansion. I can see the validity of this contention. Expansion is great for the new cities and for league revenues, but there are only so many elite players and the more teams there are in the league the more they are dispersed.
"In terms of shooting, if you shot 50% you were probably average. Most teams shot right around 50%. There wasn't a ton of three pointers being shot back then," continued Hornacek. "When we look at things now with analytics, you see that the eFG% are 51%, that's why a bunch of these teams are shooting a ton of threes because they get more value for their shot. But most of the older teams were already shooting 50% when they were shooting their normal shots. I don't know if maybe shooters were a little bit better back then. Now guys are more into athleticism and trying to get to the hole."
In 1983-84, the first year of my chart above, the league average for pace was 99.6. In 2012-13, the last year, it was only 92.0. What about the birth of the 7SOL Suns? In 2004-05 the Suns led the league in pace at 95.9... which would have made them second to last in the 1987-88 season. The exciting basketball of the Steve Nash era was actually more like sweet molasses. Like Jeff mentioned, players are shooting a lot more three pointers. The shot was introduced in 1979-80, so many of the players in the 1980's didn't grow up practicing that shot. It was a bad shot then. But has this contributed to slowing down the game? Is the lost art of the pull up jump shot to blame? In the 2012-13 season the average number of three pointers attempted was 1,636. Going back 20 years to 1993-84 it was only 811. Basically half. Yet teams scored more...
How can the Suns revert to a faster, more exciting brand of basketball?
"First, of all you have to play some defense. If you can get stops and have teams take bad shots or create turnovers, then you can really fly up and down the court. You have to have guys that can run. If you have slower guys then it isn't going to work. You need to have guards that can really push the ball and distribute. That hasn't changed since basketball has been played."
The Suns have probably gained ground on the second part of Jeff's contention. The first part... Last season the Suns defense was putrescent. While the Suns pace (93.4) was ninth in the league, it only compounded their ineptitude. The Suns were dead last in three point field goal defense (.388) and tied for 25th in eFG% (.512) against. Consider that the Suns were 23rd in eFG% (.477), the more possessions in the game, the more chances for the Suns opponent to pull away... It doesn't make sense to create extra possessions if you can't get more value out of them than your opponent.
"I think with our guys, with Goran and Eric at the point guard, we have two guys who can get the ball and really go with it. We have to have shooters. I think that guys like Caron Butler will really add to the ability to spread the floor and get down the court and get open shots. Hopefully Gerald Green and other guys that we have that can shoot the ball can help this."
Hornacek continued, "It's probably more difficult to score in half court situations because of the defense and physical play. You're taking more shots in a half court set, I believe, that are contested. If you get out and run the break, Cotton Fitzsimmons always told me if I have an open shot from 18 feet out when it's one on four then go ahead and shoot it because that's the best shot we're going to get in our regular offense in terms of being open like that. I think there's value that when you push the ball and get open looks then hopefully you shoot higher percentages."
The problem you may have, Jeff, is that you shooting an open 18 foot shot would still be the Suns' best option on offense. Hornacek could probably embarrass his players in games of horse. Hopefully he can teach his players the values of shots in an offensive system. Some shots are bad shots. Some players fall in love with taking bad shots... see Beasley, Michael.
"I think the last thing you need are guys that can rebound and bigs that can run. When you have bigs that can run that opens up the spacing for the guards who are pushing the ball and the shooters on the wings. Then you get the big man running down the middle for layups and quick post ups and it keeps the outside guys honest. They can't just sit there and run with the shooters, they're going to have to run back in the paint a bit to protect against the layup and then try to come back to the shooters. We have guys like Gortat and Alex Len who can hopefully outrun the other teams' centers which bodes well for our fast break."
While I think Alex Len may fit this tempo as a mobile big, it's not exactly tantamount to starting Stoudemire at center. I'm really interested to see the Suns' new center move up and down the court.
"Most guys who play basketball played on the playgrounds as they were growing up and their preferred way of playing was getting up and down the court. I think most players have that in them," professed Hornacek. "Obviously you have to find that balance when it gets out of control, when they're taking bad shots. That kind of stuff you learn in practice. We go over and over that in practice to allow the guys freedom but teach them what shots are good and what shots are bad. Of course you can't fast break every time down the court because there are out of bounds plays and time outs, so that's when you really have to have the execution of a half-court offense. That's where you need to find the balance."
Every time Jeff turns the conversation to the bad shots theme I can't help but inwardly cringe while thinking of the Beaz and Gerald "Chuck'em" Green. Since they are the same player, I wonder if they were actually on the court together and touched it might disrupt the space-time continuum. Scary. If Hornacek can teach Michael Beasley the difference between a good shot and a bad shot he's even more of a thaumaturgist than McMiracle.
How many points will the Suns score?
Here's where I really tried to pin Jeff down. My lead in was that last season there were five teams (Denver, Houston, OKC, SA and Miami) that scored at least 102.9 points per game. Given that, I asked for a one word response on whether the Suns scoring average for the 2013-14 season would be higher or lower than 102.9 points per game...
Coach Hornacek's one word reply:
"What did we average last year? (It was 95.2 by the way) Over 102.9, we would hope we can get there. If we can get there I think that's a good start for us in our first year. So, hopefully, I would say yes."
You heard it here first, folks. I think that absolutely qualifies as "higher." Maybe that also qualifies as Hornacek's first official prediction as coach of the Phoenix Suns.
On fixing the Suns deplorable shooting.
"I always say, that when I changed my shot I still always felt I had the shooting eye. Even with a form that wasn't the best, I was still shooting through high school and college around 50%. I think I had the eye and that helped me," Jeff said. "Every level you go up it gets harder and harder, so you have to have a little bit of that, but with work everyone can improve. We put certain drills out there, certain routines for these guys. We have great coaches, all guys that have been around the league for a while that can help each one of our players improve their shooting. It's up to them, also, to put up that effort."
This was in response to a nature vs. nurture question. Hornacek provides a great example of improving through hard work. Through three years of his NBA carer Jeff was a .308 three point shooter. The next year he shot .408. The next year it was .418. Then .439.
"We go by the fact that you want to shoot that game speed shot. A guy that comes to the gym and shoots 500 shots in a lazy fashion, he's just wasting his time. If you're going to come to the gym and shoot extra shots, we want them to be game speed. If you shoot 100 of them at game speed, it's going to be more beneficial than the 500 at a slow pace. Our coaches will harp on that. We'll push the guys to really put themselves in the positions they would be in a game while they're practicing."
Practice like you play. Couldn't agree more. Never confuse activity with achievement. You got it Jeff. In fact floating through those 500 shots, like Hornacek spoke of, only reinforces bad habits. Shame, shame, shame... I know your name.
"With a guys' shot, it's going to take a little longer for them to really improve. However, If they are working out during the summer by the time they come into training camp they should be better shooters than what they left at the year before. We've given guys things to work on this summer."
This is a really important summer for several Suns' players. Guys like the Morri and Kendall Marshall are running out of hall passes.
"I think what else will help them is when we really get these guys to buy into the teamwork factor that when you don't have the shot right away then you can drive it and create and dish it out to someone who is open. When you look at the good teams, that's what they do. They either have the shot or they're creating something for somebody else. Consequently, they'll get more open looks which will help their percentages. I think that every guy that you saw on this team last year can have a better shooting percentage in the coming year."
That's it for Part One of my interview session. Yes there will be a Part Two. Different topics. Same me.
Coach Hornacek may have skated around a few of my questions, but he also pirouetted in the middle of the frozen pond on the majority. Trust me, frozen ponds are hard to find around here this time of year. He was engaging and spoke intelligently. It was almost like talking with Lindsey Hunter after a brain transplant and speech therapy. But I kid.
Or do I.
Special thanks to both of you who are still reading.