FanPost

How the Phoenix Suns are staying competitive in the West, with advanced stats

Christian Petersen

Back in July when it became clear that several NBA teams were gearing up to land a high pick in the 2014 NBA draft, with a draft class that is popularly considered to be one of the best we've seen in years, the Phoenix Suns were near the top of almost anybody's list to win the 2014 Draft Lottery.

Many preseason power rankings had Phoenix penciled in as either the 29th or 30th ranked team in the 2014 standings along with Philadelphia, with each team offering rosters with minimum amounts of polished or talented players and little ability to win games. Phoenix finally seemed ready to leave behind the days of the "Seven Seconds or Less" era, hiring the 33 year-old Ryan Mcdonough as its new GM, replacing interim coach Lindsey Hunter with rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek, and dumping several middle-tier players with heftier contracts such as Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley, and Luis Scola in exchange for future draft picks, cap room, and young talent. Everything was going according to the plan of "get bad now, get good later," a plan that a number of NBA franchises would try to replicate this season. The future seemed bright for the Suns, but first the team would have to endure a few seasons of minimal success.

But then something happened that nobody expected: Despite going overshadowed by an unexpectedly hot start from the Philadelphia 76ers headed by rookie Michael Carter-Williams, Phoenix got off to its own surprising little start going 5-2 over the first few weeks of the season. As most expected, the two teams fell back to earth with each squad falling to a 5-6 record. It was fun while it lasted, but now it was time to get back to the original plan.

The 76ers and Suns however have taken completely different paths since that 5-6 start, with Philadelphia plummeting in the standings while Phoenix exploded to win 14 of its next 19 games.

Phoenix was somehow sustaining itself as the 6th or 7th seed in a brutal Western Conference where not even Memphis, a team just a few months removed from the Western Conference Finals, could land a playoff seed. Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic headed a rarely used, yet extremely entertaining dual-point guard offense that showcased explosive fast breaks, constant running up and down the court, and flashy ball movement. The Suns quickly became the league's most lovable story in an admittedly disappointing NBA season plagued by injuries to several star players, a (somehow) underachieving rookie class, and the atrocity that is the Eastern Conference.

But when Bledsoe went under the knife for a partially torn meniscus in early January, it finally seemed that it was time for the Suns to come crashing down. Despite the fact that Bledsoe was only expected to miss approximately two months, many questioned whether Phoenix could still be able to compete in an airtight Western Conference playoff race without one of its two best players. Sitting at 19-11 and holding down the 6-seed in the West, the thought of the Suns falling back to the original plan of tanking once again became discussed. But with Dragic and Bledsoe being the team's only two worthy player assets to trade away, two players whom Phoenix has seemingly become dedicated to building around, and the team already potentially having four 1st round picks in the upcoming draft,[1] the Suns showed no intention of slowing down. The Suns have just dropped to the 7-seed posting an 11-10 record since Bledsoe's surgery, with notable losses coming against Miami, Houston, and Dallas (and even more notably, picking up a win against Golden State and two wins against Indiana).

But there is one question that still puzzles even avid NBA followers: How the hell have the Suns maintained this kind of success?

Outside of Bledsoe and Dragic, the team features a cast of players who at the start of the season were either perceived as washed up or fringe-rotation players. Just a few months ago Miles Plumlee could barely crack a lineup, nobody knew if Channing Frye would ever play again, and players like Gerald Green, Leandro Barbosa, and Ish Smith seemed destined to finish out their careers riding various NBA benches as a 12th man or playing overseas. P.J. Tucker and the Morris twins put up nice seasons last year showing that they could provide certain skillsets on an NBA roster, but the fact that they have become key components on a Western playoff contender has been a bit surprising.

So what is it that makes all of these pieces work so well together? Much of the credit can probably be pointed towards Hornacek's simple yet very efficient offensive system: space the floor, keep the ball moving, and whenever we grab a defensive rebound, run like hell.

Although the team is mostly made up of NBA no-names, every player brings a set of skills that makes him useful in Hornacek's system. Nearly everybody on the roster demands respect from behind the arc with the exception of Miles Plumlee, Alex Len, and Ish Smith, allowing exceptional floor spacing that lets the team's speedy guards cut through the lane with ease.

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For instance in this shot, Tucker comes up to set the pick for Dragic with Markieff Morris up on the wing and Channing Frye and Leandro Barbosa planted in both corners. All five players on the court for Phoenix in this play demand attention behind the 3-point line, taking every Warrior defender away from the paint.

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This allows Dragic an easy route to the lane, leaving only Jermaine O'Neal to beat to the basket, a player not nearly quick enough to keep up with Dragic at this point in his career.

Just as in situations like this, the combination of multiple shooting threats and some of the quickest guards that the league has to offer adds several interesting wrinkles to Phoenix pick-and-roll plays. Dragic and Bledsoe especially will typically draw a double-team off of a screen, usually leaving one of the Suns' multiple shooting threats an opportunity for a wide open 3-pointer. Here you'll see Markieff Morris being left wide open by his man, LeBron James, as Gerald Green, an extremely athletic finisher, draws a double on his way to the basket.

Chalmers slipped up here and because of Green's driving ability, Chalmers should've either fell under the screen and had Lebron help him or fall back to Morris and let Green deal with one of the world's best defenders one-on-one. This is a common mistake made by NBA players and not always play-breaking for defenses, but now that leaves Battier to leave his man, P.J. Tucker, alone in the corner to come help Lebron on Green as he attacks the rim.

Morris, the worst shooter of Phoenix's lineup here (even though he still hits a respectable 31.3% of his 3s) cuts into the paint drawing both Toney Douglas and Chris Bosh, seeing that Chalmers has completely been left in the dust, farther away from the arc. This not only leaves P.J. Tucker, one of the league's better corner 3-point shooters, alone in the right corner, but also leaves two elite shooters in Channing Frye and Goran Dragic wide open at the top of the key. The Heat played this poorly here, but defenses also don't always have to account for five 3-point threats at the same time. Little defensive slipups such as the one Chalmers made can be detrimental to a defense when dealing with the Suns' shooting-centric small-ball lineups.

The threat of the shot has also made Phoenix lethal in pick-and-roll man plays. Phoenix ranks first in the league in these sets, according to Synergy Sports, scoring on nearly 54% of its attempts where the screener either fades out for a shot or rolls out to attack the rim.

This clip is much like the last example where Dragic, a speedy and athletic finisher at the rim, commands a double coming off the screen. The difference here is that Frye fades out the moment he notices his defender, Chris Bosh, has helped to defend Dragic on his way to the basket. Dragic doesn't hesitate to hit an open Frye here, leaving him with an open shot at a spot on the floor where Frye hits about 41% of his attempts.

Phoenix's floor spacing has also played into it becoming the league's deadliest transition team, leading the league in 18.5 points on fast breaks per game. The plan is simple: When starting in transition, immediately dish the ball out to one of the point guards and have them streak down the court while the bigs run to the corners, a plan reminiscent of the "Seven Seconds or Less" offense used here just a few seasons prior.

Having big men around the arc who can shoot in transition makes defending Phoenix on the fast break tricky for defenses: The defense will either have to run out to defend the shooters and leave the lane wide open for guards to slice through, or help in the paint and chance an open 3-pointer. And as if having a roster full of shooters isn't bad enough for defenses, Phoenix also has some of the fastest guards in the league. According to player tracking from NBA.com, Ish Smith is tied for being the 3rd fastest player in the league averaging about 4.6 mph. Dionte Christmas and Goran Dragic don't trail far behind Smith averaging 4.4 mph and 4.3 mph, respectively.

One number that really stands out in all of this though: According to player tracking, Eric Bledsoe is the 12th fastest player on this team. When a player like Bledsoe, often viewed in this league as a physical specimen, is the 12th fastest player on a team that leads the league in fast break points, opposing defenses should just be downright terrified.

Phoenix has also held up surprisingly well on the defensive end with a 103.3 defensive rating (16th in the league), despite having few known defensive stoppers outside of Bledsoe and Tucker. The Suns defend the 3 extremely well, holding opponents to 33.8% from behind the arc (ranked 4th in the league). As to be expected with all of the small-ball lineups that Phoenix runs though, the Suns aren't the best at defending the paint allowing 46.8 points in the paint per 100 possessions (ranked 26th in the league). This should hopefully improve over time though, with the team's two main interior defenders, Miles Plumlee and Alex Len, still being very young and making basic defensive mistakes. With weak interior defense however, Phoenix is one of the league's worst teams when defending pick-and-roll ball handler shots (28th in the league, according to Synergy), often allowing the opposing team's smaller guards and more athletic players to slash into the lane at will.

One number to make note of though: Phoenix is the league's best team at defending isolation plays according to Synergy, a number that can be used to show consistent effort on the defensive end. Several broadcasters and NBA critics have gushed over Hornacek's great coaching and getting the most out of his players, and figures like this can be used as a testament to that.

Also, while on the topic of consistent effort: P.J. Tucker has become an interesting player worth keeping an eye on. After spending 2007-2012 playing overseas, Tucker has reinvented himself as one of the league's better "3-and-D" guys. He has a play style very similar to that of Shane Battier: A glue guy who can knock down the corner 3 at an above-average rate, is often tasked with defending the opposing team's best player, and just works his ass off every night. And not even making $1 million this year, he's a steal for Phoenix.

Phoenix will be an interesting watch going forward. Approaching the deadline the Suns have arguably the most flexible set of assets, including potentially six first-round picks in the next two drafts[2] and Emeka Okafor's extremely attractive $14.5 million expiring contract. This combination of trade assets can be turned into a very nice player (or players), but the worry here could also be disrupting a 12-man rotation that seemingly works very well together. Phoenix may be interested in upgrading at the center position by dealing Len or Plumlee with a pick and Okafor's contract, but would also have to sacrifice a developing young asset in exchange for winning now. The Suns could also possibly use an upgrade in the backup guard area, where Ish Smith often struggles to score the ball and Leandro Barbosa, already 31, is not quite the solution going forward.

The Suns would probably also not be wrong in standing pat at the deadline and keep this core together going forward, leaving itself with a very flexible amount of cap room to work with this summer. The team will have to pay Bledsoe as he enters restricted free agency this year[3], but besides him only Tucker, Barbosa, Christmas, and Kravtsov come off the books this year (a group of fairly inexpensive and replaceable players).

Summer 2015 becomes a much more interesting scenario for Phoenix, with only Dragic's $7.5 million on the books through 2015-16, with a player option that he will likely decline depending on his play over the next season and a half.

The plan for the future seems to be building around Bledsoe's upcoming deal, so holding off to trade until that is settled in the summer might be the best choice for Phoenix. But for right now, this team is a hell of a lot of fun to watch. If Phoenix can hold on to its playoff spot, it will be a team nobody wants to face in Round 1.

[1] If the season ended today Phoenix would retain three of these picks for this year’s draft: Indiana’s (lottery protected, so you can lock that one in), Washington’s (protected 1-12, and Washington seems to be on its way to the playoffs), and its own. The last pick, protected 1-13, comes from Minnesota, a team that could very well end up back in the lottery this year.

[2] The Suns potentially have the four picks in this draft that I mentioned previously, and has both its own and the Lakers’ 2015 first-rounder (protected 1-5) leftover from the Nash deal for next year’s draft.

[3] A contract that reports say the Suns will match "any offer" of.

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