Most basketball fans are at least fairly familiar with the work of Bill Simmons. And anyone who is familiar has likely realized that his work is largely based on gimmicks, rhetoric, and wit. As is common around this time of year, Conference Finals play has been somewhat overshadowed by off the court rumors. However, this year, many of these rumors include the Suns. We knew this time would come. The franchise spent the off-season gathering assets, exceeded expectations during the season, and seems an ideal landing place with a solidified management nucleus going forward. One of Simmons' favorite games is to analyze the way that various players and rosters would plug into the style and mindset of the past year's Finals. This game is just as beneficial, and perhaps more practical, to compare this year's Suns to the four teams in the NBA's final four.
Teams like the Rockets, Sixers, and Heat have revolutionized NBA offense in recent years with a quick drive-and-shoot offense that leaves traditional defenses scrambling on closeouts and cross-legged on drive-byes. Defenses, in turn, changed as well, valuing "D and 3" types more than ever before, and rejiggering pick and roll coverage to counter the versatility of the Chris Boshes and Thaddeus Youngs of the league. The Suns are just the same, utilizing their own "D and 3" wing player and athletic frontcourt defense to stifle offenses. While defense was obviously a weakness of this year's squad, especially when Bledsoe missed time, the system maximized talent and the players hustled. The team took a page out of the Heat defensive playbook, with the guards aggressively fighting through screens while the bigs took a step or two out of the paint towards the pick, "showing" towards the ballhandler. Dragic and Bledsoe both have the quickness and strength to get through these picks, and although their young stable of bigs struggle with footwork on occasion, they do not lack in athleticism whatsoever. Frye can occasionally be beaten off the dribble or around the pick, but the dependability of Hornacek's system allowed them to count on a weakside rotation to clean up the mess. Pairing this simple aggression with reliable iso defense from Tucker and Frye and a vicious on-ball attack from Bledsoe gave way to the Suns' 13th-ranked defense, based on defensive efficiency, or the number of points allowed, on average, per 100 possessions.
The narrative of the Suns' offense was built up throughout the season, as a young, coveted coach built a dynamic system around players who may not have meshed on any other team. The breakout of Dragic into an offensive focal point, with Bledsoe showcasing legitimate skill as a pick and roll ballhandler as well as a knack for finding teammates in transition and outside the arc surrounding his drives, turned the Suns offense into a real juggernaut to be reckoned with in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Dragic became a bona fide force in the paint, becoming the eleventh-ranked scorer on drives according to the NBA.com player tracking stats, with a startling accuracy of 52% shooting on 9.4 "drives" per game. He also had a 47% eFG% (effective field goal percentage, which is adjusted for the value of threes) on pull up shots, in the realm of a player like Tony Parker, the star of a Conference-finalist Spurs team that values efficiency more than almost any other team. These numbers put him well above stars like Paul George, LeBron James, and Russell Westbrook, showing that the Suns have found a centerpiece on offense, one capable of playing on and off the ball, and who has proven himself among his successful peers who find themselves in the Conference Finals.
Another part of the modern NBA that has become increasingly valuable is the three pointer, and there were few teams during the 2013-2014 season that utilized versatility and confusion better to score from downtown than the Suns. The Suns roster carried the fourth- and eleventh-ranked three point specialists when it came to "catch and shoot" situations, per NBA.com. Channing Frye took cues from Chris Bosh, becoming an efficient volume bomber from three. He had a 55 eFG% on 6.2 catch and shoot opportunities per game, with his smaller counterpart, Gerald Green, shooting slightly better (58 eFG%) on less attempts (5.3 tries per game). Frye got most of his shots off of pick and pop plays with Dragic and Bledsoe, bending the defense and preventing strong side help, quick rotations, or double teams off of the pick. This may have been the most valuable piece of the Suns offense all year. Another candidate for this award may have been the suddenly reliable scoring expertise of Gerald Green, who was acquired as a throw-in to the Luis Scola deal last summer. His athleticism and shooting touch were irreplaceable, especially as he filled Bledsoe's spot in the starting lineup for the latter part of the year, becoming somewhat of a Manu Ginobli- type electrifying scoring guard who could hang with the starters for long stretches. This was more present in his shooting splits, which are more like Manu's than most would expect. Green shot 38% on above the break threes, 66% in the restricted area, and a surprising 44% in the midrange, surpassing even the most excited expectations for this disappointing engima.
Lastly, the bench played a very important role in the team's success this season, though may have still been the weakest part of the team. Injuries to Alex Len and Bledsoe, as well as unreliable play from youngsters kept the team somewhat lacking in talent. For these purposes, the only bench players being considered are Green, the Morris twins, and Ish Smith. Green's success is obvious, but was actually slightly better in the minutes he played in the starting lineup, when he got to the line more often and shot better from outside. Markieff Morris became a hybrid of multiple players who are still playing in the NBA's semi-final round, including Chris Bosh, Tim Duncan and Serge Ibaka. He honed his shooting and became less of a chucker, beginning to prefer the midrange shot and face-up game to pick and pop threes or post-ups. He only attempted about one three-pointer per game, allowing him to maintain a respectable 33% average on those shots, while he maximized his potential in the paint and midrange areas, shooting 63% in the restricted area and 46% from mid, again per NBA.com. He was especially effective on driving layups and step-back jumpers, shooting a combined 59% on these looks. Hornacek allowed Markieff to utilize his range, strength and quickness to score over smaller defenders, leading to 'Kieff's surprising run at the Sixth Man of the Year Award. His brother did the opposite, leaving the interior almost entirely, with almost half of his shots coming from three this year. On these three-point tries, he shot 38%, and considering the volume of attempts, this made him an extremely valuable outside presence for a team lacking any depth at the small forward position outside of his over-sized frame. Ish Smith generally ran the table well for these guys, assisting on 28 percent of plays when he was on the court, and leading the team to 102.5 points per 100 possessions during the minutes he played, according to NBA.com.
The Phoenix Suns season is a monstrous success from any vantage point, but looking at the countless records broken and improvements made prove this even more. However, the most important stride taken towards contention in this league is expertly mimicking the moves of the other successful franchises competing alongside them. From defensive containment to offensive versatility, the Suns have the current talent and future assets to maximize the considerable matchup-based potential they have created over the rest of the league. And for that, we should be resoundingly grateful, and hope that Bill Simmons is right.