Coming into the season, the Phoenix Suns planned to employ an unorthodox lineup of two point guards to run the offense from different sides of the floor and creating points off their drives to the rim.
Most of the NBA scoffed at the notion, pointing out that neither Goran Dragic nor Eric Bledsoe could properly compliment the other because neither was a good catch-and-shoot outlet, and that the Suns in general couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with jumpers, let alone the inside of the net, when those drives failed.
Drive, drive, and drive again
Yet, Bledsoe and Dragic produced a 10-3 December record together in the starting lineup (12-6 overall as paired starters) because their to-the-basket game was virtually unstoppable.
Goran Dragic is 5th in the league in drives* per game (9.4) and team points off drives (10.2, of which Dragic scores 4.6 himself on 48% shooting).
*Drive, per player tracking stats, is when a player starts 20+ feet from the rim and drives to within 10 feet or less before shooting or passing. Most importantly for this discussion, this stats excludes fast breaks.
Eric Bledsoe is 15th in the league in drives per game (7.5) and 12th in team points off drives (8.6, of which Bledsoe scores 5.9 himself), finishing 57% of those field goal attempts. That 57% conversion on drives ranks him 2nd in the league (to LeBron James) among players with 5+ drives per game.
But when Eric Bledsoe went down, half the Suns offense went with him. The Suns offense is designed around creating points off drives to the rim, but the next best driver was Ish Smith, ranked 86th in the league at creating 3.8 points per game off drives.
Enter Leandrinho Barbosa.
When the Suns signed Barbosa after Bledsoe's injury, it was as if the waters parted and provided the Suns with a perfect partner for Dragic in Bledsoe's absence.
"He got to the hole several times," coach Hornacek said of Barbosa after the 117-103 win over Denver in which Barbosa had 13 points and 3 assists. "[It] doesn't even look like he is going that hard but he knows when to do it. He takes one or two dribbles and then he explodes and that explosive step is what gets him by people."
In only 5 games, after missing the past 12 months of NBA action due to a knee injury, Barbosa already ranks 31st in the entire league in drives per game (6.2) and 18th in points created off drives (8.6), despite only playing 22 minutes per contest.
Even better, his 54.2% field goal percentage on drives ranks him 7th in the league, among players who drive at least 5 times per game. Not bad for a guy who wasn't in the NBA two weeks ago.
"I think that could be a big weapon for us as we go forward," Hornacek said. "He can also make some plays and passes and kick outs and it will probably help our whole team. He has always liked to drive the ball."
Suns fans recall that Barbosa's game was tailor-made for creating points off drives. He never created a lot of assists. His career high is 4.0 in 32.7 minutes per game, with the next best season being 2.8 assists per game in 28 minutes. By contrast, Ish Smith is posting 2.3 assists per game this season in only 12 minutes per contest.
Still, the Suns look like a better offensive unit when he is on the court. Being paired with Dragic or Ish Smith is good for Barbosa so he doesn't have to run an offense. But this team doesn't employ traditional point guards. Their point guards are attackers who can handle and score. Dishing is only when the play doesn't work.
But it gets even better
We've only seen a portion of what Barbosa brings to the table though.
A career 40% three-point shooter, Barbosa has not taken or made many threes yet (just 1-8 so far). He's getting to the rim without even being a threat to drain the three.
When Barbosa gets completely comfortable in the scheme, expect his three-or-drive game to be an even better compliment to an already potent offense.