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Phoenix Suns offense appears more potent than ever, but don't expect more assists

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The Phoenix Suns have attempted to double down on their primary scoring options this season by upgrading their drive-and-kick game. Those upgrades should improve the offensive efficiency but not necessarily the assist totals.

Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sport

The Phoenix Suns offense was tough to defend last year. They had a scheme different than most other NBA teams, a prerequisite for winning more games than your talent level demands. Amidst an 82-game schedule, opponents don't have much time to prepare for unique teams.

The Suns offensive scheme was built around the strengths of its two best players, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Both are attacking, score-first point guards. So the Suns decided to play both at the same time, a unique playing style not yet emulated by the rest of the league. The rest of the Suns lineup around the ball handler consisted of spot-up three-point shooters with a single big man (Miles Plumlee or Markieff Morris) in the paint to maximize the spacing for guard penetration.

After winning two-thirds of their games when healthy, there's no reason to change it this year. They even added PG Isaiah Thomas to make sure they wouldn't have to.

"We want to try to stay the same," coach Jeff Hornacek said before the preseason win over Denver on Friday night. "We want to bring it up the court, get into our early offense, swing it from side to side, get quick hitters for our guards so they can break the defense down and then kick out to guys. So that's not going to change."

The Suns were 4th in the league in three-point attempts per possession, 6th in makes and 8th in percentage. Nearly every play call was a pick-and-roll, with the screener popping out to the three-point line while the ball handler drove around the pick headed straight for the basket.

That offense was on full display on Friday night against Denver with Anthony Tolliver and Markieff Morris rotating as the screener. Tolliver was signed to replace the offensive skills that Channing Frye brought to the table - a quick and accurate release and a (semi) unconscious desire to get the shot off as soon as it touches your hand.

"I might lead the league in three-pointers made and attempted this year," Tolliver said after hoisting 8 three pointers in 18 minutes of play on Friday against Denver. "Because I'm going to get a lot of open shots. Any time I'm open I'm going to put it up."

Having Tolliver in the lineup appeared, for one game at least, to put the Suns pick-and-roll offense back into domination mode.

"That's why I came here," Tolliver said. "These guards here are special. They really put a lot of pressure on the defense to get to the basket. My man has to make a decision every time. Sometimes it's a layup for us and sometimes it's an open three."

The Suns also feel more comfortable with Markieff Morris behind the arc.

"We feel confident with Markieff shooting threes," Hornacek said right before Morris went 2-for-3 in the game against Denver. "He's going to find the balance. Two years ago he shot too many. Last year he found the midrange game he's very good at. We want him to mix it up and do it at the right time.

"The only real difference [between Keef and Tolliver] will be when Markieff is in the game we'd go to more post up plays for him, where Anthony is more on the outside."

One downside of that game plan is that the players, outside of the point guards, were not good at setting up other teammates once they got the ball. Nearly every time, the roller, post man or weak side shooter (like Gerald Green) would put the ball up or dribble themselves into their own shot.

The Suns were 29th in the league in assists per game, assisting on less than half of their field goals.

"Our two highest scorers were our point guards," Hornacek explained. "You don't get a lot of assists when you come off a pick and you go lay it in the basket or make a shot. I don't get that concerned about the assists. We see it enough if a guy doesn't make extra passes and misses somebody open that we have to get better at."

The secondary offense consisted of dumping the ball down to Miles Plumlee or Markieff Morris on the post to create a score in the paint, but neither was proficient at making a scoring pass once they got the ball. Plumlee almost never passed the ball. Markieff Morris was 4th on the team in assists with just 1.8 per game, most of those (it appeared) to his brother Marcus on kick-outs.

This year, the Suns do expect to get more passing out of their non point guards.

"Our assist totals will probably go up," Hornacek said. "Just because I feel that with Markieff or Anthony at the 4, or Marcus [Morris] or P.J. [Tucker], I envision us hitting the roller a lot more and that guy make a play. Those guys aren't just stand still shooters. They should be able to create some assists."

The four players mentioned combined for 1.9 assists per 36 minutes last year, with Markieff far and away the best (2.5 per 36). Yet Hornacek expects to see improvement there.

"We feel with our guards," Hornacek said. "Teams are probably going to jump these guys a little bit more and that will put it in these guys hands and we can play off of that."

Don't hold your breath on the power forwards becoming great playmakers this season. Expect the Suns offense to improve primarily due to better shooting off the primary offense. Isaiah Thomas is a major upgrade from Ish Smith and Anthony Tolliver can make the same percentage of threes that Channing Frye made.

With expected improvement from Markieff Morris (31.5%) and Eric Bledsoe (35.7%) on threes, as long as the others don't see a major decline collectively -- Gerald Green, Marcus Morris, P.J. Tucker, Goran Dragic -- the Suns might shoot into the top 5 of the league in three-point percentage this season.