When you didn't make the playoffs last year, you need to improve in a lot of areas. The Suns were good in some ways, but lacking in others.
We can debate the makeup of the roster all day long, and even the schemes the Suns employ. We can even suggest trades that would fill in every hole known to man and somehow make the Suns an 82-0 team without giving up any necessary players. You know who you are. You're already itching to jump down to the comments section to suggest a blockbuster.
But this article focuses on the current Suns roster, and identifies one way the Suns can improve without making any trades.
Some things we know for sure about the Phoenix Suns this season:
- The Hydra will make the Suns exciting and will win the battle of back courts on most nights
- The front court will be frustrating and will lose the battle of front courts on most nights
Breaking down the pluses and minuses of the front court is a long, drawn-out conversation. Today, I am going to focus on three-point plays, some of which are generated in the paint as shooting fouls on made baskets.
Last season, the Suns finished in the Top 15 on defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession) for the first time since the 2006-07 season. They did so not with a premiere shot blocking anchor in the middle, but with a three-point line defense that ranked #2 overall in the league.
The Suns allowed a lot of scores at the rim, but more than made up for it by winning the battle of the three-pointer.
Defending the three
When you are smaller than most of your opponents, you cannot expect to win by playing traditional defense. You're going to get beat up under the basket.
But games aren't won or lost under the basket any more. When the object is to score more points than your opponent, the key is to stop the shots that create the most points.
There are only two ways to score more than two points on a possession: making a three-point basket from behind the arc, and enticing a shooting-foul on a made basket.
The Suns were the second-best team in league at defending the three-point line (34.1%) while being 8th best overall in making them (37.2%). Overall, the Suns took 5.2 more threes than their opponent and outscored them by 9.1 points per game from behind the arc.
For the Suns to continue to have success this season, they will have to reprise that advantage. On the perimeter, the Suns bring back all of their regulars from last season, with only swapping undersized Ish Smith for undersized Isaiah Thomas.
And to that end, the Suns in the preseasons have defended just as well as last year (2nd in three-point defense) but have not shot the ball as well. You can throw preseason stats out the window, for sure, but still it's good to see consistency in scheme there.
Making the three
Despite losing Channing Frye to the Orlando Magic, the Suns return all four of their top three-point shooters from last season (Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker and Marcus Morris made 38.1 - 40.7%) and six of their top seven overall. They also added Anthony Tolliver who made 41% of his threes last season in Charlotte, which would have been tops on the Suns, and Isaiah Thomas who made 40% of his threes in Sacramento last year before hurting his shooting wrist in February.
The Suns were only 8th in three-point percentage last year, so it's not a stretch to assume similar or better results this season.
Committing shooting fouls - the other 3-point play
I cannot find a perfect stat for this, so bear with me. I wanted to find out where the Suns ranked last year on the other kind of three-point play - shooting fouls. Ideally, I wanted to know how many three-point plays the Suns converted versus surrendered last year via the shooting foul. Unfortunately, I could not find such a stat on a team level. Synergy used to have it but they have shut down public access as of October 1. But I got close.
Back in the mid-2000s, one of Mike D'Antoni's tenets for his Suns team was to commit the fewest fouls possible. In fact, the Suns regularly were in the bottom three of the league in fouls committed. His premise was sound: why allow the other team to turn a two-pointer into a three-pointer?
Where Phoenix struggled was committing way too many fouls. The Suns committed the 23rd-most fouls last season and were 23rd in opponent free throw attempts per offensive play.
These errors should be correctable. As Miles Plumlee gains experience, he will learn when and how to commit fouls and when to just allow the points. He will also get better at early positioning on defense, so he doesn't put himself into recovery mode that so often results in fouls. Unfortunately, Plumlee hasn't shown any progress in this area in preseason.
Also working against the Suns this season is the role Alex Len will play. The 7'1" Len is only 21 and has barely played in the past 18 months, so he is very likely to have a high foul rate this season.
The Morris twins, as well, have high foul rates despite having a lot more NBA experience. As they enter their fourth seasons, each should be expected to reduce their foul rates this year.
If the Suns can somehow finish in the middle of the pack on shooting fouls committed, they can stop shooting themselves in the foot so much this season.
Drawing shooting fouls
Back in the mid-2000s, the Suns would prefer to convert their own three-point plays than watch the other team do it. In those days, PF Amare Stoudemire was a master at drawing shooting fouls on the pick-and-roll.
These Suns of 2014-15 have no one like STAT. Yet these Suns do have three point guards who thrive at drawing shooting fouls on drives to the rim from the perimeter. Overall, the Suns were a respectable 13th overall last season in free throws attempted per offensive play. Considering the Suns disadvantage in size, it's a testament to Dragic and Bledsoe's, as well as Markieff Morris', fearlessness driving into the teeth of the defense.
This year, the Suns have added Isaiah Thomas who is good in his own right at driving to the rim and drawing fouls along the way.
All three of the Hydra were among the league's Top 13 players with the most drives per game, Top 14 in team PPG on drives and Top 16 on personal PPG on drives, per NBA.com/stats. These guys create points in bunches.
Three out of four ain't bad. The Suns are:
- Really good at stopping three-pointers
- Pretty good at making them
- Okay, and getting better, at drawing shooting fouls
- Really bad at committing shooting fouls
The Suns will likely continue to focus on both kinds of three-point plays this season and it will be one of their keys to the season. Between the long-range bomber offense and the Slash Brothers, or Slash Triplets, or Hydra, they will continue to score in bunches.
Where the Suns need to improve is on the defensive end. They need to maintain their effectiveness in defending the long bombs while also reducing their foul rate at the rim.
Teams are going to score at the rim. They just will. The Suns are not the biggest team in the NBA nor the stingiest defense.
They just need to stop making matters worse by committing shooting fouls. The Suns are an aggressive defense. Fouls will happen. Layups will be given up.
Just don't make it a three-point play.