Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas....who is the go-to playmaker on the Phoenix Suns? Well, there isn't exactly one, at least not in the traditional sense. "Playmaker" has a much different definition for the Suns than it does for most other teams in the NBA, or even former iterations of the Suns. While Phoenix still continues to employ great point guards, as it has historically done, gone are the days of Steve Nash 14 assists-games. Welcome to the age of slash and kick (but only if you can't get to the rim).
With its glut of point guards, playmakers are seemingly a dime a dozen on the Suns; the only problem is that they all come at the same position. So how will the Suns handle playmaking? Let's take a look at last season first.
2013-2014 season recap
Astoundingly, Phoenix ranked 29th in the league for assists, at 19.1 per game, which was also just a smidge above league worse Sacramento's 18.9 assists per game. How could such a potent offense (8th in Offensive Rating) have so much trouble distributing the ball?
The offense was simply not designed to move the ball around the same way the San Antonio Spurs do. By starting two point guards, Phoenix's offense revolved heavily around the penetration of Dragic and Bledsoe, and for good reason, as they were the best finishers on the team. This means that the majority of their points came from self-created offense. If they couldn't get to the rim, they would kick it out, most likely to a 3-point shooter. The Suns took 25.1 3s a game (4th highest), which accounted for 30% of their shots. Even though the Suns shot well from the 3-point line, it is still a low percentage shot that is not always going to translate into assists. And when Bledsoe and Dragic weren't in the game, the offense mostly revolved around Gerald Green and Markieff Morris isolation plays. All of this results in a low number of assists.
Such low assist numbers would be alarming for most teams, but it wasn't too much of a concern for the Suns (see: 48 wins, top 10 offense). The roster did not have playmakers outside of the point guards, thus players were forced to create for themselves. It worked.
The roster for the 2014-2015 Suns is largely the same as last year's squad, but with one pivotal subtraction in Channing Frye, and one equally as pivotal addition in Isaiah Thomas. Don't be surprised to see the Suns rank low in assists per game again this year, but again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Jeff Hornacek tailored a great offense around few playmakers last season, and we should fully expect to see a similar product this year. Even though they're not racking up huge assist tallies, the offense is completely contingent upon those few playmakers. Without any further ado, here are your Phoenix Suns 2014-2015 playmakers.
Goran Dragic is probably the most capable playmaker on the roster, or at least at the moment. His assists numbers took a bit of a dip last year (7.4 in 2012-13, 5.9 in 2013-14. He also averaged 9.5 assists post All Star break in 2013, so he's more than capable of dropping huge assist games), but this is to be expected when playing alongside another point guard, and in a system that requires him to score.
Dragic is the best ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations on the team, but we'll likely see a slight drop in productivity here without Frye. The Dragic-Frye pick-and-pop was deadly last year, and Frye will be sorely missed in this regard. Hopefully Markieff Morris can replicate some of that success, but he has never been a high volume 3-point shooter like Frye, and has only shot 3s around a league average percentage at best. Frye was Dragic's go-to weapon on the pick-and-roll, but he should still have plenty of weapons around him, especially if Bledsoe continues to develop as a 3-point shooter.
Bledsoe plays very similarly to Dragic (Bledsoe's pre-injury numbers were eerily similar to Dragic's before the dragon went off in his absence), but he's slightly more of a shoot-first point guard. As a playmaker, I think it's safe to say he's still learning. He's demonstrated decent court vision, although he bungles passes from time to time and will sometimes try to force angles that just aren't there. Sometimes it doesn't look like he's putting in the proper amount of effort to get the pass off, and his 3.3 turnovers per game will attest to that. Still, Bledsoe is young, and last season was his first crack at starter's minutes. Despite the turnovers, he still averaged 5.5 assists. He still has plenty of time to improve, and his athleticism will help create tons of opportunities off of penetration dump-offs and kick-outs.
Don't sleep on the Bledsoe-Plumlee connection either. For whatever reason, Bledsoe seemed to be better at finding Plumlee on the pick-and-roll than Dragic was last season. It shouldn't come as a surprise to see that Plumlee's field goal percentage jumped from a paltry 47% and 45% in January and February, respectively, when Bledsoe was out, to 57% in March, and then 63% in April, after Bledsoe's return (per basketball-reference.com). We should see plenty of Bledsoe-Plumlee pick-and-roll action in 2014-2015; hopefully it becomes an effective weapon.
And then there were three. Ish Smith was a decent playmaker last season, but could only be trusted in small bursts. Enter Isaiah Thomas. Thomas completely changes the backup point guard situation in Phoenix. With Thomas in the fold, Jeff Hornacek will always have at least one of his playmakers on the court, and, more likely, two at most times.
Thomas was just as good as a playmaker as Dragic and Bledsoe were last season, too. Remember when I pointed out Sacramento's league-low 18.9 assists per game? Thomas was responsible for a third of those. Not bad at all, especially when you take a look at that roster. His 6.3 assists per game and 32.2 assist percentage were the highest among Dragic, Bledsoe and himself. It's unlikely he'll produce those kind of numbers while sharing point guard duties three ways, but the little guy should fit seamlessly into Phoenix's pick-and-roll heavy system. Thomas should make a killing off of Green and Marcus Morris 3s, or Tucker corner 3s, depending on which small forward comes off the bench. Also, Anthony Tolliver. Whichever point guard is playing with that bench unit will be absolutely flanked by 3-point shooters.
Honorable mention: Tyler Ennis
We may see him in spot minutes as the season goes on, but it's unlikely the rookie will see the floor a whole lot in his first season, barring injury to Dragic, Bledsoe, or Thomas. He gives the Suns a different look at the point, however, as he is more of a traditional point guard. Ennis is perhaps the best game manager amongst the point guards, so it might be interesting to see how he will fit into the Suns system if he gets the chance. But I wouldn't hold your breath for that this season.
Honorable mention: Markieff Morris
While he only averaged 1.8 assists per game last season, Morris was the best passing big on the roster. A good portion of his assists came from the brother connection with Marcus, but those certainly still count as assists on the stat sheet. Morris will be in a much different situation this year in a starter's role, and he is being asked to spread the floor. Still, he might be able to drop a few dimes a game if he can attack close outs and hit open shooters on the penetration. Markieff won't hesitate to pass up a shot if there's a better one available, so I thought he should at least get an honorable mention.
There you have it, folks. Your 2014-2015 Phoenix Suns playmakers. Just like last year, the point guards will be running the show. There probably won't be a whole lot of assists again, but they're still making plays. The offense is in good hands.