In all the years of Phoenix Suns basketball, there have been a lot, and a lot of eras to boot, one thing that has always been a staple is unselfish offensive basketball. From Kevin Johnson, to Jason Kidd, to Steve Nash all Suns teams were at or near the top of the league in assists per game as a team.
Until this year...
What happened? The two-headed monster at the point guard position has been limited to one Dragon Head for most of the year, but even so he has not played selfishly and the team has been winning. And scoring. How can the Suns be a Top 10 Scoring Offense and the WORST assist team in the entire league?
Enough of me, let's get to what matters. The staff takes on the woeful passing Suns, here we go.
Twenty-Eighth Topic: Play-Making
1. Breaking the Ice: Does the loss to the Jazz go straight to the top of Exhibits for Goran Dragic's MVP legitimacy this season?
Dave King: Well, Dragic is certainly the MVP of the Suns, even though Eric Bledsoe may end up being the most important player to the Suns' playoff hopes (apologies to fans of new addition Shavlik Randolph). Goran Dragic is simply the best iteration of Suns star you could want - open, honest, humble, personable, grateful and yet super-competitive and tough as nails. The dude is playing on a bum ankle and sets a career high in scoring. Unbelievable. With Dragic, the Suns can beat anyone but won't dominate the best. Without Dragic (and Bledsoe), the Suns can't beat their way out of a paper bag.
Jacob Padilla: The Suns aren't going to win enough games and Kevin Durant isn't going anywhere, so as good as Gooran Dragic has been he's not going to win the League MVP. However, I'd be hard-pressed to find someone not named Durant or LeBron James that does more for and is more important to his team than Dragic. He's been incredible, and he just keeps getting better and better. The Utah game shows just how vital Dragic is to everything the Suns do.
Jim Coughenour: Well... it was just one game and it probably didn't go viral in a national perspective. It should resonate with Suns fans to a certain extent, but does it really solely crystallize Goran's indispensability or does it also illustrate how injuries have undermined the point guard depth on the team. Would the Suns have lost to the Jazz if Bledsoe had been healthy to run the point? Ish Smith, who should be playing sparingly, on an island just isn't going to get it done. I think it does reinforce Goran's inherent value, but I wouldn't put it near the zenith of specific examples.
Kris Habbas: Well... For the Suns... There, I did the same intro as everyone. Uniformity is key. Take either this destructive loss as a low bench-mark for the Suns and therefore a reminder of the importance to Dragic has to the Suns and then, take the win over the Pelicans as a high bench-mark for his value to the team. Fair enough? I am exhausted trying to make the world (or SB Nation in a vacuum) aware of the great value of Dragic to this team. Even the rest of the staffers here have not jumped fully on the bandwagon.
Mike Lisboa: For the Suns? Absolutely. And he should definitely get consideration though he won't win the award. Lebron James and Kevin Durant are playing a different brand of basketball than anyone else right now. He's definitely the team MVP, but he is not the league MVP.
Sean Sullivan: It does, but it won't matter. In order to be a genuine MVP candidate you have to be a star player on one of the best teams in the league. Dragic has cemented his status as a star player, but the Suns are too far from the top for any player to actually be considered for MVP. However, Dragic is certainly playing like an MVP, and is he the most valuable player on the Suns by far, as evidenced by how they play without him.
Sreekar Jasthi: I think his two career-best scoring performances--the Rockets game followed by his 40 point outburst against the Pelicans--sandwiching the loss to the Jazz makes for the strongest case. What a week to prove just how much Goran means to this team. In the context of how important one player is to his respective team, Goran Dragic absolutely belongs in the conversation of being a top-10 MVP candidate.
2. The Phoenix Suns are last in the NBA in total assists... How is that possible with their style and roster?
JP: It's not surprising at all, honestly. Dragic is the team's best distributor, but he's also the best finisher on the team. Dragic accounts for roughly a fifth of the Suns' offense by himself (not even accounting for the points he creates via assists), and most of the points he creates in transition, off the dribble or by making cuts off the ball. He does most of the work himself, so that doesn't create a lot of assist opportunities for the other guys. Dragic could very easily look to create more shots for others, but at the rate he's scoring himself there is no need. The Morris twins (outside of some occasional high-low action from Markieff) and Gerald Green all take plenty of jumpers off the dribble or in isolation, taking away assist opportunities there. Overall, with the way the roster is constructed, the Suns aren't going to end up with a ton of assists.
JC: Dragic, Bledsoe and Smith are the only competent distributors on the team and none of them have been great in that capacity. Besides those three nobody on the team even averages two assists per game. Frye and Green are mostly catch and shoot players, but three pointers don't produce many assists per attempt. Markieff and Marcus love them some tightly contested face up 16-18 footers. And the style doesn't necessarily include making the extra pass, either. I've seen lots of opportunities to set up teammates in transition where the ball handler takes it all the way himself. Like I've said before, it's ironic that an assist-challenged team's best player has the nickname of "The One Man Fast Break."
KH: Let me answer my question with another question -- Take the ball out of Dragic and Bledsoe's hands and who is there to trust making plays? Yeah. Ish Smith is a back-up at the same position as DragonBlade, but outside of the point guard position there are no play-makers on this roster. Period.
ML: Isos, isos and more isos. This isn't Steve Nash driving and finding the open man. The offense doesn't run through Dragić the same way it did through Nash. If Goran drives, there's a good chance he'll finish. Gerald Green, Leandro Barbosa, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris have demonstrated they can get their own shot as well. P.J. Tucker and Channing Frye get assisted on the perimeter and occasionally Miles Plumlee in the middle. It's possible that when Eric Bledsoe comes back, we'll see more distribution, but his game is an awful lot like Dragić's when it comes to driving and finishing. I think it's more important that the team continues to play within themselves and do what works rather than worry about assist numbers and passing for the sake of passing. This isn't Hoosiers!
SS: As great of a scorer and player as Dragic is, and he is GREAT, I've noticed he isn't the best at finding open teammates, especially off tight switches and rolls to the basket. One of the reason I think Plumlee's production has dropped off is that he hasn't had as many opportunities to catch and finish inside as he did when Bledsoe was still playing. My prediction is that when Bledsoe is back, the Plumlee we saw at the beginning of the season will come back as well. Dragic, on the other hand, is much better at driving off the pick and roll or kicking it out to the perimeter. Although three's are one of the Suns strength's, it's still a relatively low percentage shot overall, which is why he doesn't get as many assists.
SJ: The Suns offense is highly based around transition points and isolations in the halfcourt. The team relies greatly on Goran Dragic (and Eric Bledsoe, when he's healthy) to create almost all the offense whenever he's on the floor. One of the other biggest scoring threats on this team is Markieff Morris, whose game is best in isolations against other big men. No one else on this time outside of Ish Smith and Leandro Barbosa (both of whom are inefficient) can consistently create offense for themselves and/or others, so the Suns' best playmakers are also their best scorers. That leads to lots of isolations and low assist numbers.
DK: Simply because of the design of the offense. Most assists are on kick outs to the three point line. But if the three is guarded, the play starts over. This team is limited to only one or two playmakers on the floor at a time, and all their playmakers do the same thing - drive and score, or kick.
3. Of the 14 teams in Playoff Contention (above .500) the Suns are one of only four teams with three or less players averaging 2.5+ assists per game this season. That is starting to rear its ugly head now, right?
KH: Yes, obviously. As the season goes on and good teams are known they are getting scouted. They are being game planned for. So when the Suns come on the schedule the opponents know that they need to focus on Dragic, Bledsoe, and the pick-and-roll with Channing Frye. Look at the losses and the assist numbers are low, Dragic is held in check in some regard, and there was no other player stepping up to the void of play-making. Let's go inside baseball a little here. At every Suns game there are about a half-dozen NBA Scouts that are there tracking plays, listing tendencies, and putting together game notes for their team. What do you think those scouts are writing down when watching the Suns?
ML: I don't think so. I think what's rearing its ugly head is how utterly dependent Phoenix is on having either a healthy Dragić or Bledsoe. Beyond those two, the Suns' offense becomes a black hole with regards to ball-handling and being a threat to either finish or pass on drives. Green and Barbosa are competent ball-handlers, but neither has above average court vision. If they're going to the hole, they're going to the hole. Ish Smith is a capable passer, but his decision-making and crispness make him turnover prone.
SS: I don't think so. The Suns' offense is primarily designed to isolate the ball-handler, pick-and-pop off the screen, or kick out open shots to the perimeter. Once Bledsoe returns this may change, but the Suns' offense has been very effective in utilizing these plays. Every team is going to be different, and the Suns are not the best at racking up assists, but they are extremely effective in what they do. I see no reason why that would change in a playoff situation.
SJ: This has been evident throughout most of the season and especially since Eric Bledsoe's injury. As I mentioned earlier, the Suns have very few players that can consistently create offense on their own, leaving a heavy load on Goran Dragic's shoulders (which he has admirably carried this season). I think some of the recent losses (especially the Utah game) has brought this lack of playmaking even more to attention, but it's a problem everyone knew this team would have before the season began. Fortunately, the best playmakers on the team--Dragic, Bledsoe, and Markieff--have done a fantastic job at creating offense while the role players have been great at finishing whatever offense they get.
DK: I don't know that the low assist totals hurt the Suns at all. The Suns can always throw two playmakers out there at once, who can break down a D and get a score or a good pass. If the Suns offense is improving over the season, which it is, then that's a good sign the low assists are not holding the team back.
JP: Only when Dragic isn't playing. What they are doing now works just fine when Dragic (and/or Bledsoe) are healthy. However, without that dynamic playmaker leading the charge other players have to try to do more than they are capable of, and that's when problems occur. Gerald Green and Markieff Morris in particular have been terrific in their normal roles, but their games can go downhill in a hurry if they try to step up and do more. As long as the team is mostly healthy and everyone can play their game, the Suns are just fine.
JC: Let's not forget that Ish is probably only above that mark as a byproduct of Bledsoe missing time. As far as ugly heads go, and trust me I have firsthand experience, I don't think that it necessarily undermines what the team is trying to do. Two points are still two points whether Goran finishes on the break himself or leaves it for a trailer. The team is fifth in the league in scoring (105.3) so the cupidity isn't stymieing scoring. I would point to some of the defensive issues as more grotesque than this concern.
4. Who can be the play-maker (or go-to) play-maker with Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic on the mend? ...or even if they are just having a bad game?
KH: No passing here, seriously guys... Answer the question!!! Markieff Morris is my answer. Green, Frye, Plumlee, and Tucker are all best off the ball catching the ball and scoring. Keef has shown potential as a mid-range face-up scorer against traditional fours at this level. Of everyone on this roster not named Dragic and Bledsoe I feel he has the most potential to be a play-maker with the ball as a passer, mismatch creator, and scorer. Having said that I am scared to see 5-7 Keef iso's on the high elbow where he is responsible for reading the defense and making plays.
ML: Errrr... no one? Ish Smith has the quickness but not the consistency to be a threat in or out of the lane, allowing his man to play off him and cover passing lanes. And as I said, neither Green nor Barbosa has the chops to create for their teammates. The Suns need either one of their 1-2 punch at the guard position to be healthy for that offense to thrive.
SS: The Suns' need either Dragic or Bledose. Ish is great as a change-of-pace PG off the bench, but I wouldn't want him starting...as evidenced in Utah. However, if Dragic or Bledsoe is simply having a bad game but is able to play, the Suns have quite a few options to score. Gerald Green is more than capable of providing the Suns' scoring punch in that case...same with Markieff or Channing Frye on some nights.
SJ: I think this question is searching for something that doesn't have a great answer here. Again, this team doesn't have great playmakers outside of the two guys you mentioned. Markieff has to continue to be consistent in being a consistent threat, while Ish Smith and Leandro Barbosa need to capably run the offense.
DK: The team is built on two-headed monster plays. Dragic and Ish. Dragic and Bledsoe. Barbosa and Ish. Dragic and Barbosa. And soon, Bledsoe and Barbosa. No need to figure out how to make it work without all those guys, with just 23 games left in the season.
JP: I was getting to this a little bit in my previous answer, but there really isn't an answer to your first question. Keef and Green are the two most likely candidates as the third and fourth leading scorers behind the two point guards (and both also average almost two assists per game), but if Dragic is out and those two have to have to take on more responsibility, it doesn't bode well for the Suns. However, if Dragic is simply having a bad game but is still able to play, all the other guys really need to do is step up their game and do what they do even better. Dragic still makes things happen even when he isn't having his best game.
JC: Markieff Morris has the highest non-guard assist % and is the highest non-guard scorer in points per 36 - so the answer is pretty obvious. The problem is that Markieff is still at an inchoate stage of growing into this role. So by next year he might become more effective in this role, but right now he is the one-eyed king of a blind group.
5. Do you trust Ish Smith, Archie Goodwin, or Gerald Green with the ball to make a good-to-great decision for the team in the offense?
KH: No passing here, seriously guys... Answer the question. The obvious answer here is Smith. He is the one with the ball when Dragic is out and has the responsibility to maintain the offense. Goodwin in transition, yes. Green on catch-and-shoot situations or in transition, yes. With the ball in their hands? Pass. Quickly.
ML: I would not want any of them to have to shoulder more than spot minutes as the primary play-maker. We saw in Utah what 48 minutes of that looks like and it was not pretty. Archie Goodwin might eventually develop some skills as a one, but he's too green right now. And Green is too Gr33n. He's a scorer not a passer. Ish is solid, but as someone else said, functions more as a change of pace guy than a legit point guard.
SS: Ish Smith is capable in limited minutes, but I don't want to see either Green nor Goodwin running the point. Barbosa would be the Suns' next best bet, but even then, he is much better as a scorer than a distributor.
SJ: Not really. I trust Ish Smith to always give it his all, Gerald Green to take a shot with even an inch of room between a defender and him, and Archie Goodwin to continue to ooze potential every now and then. But decision-making? Not even trust there.
DK: Not Green. Not Goodwin. But yes on Ish.
JP: What Sean said. Ish has made huge strides and has become very solid in his role, but Green is still hit-or-miss when trying to do anything other than finish plays and his decision-making will never be a strength, while Archie still doesn't know what he's doing yet.
JC: I trust Ish to make the best decisions... ability to execute implement those decisions is another matter. Overall, though, I think G Twice is a much bigger component of the offense and I generally feel better about his touches than Smith's. Decisions = Smith. Results = Green.
BONUS: In hindsight, was this team constructed poorly? (Or am I just overreacting?)
JP: Overreacting. The Suns are what they are, and it's working a lot more often than not. The Suns are winning games and doing it in an exciting fashion. In fact, based on the players they already had on board I'd say the roster is constructed very well as far as building a team that allows players to play to their strengths. Perhaps it is a bit limited at times, but remember that this is year one of the McDonough regime.
KH: It would be a breath of fresh air to have a 3-5 that can create some offense or a third play-maker on the roster in general, but no this team was put together as well as a team could be after winning 25 games a year ago. That is always the trump card.
ML: Overreacting. To say this team was constructed poorly would be to say this team was constructed with a lot of success in mind. Despite Ryan McDonough and Robert Sarver's protestations, I still think this team was built more as a collection of assets than a finely tuned basketball machine. Credit Jeff Hornacek with taking a bunch of good "investments" and making them grow into a nest egg. No team is constructed to be without its 2 best players for very long. The Oklahoma City Thunder could weather the storm without Russell Westbrook, but they would flounder without both him and Kevin Durant.
SS: Overreacting. This is the most fun Suns' team to watch in years...The 2010 team was also fun to watch, but I don't even remember them being this exciting. This team is playing with house money and they know it. They have no problem playing loose and free, and beating teams with their speed and aggression. Will they win a championship? Probably not...but I wouldn't count them out either. We already did that before the season started, and you see how that turned out.
SJ: Constructed poorly for what? This was a team that was supposed to tank. It wasn't supposed to be a contender so it's impossible to say this team was constructed poorly. So yes, I'd say this is an overreaction.
DK: You are overreacting. The best possible solution to win NBA games is to devise a team that no one can defend. That's the Suns. No one can properly defend their two-headed monster offense. Maybe in the playoffs that will come to pass against a really good defense over 7 games, but I have to admit I can't wait to see someone try.
JC: It's a flawed team and there are glaring problems and peccadillos that must be confronted in order for this team to make the next step... but... I think McMiracle did a hell of a job of constructing this roster based on what he inherited and the time frame. This team is still "open during construction" and I expect the Suns to draft well and hoodwink some other teams this summer to bring the roster closer to Ryan's vision.
Bright Siders, what do you think?