The reason I thought the Phoenix Suns were going to make the playoffs is because of the potential for devastating and unique offensive lineups. At the start of the season Jeff Hornacek had three great slashing point guards, two elite bench scorers, two role player wings who could hit open shots, a stretch four to come off the bench, a competent NBA center, and a high-potential center in waiting.
Reading that sentence now is strange because of how much has changed. Markieff Morris has gone from bench assassin to legitimate starting scoring forward, Anthony Tolliver couldn't do anything right in Phoenix and was traded, Miles Plumlee regressed significantly, Alex Len has blossomed, and Brandan Wright was brought in to supplement Plumlee's regression and Len's foul trouble.
There are positives and negatives in that last paragraph, but what you can still take away from that is the lethal nature of this team offensively.
Despite losing their last two games at home, the Suns are still 8-4 in the month of January. There's a certain gear and form the Suns have hit at times and that's the gear they need to get to in order to be a playoff team.
However, there were still setbacks and there will be more. Hornacek's first main crisis was figuring out how to get Isaiah Thomas involved more and both Thomas and Hornacek have done their fair share of compromise in this situation.
The three point guard lineup has become something Hornacek can turn to at the end of games or whenever he feels like he needs a spark and it has definitely worked out. The offensive rating of the three point guards together is 117.6 via nba.com. The Suns are also 8-0 this season when Dragic, Bledsoe, and Thomas score 15+ points each. This gets Thomas more time on the floor and also allows him to flourish.
Thomas has certainly had his ups and downs this season, but it's no coincidence the Suns run in January has come with his best stretch of the season. Thomas is shooting 50% from the field this month, including a game changing 47% on 3's. Some may see this as a hot streak, but I see a player with a unique skill set adjusting to the way his team plays. Here are a few examples of what Thomas has done this month.
I criticized Thomas in my last film study about attacking size. He does it too much and has to find better ways of doing it. Well, this is one of them. The Suns have been much better at running right away the past month and they've got down the floor in 4 seconds. I am quite fond of the little things Eric Bledsoe does and right here he takes an extra dribble to the left to bring Damian Lillard slightly over to him before passing to Thomas. Thomas isn't close enough to the line to pull up, but look at that lane to the basket and where Meyers Leonard is. He's not even fully aware of the possession and the two fastest players on the Suns roster take advtantage.
Dame gets over in time, but there aren't many guys that can move quick enough laterally to catch Thomas. He attacks Leonard and the key thing to watch is where Leonard is at this screen cap. He's finally set for his defense this possession and is ready to protect the rim.
Thomas barrels right into Leonard while keeping enough control to finish the shot, but look at where Leonard is! Thomas has moved him a solid two feet to being right under the basket. The speed Thomas gets to allowed for this and Leonard had to try to adjust in some way. It was too late and with Thomas attacking an unprepared rim protector, he gets enough of an angle on the rim for an easy finish.
Look at the shot clock again. Bledsoe takes the rebound all the way down in three seconds and begins to attack. A screen by Miles Plumlee gives Bledsoe an angle to at least get all of the Trailblazers attention. Once again, he's smart.
Dame makes a huge mistake here and takes the bait. His Morris twin swipe at the ball leaves IT open. This is a nod to Thomas always being ready with the fast pace and knowing that Bledsoe and Dragic will always be attacking. Being the best three-point shooter on the team he has to be in the right spots and he does a great job here. He's still making his way up the floor, but he has a general floor sense to notice the space on the right wing. He slowly slides over with the guided pass from Bled and....
Money. Take a look at where Thomas moved from slide 2 to 3. Bledsoe's pass makes this possible, but Thomas was moving that way as the pass came to him. If Thomas stays where he was Lillard can get a great contest off, but IT has a great look at the rim from here and nails it.
When IT doesn't see a direct lane to the basket and his defender is being aggressive, his favorite area is in between the free throw line and the basket. Here are three baskets from the Portland game. If he gets enough space, he can just abuse his defender on the step-back like the first slide, while the other two compensate for a more established rim protector at the rim. He doesn't spend much time with Alex Len on the floor who is the most ideal drop-off pass target and Thomas has never been too keen on that pass anyway, so it's a great compromise.
Wright and Plumlee
Isaiah Thomas has fit in nicely, but it might take Brandan Wright a bit longer. As you will notice on the Thomas slides, Wright and Plumlee were playing together for a good chunk of those baskets. To put it simply, they are both centers. Wright is undersized, but he is stacked with center traits. For whatever reason, which recently was something along the lines of "he's looked good in practice", Plumlee is still seeing the floor. To be fair, Plumlee has played some of his best basketball of the season since Len has replaced him in the starting lineup and even more so since Wright was brought in.
Before we get to Plumlee though, Wright does a lot of things well. He's a very intelligent player who uses his great athleticism to maximize his impact on the floor. He can move laterally better than most, block shots, rebound, he's quick, and most importantly is a fantastic finisher at the rim. That to me sounds like the perfect backup center. Let's take a look at some examples.
This is what Wright is the best at and the Suns have been running specific sets around his ability to catch lobs off of pick and rolls. Gerald Green, Marcus Morris, and T.J. Warren do their job of spreading the floor. To be fair, Robbie Hummel should be leaving Warren open, but let's just act like that's not the case. Wright lays down the pick and Thomas uses his great quickness to cause problems right away.
Thomas leads the play to the left elbow and because Mo Williams can't catch Thomas around a screen it leaves Gorgui Dieng with the responsibility of stopping Thomas. Nobody helps off the shooters and Wright has an easy dunk.
The set play here is actually for Green. You can see him on the bottom coming off of screens for a classic catch and shoot fadeaway. Instead of just running through the motions, Wright notices that Dieng is unwisely all up on him, so Wright pivots to the inside and goes to the basket. Notice how open the key is right now with Wright as the center. No Plumlee or Len underneath.
Anthony Bennett steps over to stop Wright, but it's too late. Wright's too fast for a center and blows by Dieng and the help defender for an easy dunk. You can take this as Wright having the ability to dribble to the basket, but it's more about his intellect to notice an opportunity.
Same three players on the perimeter setup with Wright running a pick and roll with one of the point guards. Dragic is the man this time and instead of going to his left and where the screen is, Goran cuts right.
Troy Daniels is caught and now Dieng has to step up yet again. Wright could crash the basket right away here, but Dieng hasn't been fully baited into the play. Instead, he pauses for about a second and lets Dieng and Daniels fully collapse on Dragic.
Daniels is back and Dieng starts to retreat, but it's too late. Wright has timed the cut perfectly and....
It's a wide open dunk yet again. Despite being primarily a dunker, there's a lot to Wright's game.
You've seen how Wright can handle himself on the offensive end and we all know he brings something good to the defensive end. The time Wright spent in Dallas had him become a smart team defender. He realizes how to rotate on defense and that is packaged with being able to stay with a lot of guys laterally because of his athleticism. That helps him out in pick and roll defense and being able to recover in enough time to get back for the rebound as well. He can't cover traditional centers in the post, but how many teams have a legit post option at backup center?
The mystery to the Suns since the Wright trade has been Miles Plumlee getting playing time as well. Plumlee fluctuates as a rim protector from below average to good and understands how to use his athleticism in certain facets. He works hard, runs the floor, and can block shots when the situation is presented right to him.
With that in mind, Plumlee still makes a ton of little mistakes on both ends of the floor that are even more of a detriment when you only play 10-20 minutes a game. His post ups bring befuddlement to us all and he doesn't have much of an offensive purpose besides making open dunks right near the basket. Even with Plumlee's ability in some areas, it's not like what he brings to the table is crucial to success. He needs to do all the little things well and avoid mistakes. That does not sound exactly like Miles Plumlee.
The biggest mystery here is the spacing on the floor. Thomas had to really work that special area against Portland because there were two bigs on the floor. The lineup succeeded, but that was with Portland missing its two starting bigs. Can you really rely on that in the future? Here's an example of a play where the spacing was really alarming.
Plumlee comes over for the ball screen and Wright is at the high post. In order to keep the key somewhat open, Wright has to go there. Now, Morris has to deal with the extra defender Wright leaves in the middle of the floor and whatever Plumlee's man decides to do as well. That's the biggest concern with these two on the floor together, as the main mission for the Suns will always be spacing with their slashing guards. You can't do that with Plumlee and Wright on the floor at the same time.
The other problem that Plumlee presents is defensively. The Suns specialize in making little mistakes on defense that lead to penetration and they need their rim protector to not make those mistakes as well. This is the area where we've seen a substantial difference since Len joined the starters. We covered Wright's intellect already so we know that he can cover his end, but can Plumlee?
Here's a simple play for Chase Budinger on the wing. He receives the ball as he heads through the screen. Green is going to take the easiest approach here and just go behind the screen instead of trying to fight through it or go under. This leaves Plumlee in a dilemma, but his first responsibility is protecting the basket.
Plumlee couldn't make up his mind on whether to cover the pass to Dieng for a midrange jumper or an uncontested layup. This just isn't that hard to figure out. It's Green's mistake, but if that results in an open Dieng jumper then so be it. Mook could also slide over here, but he doesn't seem interested.
Budinger gets a wide-open layup. There's not even a defender between him and the basket.
Andrew Wiggins has come off of a screen here and Plumlee has decided that he is going to cover the ball. He does so in such an aggressive manner that he chases Wiggins out to the perimeter. He did a good job and at this point he needs to deny Wiggins the right and force him right back to Tucker while getting back to his man. It's not that hard to see and you can actually see him sort of doing that. Well...
He's let Wiggins get to the other side. Not a humongous mistake, but he should have been more aggressive in bumping Wiggins to the left and even taking a foul. He did this weird double take where he sprinted out on him, forced him deep, then sagged off for a second and let him go right. How does that happen? Once again, the theme here is other mistakes. Markieff Morris could try to go straight up, draw a charge, or at least stop Wiggins from getting an uncontested layup. Want to guess how that goes?
As you can see, Plumlee does a lot of smaller things wrong like his teammates do defensively. So besides Wright being a much better option offensively and being a smarter player defensively there's no other way to see it. This may sound like I'm being unfair to Plumlee, but that's one of the primary jobs of a center on this team. Wright and Len will keep making the better rotations and smarter plays.
It's a tough break for Miles, but you can't blame the Suns.With the recent Alex Len health scare and the value McDonough reportedly wants, I don't see Plumlee going anywhere anytime soon unless he forces his way out. I don't think that gives Hornacek a reason to force him on the floor, but that's what it feels like.
While that was quite a murky theme to roll through, the main takeaway here should be the Suns have improved significantly as a team since the opening week of the season. It's been a steady rise in ball movement and teammates getting used to each other's tendencies.
Looking at the three-point shooting numbers, everyone in the rotation except for the three centers is a great to below average three-point shooter. Even a guy like Markieff Morris has moved up to a respectable 33% from deep and the combo of Marcus Morris (39%) and P.J. Tucker (36%) give the Suns legitimate shooting wings to put in the corner. It really helps what this team is trying to do.
Here are two examples in the past week of the Suns improved play.
One of the staples of the Suns offensive sets is covering both corners with shooters. This is possible because of those shooting stats I presented. In this example, it's Tucker and Thomas. Wright sets a ball screen here for Dragic who will cut inside.
There are plenty of threats here, but the Lakers are the most terrified of Dragic's elite ability to finish at the rim. We mentioned Wright's skills and how he is a lob threat. If you throw the ball up in the air he will catch it and throw it down. So while Dragic is being doubled because of his finishing ability, Ryan Kelly now has to come over to stop the easy lob pass to Wright as well. That leaves the pass to Tucker open in the corner.
Tucker takes that shot six weeks ago. Now he's more comfortable so he takes it off the dribble and takes more space. Jeremy Lin is in no man's land here as he tries to cover the pass off to Wright under the basket while staying somewhat close to Thomas in the other corner. Hill is trying to stop another drive, but the defense has been on the ropes ever since Dragic attacked.
Thomas, the team's best three-point shooter, buries the open three. The Lakers aren't a defensive powerhouse, but this possession shows the comfort level of the Suns in keeping the tempo high.
Now we will transition from ball movement to the product of it. Look at the space here! Dribble penetration is the key for this team and there's the room for it. The Suns clear out the key here because Thomas is very fast and should beat his man. The crucial note here is to look at Bledsoe being in the right corner, the team's worst three-point shooter statistically this season.
Thomas gets by his man so fast that Wayne Ellington can't get over in time to help despite being able to see this coming from a mile away. Now, instead of sitting in the corner, Bledsoe cuts to the rim hard to give Thomas an option if he needs one.
Carlos Boozer is no rim protector, but he has a half second of hesitation on Bledsoe's cut and gets himself a little too much out of position. Thomas takes the bump and finishes with his left hand. Thomas in that half-second decides if he needs to pass to Bledsoe, but the play Bledsoe made actually opened up the basket enough for IT. Good stuff.
To conclude things here, the Suns are turning into a very good basketball team. They've made a couple of tweaks so far (PG3, IT) and have a couple still to come (Wright, Plumlee) that will make them even more deadly. This isn't even getting to the incredible from of Markieff Morris this season or the Slash Brothers starting to get their groove back. If the Oklahoma City Thunder didn't think they had a problem two months ago, they better be realizing now that the Suns are for real and are much more than just a threat to their 8 seed hopes.