A lot has been made by Phoenix Suns fans that the team is just not as fun to watch this season, and the Suns themselves have not made anything easier by showing inconsistent effort and low-basketball smarts at the worst times.
Many recall the 2013-14 as revelatory, a joy to behold, as the Suns fought their way to an unexpected 48-34 finish behind a speedy two-headed point guard and a rookie coach, Jeff Hornacek, who finished 2nd in the Coach of the Year race.
This year, the shine on the Suns has worn off and the doubters are gaining momentum. The Suns are still winning more than they lose (33-30 record) but they are, so far, out of the playoff picture in 10th in the West. Basketball-Reference.com gives the Suns just a 7.9% chance of making the playoffs.
Some of that doubt is now being aimed at Hornacek, who has gone from genius to moron in record-setting time.
Hornacek himself will tell you that this season has been a lot tougher than last, by a long shot. While last year he spent much of his rookie season in good spirits on the sidelines, this year has been an exercise in frustration.
This particular Horny-face was right after Eric Bledsoe had another one of his signature back court brain fart turnovers against the Nets on Friday night.
The Nets game was a perfect composite of best player Bledsoe's season: 19 points on 5-10 shooting (8-10 on FTs), 6 assists, 10 rebounds... and 7 turnovers. In an 8-point win, they were a +27 when he was on the court versus -19 when he rested. Yet those 7 turnovers are mind-dumbingly bad in most cases. It's tough for the coach to "punish" bad turnovers by benching a guy who otherwise is the team's biggest difference-maker.
Such is coach Hornacek's season in a nutshell.
He has been handed a multi-talented roster of good basketball players, but unfortunately their basketball IQ is still a work in progress and there isn't a transcendent talent among them. The Suns starting lineup is the 4th youngest in the league, yet they are the only team of the four with a winning record.
At this point, I'll post the usual reminder that the Suns roster is missing any kind of veteran leadership. The starting lineup is one of the league's youngest, sporting no players with more than 3.5 years of NBA experience. They are learning as they go.
Hornacek is not a disciplinarian. He doesn't insist the players do everything by the book and he prefers to let them play rather than micromanage by calling every play and benching players who break from the offense.
You may like those traits or hate those traits, that's up to you. But that's who he is.
The other part of who he is: he puts his players in position to succeed. Whether they succeed or not is what's in question, even for him.
On the whole, he's gotten a team without any real offensive savants to produce the league's 8th best offensive ranking (points per possession) last year and 9th best this year. They were up to as high as 4th this season in points per possession but have gone through a long three-point shooting drought that's more likely than not to end sometime soon.
Let's dive into the offense a bit.
This is the staple of the Suns offense, for better or worse. BSotS reader Greg Brannan pointed out yesterday that the Suns are the league's most prolific transition team (18.8% of their offense) but only mid-pack in terms of points per possession (1.12 points per possession, good for 12th in the league).
However, as we will show throughout this article, the Suns have to get as many simple buckets as possible. It's much harder, and uglier, for this team to score in the half court.
Some worried the Suns' fast break game would fall off after the trades of Dragic and Thomas, but in the 9 games since the trade deadline the Suns are still averaging 17.6 points per game on fast breaks, good for 3rd in the league. (Over the last 4 games, they are at 18.0, good for 2nd in the league and that even includes the Spurs debacle).
That's down 2 points per game (from 19.6) from before the trade deadline - a small drop, but not as dramatic as you might have expected. They are still the 3rd best in the league, even during this transition.
Except for clutch situations and timeouts, Hornacek does not like to slow down the offense to call a play every time down the court. He knows his team is not very good in the half-court, so he tries to get scores before the defense has a chance to get set.
His initial desire is to create a free-flowing offense that transitions immediately into a PNR or slip screen or backdoor cut. Going right into an action (without pausing to call a play) before the defense can fully load can be effective in its unpredictability.
The Suns are 2nd in the league in pace this season because of their combination of transition offense and early offense. The sooner you can get a good look, the better the shot.
According to 82games.com, 43% of the Suns offense comes from shots taken in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock. In those situations, the Suns have a robust effective field goal percentage of 56% (compared to 51% overall, which is still 6th in the league!). For comparison sake, a year ago only 41% of the Suns offense came in the first 10 seconds of the clock. Two years ago, it was just 38%. In each year, the opponent has gotten up shots in the first 10 seconds 39% of the time.
Early offense is good offense, and the Suns get as much of that as they can.
Pick and Roll
While you may not see it, the Suns DO use pick-and-roll to start their offense most of the time. But the difference between today's Suns and yesterday's (Nash's) Suns is how it plays out from the initial pick action.
Simply put, a "pick and roll" is where a big man comes out and sets his feet to pick off the point guard's defender, then either rolls hard to the rim for a pass or pops out to an open spot on the floor for a jumper. What each big does depends on his skill set, the skill set of the guard from whom he set the pick, and what the defense does.
The Suns skill set since Nash left has led to the pick-and-roll being more often a pick-and-pop, where the big pops out of the screen to wait for a long jumper while the guard slashes to the rim. This change is because the coach is catering to his team's talent. He's got slashing guards who are much better driving themselves to the rim than passing to a rolling big, and he's got big men who aren't very good at rolling to the rim either (Brandon Wright aside).
This change is also because the league has realized the easiest way to beat a pick-and-roll defense is to employ a big man shooter as the pick man - hence the renaissance of the "stretch four". If the pick man can make long jumpers, there's absolutely no where for the defending big man to hide.
Channing Frye was a master at popping out to the three point line after the solid pick, forcing the defense to follow him and open the lane for an easy drive to the hoop. The Goran Dragic/Channing Frye pick and pop was deadly last year, producing 1.3 points per play. Around the league, you see Kevin Love, Ryan Anderson and the like thriving because of their ability to pick-and-pop.
But this year, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and Alex Len are setting the pick, and none are quite as effective in the pop action. The Morrii are much more comfortable using that action to create a midrange opportunity (which creates less space for the point guard to operate), and their shooting percentages back that up. Alex Len is not quick enough (yet) to be an effective roll man, and besides the Suns guards aren't any good at the pocket passes anyway. Brandon Wright is likewise suffering from the point guards' talent gap on the pocket pass.
Pick-and-roll becomes Isolation
More often than not, the Suns initial pick-and-roll (or pick-and-pop) evolves an isolation play or a post up. All it takes is a little hesitation on the part of either the ball handler or the popper after the pick-and-roll creates the mismatch.
Nearly every Suns half court play begins with high screen action by a big to force the defense to switch or leave Bledsoe/Knight an open driving lane. When a PF switches out on Bledsoe and Markieff posts up the PG, those possession turn into isolations for a one-on-one drive or post-up. Even when Markieff or Marcus pop out to the three point line, you often see them receive the pass only to fake the shot and drive instead.
The statistics may show the Suns don't use pick-and-roll often enough, and that they end up in isolation instead. We need to understand that's a product of the players and the execution rather than the coaching scheme.
It's the players who don't take the open three, but rather use the pop to create an isolation drive for themselves. Hornacek knows his players' most effective skill set is to create for themselves, so he doesn't stop it from happening. He just gives them the best opportunity to succeed and prays for the best once the ball is bouncing.
The play calls are simple, somewhat unimaginative, especially in clutch situations. Is that on the coach, or on the players?According some scouts and coaches I've consulted, including Randy Hill of FoxSportsArizona, the Suns play calls appear to be simplified so much because the players on the court aren't good at executing more complex plays with any consistency.
It's easier to call a complex play, loaded with secondary actions based on what the defense does, when Steve Nash is running the show, or Chris Paul. But there's not many Nashes and Pauls out there. There's a reason you see a lot of the league's best coaches admitting their best clutch-time play call is saying "get me a bucket" to their superstar in the timeout huddle. The star is then put into an isolation, usually after a ball screen or two to get a desired matchup. Just like the Suns offense.
The Suns don't have a star like that, but teams gear up defensively in the clutch to stop a lot of actions and force the other team out of their play call. Most plays in the clutch end up in scrambles and/or isolations for that reason.
The Suns, on the whole, are not as bad in clutch situations as you might think. Overall, they are 16-17 in games that are within 3 points (one possession) in the final three minutes, the .485 win rate putting them 15th overall in the league. (They lead the league with 33 such games (out of 63), three more than the next closest team (the Lakers).)
Unfortunately, the Suns have to do their work early in that 3 minutes to get the win. They are 6-1 in games that got to within 3 points within the last 3 minutes but stretched out before the buzzer. In games within 3 points (one possession) in the final 10 seconds, the Suns are just 10-16. (for grins, the Suns 26 games within 3 points in the final 10 seconds are FOUR more games than any other NBA team)
Still better than you might have thought, though, huh?
Overall, the Suns offense is quite effective.
In the ultimate measure of efficiency, the Suns have an effective field goal percentage of 51.2% (which factors in three pointers and free throws, as well as two pointers), good for 6th in the league. They are 9th in points per possession.
In terms of play type, they are top-10 in the league in points per game on fast breaks, drives, catch-and-shoot and pull-ups. But due to their size and skill sets, they are bottom-10 in close shots (those that start within 12 feet of the rim, excluding drives and fast breaks).
The offense may not be pretty to watch - what with all the broken down pick-and-rolls that turn into isolation plays - but it is quite effective.
The Suns aren't losing games because of their offense. They are losing games because of break downs in execution, failures in the clutch, and because their defense gives up too many points on the other end (22nd in the league in points-per-possession allowed).