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What the heck are the Phoenix Suns doing on offense?

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The Suns often look like they don’t have a plan in the half court, yet their play type distribution explains a plan is there: run, drive and kick.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Watching the young Phoenix Suns execute offensive plays in the half-court is not a fun experience for most of us.

The Suns are somehow as high as 19th in offensive efficiency (points per possession) but they often look they have no idea how they are going to get the next bucket after the ball handler crosses the time line.

But get them out in the open, in transition with the opposing defense scrambling to match up on the run, and we get all the feel-good highlights. An Eric Bledsoe fast break, bumping into the defender to create space. A Devin Booker drive into the teeth of the defense, using hesitations, head fakes, and switching hands to give himself enough space to get the shot off. Jared Dudley trailing on the break for a three. Or Dragan Bender. Or P.J. Tucker spotting in the corner.

High volume: Transition

Fast breaks and transition offense contributes to a just-short-of-league-leading pace and fast break points total for the Suns, but you might be surprised to learn a few teams run even more often as a part of their offense than the Suns do. The Suns are “just” 4th (15.9% of their plays) in shot attempts coming in transition - behind the Thunder, Rockets and Cavaliers.

But the Suns and Warriors get more points on fast breaks than the Hardens, Russells and LeBrons thanks to the higher pace at which they play.

Transition offense is the second most common play types across the entire NBA, with a median of 14.3% percent of plays being labeled as such across the league.

Where the Suns struggle so mightily is in half-court offense. Some suggest Earl Watson has not even implemented any plays at all, but that’s as likely as some of our presidential nominees actually being living demons and giving off the unmistakable stench to prove it.

Take away the Suns’ transition offense and their 19th ranked offensive efficiency would plummet to levels no one wants to go.

Where exactly DO the Suns get their half-court offense?

High volume: Isolations and ball-handler

Duh. Anyone who’s watched a Suns game would agree that a good deal of their half-court offense consists of guys trying to break down the defender off the dribble.

T.J. Warren, Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker and Brandon Knight all specialize in trying to break down their defender and take a mid-range shot or go all the way to the cup.

Perhaps the most surprising of these is Devin Booker. Booker came out of college as a sniper, and many would have put his ceiling somewhere around J.J. Redick without the defense. But suddenly Booker has decided he lean on his post-up, dribble-drive and mid-range game to get points.

Here’s another.

Unsurprisingly, considering this is still his first year in this new role (and the fact that he just turned 20 a couple weeks ago), Booker is not making nearly as many shots as he should be or will be in the future. Every one of these shots is new to him and the league. Soon he will be able to whittle down his choices to those he knows will work, depending on the defense, rather than forcing it.

The Suns as a team rank 6th in the league in isolation plays, 5th in hand-offs, and first overall in the ball-handler working his way into taking the shot.

Low volume: Roll man, spot-up

In contrast, the Suns are 29th in roll-man plays (the roll man taking the shot), 29th in post-ups and 27th in spot ups.

The Suns have not had a pick-and-roll threat since Steve Nash was manning the controls. While we all remember Amare Stoudemire bringing the thunder, who can forget Nash making Marcin Gortat one of the league’s best pick-and-roll finishers?

The only real pick-and-roll threat to roll to the hoop and score in traffic is 19-year old rookie Marquese Chriss.

In limited action, Chriss has shown a knack for adjusting his release and even his shooting hand in mid-air to account for the defender.

Unless Marquese Chriss really develops, this roster will always have trouble finishing on the pick-and-roll with the roll man being the target of the play. Instead, the Suns use those pick-and-roll screens to get the ball handler the shot, or to swing it out for a pick-and-pop or over to the weak side for a spot-up.

Where the Suns offense breaks down is that players are not making nearly enough of those jumpers - the Suns are making only 29% of their threes and are 27th in the league in even TAKING spot-ups from anywhere on the floor (let alone making them).

High volume: Putbacks

Another area of strength for the Suns is offensive putbacks. They crash the boards on both ends, and their own missed shots often resulting in putback opportunities in their favor.

The Suns are 5th in the league in putback attempts (though only mid-pack on points per game off putbacks), 6th in field goals in the restricted area (inside the dotted line around the hoop) and 2nd in field goals in the paint.

High volume: contested shots

So it’s no surprise, given their propensity for relentlessly attacking the basket on the open floor and half-court that the Suns are 3rd in the league in taking the most contested shots. Only Minnesota and Chicago take more shots with a defender within 0-2 feet of them.

But taking more contested shots than most other teams doesn’t have to equal bad offense. Minny is 2nd in offensive efficiency early this season, while Chicago is 9th.

No, the Suns biggest culprit is simply not making shots of any type when given the chance. They are mid-pack on making those much-loved contested shots, but only 21st in field goal % on “open” shots and 17th in field goal % on “wide open” shots.

And as you know by now, the Suns are awful at making three pointers.

The Suns other problem is having too little playmaking, despite being guard-heavy. While Booker, Bledsoe and Knight are good at creating their own shots, they aren’t particularly good at setting up others.

While the Suns are 11th in passes made overall, they are no better than 24th in assists, “potential” assists, points off assists and assist-to-pass ratio. As I mentioned on Monday’s Locked On Suns podcast with Kellan, the Suns are passing a lot more than before but they aren’t leading to much.

Some of those assists will increase when the Suns start making more shots. It only takes two more assists per game to move into the top-15 in the league, so it’s not an insurmountable task here.

And when you add in ‘free throw assists’ and ‘secondary assists’ the Suns look marginally better than 24th already.

Where is the offense?

Of course, none of this explains why the Suns look so so so so bad in the half court.

Is it that Earl Watson isn’t even designing plays at all? No. Is it that Watson’s “plays” are “give it one of the top 4 guys and clear out”? No.

But is the offense extremely simple, aimed at creating the right shots no matter how they get there? Maybe.

Watson has said that he wants the Suns to take the most efficient shots on the floor, which are at the rim and from behind the three-point line. But his top playmakers really like the mid-range, including Booker now, so Watson is taking what he can get without crimping his best players’ pride.

*All stats in this story courtesy of stats.nba.com


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