Another night, another hard-to-stomach loss for the Phoenix Suns. The Suns turned in one of their worst showings yet this season against the Houston Rockets last night. The irony, of course, was watching the current Suns roster struggle to score points against a team coached by former Suns coach and offensive guru Mike D’Antoni, who looks like an early favorite for Coach of the Year with Houston.
The Suns are struggling at both ends of the floor, but for the purpose of this article we’ll examine solely the team’s offense. While the Suns were hardly an offensive juggernaut last season, all of the flaws that fans found with former head coach Jeff Hornacek’s offensive schemes throughout the past few years have become even more amplified today. In short, the Suns have an even less varied offense than last year, and that predictability (as well as inefficiency) is stopping them from winning even a modest amount of games with a roster that, on paper, has some talent. Furthermore, the lack of variety in the team’s offense is negatively affecting the development of some of the team’s youngest stars, most notably Devin Booker and T.J. Warren.
First I need to prove to you exactly how the offense has changed since last season despite having a similar roster. Luckily for us, NBA.com/stats has been tracking the frequency and effectiveness of different “play types” for each team over the past two years. Look below at two charts to see how the ‘15-16 and ‘16-17 Suns compare in terms of how often they execute certain types of plays and how efficiently they score on those plays. The numbers in the “frequency” column do not add up to 100 percent as there is a “miscellaneous” play type that I didn’t include in the chart. Additionally, putback data for the 2015-16 season is not accurate and wasn’t included.
“PPP” stands for points per possession. The league ranks for both the team’s PPP and its frequency for each play type as a percentage of its total offense are included.
2015-16 Suns Offense
|Frequency Rank (1-30)
|P&R Ball Handler
|P&R Roll Man
2016-17 Suns Offense
|Frequency Rank (1-30)
|P&R Ball Handler
|P&R Roll Man
That’s a lot of data at once. So what’s the takeaway? Look at the “P&R Ball Handler” section for both teams. The pick-and-roll ball handler section includes all possessions where any player, but usually a guard, attempts a shot after coming off an on-ball screen. That can either be a drive to the rim or a pullup, off-the-dribble jumper. Possessions ending in a turnover also count towards the stats.
In 2015-16, these types of possessions accounted for just 16.5% of the Suns’ offense, which ranked 19th in the league in terms of frequency. That made sense given that the team ranked 24th on those plays in PPP, so they didn’t want to rely on their ball handlers rolling off screens too much. Despite that, a main criticism of the offense under Hornacek was that too many offensive possessions were predictable; Bledsoe or Knight would simply wait for a high screen from a big man, and after that their shoot-first instincts would kick in more often than they would create for others.
This season, take that same problem and make it much, much worse.
The 2016-17 Suns have 24.2% of their offensive possessions end with the pick-and-roll ball handler. That frequency by far ranks first in the NBA, with the Raptors ranking 2nd at 22.8%.
On the bright side, the Suns jumped from 24th to 10th in the league on PPP for those plays. But at just 0.86 points per possession, the pick-and-roll ball handler remains one of the least efficient offensive play types. Just look at the chart; those plays are only 0.02 PPP better than the “isolation” plays that fans across the NBA hate so much for their tendency to kill ball movement.
In a perfect world, Alex Len and Tyson Chandler are setting screens for Bledsoe, Knight and Booker to drive through open lanes and get to the rim.
But NBA defenses are not so foolish. They’re able to clog up the paint the majority of the time, and as a result we’re seeing an all-time high number of pull up 18-footers from the team’s ball handlers. That’s a recipe for inefficiency.
Excuse the cherry picking, but just take a look at a few examples from the past few games. Do these plays look familiar or frustrating to you?
So, how did the offense change? This season, we’re seeing more reliance on isolation plays and the ball handlers at the expense of everything else.
Possessions ending with finishes from the “roll” part of the pick-and-roll are down from 5.6% last season to 4.7% this season. That frequency ranks 29th in the league.
Possessions ending on post ups are down from 8.1% to 3.2%. That also ranks 29th in the league.
Spot-up shooting opportunities are down from 18.3% to 17.2%. Hand offs and cuts also both decreased by more than 1% each.
At the end of the day, the Suns rank top 10 in frequency when it comes to transition, isolation, putback and pick-and-roll ball handler play types. But they’re bottom 10 everywhere else.
So if you’re an opposing head coach, how do you prepare to face the Suns? You don’t have to do much preparation at all.
If you emphasize ball control and limit your turnovers, you stop the Suns from getting out in transition where they are efficient. If you grab defensive rebounds, you stop them from getting putback opportunities. Do those two things and you guarantee that their offensive success will rely mostly on improvisation, either in the form of isolation plays or on those high screens set for guards. As long as Bledsoe, Booker and Knight don’t catch fire, you’ll be fine.
A Problem of Coaching or Roster Makeup?
So far we’ve learned that the Suns offense is predictable, which is at least part of what makes it bad. But how did we get here? And who are we, the fanbase, supposed to blame?
In fairness to the coaching staff, the current roster isn’t necessarily set up to be diverse on the offensive end. For example, while the Suns are 29th in the league in frequency for both post ups and pick-and-roll “man” plays, they’re also just 24th and 19th in PPP for those two categories respectively. So how much does the coaching staff really have to work with? The only “finishers” on the team are Tyson Chandler on the occasional lob and Marquese Chriss, though Chriss is both thin and offensively raw. There isn’t a single player on the roster that comes to mind as an above-average post-up threat.
The spot up game could be better as well. Booker is getting more practice as a ball handler and less as a pure spot-up shooter. Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and P.J. Tucker all like to spot up, but to what end? None of those three are topping 32% on threes this season. In fact, Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa are the only two players topping 35% from beyond the arc.
But even if the Suns don’t have the same personnel to run an offense like Houston’s (to use last night’s blowout as an example of a team to aspire to), they could be doing a lot more with what they have.
To be clear, I am not an NBA coach, nor am I a high-level basketball player. I have never successfully ran an NBA offense. I’m sure that orchestrating an offense comprised of only complicated set plays with an abundance of ball movement is a recipe for 25 turnovers a game when you’re one of the youngest teams in the league. I’m sure running an offense of that sort would also lead to more rapid fatigue. There are many reasons why ball handler pull ups and isolation plays are useful from time to time.
All that being said, the numbers speak for themselves. Basketball is a game of scoring more points than the other team. The Suns, as of today, score 0.99 PPP on pick-and-roll finishes, 0.96 PPP on spot ups, and 1.12 PPP on cuts. Is it not a fair assessment to say that if you add a few more of those to the repertoire and cut a few of the 0.86 PPP pull ups and ISOs (without turning the ball over more), that the team would put up more points on the scoreboard? And with more points, the wins will come.
Right now it’s a lot of playing hot potato around the perimeter and ball-watching as everyone else waits for Booker, Bledsoe or Knight to shoot coming off the screen. But why not more off ball movement to open up Warren? How about more pick-and-pop action with Dudley, Bender and Chriss? What happened to trying to establish Len’s elbow and post game, if not as a scorer then perhaps as a facilitator?
The consequences of the current offensive scheme is not just that the Suns lose more games. That’s not even a consequence, really, if the goal of this season is to tank for a high lottery pick. The real consequence is the change in play style we’re seeing from young guys such as Devin Booker and T.J. Warren, and whether those changes are detrimental to their development into smart basketball players.
Not So “Rush Hour” Warren?
Back in the 2014-15 season, Suns fans fell in love with then-rookie T.J. Warren for his ability to cut to the basket and get physical for his buckets. He earned the nickname “Rush Hour” from TV commentator Eddie Johnson, which has stuck to this day.
But is the nickname still warranted? Last season, 9.1% of Warren’s offensive possessions came on cuts, above the team’s average of 7.4% at the time. And although he only played about half the season, he still managed to shoot 28-44 on the season on cuts, giving him an incredibly efficient 1.24 PPP.
He also developed a very efficient game rolling off off-ball screens set for him, with those possessions accounting for 10.9% of his offense. He posted an even better 1.27 PPP on those plays.
Meanwhile, P&R ball handler plays accounted for just 10.3% of his offense, and isolation plays a measly 4.2%.
This season is a different story.
Cutting, once hailed as T.J.’s bread-and-butter, has been reduced from 9.1% to just 5.4% of his offense. That’s despite the fact that he still posts a 1.14 PPP mark in that area.
Off-screen plays have remained steady at 11% on similar efficiency as last year. But isolation has increased to account for 10.4% of Warren’s offense (despite a putrid 0.52 PPP), and P&R ball handler plays have increased to 18.5% (0.81 PPP).
In total, isolation and ball handler plays went up from 14.5% of Warren’s possessions last season to 28.9% this season while his number of cuts have suffered. Which begs the question, is this offense turning T.J. Warren into a player that he isn’t?
We Need To Talk About Devin
The same changes affecting Warren have seeped into Booker’s game as well. Last season, 6.2% of the rookie’s possessions came on ISOs, generating 0.81 PPP. This season that frequency has skyrocketed to 13.9%, though Booker is still reasonably efficient with a traditionally inefficient strategy (0.90 PPP).
Additionally, 28% of his possessions are as the ball handler coming off a screen, a slight uptick from 26.8% last season.
What’s suffering as a result? Cutting was never a huge part of Booker’s game, but that’s gone down from 4.1% of his possessions last season to just 1.5% this year. His handoff possessions have decreased from 7.2% to 5%, and utilizing off ball screens has decreased slightly from 13.3% to 12.3%.
The difference is more subtle than with Warren, but it’s still there. The takeaway is that Booker has replaced some possessions that last season would be used toward moving without the ball with possessions where he is the primary ball handler and looking to score. Is that the direction the Suns want to be taking with their most talented prospect?
While this piece has been pretty negative, it’s important to keep expectations in check. We all knew going into the season that this team wasn’t going to have strong post play, or the best finishing, or the best three-point shooting. All this emphasis on the guards is just Watson dealing with the roster he’s been given while he prays that Bender and Chriss fill out and become a deadly 4/5 combo.
Still, changes must be made. There’s no excuse for the offense to be as predictable as it is. There’s no excuse for an ISO-heavy mindset being hardwired into the team’s youth. And the team can’t have any expectations to grow into a playoff squad solely through internal development if it is dead last in the NBA in assists and not teaching the prospects good habits.
Earl Watson’s job is in no danger, especially so soon after the organization started promoting the themes of family, unity and trust. But despite wins and losses, the rest of this season could prove whether or not he actually has the capability to build the foundation for a winning strategy.