After coach Earl Watson took over the injury-decimated Phoenix Suns in February, their number of possessions per game actually increased from 100 to 102 even while the shooting percentages plummeted to 28th in the league in the wake of losing all of their point guards at various times to injury.
That's what happens when you're playing a career journeyman and a teenage rookie shooting guard as your primary ball handlers, thanks to injuries to the top two point guards on the roster.
The 102 possessions per game after the All-Star break were the most in the NBA in that time. Yet, when Bright Side spoke one-on-one with Earl the other day, his first proclamation about next season began with seven simple words.
"I see us going at a faster pace," he said with a confident smile.
How can you disagree with him, though? Coming into next season the Suns will have a healthy stable of point guards whether they shed one of Brandon Knight or Eric Bledsoe or not. Second round pick Tyler Ulis might crack the rotation to bring fresh playmaking to the second unit. Shooting guard Devin Booker returns after showing he can be a quality secondary ball handler, and the Suns just added one of the best passing big men to enter the NBA in years with Dragan Bender from Croatia.
"This guy Bender can run the pick and roll as the ball handler," Watson said. "I don't want to limit him to a pick-and-pop guy. I don't want to limit him to just a power forward position. I think potentially he can be a small forward and a power forward, he can be a hybrid. And that's rare. Those are always X-factor players."
But Watson didn't leave out the other big man they drafted, even though Chriss looks more like a super finisher than distributor.
"Then you get Marquese Chriss," Watson said. "He's not a throw-it-to-the-box guy. He can, but he can also shoot threes. He can come off a pin down. He can move the ball. He's a great offensive rebounder."
If Tyler Ulis - who is just a hair smaller than Ish Smith - forces his way into the lineup next season, you will see a real floor general out there with the second or third unit.
Clearly, Watson was salivating when talking about just how much more diverse the Suns offense and defense would be with such mobile big men added to the mix.
Watch the coach talk about his lineups here. Sorry for the lighting issues. Owen just wanted me to have a spiritual glow, I suppose.
No twin towers
Watson also threw in a few words that everyone should read with a smile.
"I don't really see us going twin towers."
Even while leading the league in pace in the second half, the Suns had one of the worst offenses in the league as Watson was forced to start pure center Alex Len at power forward next to pure center Tyson Chandler after the Markieff Morris trade. Len had some good games, but plodded to a near-record low field goal percentage for a seven-footer in league history.
Luckily, the Suns front office had the same observation the rest of us did and added not one but two new stretch fours in the draft to ensure Len would never have to spend much time at the four again.
Watson wants Len to man the middle, provide toughness and rebounding and even guard the perimeter on a switch, but not run back down the floor and sit on the block waiting for the ball unless the matchup is right.
We almost certainly won't see a plodding, throw it to the blocks, offense next year except as a change of pace to keep the defense guessing.
Versatile and Upredictable
Instead, Watson loves the idea of versatility up and down the lineup.
"Coming down against us, when you scout for us, " he said. "You have to go over pick-and-rolls with 1-through-4, potentially 5. Anybody can run it. You can have no clue. We have 7-footers now, or 6'10" guys, who can take you off the dribble and make passing plays, or plays at the rim or above the rim."
Bender and Chriss are both extremely raw and inexperienced, but their myriad talents on the offensive end are somewhat unique at their height. Chriss is 6'10" while Bender is reportedly 7'1" without shoes these days. The 18-year old Bender hasn't been officially measured in at least a year.
Watson gets excited about Devin Booker playing alongside Bender, Chriss and a pair of guards, or with a guard and a center like Len or Tyson Chandler. The "small ball" lineup - if you can call it that with two guys over 6'10" - will get its first run in Vegas Summer League next month.
"The NBA is getting to the point where, 'what is a three man?'", he asked, in regard to Booker playing anywhere on the wing. "LeBron's playing the 5. Andre Iguodala is playing the 4 and [the Warriors] can put Klay Thompson at the 3. And we know that Devin can guard Klay."
Watson is not moving Devin Booker to the small forward position. He's simply saying that some lineups would work very well with Booker out there along with two other guards.
"Traditional positions are becoming old in this league, so it's a hybrid of positions. So we wanted to really capture players who could play multiple positions."
Watson thinks the Suns draft last week ushered in a new era of Suns basketball.
"You see guys that are so tall, so athletic and skilled," he said. "You're going to see basketball that's very unique. And I feel like we have the most unique players in the draft in Bender, Chriss and [point guard Tyler] Ulis."
Bender the playmaker
Watson isn't the only one who thinks the Suns struck gold with Bender in today's NBA. Here's bball-breakdown.com's excellent analysis:
With defenses increasingly geared to wall off spread pick and rolls, the power forward has become the positional high ground in the battle between offenses and defenses.
Defenses mark shooters on the wings and drop back to protect the rim, leaving the power forward as either the pressure release valve or pick and pop option against any pressure the point guard might face. As such, it's become a very important source of secondary playmaking.
In Dragan Bender, the Suns have a modern NBA playmaking four who should fill the starting position for years—even if he never develops into a star.
During their surprising run in former coach Jeff Hornacek's first season, the Phoenix Suns' offense swung like a pendulum between Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, with Channing Frye working like an anchor point at the top of the key with his three-point shooting. Bender can space the floor (though not to the same extent yet) and work as a bridge that moves the ball from Bledsoe to Knight to Devin Booker pick and rolls seamlessly.
Bender is a fluid athlete for his size, and his quality ball skills and high basketball IQ should allow him to read the floor quickly and make plays in space—prerequisites for the modern NBA power forward—once his frame, athleticism, skills, and experience catch up for his innate feel for the game. With the bevy of weapons the Suns have on the perimeter in Bledsoe, Knight, and Booker, Bender could be the link that connects each piece of the offense to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Marquese Chriss is likewise a versatile combo forward whose strengths lean more towards athleticism than Bender's grasp of the game. The Suns consolidated the no. 13 and 28 picks, along with Bogdan Bogdanovic, to add a higher-upside talent, and have yet another combo forward pairing—albeit with less the volatility than the Morris brothers.
Tyler Ulis in the second round could develop into a solid backup point guard should the Suns clear the logjam in the backcourt this summer to free up more minutes and touches for Booker, whose development should be a top priority.
Before you get your hopes up too high and too soon, it's important to realize that Watson and other analysts are talking about Bender and Chriss in future terms. Bender, Chriss and Booker will all still be teenagers on opening night. Bender won't be 19 until mid-November. Chriss will be 19 all season, and Booker turns 20 on October 30.
These guys are not ready to reach their ceiling this season. Let's just hope for glimpses of greatness. It's quite possible we will see enough glimpses this season to get a clear vision of the Suns future.