With the start of the season a week away it’s time to examine the Phoenix Suns’ offense. For Part 1 of the series I’ll break down one of Earl Watson’s most common sets, ‘Thumb Up.’
If you have read some of the previous articles I have written about Watson you know how this set has been passed down within the Terry Stotts coaching tree. The blocker - mover motion offense has been around college basketball for decades, but the Trail Blazers’ head coach has made the motion offense thrive in Portland. With the Suns having their most lethal scoring options at the guard positions, it is no coincidence Earl Watson, who is a former player under Stotts, has elected to build the Phoenix Suns’ offense around this concept.
This set is designed to get a guard free in motion from one side of the court to the other side, going right or left. At the NBA level it usually leads to isolation attempts from the wings. The idea is running a mover (in this case Booker) for the blocker (Chriss).
The name ‘Thumb Up’ comes from the hand sign and call they use most of the time, although they obviously have to change it up at times. You can see how Bledsoe has to put his thumb up twice when Booker does not see it the first time.
The pitch back flare screen - where Booker gets the ball back as he flares left here - rarely works without proper strong side action. The Suns need to get Porzingis’s eyes away from Booker. This is a short shot Booker should make, but if Chriss continues a couple of steps higher faking a pick-and-roll it would give Booker a better angle to possibly drive when Porzingis doesn’t make a strong decision.
When Porzingis actively tracks Booker in this next clip, a veteran player like Chandler continues with the action into a true pick-and-roll. But Chriss hesitates for a second and forces Booker to decide between midrange shots for he or Chriss. Booker is able to shoot on the catch so he takes the shot, but giving Booker a better target is a small detail Chriss will learn as he plays more minutes at the 5. Either pop back to the three-point line, or roll to the rim when both his defender and Booker’s put all their attention on Booker.
I’m not a huge fan of this set they way the Suns ran it most of the time last season. However, the set does have positive elements and makes sense considering the Suns’ primary scoring options are at the guard positions.
Booker decides to finish with the floater this time but you can see how it creates weak side spacing for open shooters.
The other idea is creating switches with defensive miscommunication. Wall gets lost for a second which allows Booker to fade off the screen. He shoots a much higher percentage when he can get his feet square.
The Clippers are notorious for defensive miscommunication. The Suns have always had success with this set against the Clippers for this reason.
Watson runs this set multiple times every game it is the primary motion set in the blocker-mover offense. Certain teams will have it scouted well and create good defensive schemes. Watch how Patrick Beverley puts his thumb up before Bledsoe signaling the action coming to his teammates.
Also notice the other main flaw with this set is the limited secondary options if Booker is not open off the flare screen or is not able to beat his defender.
Watson comes back a minute later and they run the same set. Based on my converastions with him and how he makes in-game adjustments, I would guess it was a counter action. Booker and Bledsoe were not on the same page and once the timing is thrown off on the pitch-back the entire set breaks.
The limited secondary option is the number one drawback in running the blocker-mover motion offense at the NBA level. With the way the Suns ran this particular set last year the only option is setting a weak side pin down for Tucker.
At the start of the season the Suns had the highest PicknRoll frequency in the synergy database ever at 25%. That is the worst stat you can possibly have as it shows the flaws in the overall system. The other secondary option with just a pitch back and strong side pin down is basic PnR action. This is why I think many fans believe nothing is happening and it is just isolation basketball.
The best teams in the NBA have a flow that allows them to stay away from basic PnR as the secondary option. It is tough to design sets in the blocker-mover offense with good secondary options.
As seen with the clip against the Pelicans, Booker will have a ton of attention from teams moving forward. Watson has experimented with different players at the position to set the flare screen based on the match-ups. One variation I liked from the 2016 pre-season was Warren setting the flare screen and taking advantage of his ability to finish in the paint.
Portland has a smaller lineup which allows them to do this more easily, but I think with Warren expecting to play the 4 more this season we can look for him to set some flare screens.
Teams scheme the set differently. I like how Denver keeps Wilson Chandler on the weak side forcing Booker to make the pass to Tyson Chandler, who does a good job of finishing this time. It is critical for the Suns to find the best partner to play with Booker coming off the flare screen.
In this clip Kevin Love is set on taking away Booker from the action. Chriss can jump out of the gym, but I would prefer having a smooth finisher to pair with Booker such as TJ Warren or Alan Williams.
Counter and Secondary Options
Watson was limited last season with his counter and secondary options because of the personnel, but based on the additions to the team this season we should see better action.
This is a counter slip action they ran to get the switch off Klay Thompson. It is a simple action but effective in giving Booker an open look. You will see Watson run this type of counter action against teams with elite on-ball defenders such as Thompson.
Watson told me he had not input in Summer League sets but the coaching staff ran the same system. Portland used to run ‘Thumb Punch’ as a secondary option with the entry into the post for LaMarcus Aldridge. Watson previously mentioned the similarities he sees between Aldridge and Chriss.
Having a 5 that can space the floor and be a threat on both blocks is a huge boost considering they did not have that with Chandler in the lineup. This is a big reason why I think they want Chriss to develop as a 5.
My favorite concept Watson has in the his blocker-mover offense is the Spain action with Booker setting a back-screen. The key to this offense is simultaneous actions that can lead to more options. Warren coming off the flare screen while Booker sets the back-screen forces McCollum to take away the lob to Chriss.
If you are looking to compare why the Suns offense can’t replicate the success Portland has had this the main reason. Watson runs basic action with no simultaneous movement way too frequently. Watch the difference this season when Booker sets back-screens.
Portland has ran this action the past couple of seasons, I have been waiting to see the Suns run it more. It is really exciting they have focused on this concept running at as the first set in the pre-season game!
Can this young team consistently sustain the best concepts in this offense for 48 minutes? I do not expect them too. As seen with this first pre-season game in particular they were focused for the first five minutes and the action disappeared as the game went along...the biggest problem right now when it comes to Xs and Os. You can be good in stretches like the Warriors are and turn it on and off when they want, but the Suns are not experienced enough to do that right now.
Josh Jackson Impact
Based on the first two pre-season games it is evident the impact Jackson will have on this set. Jackson’s passing and atheltic ability open up the playbook more for Watson this season.
Last season the Suns had PJ Tucker as an option but he presented no threat. This is a designed counter set based on how the Cavaliers were defending all game. The wing PnR action allows Bledsoe to get to the rim.
A quick counter action Watson tried in the pre-season for Jackson was running Booker off the flare with the no pitch-back and seeing if Jackson can score coming off the strong side pin-down.
You can see Bledsoe has to put his thumb up twice but notice how he signals Booker to continue, wanting to counter into the Jackson pin-down. In this case with the rookie Collins out of position it would have been best to hit Booker coming off the flare.
I would prefer they run Booker off the flare screen to his right and allow Jackson to attack baseline to his left. This would help both players out especially Jackson who loves attacking left rather than a tough pull-up jumper.
Same idea here. Jackson has a read to make between the entry into Chriss or attack. Studying his film from college he loves attacking from the left wing.
Similar to the Booker clip above where they ran counter action action against the Warriors. Jackson elects drive right off the pitch from James. Good attack and quick read. Just gives them more options this season.
Watson had Tucker in this secondary option most of the time last season. Jackson adds another element this season. Daniels is not open coming off the flare screen, so watch how they set a double pin-down up top. It’s a good patient read by Ulis. Eventually the potential of Jackson’s play-making impact from this spot will be more evident as the season progresses.
This clip in Summer League shows how he can make the right read. Teams will give him more attention coming off the flare which is huge to have in this offense allows for weak side spacing and open shots for Booker.
What excites me the most is Jackson’s ability to make this lefty pass coming off the flare screen, giving Watson more counter options to rely on. One idea is running Thumb Up into hammer action which is what Kansas pretty much ran here- but with Jackson just coming on an Iverson cut instead of the flare screen.
This season Jackson gives them not only more counter options but the ability to come of the flare screen. Defenders will have to go under the screen respecting his athleticism.
As Jackson develops his post game the ability to score in isolation from the wings also helps increase the success rate of the set. ‘Thumb Up’ is designed for isolation opportunities from the wings.
Consistency and Sustainability
The blocker-mover offense works with the proper personnel and the ability to generate different counter options within set. Watching the first two pre-season games the Suns have had stretches running the best concepts in the offense. The key is having simultaneous action to the flare screen, the best option in my opinion is Booker setting a back-screen.
It should be interesting to see how Watson continues to make adjustments to the system and especially his most common set ‘Thumb Up.’The biggest question mark is can this team sustain a high level of play for 48 minutes for 82 games and that is not just on the players but also on the coaching staff to make the right calls at the right times.