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T.J. Warren’s traditionalist case for a spot in the Suns’ future

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Can a non-shooter succeed for a modern playoff contender?

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If the “tweener” has gone away and been replaced with the swiss army knife, Draymond Green type, then basketball’s new worst archetype is the non-shooter. For better or worse, the Suns’ TJ Warren will be looked at as one of the game’s preeminent non-shooters until recognizable improvement comes. It’s a work in progress.

The shot itself is not broken; at it’s worst, it’s a combination of LeBron James’s fader and Shawn Marion’s flick. At it’s best, it still just looks a whole lot like James’s inconsistent jumper. Warren lacks a full-on giddyup gather, instead poking his right foot just behind the line when he goes up to shoot. He will leap upward at a slight fade away, then flip the shot up. It rims out more often than not, despite having been successful 45 percent of the time last season.

stats.NBA.com

More frustrating than just missing a bunch of deep shots is the way that Warren misses them. Most shooters, even ones whose impact is not felt as a shooter, can at least make the defense pay for leaving them open in the half court. Warren, on the other hand, made only 25.5 percent of his corner 3-pointers, the most valuable shot in basketball, and of course the shortest long ball.

SportVU player tracking data provided by NBA.com shows us the degree to which a player is open during each of their shot attempts. According to this data, Warren shot only 28.3 percent on all shots deemed either “open” (closest defender 4-6 feet away) or “wide open” (closest defender more than six feet away). Opponents would often have the player defending Warren act as the most aggressive help defender in half court situations, knowing that that player would be able to step toward the paint or harass a ball-handler and recover back to Warren without a worrisome shot going up in the meantime. Over a full season, Warren proved this coaching strategy correct.

It’s also not simply a matter of making the easiest ones-- Warren struggles with every variety of deep shot:

  • 23.1 percent on open threes
  • 27.2 percent on catch-and-shoot threes
  • 23.1 percent on pull-up threes

One tangential argument that I think is worth considering from the same perspective as this one is the debate about whether or not UCLA’s Lonzo Ball would be a good fit in Phoenix. Much of the offensive value that Ball would provide within a roster like the Suns’ derives precisely from what Warren’s presence on the court takes away. In an offense that fits together better than the Suns’, a passer as talented as Bledsoe would suffice. However, the concerns about the veteran point guard’s fit on the team come up as a result of the limited offensive versatility of guys like Warren (and Alex Len and Tyler Ulis).

Thus is the new truth of the NBA: a core piece like Warren not having a reliable outside shot can be the difference between the top ten and bottom ten in offensive efficiency. This write-up by Doug Haller on the young forward’s post-Tucker trade progress details the ways that a player like Warren can make due without a a jumper. It was also the subject of my Player of the Week profile about a month ago.

If you’re watching this year’s playoffs, you’ve seen the nature of the Toronto Raptors’ offense and how it revolves so strongly around the performance DeMar DeRozan puts forth from night to night. An offense centered in any large part around T.J. Warren will do the same. Without successful playmaking or three-point shooting, it’s an impossible offensive style to count on. Fortunately, Warren has never eclipsed the 20% (or average for one-fifth of a lineup) mark in usage rate. Yet decisions about roster makeup are already facing the Suns as a result of Warren’s presence and his improvement.

The Suns exercised the team option in his contract for the 2017-18 season last October, so he will make $3.15 million next year. He will be a restricted free agent the following summer, but decision time starts now. Warren has been discussed in trade talks before, and in all likelihood will continue to be available. Two of the top options in the draft (Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum) are small forwards, and the Suns played last year’s number four pick, Dragan Bender, in that spot frequently this season. Nothing is solidified.

As the Suns look to jump ahead into the next, more competitive stage of roster building, the team’s decision on Warren is a subtly important one. Where the front office chooses to spend its resources this summer and beyond will say a lot about the type of team they want the Suns to be. There’s little evidence to believe that a roster constructed around a player like Warren as a core piece can compete at the highest levels, yet he’s a fan favorite whom the team has invested a lot in. Future-minded team-building can sometimes feel like a zero-sum game.