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Monty Williams: Suns aiming for ‘core four’ with at least two playing at all times this season

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No more deep five-man bench units. The Suns will have a consistent top four to make sure the offense and defense run smoothly.

2019-20 Phoenix Suns Media Day Photo by Barry Gossage NBAE via Getty Images

Some teams try to keep their starting lineup together for the most possible minutes in a game — the first and last six to eight minutes of each half. And they try to create chemistry amongst a five-man second unit that can keep the game in hand while the starting group rests.

Not this year for the Suns.

This year, that will likely change. Coach Monty Williams wants the rotation to be 10 or more men deep, but says the lineups will more consistently include two of the Suns four best players at all times.

“Our rotation during the year, I gotta figure out a core of four,” Monty Williams said. “Of those four, I want to keep two on the floor all the time. That’s something I think can be of value to our program and our team going forward.”

Who would be that core four?

Seems like it would include playmakers Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio as two of them for sure. Deandre Ayton is likely as a third one, right? Who else? One of Kelly Oubre Jr. or Mikal Bridges? Or could it be that Ayton is one of the ‘other six’, while BookerRubio — Oubre — Bridges are the core four?

It sure seems like Deandre Ayton would be among the four best players on the team, but in terms of ‘core four’, would that possibly be focused on play makers and multi-positional defenders? Monty spends a lot of time talking about the efficiency of their lineups.

“As a head coach, as a guy who’s trying to run a program,” he said of the 45 three-point attempt game last Saturday. “I’m more concerned with how we get the threes. All of our threes [should come] off of DHOs or making a pass, that type of thing.”

Monty’s team is following directions — more than 91% of their three pointers were assisted in preseason, while a year ago they were twice as likely to take unassisted, off the dribble threes.

“Is the ball moving? Are players moving?” he continued. “And are we creating open shots for guys? If we do that, we can take 50 threes if they’re open.”

Maybe Monty is thinking, in these terms, in terms of the ‘core four’, that there should always at least two guys on the court who can create for themselves and/or for others. Guys who can make sure the ball keeps moving and the offense stays fluid.

He says he’s looking for efficient lineups though he’s not, in his words, an analytics guy. Through four preseason games, the Suns are definitely not threatening the Houston Rockets for supremacy on analytics-driven play calling. While the Rockets take only shots from behind the three point line or in the paint, the Suns are a bit more balanced.

“I’m probably anti-analytics when it comes to ‘twos’,” he said. “I tell the guys all the time, shoot the shot you’re comfortable shooting because at the end of the game sometimes you need a bucket and it could be a two. I want to shoot a ton of threes, I’d love to have ten dunks, but I don’t want to take away from a confident shot.”

Devin Booker and now Ricky Rubio are really good at making short (but still midrange) two-pointers with the defense sinking into the paint.

This preseason, the Suns rank 3rd among NBA teams in % of points coming in the midrange (11.5%, behind only the Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs and just ahead of the Golden State Warriors) while they are 23rd in % of field goals being three-pointers (38%, compared to the Rockets’ 59.8%).

Just two years ago, those marks would have flipped. The 11.5% of shots coming from mid-range would have ranked about 23rd, while the 38% of all shots being three-point attempts would have ranked among the Top 10. The league has definitely shifted more and more each year to the extremes, following Houston’s lead. The Suns aren’t quite that far advanced, but they are making strides.

What are the Suns good at, at least in preseason? The Suns are top 10 in pace, 15th in fast-break points and an impressive 1st overall in points generated off of turnovers (which includes points scored in half-court after a turnover). They are also 6th in points from free throws, meaning they get to the line pretty well.

Back to Monty’s ‘core four’ concept.

“I’m going to look at the numbers and see the most efficient five-man rotations, five man teams,” he said.

Statistics like ‘five man lineups’ are not readily accessible online for preseason games, so I cannot tell you who’s been the most efficient lineups in these four games. The teams, however, get much better tracking data and will have all that analysis at their fingertips.

Suffice it to say, Monty might not be an analytics guru, but he knows what he wants and he’s trying to get the most out of his players.