In my first full summer covering the Suns — from the draft to free agency to Summer League — I tried to have as many conversations as possible to understand the way this new braintrust in Phoenix thinks.
Along the way, I captured some thoughts and quotes from those around the organization that haven’t made it in any of the other pieces I’ve written this summer. So, before we part ways for the remainder of the offseason (training camp is just two months away!), I wanted to unload the remainder of my notes from this summer so as to not miss anything.
In this first installment, I’ll explore how we can project the Suns’ offensive and defensive schemes might look.
More switching on the defensive end?
At the press conference introducing Kelly Oubre Jr. this week, Williams discussed the possibility that the Suns could switch more on defense. Most NBA teams these days include switching as part of their scheme, and at all levels, players must know how to hold their own at the end of the shot clock. But if it is indeed a bigger part of the Suns’ scheme, Oubre certainly will play a part in that, as will Ricky Rubio, according to Williams.
“Those guys give us the ability to switch, and keep guys in front of us, take away threes, and rebound,” the coach said.
Two of Deandre Ayton’s best defensive games came in February defending LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo out on the perimeter. It got him fired up and made use of his mobility, length and athleticism. Maximizing Ayton’s value defensively is perhaps the central big-picture focus of the Suns’ on-court growth over the next few seasons, and switching could be part of that.
Last year, Ayton played a traditional drop coverage when defending the pick-and-roll. Rubio had great success with Rudy Gobert in drop coverage as a member of the Jazz. Even Oubre and Bridges did their best in traditional coverage, where their help defense and turnover creation brought value. More switching would be a big change, but integrating it successfully could help Williams bring more out of a roster full of young players more naturally talented on offense than defense.
‘Point five’ and the Suns’ quick-trigger offense
Much of the focus heading into the 2018-19 season for Phoenix was how the innovative, efficient system of Igor Kokoskov might unlock Devin Booker and make the transition into the NBA easier for Deandre Ayton.
Under Monty Williams, expect the Suns to simplify things. The comparison between Booker and James Harden has been made countless times and is understandable given their skill sets, but in conversations with people around the organization, my expectation is they will simplify things, ease Booker’s workload, and let him find the role that he is most comfortable in. This could affect other areas of Booker’s game as well, including the energy he is able to expend on defense. The Suns have to hope it also leads to a healthier season for their young star.
From more of an Xs and Os standpoint, Williams seems like he will focus on three things: Getting out in transition, running pick and roll, and shooting threes.
After officially signing Rubio, Williams said, “Now, we can start to look at our roster and see on the floor the style of play we want to implement: moving the ball, playing out of point five, but it starts with our defensive mindset.”
The concept of “point five” (as in 0.5, or half a second to make a decision) is illustrated nicely in this video, which shows former Spurs assistant Ettore Messina leading young players through a set of offensive drills designed to quicken their thinking on the court.
Messina highlights four tenets of the “point five” ideology: 1) catch the ball with your eyes on the rim and be ready to shoot, drive or pass, 2) be aware of your teammates and the defense so as to move the ball intelligently, 3) make accurate passes to create good looks for teammates, 4) after you give up the ball, sprint into space to open up the floor.
With those three basic ideas in mind, it makes sense why the Suns targeted Rubio. He is a quick decision-maker, a great passer and a smart player. He will be the key to making things easier for the rest of the young Suns roster. Williams consistently emphasized how much more efficient Rubio could make his teammates.
The Suns had great success employing these concepts at Summer League, making snappy decisions and finding good shots. It’s how they remained competitive against rosters heavy with NBA talent.
In the clip below, watch as the ball touches three different guys’ hands over the course of a few seconds, as Jared Harper relocates out to three-point land after dishing the ball and Rayvonte Rice kicks to Ray Spalding rather than taking an efficient mid-range jumper:
It’s easy to forecast more three-point attempts for this team as well based on the free agency period they just completed. Every player they signed outside of Cheick Diallo is a capable three-point shooter. If they indeed want to play simple spread pick-and-roll as often as possible in the halfcourt, the most basic way to bend the defense is to put great shooters on the perimeter. Between Frank Kaminsky, Cameron Johnson, Ty Jerome and Dario Saric, they found a handful of very good shooters who can create space for Booker and Ayton with gravity.
Williams also elaborated on how Rubio can help in transition: “We want to be an advance-pass team. When we get stops, I don’t want to have to call plays and I think when you have guys like Ricky and guys like Kelly who can get out and make plays, that’s something that’s going to allow me more freedom to sit back and let our guys develop our culture offensively.”
A team that ranked last in three-point efficiency last season and had the third-worst transition offense in the NBA (per Cleaning the Glass) needs all the easy points it can get.