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How the Suns can run an efficient offense with their new lineup

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New Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams has not been a head coach for five years. How can he maximize his players talent?

NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

When Monty Williams was appointed the new head coach of the Phoenix Suns back in May, the move was met with nearly unanimous praise from Suns fans and media members alike. Here, finally, was the first experienced head coach coming to direct the organization’s crop of young talent in close to a decade.

But soon after the initial hype, questions emerged about Williams’ coaching philosophy that have yet to be met with sufficient answers because the Suns have yet to play a game. That will change very soon, as training camp starts on Tuesday and the Suns’ first preseason game is just over a week away.

What exactly should we expect the Suns offense to look like?

This is not so easy to speculate on, given Williams’ complicated history. For several seasons in New Orleans he opted for a slow, calculated attack, first established on the pick-and-roll prowess of Chris Paul and later on the inside game of budding superstar Anthony Davis.

But later teams that Monty helped coach as an assistant, in Oklahoma City and Philadelphia, proved substantially different both in terms of pace and strategy.

Without knowing what Monty’s preference is, let’s choose to build the ideal 2019-2020 Suns offense from the ground up. And here’s our base assumption: offense is a function of possessions and efficiency. Affording yourself more chances to score and converting those chances at a higher rate than your opponent will yield winning results.

With that in mind, we need to try to optimize the team’s offensive scheme. We already know that the Suns got better offensively across the board this summer through a number of moves. But now that all the dust has settled, what are they actually GOOD at relative to other teams? What is their identity?

In search of an answer, I took to Synergy stats.

Synergy categorizes every offensive possession according to certain play types, and then tracks each player’s efficiency in those play types. Here’s a breakdown of which Suns players are considered “above average” at the most common play types, with a minimum of 100 possessions required for each play type to filter out small sample size bias.

  • Transition: Ayton (86th percentile), Booker (62nd), Bridges (62nd), Saric (67th)
  • Isolation: Booker (64th)
  • PnR ball handler: Booker (74th), Oubre (74th)
  • Post ups: Booker (80th), Ayton (75th)
  • PnR finisher: Saric (86th), Ayton (59th)
  • Spot up shooting: Bridges (62nd), Oubre (58th), Kaminsky (54th)

Different things may stand out to you, but here’s what caught my eye.

First: transition. Four of the top seven players on this team are substantially above average in the transition department (at least 62nd percentile). There is no historical evidence that faster pace correlates with winning, but this data suggests that the Suns have a good amount of core pieces who might be equipped for that sort of play. On top of that, Ricky Rubio is a maestro in the open court for his playmaking even if his scoring isn’t quite up to par. Monty should take note of all of this.

Second, the Suns are a substantially improved shooting team and yet they’re still just left with a roster of mostly average spot-up shooters. Cam Johnson and Ty Jerome were both phenomenal at spot-up shooting at the college level (97th and 99th percentile respectively), but unless their play translates instantly the Suns do not really have a go-to deadeye. As a result, trying to play like Houston or Milwaukee may not be the way to go.

Third...and this is really just preaching to the choir, I know, but Devin Booker is a supremely talented, multi-faceted scorer. You can put him in the post, you can have him take on a defender one-on-one, you can have him navigate pick-and-rolls, and his spot-up shooting should improve on a team with more spacing as well. Such a versatile focal point is a privilege to build around and we shouldn’t forget that.

Finally, there are some underrated options here as well. Dario Saric is not just a shooter, as evidenced by his surprisingly elite pick-and-roll finishing numbers on the Timberwolves. And while Kelly Oubre has a long way to go as a playmaker, his self-creation on pick plays is pretty good.

What you see before you is an offense with a little bit of everything. Crafting the recipe out of those ingredients is the hard part.

Introducing the “Suns Drag Series”

Lucky for me, I know people who are much better at conceiving the hard part. To help sort out some Xs and Os, I talked to Tim AKA “Cranjis McBasketball”, the founder of The Bball Index offers some terrific advanced statistical models, and Tim works on those in addition to performing consulting work at the NCAA level. He also appeared on my podcast a couple of months ago, where he gave his opinions on the Suns offseason in much greater depth. Once we settled the pesky question of who would start between Bridges and Oubre (an article for another day), Tim went to work. The following are his suggestions to get good value out of a starting lineup of Rubio, Booker, Oubre, Saric, and Ayton.

Unfortunately I can’t offer any video to go with these plays because this is all just speculation, but I will break down the diagrams to the best of my ability. It’s important to note that these plays form a greater “series”, implying different plays with the starting positions each time down the court. A full playbook incorporates many different series, but using series makes one’s offense harder to read in real time.

Drag Split

This first play is initiated by a Ricky Rubio-Dario Saric pick-and-roll. As that happens, Ayton moves into mid-post position while Oubre sprints corner to corner.

Right there this creates some options. If Rubio can come off Saric’s screen at just the right angle, he might be able to drag two defenders out with him while Saric spots up at the three-point line. Saric is, according to BBall-Index, in the 82nd percentile as a perimeter shooter and in the 93rd percentile in his roll gravity, giving him huge value as a pick-and-pop option.

Assuming that the defense doesn’t take the bait, Rubio’s next option in this play is to default to Booker. Booker then makes an entry pass to Ayton in the mid post. Oubre comes over from the corner to set a flare screen for Booker, leading to a potentially wide open shot in the corner. If that doesn’t work, Oubre continues his cut around Ayton to the basket. If the defense switches on Oubre’s screen, then Oubre could get inside positioning on a smaller SG defender that was previously guarding Booker.

All in all, this one play creates legitimate offensive options for all 5 Suns players. Not only that, but it takes into account what all of them are good at. As Tim explained to me:

“Overall on this play, we leverage the shooting abilities of Booker and Saric, Rubio’s A-grade playmaking ability as the big decision maker, and the cutting ability of Kelly Oubre. Deandre Ayton is also in a decision maker role, which isn’t a big strength of his but he has a C-grade vs Centers, so I wouldn’t feel awful about his role in the set. And if the set doesn’t generate anything open, you have Ayton in the post with the ball and Booker close to him, so a post possession or kick-out for a pick and roll with an empty corner to work with.”

Still following? Unfortunately it gets more confusing, as coaches have to be ready to counter varying forms of pick-and-roll defense. For example, what if the defense decides to ICE the initial Saric pick-and-pop, or play drop defense on Rubio?

Well, Tim thought of that too.

Both counter plays are more likely to lead to Rubio attacking the rim, but retain those options of using Booker as a serious spot-up threat. Ayton and Oubre would play very similar roles.

Drag Spain

This play begins the same way, with the Rubio-Saric screen while Ayton positions himself in the post. The difference this time is that Oubre will come up from the corner to set a back screen for Saric. So Rubio can come off the initial screen and make a quick dump off pass to Ayton at the elbow who then finds a cutting Saric at the rim. In the meantime, Booker is of course right by Ayton as a bail out option.

This is the type of fast, focused play that only teams with several good playmakers can risk. Luckily, the Suns find themselves in that position after adding two plus playmakers for their positions in Rubio and Saric.

“This works wonders against a trap or hard hedge”, Tim told me. “Instead of Rubio needing to pass across his body to a cutting big he’s able to pass to Ayton first, who then makes the simple dump off to Saric.”

Drag Double Rip

This 3rd play begins with, surprise surprise, another Rubio-Saric screen. Again, beginning with the same motion but finishing with different actions is an effective way of confusing a defense.

Ayton positions himself in the mid-post, and Oubre runs just a little bit further than that to set a staggered back screen for Booker. Rubio then tries to hit Saric on the perimeter, who looks for an open Booker in the corner. This is the type of play that the Suns could rarely afford to run for Booker last season, but it becomes much easier with a capable ball handler in Ricky Rubio. The 2nd image shows an additional action where Ayton sets another back screen on Oubre’s defender to allow Oubre to cut to the rim for a pass from Saric.

Tim chimes in:

“The set up from the other plays in this series enhance this set’s ability to succeed, and the ‘rip’ back screen by Ayton for Oubre while the defense is scrambling to guard Booker is the cherry on top. Rubio’s relative lack of shooting is negated due to his position on the court and the unlikeliness that his man would sag off to such an extreme degree away from Rubio at the top of the key as to guard anything around the rim.”

Drag Flip Flare:

In this last play, Rubio comes around the initial Saric screen and looks to pass either to Saric on the pick-and-pop or Booker in the corner (who runs around an Ayton flare screen). If neither is open, the hope is that perhaps the defense was forced to switch on the Booker-Ayton action. If that’s the case, Rubio dumps the ball to Ayton in the post who feasts on a smaller defender.

If the offense isn’t quite so lucky, we move onto the second panel. Rubio cuts to the rim and then darts to the ball-side corner. Booker sprints back towards Ayton looking for a handoff while Oubre sets a pin-in flare for Saric in the opposite corner. Booker takes the handoff and either immediately attacks, finds Ayton for the finish, or finds Saric for the 3. But if the defense is kept honest by Rubio/Oubre/Saric, Ayton should really have an easy time finishing off this play either in the post or after the flip to Booker. In Tim’s words:

“The player positioning on the court removes the opportunity for the defense to help on Ayton’s roll, likely giving you an open one of those two options.”

What the heck does all this mean?

Four plays does not make for an all-encompassing playbook.

Rather, what this exercise was intended to do was to get you thinking about how the Suns have many more offensive options than they’ve previously had in the Booker era.

There are many ways for Monty Williams to construct an efficient offense, but all of them will stem from incorporating the best parts of all of his players into his playbook. Booker could continue his scoring rampage and average close to 30 PPG this year, but he doesn’t need to do that for the Suns to succeed.

In short, while the Suns improved their shooting, they don’t have the best shooters. While they improved their finishing, they don’t have the best finishers.

What they do have that allows for so much creativity is playmaking. In fact, Bball-Index rates Rubio as an A- playmaker among all PGs, Booker an A among SGs, Bridges a C+ among SFs, Saric a C among PFs, and Ayton a C among centers. The website considers a “C” to be 50th percentile, so all 5 are at least average compared to players at the same position. Toss in Tyler Johnson who also gets a C rating among PGs, and most of the team’s core pieces are considered pretty good at creating for each other.

And that just might be enough.

Ed. Note: Welcome back, Sam Cooper! Sam used to contribute to Bright Side a few years ago and we are happy he’s back again for the 2019-20 season.

These days, Sam is the co-host of The Timeline Podcast, a weekly show covering the Phoenix Suns. You can hit the link I provided, or just search for The Timeline and subscribe to it in your favorite podcast feed.