Media interviews were a little bit different this year for the Phoenix Suns.
Yes, Coronavirus protocols forced the interviews to a remote setting, and stretched out the process by several days.
But it wasn’t just the logistics that were different. It was the tone.
While Chris Paul understandably served as the headliner, the theme of the week was one of a collective buy-in, from superstars and role players alike. For the first time in over a decade, the word “Championship” was used by multiple people in describing this team’s short-term aspirations. But above all, as returning players were forced to ruminate on the still-fresh success of the Bubble, it was this quote from Dario Saric that most stood out to me.
“I had a feeling in the bubble, in every moment, all five guys were in a great situation to score the basket,” he said. “All five guys were dangerous to score the basket. It wasn’t just one guy who was getting buckets and the whole other team was just focusing on him...all five guys on the court were able to do something, to score, to make a cut, to make a right play, to make an extra pass. I think that was the real reason why we were so good in the bubble.”
First off, this sounds like the perfect opportunity for Five Guys to swoop in with arena naming rights, or at least a sponsorship of some sort.
More importantly, this quote sheds some real insight on what I believe to be an absolute (if simple) truth: all NBA players want to make meaningful decisions with the ball in their hands. And only some NBA systems allow them to do just that.
Take Houston, for instance. In the age of optimization, there is a strong temptation to do as the spreadsheet commands. James Harden is the most efficient player on the Rockets by far, and as such, he should handle the ball on every possession. That’s the likely conclusion of a traditional analyst, and it’s how Harden and Westbrook combined for a 70% USG rating last season and led the league in isolation possessions by far.
That strategy will win you plenty of games, but it lacks a critical human element that can wear on a team over time. When lesser players feel neglected, they’re more likely to suffer burnout. They see that their efforts to get open are not rewarded, and so they’re more likely to sit in a corner rather than cut. In some cases they may even be more likely to take plays off on defense out of frustration.
Monty Williams, being renowned for his interpersonal skills, can surely see that this is not a model system. But how do you balance keeping your role players engaged while not sacrificing the overall quality of your offense?
It’s simple, according to James Jones. Only sign role players whose decision-making is trustworthy.
If you look at every move that James Jones made this summer, there are a few common factors.
- No bad AST/TO ratios
- No bad shooters
- Every player must have one bankable offensive skill
The end result is that Coach Monty can now deploy lineups with five competent shooters and dribblers at a time. And at that point, who cares which player is touching the ball and how often? You’ve already pre-vetted all of them.
To be clear, Booker and CP3 are still running the show. Their combined shot creation is the engine that powers this whole operation, and if either one misses significant time then the ship could very well go down.
But every role player surrounding those two has proven to be adept at filling in the gaps. All of them have a skill that helps to separate them from the average NBA athlete. Let’s take a deeper dive into what some of those skills are.
Dario Saric, 2nd-Unit Renaissance Man
Let’s go back to Dario. The bubble opened up an opportunity for him to play a highly-involved role at the top of the key. From there, he could either decide to barrel to the rim or to make a play for someone else.
“We were just running down the court and making plays,” he said in that same interview. “Just playing free basketball, and that’s why we were so good.”
Saric averaged 14.6/7.8/1.8 on 57/52/88 shooting, and while that three-point percentage isn’t sustainable over a full season, there’s reason to believe that the playmaking, slashing, and glass-crashing could be here to stay. To reminisce, check out the highlights below of Saric’s bubble assists and drives. These are clearly clips of a confident player, in spite of any athletic limitations.
Saric will play a pivotal role in the upcoming season, as the Suns neglected to add another backcourt self-creator alongside CP3 and Booker. Cameron Payne may step up, but it could be reasonably argued that Saric is now the team’s 3rd-best play initiator. And in minutes without CP3 and Booker on the floor, we may see Saric assert himself in an unprecedented manner.
A Different Kind of Shooting
James Jones also added shooters this offseason. You can tell because the new guys have better three-point percentages than the old guys.
But I’m not here to talk to you about percentages. Those are boring. Instead, let’s focus on functional three-point shooting.
The biggest hurdle the Suns faced in the summer of 2019 was in dragging their player personnel out of the stone age. Through the acquisitions of Cam Johnson, Saric, and Baynes, and the elimination of several bricklayers, Devin Booker finally had the privilege of playing next to multiple shooters at once.
Even so, most of these guys could only hit standstill threes. Cam Johnson served as an exception to that rule, but the Suns finished out last season ranking just 23rd in off-screen shooting frequency (and 16th in efficiency). That’s definitely more competent, but not good enough for serious playoff basketball.
So what did James Jones do?
He sought out (for two veteran minimum deals!!!), the best off-screen shooters on the free agent market.
The Suns averaged 4.1 off-screen attempts last season. If you simply substitute Ricky Rubio and Kelly Oubre with Galloway and Moore’s ‘19-20 stats, then that number jumps to 6.0 attempts per game—good for 6th in the league in frequency, based on last year’s numbers.
Why the fixation on this specific type of shooting in the first place, you ask? Because all of these tools compound upon one another. The harder the defense has to chase an off-ball guard around screens, the more likely they are to concede a rolling big, or a driving point guard. It’s an attempt to overload the defense with so many potential threats so as to induce a sort of analysis paralysis. Force the defense to think too long, and they freeze.
As constructed, this roster is so deep that it’s quite possible neither Galloway nor Moore receive major minutes. But if Monty Williams ever finds that the off-ball movement isn’t to his liking, he now has the option to shake things up with either of these guys at any moment.
Mikal Bridges, Death by a Thousand Cuts
Mikal Bridges, to his credit, could take another leap this season in establishing himself among the above tier of proven shooters. But even if he isn’t quite on that level yet, he still has an extra trick up his sleeve. Statistically, he is the best cutter on the roster.
Bridges’ simple two-handed flushes may not be as aesthetically pleasing as watching Kelly Oubre soar over the top of a defender. But the numbers tell a different story. Bridges ranked in the 89th percentile in cutting efficiency last year, scoring 1.51 points per possession—the equivalent of a 50% three-point shooter. When Kelly Oubre cut, he converted to the tune of just 1.14 PPP (26th percentile).
The presence of Ricky Rubio last season already ensured that Bridges would feel empowered to cut with enthusiasm, but the defensive attention that Chris Paul commands from any spot on the floor adds a whole new layer of robustness to the offense. The more attention Paul commands, the more that Bridges will feast.
And it’s not just Bridges who benefits. Cutters and shooters have a funny way of forming a symbiotic relationship. If Mikal Bridges cuts while Cam Johnson pops, and both are equally formidable scoring options, then that’s a pick-your-poison that can give a defense fits for an entire game.
Just one more option to go in the toolbox.
Lob City 2.0?
When I said earlier that James Jones made a commitment to only signing shooters, I technically lied. Not every acquisition these past few weeks was a shooter. But even the non-shooters play their own role in acting as a powerful counterbalance.
Take Damian Jones, who may or may not be a regular rotation player this season.
This is not a player with touch. 82% of his shot attempts were either layups or dunks.
Fortunately, he’s very good at layups and dunks.
Jones finished in the 95th percentile as a pick-and-roll finisher, and his looming presence around the rim will set up some very easy assists for both Paul and Booker. In the above video, you can see how many of Jones’ dunks were a direct result of increased ball pressure applied on Trae Young. Not every NBA guard can make those types of reads, but count Trae, CP3, and Booker among the group who can.
But examining only one center’s role begs a very important question. How does Deandre Ayton fit into this whole thing?
I couldn’t quite tell you. The way I see it, we’ve already established that there are two types of bigs who can thrive in Monty’s quick-paced system. Ayton can either:
- Position himself from the top of the key and elbow, finding cutters and driving to the rim, a la Saric
- Put his head down, set strong screens, and finish lobs, a la Jones
If the goal is simply to have the best team next season, then there’s no doubt in my mind that Ayton should be taking the latter approach. And something tells me that Monty Williams agrees with me.
Deandre Ayton touches per game:— Sam Cooper (@scooperhoops) December 7, 2020
Post-ups also got slashed by 40% in the bubble. Is it small sample noise, or is it a real indication of a more simplified offensive role coming for DA in year 3?
It wasn’t long ago that fans were getting on Coach Igor Kokoskov’s case, demanding that a rookie Ayton be fed post touches repeatedly. Yet when the Suns were playing their best basketball in the bubble, Ayton averaged significantly fewer touches and post-ups per game. He only averaged 15 PPG over that stretch, less than his rookie-season mark of 16.3.
Did anybody notice? Did anybody even care?
When you win, people don’t seem to fixate on those things anymore. This is an exciting development for Ayton, as it takes quite a bit of pressure off his gigantic shoulders. The Suns don’t need him to be the next Shaq. He can earn his money on a defense-first reputation, while still providing a healthy serving of points per game thanks to how easy Paul and Booker can make it for him.
On the other hand, we must recognize that this approach with Ayton is perhaps antithetical to the overall theme here, which is all about Monty empowering his players to make smart decisions with the ball in their hands. For Ayton to earn a max contract in 2022, there must be balance and compromise. At a base level, a Gobertesque offensive role may be optimal for helping Phoenix win games. But only by providing Ayton with those other opportunities, the elbow touches, the low-post mismatches, can he ever hope to potentially unlock a higher ceiling.
Entering this season, I feel comfortable with issuing you a guarantee that Devin Booker will lead the Suns in scoring. I feel similarly comfortable saying that Deandre Ayton and Chris Paul will assume the roles of 2nd and 3rd option (though not necessarily in that order).
After that, this roster is a collection of role players. And with only so many touches to go around, none of the remaining guys may crack even 12 PPG. But all of them, on any given night, could be a threat to score 20 or more and help lead the Suns to victory. One night Dario Saric will punish second-unit lineups. On another, Cam Johnson might hit six threes. On another, Mikal Bridges will sneak his way there through a collection of spot-ups and cuts.
The danger of this offense lies in the fact that we know every last player is capable of stepping up to be the hero.
And if Monty Williams can successfully manage the monumental task of handling every ego on a 15-man NBA roster, then there may be no limit to how far his team can go.