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Learning from the 2020 Playoffs: notes on Cam Johnson, Ayton, Booker and more

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Phoenix Suns v Orlando Magic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Ah yes, the playoffs. We are comfortably in the middle of round two now, though for Suns fans, that doesn’t mean much. If you’re a Suns fan, it’d be easy to tune out all playoff talk right now as you focus on upcoming roster transactions, the draft, and free agency.

It’d be easy for you to do that. But for the players and coaching staff, the playoffs represent an opportunity to learn from the very best in our league. It’s a beautiful exchange of ideas, and there’s no harm in trying to take ideas from others and improve upon them.

Of course, there’s also the fact that watching basketball is fun. If you like watching basketball, you should be enjoying this postseason.

Without further ado, here are some of my main takeaways from the 2020 postseason (so far), and more specifically, how the Suns can work to apply those ideas into their own gameplan.

The Suns can do so much more with Cam Johnson

We all know that the NBA is in the midst of a three-point revolution. Every team in the playoffs is launching at least 30 threes per night. But even as teams try to stack as many three-point specialists on their rosters as possible, some fans wrongly conflate the concepts of three-point % and three-point gravity. These are two distinct principles, and the latter is much more important to team success.

The concept of gravity is this: Teams respect opponents not only for the rate at which they hit shots, but also for how difficult those shots are. The higher degree of shot difficulty, the more respect a shooter commands. And it’s this respect that extends the floor and ultimately creates opportunities for teammates.

With that in mind, I have to give a shout out to Duncan Robinson, who has easily been one of my favorite players to watch in the playoffs.

On the surface, it’s not Robinson who has led the Heat to their perfect 7-0 playoff record thus far. He’s their 6th leading playoff scorer, at just 10.4 PPG on 42/38/79 shooting splits.

But Robinson hits difficult shots, and watching him is a road map for how the Suns can successfully use Cameron Johnson in the future.

Take a look at the clip below, and watch the movement. What begins as a cross court Iverson cut for Robinson turns into staggered pindowns, and ultimately ends with a wide open three at the top of the key. Robinson never stops moving throughout the play, because the play is designed with him in mind as the principal scoring option.

This is the critical difference between how Miami uses Robinson and how Monty Williams has used Cameron Johnson. When Cam fires off threes for Phoenix, it’s because the defense has already collapsed on a different primary option (usually Booker), and Cam serves as a pressure release valve hidden in the corner or on the wing. They’re open shots, but they’re also easy shots.

Robinson shoots a similar percentage from deep, but his attempts are significantly harder, and that gives him significantly more gravity.

Another example of this is on handoff actions, which Miami loves using with Robinson as the shooter and Adebayo as the screener. A few playoff examples of that below.

Handoff 3s are much harder than normal spot-up 3s, but those who master the art become virtually unguardable. Duncan Robinson attempted 164 field goals in handoff actions this season, according to Synergy. Cam attempted just 19 such shots.

It’s not easy to play like Robinson does on offense, but if there’s anyone who has the potential to copy his style, Cam Johnson would be that guy. Why do I say that?

Does that description remind you of anyone?

In the past, the best movement shooters were guys like JJ Redick: tremendous off the ball, but limited physically.

Robinson and Johnson have all the tools to break that mold. Cam, like Robinson, can see over defenses at 6’8”, even behind the three-point line. And both have the agility to survive on the perimeter as capable defenders, even if neither will ever be “lockdown”.

As a 24-year-old, Cam may not have superstar potential. But the Suns have only scratched the surface of his offensive talent in year one.

The future of Deandre Ayton’s position in danger?

It was just a few days ago that the Houston Rockets narrowly survived what would have been an embarrassing round one loss. Now, after taking a 1-0 lead over the Lakers, Houston’s current series has been (rightly or wrongly) dubbed a litmus test for the value of Centers in the modern NBA.

Anthony Davis is currently taking a lot of flak for his inability to punish P.J. Tucker in a game one loss. And as I look at the criticism being lobbed at AD, I can’t help but feel as though I’m looking into a crystal ball at Deandre Ayton’s future, too.

Surely this looks like a familiar sight to you as well.

See, the problem isn’t that big men are no longer viable in the NBA. At least, not big men who are as physically gifted as AD or DA.

But these types of players need to streamline their repertoires, and rely less on inefficient crutches.

Anthony Davis is one of the most efficient pick-and-roll finishers in the NBA, yet he didn’t log a single possession as the roll man in game one against Houston. Instead he relied heavily on the mid-range, a zone where he shot just 34.9% in the regular season. You don’t need to be a math whiz to realize that in the long run, that math doesn’t add up.

Instead, look no further than this Houston-LA regular season match up to see how the Lakers should be using Davis on offense. It’s gonna sound obvious, but they should be exploiting Houston’s switch-heavy defensive scheme by involving AD in as many LeBron-Davis PnR possessions as possible. Watch these two easy buckets below to see what I mean.

Specifically, note how Davis is choosing to slip the screen in these possessions. Houston’s “switch everything” approach means that Davis gets one easy layup against Eric Gordon, and another against James Harden. Even with Tucker sliding over to help on the 2nd clip, he isn’t nearly as intimidating a help side defender as he is on the ball.

In short, Davis has the ability to attack Houston effectively because when given a head of steam, his momentum can’t be stopped by smaller players. But in the post or on elbow touches, he’s severely handicapping his ability to do anything productive. Weight is much more important than height in the post, and Davis only has a 9-pound weight advantage over Tucker, which is negligible.

The reason I’m writing about this is because all of it applies to Ayton, too. As a pick-and-roll finisher this year, Ayton averaged 1.16 points per possession. It’s an area where he was immediately NBA-ready from day one of his rookie season, because his touch around the basket is so brilliant.

But conversely, Ayton shot 36.7% on mid-range shots this season. These shots can have value if the defense perceives you to be a legitimate triple threat, willing to pass or drive the ball at any second. But Ayton is clearly not a comfortable triple threat right now. And until he gets there, the Suns should focus on simplifying his offensive game to extract the most value out of it.

The Mid-Range will never die

Wait a second. Didn’t I just say that the mid-range shot has no value?

Well, not exactly. It does have value! But...only for certain players. And one of those players is Kawhi Leonard, who is demonstrating that in the absence of game-breaking shooting, you can still build your offense around the mid-range shot.

I recognize that you’re reading this as Kawhi comes off an awful 4-17 shooting performance in a game 2 loss. But, Denver has some terrific one-on-one wing defenders in Jerami Grant, Gary Harris, and to a lesser extent Torrey Craig. They are one of the better-equipped teams to deal with the Leonard/George one-two punch.

Even despite last night’s stinker, Kawhi’s mid-range efficiency has been absurd in the playoffs, as he’s shooting 33-54 (61.1%) on shots in between 10 and 20 feet. Some highlights are below.

While the turnarounds and step backs are pretty, they make Kawhi such a tough cover because he uses those shots to generate even better looks at the rim. And therefore, Kawhi’s mastery of the mid-range shot can actually coexist with analytics. It creates absurd sequences like the one below, where Doncic is so concerned about accounting for the step back that he allows enough space to drive.

Kawhi is a dying breed in the NBA. Very few players are as efficient in their movements, which is what allows for such breathtaking mid-range efficiency in the first place. But one player who is on the same tier as him is Devin Booker, and that bodes well for the Suns’ playoff future.

In fact, my podcast co-host Mike Vigil did a whole video recently on Booker’s efficiency from the triple threat position, and on post ups. This skill is what separates him from 95% of guards entering the NBA in 2020.

Sure, it’s a little unfortunate that Booker has never made 7 threes in an NBA game. His life would certainly be easier if he had Steph Curry’s pull-up shooting ability. But even without that, his mid-range poise will keep the Suns in playoff games, even as the league’s best defenses find ways to shrink the amount of open space on the court.

Devin Booker is a 23-year-old with zero playoff experience, but I’d bet my life savings that when he finally makes the playoffs...he’s gonna be real good on offense.

Coaching in the regular season? Easy. In the playoffs? Much harder.

I don’t ever envy the job of an NBA coach, but I especially don’t envy them around playoff time.

Mike Budenholzer is a two-time Coach of the Year. Now, down 3-0 to Miami, his job may be on the line.

Milwaukee’s second-round performance so far has inspired some Suns fans to produce takes like this online:

You may recall that Budenholzer was briefly considered for the Suns’ head coaching position in 2018, before he withdrew his name. The Suns ended up hiring Igor Kokoskov instead.

I want to make it clear that I’m not coming after anyone for pointing out the obvious, which is that much of the blame for Milwaukee’s struggles falls on Budenholzer. He refuses to make defensive adjustments based on his opponent, and he refuses to trim down his playoff rotation even when close games would seem to command increased participation from his star players. Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging just 33.3 MPG in the playoffs, which is far too low for a presumptive MVP.

But to go a step farther and say that the Suns “dodged a bullet”, is sadly premature. And that’s because being a successful regular season coach is so much easier than being a successful playoff coach.

Successful regular season coaches are tasked with developing an overarching system that they can rely on for an 82-game grind. For Phoenix, it was Monty Williams’ 0.5 offense. For Milwaukee, it was a pace-and-space offense combined with drop coverage on D.

But succeeding in the playoffs means making on-the-fly adjustments. And until Monty gets back to the playoffs, we won’t know whether he’s the next Nick Nurse/Erik Spoelstra or if he’s another Budenholzer.

Suns fans are quite happy with Monty right now, as they should be. When Steve Nash of all people can be hired by another organization and nobody in Phoenix bats an eye, you know you’re doing a good job.

Even so, consider this a word of caution about assuming that regular season success will translate to the postseason. Hopefully it will! But don’t count your chickens before they hatch.